After joining the “people’s army” in Slavyansk on May 29, Berezin was promoted to deputy defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic just a few days later. Announcing Berezin’s appointment on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, “defense minister” Igor Strelkov openly gushed about his deputy’s sci-fi connections (and his own odd mix of military experience): “Considering that [Strelkov] is a historian and battle reenactor, it boggles the mind to think what we can do with a science fiction writer who is an anti-aircraft defense officer to boot!”
(Strelkov, a Russian citizen and former security services officer whose real name is Igor Girkin, is himself a newly minted fantasy writer; his recently published book of children’s fairy tales, The Detective of Haldyborne Castle, has no direct connection to Ukraine but does extol militaristic virtues, in this case exemplified by a tribe of house gnomes who help the warlike lords of their castle fight against a villainous rival clan.)
Meanwhile, Berezin’s own LiveJournal update about his new appointment began with the words, “I have found myself in an alternate reality.” A grainy video he recorded a few days later, which opens with the strains of the World War II–era Soviet battle hymn, “Arise, great country!” certainly has an air of alternate reality about it as the surprisingly soft-spoken, bespectacled man—who really does look the part of middle-aged sci-fi nerd more than military commander—urges the men of Donetsk to take up arms and defend their homeland against the enemy at the gates.
At a rally in Donetsk in late June, Berezin told the crowd that the obvious goal of the Kiev government was to drive all the Russians out of Eastern Ukraine—“to blatantly steal our land and give it to the Americans and the Europeans.” It sounds like a page from Berezin’s own novels. Yet in early July, after Strelkov and his men had fled from Slavyansk to Donetsk to make their last stand, Berezin told a correspondent from Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official newspaper of the Russian government, that the truth of the civil war had turned out to be more terrifying than his fiction. For one, most of the Eastern regions’ population had woefully failed to follow his script and join the insurgency. And besides, Berezin claimed, the actual Ukrainian army had turned out to be worse than the fictional Turkish occupation troops in his series: “In the books, the Turks were actually more humane.”
In fact, Berezin’s novels are arguably not very high on humane attitudes toward enemy Ukrainians. The first volume in his saga, War 2010: The Ukrainian Front, ends with a scene in which a Ukrainian officer captured by the insurgents is summarily hanged for collaboration with the occupiers. “It would be good to hang him in front of a big crowd, right in the middle of Lenin Square … and leave him up for a week or so—let the crows have some fun and peck out his peepers,” says one of the good guys, while another adds that “various supporters of Atlantic blocs ought to be marched to the spot every day so they can get a whiff of what treason smells like.” The leader of the rebel group, Dmitry Gavrilovich, warns the younger men against “cynicism” and tells them that disposing of traitors should be viewed as “dirty, unpleasant work” rather than fun. But the author himself treats the final moments of the bound-and-gagged condemned man as a source of gleeful amusement: “Of course, Danilo wanted very badly to scream—so badly that he actually peed his pants. Dmitry Gavrilovich turned out to be right: It really was the dirtiest work you could imagine.”
As you can see, this is not exactly brilliant prose. But did it help instigate a war? In his essay on “the writers’ war” in the independent Novaya Gazeta, Bykov goes so far as to say that the conflict in Ukraine was “predicted, meticulously planned, and finally executed” by sci-fi and fantasy writers. This is an exaggeration, and Bykov, who is known as something of a provocateur, concedes near the end of the essay that he did not mean it literally. (Interestingly, Bykov is the author of his own speculative epic, Living Souls, in which Russia is plagued by civil war and chaos after the discovery of a new wonder energy source robs it of both revenue and relevance.) Yet the exaggeration has an element of truth: The quasi-futuristic thrillers in which pro-Western Ukrainian “Nazis” seek to slaughter or enslave Eastern Ukraine’s Russian population certainly helped prepare a fertile ground for the most paranoid charges against the current government in Kiev. And many of the people involved in the armed conflict probably do see it, on some level, as a chance to act out their fiction-driven war fantasies.
Real life, unlike Berezin’s and his comrades’ fiction, currently seems very unlikely to end in the victory of the East’s pro-Russian rebels. No one knows as yet if the leaders of the “Donetsk Republic” will flee to Russia, fight to the death, or face Ukrainian courts. In any case, Berezin has told Rossiyskaya Gazeta that if he gets out of his predicament in one piece, he will churn out fiction “at machine-gun speed.” Perhaps he can write a novel in which a battle re-enactor and a military sci-fi writer team up to stage war games played with real bullets and rockets and real blood. It won’t be too far-fetched.