ukraine, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul

Sometimes fiction and reality collide in unexpected and horrifying ways. A couple of days ago, the war in Ukraine crashed into a fantasy novel written in 1990.

Years ago I had a friend who kept encouraging me to read fantasy fiction. I’d read Tolkien, of course, but I was generally uninterested in the genre. She gave me a novel by a writer with the unlikely name of Guy Gavriel Kay. If a friend gives you something to read, the laws of friendship require you to at least try to read it. So I dutifully read the prologue (I’m also generally suspicious of prologues), then put the novel on a shelf with other novels I’d probably never finish.

The prologue was beautifully written, although the prose was more elegant than the fiction I was accustomed to reading. The characters were engaging and the situation they were facing was powerful. It was largely a nighttime conversation between two men–a prince leading an army facing certain destruction in the morning and a sculptor/friend who was a volunteer in that army. They both acknowledged they were probably going to die in a few hours and wondered if the war was a cause worth dying. This is part of their conversation.

“Oh, our pride. Our terrible pride. Will they remember that most about us, do you think, after we are gone?”
“Perhaps. But they will remember. The one thing we know with certainty is that they will remember us…. We will leave a name.”

Very powerful, emotional, dramatic stuff, right there. My problem was the heroic speech. I’ve done my time in military harness. So did both of my brothers. So did my father and most of my uncles. I’ve been around military men all my life. That’s not how they talk, especially when it comes to really important stuff, like killing and dying. Combined with my basic dislike of the genre, it was enough for me to stop reading.

Now, you may be saying, “But Greg, old sock, it’s fiction…and fantasy fiction at that. Give the writer some slack.” And you’d be right (also, stop calling me ‘old sock’). I’d made a mistake by putting that novel on the shelf. A few years later, another friend–also a fan of fantasy fiction–handed me another novel, also by Guy Gavriel Kay (it’s not a name you’re likely to forget). Again, the laws of friendship required me to try it. The Lions of Al-Rassan. It was amazing and has become one of my favorite novels. I was so taken by it that I went back to the shelves and pulled out the novel I’d abandoned before.

Tigana. That’s the title. It’s also the name of the independent province in which the two men in the prologue lived. The story takes place after the battle referred to in the prologue. Here’s a thing Kay does extraordinarily well–he doesn’t just inform the reader, “Yeah, these guys? They live in Tigana.” Instead he quietly, slowly, subtly adds layers of history, art, tradition, music, cuisine–layers of a unique, believable culture–so that Tigana isn’t just a place on a map. It becomes an indelible aspect of a character’s identity.

This is critically important to the story, because the battle referred to in the prologue destroys all that. The invading sorcerer/king was so enraged by the Tiganan resistance against his army and so grief-stricken by the death of his son (killed in the war) that he wasn’t content with merely conquering and ruling Tigana. He had his army kill women and children, he burned their fields and razed their villages, he flattened their cities. Not content with the physical destruction of Tigana, he eradicated their culture–tore down their statues, destroyed their art. He re-named the capitol city after his dead son. He renamed the province Lower Corte (Corte being the province’s traditional enemy; he wanted to insure the survivors understood they were lesser than their enemies). He killed almost an entire generation of people, and then (because this is the sort of thing sorcerer/kings do) he cast a magic spell that stripped the true name Tigana from the memory of every person NOT born in the province. Nobody else could even hear the name if it was spoken. This meant the few remaining Tiganans couldn’t even discuss with others what had happened to their land and culture. It was as if the kingdom of Tigana had never existed.

This is essentially what Putin and Russia planned for Ukraine.

A few days ago the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti published an article called What Should Russia Do With Ukraine? (You can read a translation of the article here.) It’s grounded on the premise that most of the population of Ukraine are Banderite Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. Banderite refers to Stephan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist, Nazi collaborator, and anti-Communist leader who was assassinated by Soviet agents in 1959. The article suggests that Ukrainians have so internalized Nazism that they’re not even aware they’re Nazis. It’s part of their culture, their identity.

That’s complete bullshit, of course, but for Russia/Putin it’s necessary bullshit to justify the plan for Ukraine. When the author of this article says ‘Nazi’ he means ‘Ukrainian’. The article says Nazis must be killed.

Those Nazis who took up arms must be destroyed on the battlefield, as many of them as possible. No significant distinction should be made between the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the so-called “nationalist battalions,”

This also applies to ordinary citizens who support the government of Ukraine. Whatever happens to them during the ‘military special operation by the Russian Federation’ is a just punishment for that support.

They supported the Nazi authorities and pandered to them. A just punishment for this part of the population can only be possible through bearing the inevitable hardships of a just war against the Nazi system…. The Banderite elites must be eliminated; their re-education is impossible.

The survivors of the ‘war against the Nazi system’ will be re-educated and forced to engage in the manual labor of rebuilding the territory.

The further denazification of this bulk of the population will take the form of re-education through ideological repressions (suppression) of Nazi paradigms and a harsh censorship not only in the political sphere but also in the spheres of culture and education…. making the names of accomplices of the Nazi regime public, involving them in forced labor to restore the destroyed infrastructure as punishment for Nazi activities

The article acknowledges that wiping out Ukrainian culture would be a generation-long process.

The period of denazification can take no less than one generation that has to be born, brought up and mature under the conditions of denazification.

Obviously, this includes eliminating the very name of Ukraine.

[T]he name “Ukraine” cannot be kept as a title of any fully denazified state entity on the territory liberated from the Nazi regime…. Denazification will inevitably include de-ukrainization…. history has proved it impossible for Ukraine to exist as a nation-state, and any attempts to “build” such a nation-state naturally lead to Nazism. Ukrainism is an artificial anti-Russian construct that has no civilizational substance of its own.

In the novel, a group of rebel Tiganan conspirators disguise themselves as traveling musicians and merchants and plot to assassinate the sorcerer/king and restore the ability of the people to remember the province of Tigana. One of the characters repeats a sort of prayer: Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul. The memory of lost beauty is painful, but pain keeps the memory of that beauty alive.

In the novel, the erasure of Tigana is done through brute force reinforced by magic. Putin doesn’t have any real magic; all he has is brutality and the weak magic of propaganda, like this article. It’s difficult to say how effective the propaganda is with the Russian populace. There are reports that around 70% of Russian people support Putin’s war. Those reports may also be propaganda. Or they may accurately reflect the opinions of people whose only source of information is purposely biased. (Yes, I’m looking at FOX News.)

In the novel, only those born in what was once Tigana can hear the name spoken. Only they can keep the idea of Tigana alive. In real life, all of us can speak about Ukraine, can retain the memory of Ukraine’s once-beautiful cities, can honor the ordinary people of Ukraine who’ve resisted Russia, can weep for those who’ve been tortured and killed, can celebrate the Ukrainian identity and keep it alive.

Ukraine, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul.

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