MALE VITAL AND VICTIM NARRATIVES, AS ILLUSTRATED BY THE WAR IN DONBAS
Telling war stories, regardless of who’s narrating – victims, participants, victors, etc., – is, especially during the war, to large extent an adaptive mechanism. Talking through something, conceptualizing through language helps you understand what is happening, explain/ascertain your position, pick a side in the conflict. It is also an attempt at self-representation in a community. These stories are often nonsensical, or, on the contrary, structured and full of meaning and explanations that help us understand the narrator’s social characteristics, status, ideas, etc.
At the same time, in any narration (even one that is completely false) you’ll find elements of reality, because for the storytellers, the recreation of narratives is a personal experience in restoring events that become history. Events are not ontological in narrative war stories, they are created in the process of telling the story and are immediately interpreted. That is, a narrative story in itself is an interpretation of events. In a sense, these events are “subjectivized”, and the facts are constructed by those who created the text; the “creator of the text documents events that, from his point of view, are important”, and omits everything that is “insignificant”. 
In this text we’re interested in narrative from the point of view of history and anthropology, since a historical narrative is different than, for example, a fairy tale, although it often includes false accounts and fabricated elements. At the same time, there are certain types of narratives related to strategies of male behavior and gender roles in war by men from different social groups, professions, ages (those fit for military service).
We analyze stories by men on the Ukrainian side of the war – servicemen who served/are serving in Donbas, internally displaced persons, and those living under conditions of occupation. The male discourse in the context of the Donbas war is full of language from court procedure. Regardless of the side or territory of the conflict, it looks like a metaphysical trial with an imaginary institutional basis. There are defendants (military, civilians, internally displaced persons), those who accuse others of right or wrong (so-called couch experts, different social groups, individuals, the state), defenders – those being defended and those defending themselves. The media are broadcasters and partly the prosecutor, defender and witness in this process.
Karl Jaspers, in speaking about the responsibility of the Germans for the Second World War, identifies between four types of guilt: criminal, political, moral and metaphysical. This distinction explains the essence of blame and defines the formats/types/strategies of liability. “The judge may decide about crimes and the victim about political liability, but moral guilt can truthfully be discussed only in a loving struggle between men who maintain solidarity among themselves. As for metaphysical guilt, this may perhaps be a subject of revelation in concrete situations or in the work of poets and philosophers.” 
We often see self-identification through guilt in the narratives of men in Donbas – both servicemen and civilians: political guilt – “we elected/tolerated the authorities that led to this war”; moral guilt – “I will defend my land to the end at any price” (if you’re talking about the military) or “I didn’t invite the war here, I will not defend the land, I will save myself/my family”, and so forth. Rarely you’ll observe (literally!) metaphysical guilt, because it requires words that, in our opinion, men are ashamed to say. Mostly, it’s an internal dialogue about “am I doing the right thing when I kill?” (military) or “I’m living peacefully while other men are dying for my land” (civilians).
Men create war narratives – vital or victim – depending on this. Moreover, in this case the nature of the narration depends on the position you’re looking from. One thing is clear – both types of narratives are linked by the notion of trauma as an event after which life changed, as a post-event continuum in which a person is now living after their normal everyday life was upended. Thus, the experience of trauma “becomes a narrative matrix that provides the logic of a connected story with pieces of facts from the individual and collective biography… The specific situations of victims or witnesses acquire the status of original positions, from which point of view the past is represented and the present is perceived.”  Vital narratives, semantically filled with the language of war, contain traumatic experiences from the position of courage and heroism. They define the present clearly as a period of change and struggle for the undisputed victory of Ukraine. In these narratives, victory is localized from a male perspective – it is for the sake of the survival of one’s family and children’s future. Ternopil native Ihor Voitsekhovskyi explains his experience in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) with a story about his sons (hereinafter the narrators’ language and style are preserved):
I have two wonderful boys. The oldest, Maksym, is at the top of his class. The younger one, Vitaliy, has a mental disorder. What am I supposed to do, send him to a boarding school? Or maybe sell his organs? No! No! Never! He is Mine! And he will always be with me! The same way Donetsk is Mine! And Luhansk is Mine! And Sevastopol, and Poltava, and all the cities and villages are Mine! I don’t give anything away! No matter how nice or bad it is. 
The metonymic association of his child’s physical disability with occupied Ukrainian territories indicates the ability to take responsibility for the life of others. Ihor speaks about this with words of love. But he continues his story with language of aggression that is full of trauma, the disruption of his usual everyday life, and hope that there is a possibility the war will not spread. He clearly understands the strategy of his behavior through his own formula:
When the tanks will be standing outside Ternopil, we’ll be fu**, it’ll be too late for the army.
And here he disparages those who aren’t willing to fight, those who don’t fulfill their male role of defender, who a priori is not a victor:
I was at the military recruiting station – what a pitiful sight. I understand the mothers and wives who are crying, but for goons to have snot running down to their knees? I’m embarrassed for some of these punks. In their village they were probably very cool, but outside their pants are full of yellow putty. These blockheads will go to the front line, drink and screw over the guys they’re fighting with. And as for the need to fight, it’s so that we don’t have tanks shooting here, so that the children here don’t become orphans, so that you can hear birds flying overhead not shells. 
Another vital narrative tactic is self-heroization. War marks out the male role, there is a reactualization of the principle of masculinity as a gender category. In this context we can talk about courage as honor, fearlessness, as a saving mechanism. 
The defense of Donetsk airport was of special significance. It lasted 242 days, many Ukrainian soldiers died, some of them were captured. The enemy began saying the Ukrainian defenders of the airport had profound physical strength and spirit, they had superhuman capabilities, they were “cyborgs” – half-man, half-machine. They themselves agreed with this, in contrast to their demonization by the separatists. There was a kind of self-heroization by the Ukrainian men who were defending the symbol of Ukraine’s invincibility (this was visualized in the image of the Ukrainian flag flying atop the control tower).
A poem written by one of the Cyborgs, Roman Semysalo (his authorship has not been proved or denied), appeared on the internet. Roman sees himself as a cyborg hero and describes the battle with the enemy metaphorically. Courage and invincibility are the subject of narration in the text, and the male gender role is defined as that of a defender able to fight even if “torn to shreds”:
This is my judgement and choice:
I will not jump ship;
I am not a human – I am a cyborg,
My dimension is the airport.
For some I’m a leper,
For some I’m a needle under the skin,
They crush my microcircuits,
Punch me in the mouth.
My skin is peeling,
My metal is melting,
But I, like the rapier,
Sink my teeth into the terminal.
My voltage jumps,
Sparks fly from my brow,
Having lost a cyborg friend,
I will destroy one hundred bio-devils,
Even if I’m torn to shreds,
I will not give up Donbas.
They call me a cyborg,
But I’m really just one of you.
In this poetic narrative we see the story of a fierce battle described through physicality. The main thing here isn’t the story of the defense of the airport, or even the interpretation of events, it’s the feeling, the sense of “superhuman strength”, of a man of metal. The author describes the battle through physical trauma, through the feeling of pain and the demonization of the enemy (“biodevils”).
Like Ihor’s story, this text is masculine, there is a deliberate brutalization, no intellectual restraint, the words are chosen to reflect the author’s feelings . These texts also provide an explanation of the author’s participation in the war (remember the trial!). Auto-heroization occurs through the attempt to define oneself as a new type of warrior, creating new norms of courage. They have their own optic on “manhood”, given that these men are, by John Keegan’s definition, the “face of battle”.  And this allows us to hear the language of the war.
In the discourse on the defense of Donetsk airport there are also narratives-legends that describe strategies of behavior of the male heroes in the context of sacredness and saving the nation. Not only is the written word important, so too is the intonation when speaking about heroism:
There is this idea of a symbol. For example, above the so to speak destroyed fortress, the tattered yellow and blue flag triumphs. And then it’s shot down. A man with a machine gun lies in an underground space, – it’s shot up by the advancing enemy chain, – he sees that the flag is not there. [The flag], in principle, doesn’t solve anything, [the cyborg] runs over and replaces it, risking his life. Should he have done this or not? Logically, no. In the time it took you could have fired off two more rounds and kill more enemies, and instead you were injured, or killed, when you hung the flag, but it is so symbolic! 
But even in this context, for those in the military, being in one’s own country, fighting for its territory requires constant explanation. These are mediated mini-defense speeches from the defendant’s bench. For example:
A video filmed near Sloviansk. The little girl the soldier is holding in his hands sings the song “Come back alive”, after which the man explains his position as a defender: “When she sang that song, holding the Ukrainian flag, here on this land, all my guys standing here… they all said: “We will continue to stand here for the sake of these children, for these people.” 
The justification in this man’s text is his role as a father; among its many strategies of behavior is that of defender and protector. Men who didn’t go to fight, whose life didn’t change radically, but who feel, as Karl Jaspers put it, political guilt, who believe in victory and do a lot as volunteers, sponsors, etc., also have to explain their position. They organize into groups such as Wings Phoenix, ARMY SOS, National Home Front, Come Back Alive. Moreover, they consider volunteering the second front – they too are fighting for Ukraine’s victory. But their stories are full of arguments against their own participation in battle, their justification mechanism is Ukraine’s victory, but not at the expense of their own life:
My friend Ivan served. We have very similar stories: we studied together, graduated at the same time from the military department, we’re both tank officers. He received a draft notice, I didn’t. When these problems began, I went to the draft board and offered my services. They said they weren’t needed. I started helping slowly. And then things took off. If you have both of your hands and legs you should either fight or help, there is no third option. I will help until my draft notice comes. 
There is no change in focus on male courage in their narratives. They distinctly understand and reflect on the qualities of a man and exemplify established/classical male behavior models:
I don’t trust our defense ministry, and I’ll tell you more, the army doesn’t trust them, and the guys don’t trust them. They are carrying out their duty. They have been fighting for each other for a long time. And they’re not leaving because their friends died there or they’re fighting next to them – they can’t leave them. These are basic human male qualities: they can’t abandon each other. I don’t trust our defense ministry, I don’t trust our commander-in-chief, and I’m not sure I want to fight under his command. I’m not against fighting, against defending the country and dying for it, but I don’t want to be cannon fodder – simple as that. 
In vital narratives there is a correlation between male gender roles and the proper (often even exaggerated) way to realize them. The war discourse in this case is an opportunity and place where men’s ideas of themselves are realized. Victim narratives are too varied and their classification is difficult. But the stories of men from Donbas who were forced to move, remained on occupied territory, or went to fight in the war show that they are based on the idea of the victim. The subject of narration is both the male victim and the result of his sacrifice. The traumatic experience is partly the result of the disruption of one’s everyday life, but also social status, male self-identification, change/loss of profession. But in itself, the notion of victimhood erases the category of gender.  At the same time, the war is taking place in a region where courage, strength and harshness were part of people’s everyday life. The right to make decisions here belonged to bosses, officials and, as a result, the state. People here are used to understanding power and knowing how to obey it. This is where we get the first type of victim narrative – statist.
“We have a government that is supposed to protect me.” That is the main thesis of men who play the role of victim and place responsibility for everything on the state. The imperative of the duty of the state to defend its population is also, in our opinion, related to the traditional understanding of government as a purely male category, and therefore, power. But in these types of narratives, the classical gender role of men as defender and breadwinner are downplayed. The strategies of such men is to transfer responsibility for their lives and the lives of their family to state authorities:
Maybe someone will help. Maybe some rich person. They’ll give us an apartment or house so that we have somewhere to live. In Lutsk. I don’t want to live in the village, because I’ve never worked in the village – I’m a city man, and I’m used to working there, not in the village. I didn’t go to the Employment Center. First of all, the salaries they offer are low: 1700-2000, that’s why I called job ads. 
In statist narratives there are also pseudo-heroic stories that, on the one hand, have an explanatory purpose, and on the other, are instructive (for those who hold an important post, are fighting) in understanding the narrators themselves. These texts often have formulas of conditional action: “If I were in power…”, “If I were in charge…”, “If I were the head of the battalion…” In this case, the social forms the individual in men, and they try to advocate for themselves through pseudorealization of gender roles. The don’t eliminate the idea of courage and honor, on the contrary, they follow its symbolic meaning, demonstrating their courage and willingness to realize it under certain circumstances.
Another set of victim narratives are the stories of internally displaced persons, whose texts use the language of nomads. There is a sense of the lack of a home, settling down. But they’re not full of language about invaders, collectiveness, there is an absolute uncertainty about the future:
Internally displaced persons no longer have a home because they left, and we don’t have one because there’s a new boss in town. 
The language of trauma by male nomad narrators is full of verbs about the past. There is language of hope of the opportunity to return home, or the opportunity to start a new life. They speak reluctantly about defending the country; their stories are in a way them thinking aloud about ways to survive. In these stories, the gender role of defender is replaced by the role of hunter and breadwinner:
If I don’t find something in a few weeks, I see no other choice than joining the army to earn a living. 
The stigmatization of the people of Donetsk and the Donbas region as a whole resulted in their biggest patriots sometimes having to justify themselves. Moreover, these texts are an attempt to speak through one’s own traumatic experience. And again there is the explanatory narrative strategy of the metaphysical trial by Ukrainians. The language of these stories is mostly soft, apologetic, the text is devoid of any masculinity and courage:
We saw each other several times but we never got to know one another. My name is Anton, I was born and grew up in Donetsk, I’m 30… I’d like to talk to you about how this happened and what we should all do next… 
Then the author goes into detail about his own story of Donetsk, which is also a search for justification of the present: about miners and the intelligentsia, about football and officials, about the narrow viewpoints, about the request to understand. And the narration ends with gratitude:
I am immensely grateful to everyone who helps those internally displaced persons who need it, I shake hands with everyone who treats us with understanding when they see Donetsk license plates, I send greetings to everyone who believes that one day they’ll stop shooting in Donetsk, the law will prevail, we’ll sit down and talk with those who don’t believe in Ukraine as their homeland… We’ll explain everything to them, and they’ll say: “Geeze, brother, why didn’t you speak up sooner, let me show you my Donetsk… Here we have roses, and there are slag heaps… But for now, can I be You for a little bit? 
Confession stories are often an attempt to reconstruct events in detail, or rather, interpret what happened. Sometime these stories violate logic and chronology. Often they are stories about how one’s views changed, in a sense they are repentance for not doing anything.
During the Ukrainian rallies in the city for a united Ukraine, I was more or less neutral. I supported the unity of the country. At the time I realized that Donetsk was trying to show that its opinions had to be taken into account. I, like many other people in the city, didn’t like when the Verkhovna Rada started adopting the language laws. But even then I didn’t consider Donetsk part of anything other than Ukraine. The tipping point for me was when everyone who defended and shouted Berkut began beating up that very same Berkut in Donetsk, began seizing buildings, began beating up everyone who supported Ukraine, and the scariest was when they raised the foreign flag, the Russian flag in the city. By doing that they cut Donetsk from Ukraine. Events began to develop quickly. After all the government buildings were seized, the newly arrived volunteers and battalions began to seize at gunpoint things they needed for the war. I remember one incident where a car with “rebels” from the DNR drove up to a parking lot on Myru Avenue, they put the guard on the ground, and began “commandeering” cars. He didn’t let them, he didn’t have the keys. Then three tow trucks came and started loading the cars. Residents ran out and asked them not to do that, but nothing helped – they took the cars. I remained in the city a while longer after that incident, and then took my family and left. 
Very often confession narratives are combined with nostalgia narratives. On the one hand, these are stories that tell about the comfort and success of the past. On the other hand, their victimhood comes from the passivity of the victim. Men say that because the memory of a victimized victim can’t remain within a social group of the victims themselves, this memory needs to expand its circle, gain public recognition and resonance: 
I want to remember Donetsk the way it was a year and a half ago. It was a city where I saw my future, that was developing rapidly, faster than many other Ukrainian cities. I saw how we were getting closer to the ideal that we wanted, and everyone tried to make a contribution: we built bike parking, looked after flower beds. I was surrounded by people who wanted to make Donetsk better. And now Donetsk is a city I feel sorry for. The warm memories are gone, and that’s probably natural given everything that my family and I went through during the hostilities. There is no way back: my home is in the exclusion zone. And nobody will ever change that. 
Another strategy for surviving the trauma of war and adapting to new circumstances is escapism. It has different forms – from alcoholism and depression, to writing, using one’s resources for survival and struggle: volunteering, taking part in combat, etc. In the latter, the victim’s escapism takes on vital meaning. Words of struggle and assistance are an attempt to deal with a traumatic experience. There is a reincarnation of courage as the only possible mechanism of action. In this set of narratives there are stories of despair, stories of hope, stories of rejection, and others.
The man from Luhansk with the call name “Shakhtar”, having lost the meaning of life, went to fight in the war against the occupier. His family was killed after he refused to serve in the LNR army:
They’re shouting: we’re the Luhansk People’s Democratic Republic. What kind of democratic republic are you? You assholes burned down my house, killed my son, killed my daughter-in-law… You killed my baby (crying), my granddaughter. My first and only. You took away everything I had. 
The eschatological victim narrative is associated with stories about the occupiers, about their actions as the end of the world. These texts contain no representation of events, just a description of the author’s sense of reality and an explanation of his own behavior strategy. In this context the language becomes brutal and aggressive. Men speak about not being able to accept the reality of life under occupation:
I saw it all with my own eyes: those bandits at the checkpoints, who was standing there, what they drank, what they ate, their weapons. If they had stood there just a little longer I would have crushed their throats with my own teeth. 
In the framework of victim narratives there are also stories that define the status of the victim as a hero. These are so-called active victims. In these stories courage becomes absolute. Manhood, courage, heroism are spoken about using military language, the enemy is a means of description, and physicality is a means of narration:
Then they started dragging us over to them. First they dragged Sania and Poltava, they kicked Hutsul and hit him on the head. After they dragged everyone over I was left alone. The separatists pulled me away from the car and started shoving me with their feet so that I’d crawl. But both of my legs had been shot, blood was flowing, I didn’t even have the energy to get my first aid kit. I used my finger to cover the wound on my right leg, and tried to put pressure on the artery of my left leg. And in that state I tried to crawl to their trenches. I crawled three or four meters and see the trail of my flood from the car. A piece of meat had come off my leg and my fibula was broken. And the left one was crushed so badly that 7 cm of bone was missing. I’m crawling, I’m in a state of shock, I no longer feel any pain or fear. Fear appeared a few days later, once I realized what had happened. Their commander came up to me while I was trying to crawl. He was a big man, about 2 meters tall, grey-haired. He rummaged through my pockets and pulled out a camera, but none of the photographs had anything useful. Then he took the elastic bandage and tourniquet from my first aid kit and splinted my legs. He took out the syringe and told me to jab myself and showed me where to crawl. I barely made it to the hump, behind which were their trenches. I asked for water and they actually gave it to me. I felt that I was losing consciousness from the blood loss, but I told myself: “fuck them, I’m not going to die.” 
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie came up with the concept of the “event matrix” – events that destroy traditional structures and replace them with new ones. Thus, war is a matrix where chaotic events influence the formation of stories about the war. Moreover, each participant of the war usually has a personal event that destroyed established tradition, everyday life, that became the beginning of a traumatic experience and even a vector of their development. That is why every person in this war has a separate story that’s difficult to write into the overall narrative. Each story has lots of personal trauma, victories, hopes, justifications and accusations. And so many stories haven’t even been told, haven’t been given a voice! But the number of existing stories allows us to perform an analysis of the peculiarities of the experience of war, the actualization of the problems of representing history and memory, both individual and collective. We know that the types of narratives described above are a convention and any classification of stories about war will lead to reductionism. Nevertheless, this essay is an invitation to talk about the language of war, about the peculiarities of this language, about historical representation. It is also an attempt to say that humanity and the human being is the highest value, that it is higher than all superstructures, in particular gender as a social construct.
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This text is part of the Donbas Studies research project (Gender Studies) initiated by IZOLYATSIA and published in the online journal “Korydor” to mark the opening of the exhibition Turbulent (4 April – 16 June 2019) by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, which focuses on the issues of gender inequality, the role of women in the history of art and their place in modern society. The collection “Gender Studies” was published in 2015 with the support of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Ukraine. This series of essays explore the eastern Ukrainian context through the perspective of gender and highlight the lives of men and women, their gender and social roles in the region.
The Culture Mirrors cultural journalism residence project is realized with the support of Culture Bridges program financed by the European Union and implemented by the BRITISH Council in Ukraine in partnership with European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC).