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The War of Symbols

Author: Dmytro Zaleskiy

Dmytro Zaleskyi, psychiatrist, Jungian analyst, graduated from Kyiv Medical Institute, worked at Kyiv City Psychoneurological Hospital, then at the Union Research Center of Radiation Medicine, held the positions of paramedic, neuropathologist, psychotherapist, he is the first President of the IAAP Development Group in Ukraine, in 2010 he became the first individual IAAP member in Ukraine, in 2015-2016 he was mobilized to serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine as the chief of the medical service of a battalion. As a member of the First Voluntary Mobile Hospital organization, he conducts tactical medicine trainings for service persons of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, works in private practice and as a volunteer.

Introduction – War and Trauma

Let us start with February 24, although we all know that the war really began much earlier. We have been in this state for eight years now.

On the one hand, it seems that February 24 happened only yesterday. Yet, while experiencing the first minutes of the war, there is, right next to those feelings, the completely opposite perception that a huge amount of time has passed and that we, and the entire country, are now totally changed. In this state, the idea of the past and the future disappears, there is obsessive fixation in the present and a feeling that one lacks coherence of thought, making it is very difficult to keep attention on completed narratives. It is very difficult to reflect “here and now”. It is even more difficult to accurately reproduce memories. It is even expressed in small things, for example, it is impossible to finish watching movies, finish reading books, even listen to songs till they end, and it is definitely hard to finish writing presentations! 

Secondly, there are the mood swings often described for traumatic states – for example, rapid changes in moods from manic activity to hypersomnia. Another manifestation is obsessive browsing through the news on phones, sometimes continuously. This further aggravates the time split.  Information is “swallowed in lumps”, without narrative linking and therefore often losing the sequence of time. 

I have also observed a polarization of attachments. There can be a feeling of becoming closer, to the point of fusion, with loved ones and strangers who have shared in this difficult situation.  On the other hand, there can be a distancing of oneself from others, sometimes even very close acquaintances. These attachment dynamics can transform one’s analytical position even to the point of losing it altogether. Indeed, mutual regression of the analyst and patient, total inappropriateness of interpretations, work in the metaphor of “both being in the same lifeboat’ and threats to immediate survival, everyday life and the social fabric, create a situation where the very possibility of maintaining the therapy becomes the content of the therapy.  It can be a way of going through the trauma together and returning to the analytic relationship at a deeper level, or it can be the end of the therapeutic relationship. 

All these aspects add up to the experience of a borderline, gray zone, liminal space causes deep terror, and at the same time inspires a passion based on the justice of the struggle. After about three or four weeks it seemed that I, and most of people around me, were gradually coming out of this “traumatic state of consciousness”. It is true that some people may remain in this traumatic state much longer so that it slowly acquires the signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I would like to understand more about this critical point, this bifurcation where some people return to active existence and the sense of life, while some remain, in fact, in a traumatic state. This in-between. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet said: 

‘The time is out of joint—O cursèd spite, 

That ever I was born to set it right!’ 

History and Genocide

Turning now to the historical context of the war, the Russian Federation and Ukraine are linked by a long historical period of being one state, first as the Russian Empire, then the USSR, which also very quickly turned into an empire. Despite many important differences, the common Soviet experience unites us. In the last thirty years, however, our paths diverged, as most Ukrainians hoped, forever. 

On the one hand, it was during the imperial period that Ukraine, like many countries that stepped out from empires, established itself in its modern borders. But on the other hand, in the period from 1914 till 1945, it is estimated that, every second man and every fourth woman died a violent death in Ukraine. According to other, more conservative estimates, demographic losses in Ukrainian lands in the years of 1914-1945 amounted to about 15 million people. (Overcoming the Past. Yaroslav Hrytsak). Comparison of life expectancy in Ukraine and in the “old Europe” shows that residents of Ukraine lived an average of 6 to 12 years less. However, in 1932-33 and 1942-43 this difference reached the catastrophic gap of 30 to 40 years. The war years of 1942-43 are not surprising, but while 1932-33 were peaceful years, they were the years of the Holodomor (the Great Famine). In a relatively short period of time (1932-1947), several genocides took place on Ukrainian lands. (Genocide, according to the definition by the author of the term Rafal Lemkin consists of acts of mass violence that threaten the existence of entire groups, either through physical destruction or by creating conditions under which they could not reproduce as a group with its own culture and identity). Such genocidal acts included: 

  1. liquidation of the “Kurkuls” (well-off peasants) as a class in 1930-31 (through collectivization), 
  2. the Holodomor of 1932-33,
  3. the so-called “Polish” and “Greek” operations of the NKVD,
  4. the HOLOCOST of the Jews,
  5. liquidation of the Roma,  
  6. mass exterminations of Soviet prisoners of war by the Nazis in 1941-44,
  7. destruction of the Polish population by Ukrainian partisans (Volyn massacres), as well as extermination of Ukrainians by the Polish underground, 
  8. three mass deportations: of Crimean Tatars, Poles from the territory of Ukraine, and Ukrainians from the territory of Poland. The list of mass violence can be complemented with Stalin’s terror of 1937-38, Soviet deportations from Western Ukraine in 1939-41, 
  9. the terror of the Soviet government against the anti-communist underground in the western part of the country in 1944-1950.

Timothy Snyder refers to the territory between Berlin and Moscow the “Bloodlands”, and Ukraine was in the very center of them. It is true that people from these lands have their own long lists of mass victims, although we still believe that the case of Ukraine is unique. And there is also the Chernobyl disaster and the ongoing war to be added to the list. 

While Ukrainians actively contributed to the development of the Russian Empire, in view of the cost in human lives, it becomes clear why the vast majority of Ukrainians do not wish for an imperial future. Over the past 30 years, Ukrainian society has gained the experience of free elections, democracy, and basic freedoms, which has led to a radical shift in the field of ethics. An open society has made it possible for Ukrainians to see themselves and their history as it is perceived by the world, especially by their closest neighbors in the West. This has been vividly manifested in relation to Poland where mutual blame for past conflicts has given way to reconciliation though mutual acceptance of responsibility and forgiveness. We can see the outcome of this process when Poland without any hesitation has supported Ukraine in its distress. We are also sincerely grateful to all the countries of Europe and the world that have united to support us. Without this support Ukraine as an independent nation would have been doomed. 

The collapse of the USSR made it possible to face the terrible reality of the past. But while in Ukraine this process has continued, in Russia we are observing the reverse process, a ‘mass amnesia’, of which a recent manifestation is the ban in 2022 of the Memorial society, which advocated the need for repentance for historical crimes. 

Ideology, Ethics and Symbol Formation

In 2008, the Russian government made a radical turn in its policy but systemic militarization of the society and the economy had taken place much earlier. The Russian Empire and then the Soviet one has always been a deeply ideological state. Traditionally, the key ideological “braces” were developed by a narrow group of people. After the collapse of the USSR, a pragmatic approach prevailed in Russia for a while, but not for long as old habits die hard. True, the new ideological models were much more modest such as the conspiracy model developed by A. Aleksandr Dugin, with its poetic description of the eternal confrontation between the donkey-headed desert god Set (the Atlantic Anglo-Saxon West) and the newborn god Osiris (the Eurasian East). This is a very popular ideological model among some in Putin’s entourage and for Putin himself. 

But there are other, more serious players among Putin’s top brass. We can see Timofei Sergeitsev as one of the significant nonpublic figures.  It was his article, published on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine that called for the total denazification of Ukraine, punishment of dissent and the collapse of Ukraine as a separate country. 

Sergeitsev is an immediate student of Georgy Shchedrovytskyi, who built a certain theory, technique and movement in the 60s, named the Methodology. With their seminars and “big games” during Perestroika, methodologists worked true miracles awakening people at large Soviet enterprises from hibernation and making them search for meanings. Everything looked very efficient. This developed a psychotechnique consisting of a set of certain consistent psychological steps with complete disregard for ethics. It was a truly virtuoso trick whereby meanings were completely isolated from ethics. I understand why. Soviet ethics as such did not exist. Ethics were replaced with a morality based solely on the Persona archetype and an obsession with the Hero archetype, without any chance for integration of this complex. The Hero archetype is the Ego without limits, leading only to inflation and the Priapus complex. And now, it is Sergey Kiriyenko, Shchedrovytskyi’s student, who manages the territories of Ukraine currently occupied by Russia. 

In addition to Shchedrovytskyi, the Methodology had another father, the mathematician and psychologist Volodymyr Lefevr who insisted on the importance of ethics and reflective subjectivity resulting in a deep conflict between the founding fathers. Lefevr later developed a binary model of ethical systems.

Ethical system 1. (Mature democracies) Adheres to the principle that “a compromise between good and evil is evil” (i.e. a good result does not justify bad means to achieve it). However – and here lies the paradox – in this system, the “good” individual above all seeks for a compromise with another individual. (One needs to convince the other not to act)

  Ethical system 2. (USSR and the modern R F) Based on the principle that “a compromise between good and evil is good” (i.e. a good result justifies bad means to achieve it). However, there is another paradox – in this system, the “good” individual above all seeks for confrontation with another individual. (One doesn’t need to convince, one needs to act)

In Ethical System 1, 

• A bad means should NOT be used to achieve a good end

 In Ethical System 2,  

• A bad means CAN be used to achieve a good end

One can find out which ethical system dominates in the country based on a very simple sign: if moral education is based on prohibition of bad things (don’t kill, don’t lie), the country belongs to the first system, while if the basis is declaration of the good (be honest, be brave), we are dealing with the second one. 

In Lefevr’s binary model, the Evil that realizes that it is evil, becomes the good.” Within this ethical system, the Pope could apologize to all those historically offended by Catholicism; his rating only grew with it. But the USSR and Russian Federation could not afford apologizing for its own “Soviet and Empire” evil, pay compensation to the victims, or talk about its historical guilt. For the second ethical system, this is suicidal! It was sufficient to cautiously admit fallacy of some of Stalin’s actions. And even there many considered that a disaster. Be that as it may, it turned out that the evil committed by communists was not evil (and Stalin’s evil was about that he acted against the communists).

The authoritarian regime, having huge media opportunities, takes advantage of the fact that information flows in a coordinated manner from a single center. The budget of state-owned media of Russian Federation officially equaled 1.3 billion EUR in 2020. For comparison – 24.5 million EUR in Ukraine. “Uniqueness of the current situation is that authorities in the RF have completely lost the balancing mechanisms that existed even in the USSR, when the party power was balanced by the KGB and the army. Currently, the ideology of the RF has only one origin – the FSB. Their way of self-realization is very reminiscent of the structure of medieval orders, which also determines the choice of the Second Ethical System, according to Lefevr.  

After Ukraine gained independence, I believe, the two ethical systems coexisted in parallel. The Soviet elite got disguised as the new oligarchic authority without any deep internal transformation. According to the principle “Loot defeats the Evil” ethical system 2 took on one of its most abominable forms, oligarchic capitalism, where there was no need even to pretend to strive for the good. Corruption became the key regulatory mechanism of society. My nephew from the Donbas used to say: “Even though with stolen money, what a stadium he has built!” 

Civil society in Ukraine developed along a different path. During the past 30 years, we have experienced at least four large-scale public protests, which resulted in a victory and a change in power. The latest one was The Maidan, the Revolution of Dignity of 2013-14, which finally affirmed the new anti-corruption ethic, that prosperity cannot be achieved with unworthy methods. 

Lefevr claims a deep understanding gap between people representing the different ethical systems. In the language of psychoanalysis, this can be described as perverse, inverted ethics. Given that psychoanalysis prevails primarily in democratic countries, the logic of the second ethical system seems perverse to us.  I think that the process of symbol formation under the Second Ethic is also simplified, literalized. A narrow group of elites has a monopoly on formation of collective symbols through psychotechnique projects. 

Example: In a village liberated from Russian occupation in the Kharkiv region, our fighters, the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF), distributed food. An old lady came out to them with a red flag. The point is that she got it wrong. She mistook our fighters for Russians and approached them with a red flag. Our guys were a bit ironic, but quite understanding, however the woman rejected the food products out of annoyance. The video in the Ukrainian media appeared somewhat humorous. The Russian propaganda reacted very quickly. This old lady with a flag filled the entire Russian space. You can watch it online. She is sculpted, carved from wood, cast in metal. Somewhere it is already a monument with the No. 1 guard, in the classic Soviet style.

Budgets have been disbursed in almost all regions of Russia to promote the new symbol of the ‘babushka with the flag’. But she survived, and then there were several interviews with her and her husband. It turns out that the woman is not that pro-Russian, she ended up in a hospital in Kharkiv because her house was destroyed after Russian artillery shellings. She strongly resents Russians, although she is nostalgic for the USSR. You can be sure that these interviews are not popularized in Russia. All in all, the one of the interpretations of this image can be “the old empire in its last rush of dying”.

 Here is another image I’d like to show you. Unlike the Russians, no one artificially promoted this image. The photo spontaneously spread in social media. This is the so-called Borodyanka locker which became a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance. 

When a Ukrainian looks at it, he/she sees a sound owner who nailed this locker so securely to the wall that it didn’t fall off even when a missile hit it. And you can see that even the ceramic figurine of a rooster stayed in place. The rooster is very specific, locally produced. By the way, you can see such a rooster in President Zelenskyi’s office during his interviews. This image has a certain native authenticity that cannot be devalued. It is not phallic, on the contrary, it generates sympathy, sadness, and nostalgia. 

One of the historical legacies of Ukrainians is their consistent inability to exist within the vertical hierarchy of power. The Self-based drive for psychic survival in the Empire forced Ukrainians to concentrate on real relationships in the horizontal plane. It was from the Cossack state that the concept of Ukraine as a separate political community stemmed dominated by a simplified but extremely democratic tradition. For example, a modern Ukrainian military unit functions to a large extent horizontally. When I served in the Armed Forces in 2015, the guests who came to our battalion said that we had an atmosphere like a volunteer battalion.  We took that as the best possible compliment. It meant that you had your value not because you had a title or connections, but due only to your activity, your courage, your combat qualities that can only be truly appreciated by your comrades.

The Russian army is organized in a completely different way. By the way, the Bucha tragedy possibly took on such gigantic proportions, among other things, because Ukrainian snipers killed a large number of Russian officers. Without officers, the Russian army generally turns into a crowd of murderers, rapists and looters. Moreover, the level of violence was set by FSB officers, who very quickly started “working” with the locals. The Russian structure is absolutely vertical, everything depends on the chief officer – payments, assessment, execution of orders. And the chief officer is under the close control of the FSB. 

Symbols and National Identity

A symbol is a living formation that combines the individual and the collective and resonates deeply in the soul. It is impossible to create this via the psychotechnique; the result would be a simulacrum, as Baudrillard called it – something that pretends to be a symbol but never becomes one. Mass media usually swallow it, but it is unlikely that this product can ever be a basis for identity. 

Simulative symbolic formations also cannot provide support for those experiencing a collective trauma, nor can they protect the future generation from psychological traumatization by traumatized adults.  An abused younger generation may become the next “client” of authoritarian regimes. The unprocessed trauma of a generation can become the impetus for collective basic assumption groups as described by Bion: dependence, the search for a messianic leader and the fight/flight need for an enemy, all of which form an ideal breeding ground for authoritarian regimes. These, in turn, continue the tradition of simulating the symbolic process. A vicious circle! 

For Ukraine, I hope, the revolutions of modern times were successful attempts to break out of this cursed circle. First the student Maidan, then the “Ukraine against Kuchma” protests, the Orange Maidan in 2004, and, finally, the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. Due to the link between the scarce dissident generation – those few people who managed to survive the traumatic experience due to painful self-awareness – and the young post-Soviet generation, which was already less traumatized, they were a success.  In this way, a new Ukrainian identity has been forged.

Due to Tom Singer, Jorge Rash and other Jungian colleagues, the cultural complex has become a widely used concept. For me, now, while I’m observing the stupendous processes that are happening to Ukraine, the question arises: what exactly creates the core of the nation – the cultural complex or the national identity?  And how is national identity, manifested through deep national symbols, primarily in artistic form, related to cultural complexes that manifest themselves mostly through unconscious behavioral patterns? Perhaps in nations with a more or less good balance of the national identity, attention and awareness of cultural complexes begin to dominate. But for the nations in the process of affirming of their identity, cultural complexes’ shadow manifestations are not so energetically intensive. Nations are a rather imaginary entity compared to cultural complexes that manifest themselves mostly through specific unconscious behavioral patterns. National identity touches the very core of the nation and in the process of self-awareness, a powerful centripetal force is created. Let’s try to think of this process in Michael Fordham’s terms. At the peak of self-awareness, the process of reintegration takes place, which is focused on the center, on the conscious idea and unconscious experience of belonging to the nation. During this period of experiencing the development of national identity, marginal, unconscious processes associated with cultural complexes temporarily recede. According to Fordham, over time we should expect a shift in the opposite direction, towards deintegration. I hope that this will happen after our victory, and we will be able to deal with it.

I suggest that national identity develops primarily by overcoming and integrating collective traumatic experience. Energy is concentrated on the nuclear issues of the nation’s survival, which at the level of the individual psyche corresponds to the most primary aspect of the Self, the survival Self. Sometimes it is through the collective experience of war that personal and collective trauma become integrated with each other through the creation of symbols. Mass individual traumatic experiences are sanctified by becoming infused with the collective trauma of generations.

Nations are created through shared identification with symbolic images, the characteristic nature, language, national arts, songs, festivities, and the pantheon of national heroes. Ukraine in postmodern times is undergoing the stage that most European countries went through in modern times. On the one hand, we can rely on the previous experience of the “happy nations”, on the other, modernity and our own history brings completely new challenges. One way or another, a true explosion of creative activities and the art of national self-awareness is taking place in Ukraine. The stories of our individual identity become the current history of Ukraine. Regardless of these processes taking place outside, we need to build on our Ukrainian project – “To be at Home Inside and in the World” – that was the title of our 10th conference of the Ukrainian IAAP DG in 2022. 

Symbolic creation can generate a renewed state of self awareness and creative realization. Ukraine, unfortunately, also had the opposite experience, for example the Holodomor (Great Famine) of 1932-1933, one of the gravest crimes in the history of humanity got buried in the collective unconscious remaining almost unprocessed at the symbolical level. It was strictly forbidden to write or speak publicly about this in the USSR so there are very few films, literature, or paintings about it. Only after the Orange Revolution in 2004, has this process shifted. 

National identity, in my opinion, is one of manifestations of the reflection of the individual Self in the collective unconscious.  It is becoming clear to me that a mature national identity is necessary for a democracy to function successfully. But this cannot be created artificially. It must emerge spontaneously from the collective unconscious of the nation by inspiring a growing number of “non-indifferent” citizens to undertake responsibility for the future of their own country. 

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