A pro-Western, NATO-backed Ukrainian government faces a stubborn insurgency in the pro-Russian East. Fighting rages around Donetsk, with civilians dying in artillery fire and airstrikes, while Russian troops mass on the Ukrainian border. The latest headlines? No, a two-novel series by Russian-Ukrainian science-fiction writer Fedor Berezin: War 2010: The Ukrainian Front and War 2011: Against NATO.
In a startling plot twist, Berezin, a 54-year-old former Soviet Army officer and Donetsk native, is now living inside a real-life version of his own story: He is deputy defense minister of the embattled “Donetsk People’s Republic.” And this is just one of many bizarre overlaps between fantasy and reality in the current conflict in Eastern Ukraine—a convergence that prompted one Russian commentator, novelist Dmitry Bykov, to dub this conflict “the writers’ war.”
Berezin’s War 2010/War 2011 books, published in 2009 and 2010, respectively, were no uniquely prophetic vision; actually, they were the last in a string of novels depicting a near future in which Ukraine becomes a battleground in a larger East-West confrontation. A forerunner of the genre, Omega, by veteran sci-fi/fantasy writer Andrei Valentinov, came out in 2005, shortly after Ukraine’s pro-Western Orange Revolution. It depicted three alternate-history versions of 2004, one of them a dystopia in which Crimea had been invaded and occupied by NATO forces in 1995; while the main characters were resistance fighters, they were both anti-Moscow and anti-NATO. (Valentinov, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian whose real name is Andrei Shmalko and who lives in Kharkiv, one of Eastern Ukraine’s major cities, has professed equal distaste for “Russian chauvinists,” “Ukrainian nationalists,” and “American globalists”; more recently, he has strongly affirmed his loyalty to Ukraine.)
A far more straightforward vision of Russian good vs. Western evil is offered in The Age of the Stillborn by Gleb Bobrov, who like Berezin is an ethnic Russian from Eastern Ukraine (Luhansk) and an Afghanistan war veteran. The apocalyptic novel, set in a near future in which a brutal Kiev regime seeks to quash rebellion in the East with NATO help, was first published online in 2006 and became a hit on the Russian Internet before going to print in 2007. Donetsk citizen Grigory Savitsky made his literary debut in 2009 with Battlefield Ukraine: The Broken Trident, which depicts a scenario uncannily similar to Berezin’s saga, right down to 2010 as the start of the war. The back cover summary refers to “ ‘Orange’ Nazis” who provoke a civil war in Ukraine and unleash genocide against the Russian-speaking population, “wiping entire cities off the face of the earth”—aided by NATO “peacekeeping” troops and American air power.
The stream of Russo-Ukrainian war literature published in Russia at the end of the 2000s—both speculative fiction and conspiracy-theory nonfiction—alarmed Ukrainian politician Arsen Avakov, then governor of the Kharkiv region and now Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs. In an emotional March 2009 post on the Ukrainska Pravda website titled, “Do the Russians want war?” Avakov suggested that the books were part of a deliberate Kremlin strategy to build up popular support for war against Ukraine by playing to Soviet nostalgia among older readers and ignorance among younger ones.
Avakov was particularly scandalized by Berezin’s involvement in the orgy of anti-Ukraine saber-rattling—because, in yet another quirk of fate, the two men knew each other fairly well from their Ukrainian science-fiction fandom. In his spare time away from politics, Avakov happens to be a sci-fi enthusiast; he founded and co-chaired the annual sci-fi/fantasy convention in Kharkiv, Star Bridge. (Launched in 1999, the convention was indefinitely suspended in 2012 due to squabbling between Avakov and Kharkiv's new pro-Russian mayor, Gennady Kernes.) Berezin was a Star Bridge regular for years and won numerous fiction awards at the convention, starting with first prize in the “debut novel” category for his 2001 novel Ash. “I know Fedor personally!” Avakov lamented in his post, sparing no punctuation marks in his dismay. “How could he let himself be pulled into such things???”
Five years later, Berezin and Avakov are literally on the opposite sides of the barricades. Avakov, who stepped down as governor in 2010 after the Orange leadership in Kiev fell to the pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovych and then joined the new government after Yanukovych’s ouster in February 2014, urges tough action against the rebels in the East and bluntly refers to them as “terrorists.” Berezin is one of those rallying the rebel troops—and waging war in the social media, directing his zingers at the “Ukros,” “Maidowns,” “little Nazis,” and lovers of “gaymocracy.”