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Fighting fatigue

Sandbags in Ukraine. Image courtesy of author
‘We can no longer accept so many texts on Ukraine,’ said our media partner abroad. ‘Our readers are tired.’ After more than 125 days, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine remains front-page news for many media outlets all around the world. However, as other political issues and aspects of life are ready to be covered – such as the reversal of Roe v. Wade, China’s struggle with COVID-19, or simply ‘what to do on vacation’ – dozens of images of Russian atrocities and hundreds of breaking stories in Ukraine become a kind of everyday backdrop for an accustomed audience.
Journalists, meanwhile, who are still working on the ground, are all the more eager to find ‘bloody’ and unbearable stories to overlap existing reporting.
Ukrainian writer and documentary film and media producer Alik Sardarian mentioned this tendency in his essay for openDemocracy in late March. As war continues, more and more journalists are requesting trips to cover hotspots, even if it puts Ukrainian fixers at enormous risk: ‘Lviv is no longer enough for them,’ he claims. They do it because readers are tired of the same old images of ramshackle slums, families at railway stations and scenes with refugees – quite frankly, ‘poverty porn’.
But people can’t just pause their lives, as Ukrainians are forced to do; petty political battles, sporting events, even cookie recipes will appear in your newsfeed alongside the war in Ukraine, building a pretty insane, fragmented image of the contemporary world.

Unfortunately, audience fatigue is natural and inevitable. 
What for one could be the unique moment of a catastrophe, for others may seem like just one of hundreds of mournful stories on TV. This tiredness is the unspoken aspect of war I am facing not only in conversations with foreign colleagues but also among Ukrainian citizens inside the country. There’s no chance you would be able to perceive and sympathize with the whole variety of losses with the same power for several months in a row.
But why does the media market need to be so fickle? Do we still have a place for stories that could challenge one’s worldview?
I believe so.
And I believe these stories could lack gloomy images altogether.
Soviet wallpaper in the dark
Signs read: ‘This is a road to hell’, ‘Russian bastards are the shame of the world’. Image courtesy of author
I remember the 21 March vividly. Three weeks of the invasion was already behind us. Ukraine’s capital was still living under subdued yet constant shelling, but nothing notable was happening those days.
I was laying on the floor of my old Kyiv apartment, which hadn’t been renovated yet, listening to The Guardian podcast. The USSR-like corridor with chandeliers and lamps from the early 1960s had been temporarily transformed into a bedroom. The episode was dedicated to the midterm elections in America and the impact the war in Ukraine was having on them this year. The former politician was pondering whether Ukrainians’ plea for weapons would repulse America’s Left. They also discussed the reaction to rising gas prices, the perspective on worldwide inflation and a few issues more.
I had this sudden revelation, a strong sense of my entire self unwillingly being shaped by the geopolitical landscape. I was like a character in an average documentary: here I am, the bilingual child of my Soviet-born, Russian-speaking parents, hiding from these Russian rockets in the corridor, listening to Politics Weekly America, staring at Soviet wallpaper in the dark.
The host and the guest spoke about terms and things that were mostly concepts, that had no physicality – whilst I still heard the real, recurrent explosions through their speech in the headphones, trying to fall asleep. Their voices were so unflappable, their reporting style so plastic that it made me think, one of our countries is simply not real. ‘Do they live in reality?’, I asked myself. ‘And if so, where am I? What is this place called where gas prices, clothes, goods and amenities don’t matter?’
These two dimensions – a warzone and a peaceful place – were in this case too close to each other, so all of a sudden they both seemed surreal.
Days like this one, I suppose, set up the borderline, after which you lose the means that might have helped you to fully express yourself to those who did not experience the same moment for real. 
Only a couple of months ago, I had been studying theatre history and creative writing and managed to find things that have no practical purpose, tangible and profoundly real. On 21 March I discovered that everything I’ve ever read and learned had completely lost its appeal. All of them – from Baudrillard to Pulitzer winners – couldn’t respond to my reality. They just have nothing to say to that; they don’t belong here.
Along with this, I discovered a number of deeply rooted and almost casual fears that appeared and invisibly settled into my everyday life.
A shopping centre named after the Raiduzhny neighbourhood (translates as ‘Rainbow’), author‘s apartment is two-minutes walk away. Image courtesy of author
Here’s the list:
I’m afraid that the whole world will forget about us while we remain isolated in our long-term conflict.
I’m afraid I won’t be able to maintain friendships with people who haven’t been exposed to the war.
I’m afraid that every glass of wine that will be raised in cheers in future will feel like a feast during the plague.
I’m afraid that every dress which isn’t sewn out of necessity but for beauty won’t suit me forever more.
I’m afraid that every war – no matter where it was unleashed – will be somehow my war.
I’m afraid I won’t recover from hatred.
I’m afraid this war paused the person I’ve become. 
It is important to understand – without any accompanying images – that this is just a brief excursion into a state that a lot of people, especially those who have been raped, looted or injured, have acquired over decades or years. And for some there will be no return to the so-called ‘normal life’ with lifestyle advice so easily mixed up with images of the invasion in The New York Times’ Instagram account.
It seems like something essential has been simply withdrawn from the people of Ukraine and that is the very basic idea that the world could be a safe place.
Space for sympathy
While physical damage is easy to spot and serve as testimony to the horrors of war, the trauma and anxiety people carry, which might be less sensational, are far more lasting and eloquent. 
In contrast to the media’s nature and its attention economy, war tends to reveal its scariest face and heaviest repercussions after a period of time. And it’s the unacceptable duration that matters – even more than the shocking fact that it happened in the first place.
Tank deterrents in residential area. Image courtesy of author
Today, the trauma of billions of people, despite extensive coverage during the very first weeks of war, risks becoming silenced and normalized. Of course, a lot of images will be produced and come to the surface, alongside factual stories and stats, but what could they really show us?
Could they reveal the nature of people’s fatigue? Might they not support this inclination to just hide in a shell if it’s not your war?
Unlike local media outlets and newsrooms that are fighting for survival, huge media organizations do have resources and power to adjust and somewhat complicate their readers’ worldview. Despite the demanding rules of attention economics, which appear as power for the media, large outlets should be capable of finding ways to remind us about the fragility of a peaceful life: this is the reality of our lookalikes, which we should preserve some empathy for; you don’t necessarily need to give all your stuff to the disadvantaged, but your take on the contemporary world shouldn’t be naive.
After all, the media industry and stakeholders behind it should remember that their core mission as a public institution used to be to inform in order to engage, not alienate, and to expand perspectives.
Why is it important? Because this tendency of forgetting something that is no longer viral and alluring is one of the reasons why wars are becoming acceptable.

War is personal

‘I’m afraid that the whole world will forget about us while we remain isolated in our long-term conflict.’ As I read these reflective words with their author, Olena Myhashko, sitting beside me, they transmitted a sense of urgency. Olena is editor-in-chief of Gwara Media, the newest partner journal in the Eurozine network who recently spent a one-week residency at our Viennese office.
Her piece, which fears the inevitability of audience fatigue, begins with a comment from one of Gwara’s partners abroad: ‘We can no longer accept so many texts on Ukraine. Our readers are tired.’
Since war escalated in Ukraine, the bulk of coverage has followed the standard blow-by-blow formula. Reporting conflict is necessary. But how affective can it be at keeping audiences alert to the plight of others from a distance? On-the-scene reporters, those faces we recognize for always being close to the action, keep us up to date, but not present.
Metaverse wars
John Keane recognizes that this is not a new phenomenon. Much reporting, rather than being objective, aligns with a history of persuasion, now in overdrive: ‘In the age of metaverse wars, elected governments and their armed forces, with the help of loyal journalists and state-of-the-art tools of communication, transform war into multi-media entertainment,’ he states. Now, after the first few months’ buzz, fatigue has become the bandwagon for many a politician and commentator to jump on, as they look for absolution from a war that doesn’t offer a sign of resolution.
Making sense of the war
Title: The Explosion of Gunboat No. 2, under Command of Jan van Speijk, off Antwerp, 5 February 1831. Date: 1832. Institution: Rijksmuseum. Provider: Rijksmuseum, Netherlands. Public DomainPhoto via Europeana from Unsplash

As an anthesis to ‘churnalists’, there are those who recognize when public discourse turns from shock to reflection. Tatiana Zhurzhenko looks at when Russia’s war on Ukraine started, what it is doing to society and how it will end. War has led to a rethinking of Ukraine: ‘intellectuals have commented that the country should be seen as an asset rather than a liability for the EU, as a possible solution to the crisis of the European project and as a source of inspiration,’ she writes.
Facing trauma
Olena knows a personal angle can reawaken attention: ‘here I am, the bilingual child of my Soviet-born, Russian-speaking parents, hiding from these Russian rockets in the corridor, listening to Politics Weekly America, staring at Soviet wallpaper in the dark.’
We empathize with others more readily when they become genuinely individual, not just for show, and when something of their otherworldly experiences retains a universal element.
As a Ukrainian journalist listening to journalists from the West, she describes an existential crisis: ‘Their voices were so unflappable, their reporting style so plastic that it made me think, one of our countries is simply not real. “Do they live in reality?”, I asked myself. “And if so, where am I? What is this place called where gas prices, clothes, goods and amenities don’t matter?”’
Indeed, the fatigue exists in more than one direction and isn’t always just a case of a low attention span. War ostracizes those under attack from engaging with their own past lives: ‘I discovered that everything I’ve ever read and learned had completely lost its appeal. All of them – from Baudrillard to Pulitzer winners – couldn’t respond to my reality. They just have nothing to say to that; they don’t belong here.’
Olena’s brief visit to Vienna and a few days with the Eurozine team seemingly gave her time out from the war. And yet, perhaps, it also highlighted just how far apart these parallel realities are: ‘It seems like something essential has been simply withdrawn from the people of Ukraine and that is the very basic idea that the world could be a safe place. … I’m afraid that every war – no matter where it was unleashed – will be somehow my war. … I’m afraid this war paused the person I’ve become.’
Those of us who are living a privileged existence beyond war, whose lives haven’t been suspended, can afford to keep our attention focused. ‘Why is it important?’, asks Olena. ‘Because this tendency of forgetting something that is no longer viral and alluring is one of the reasons why wars are becoming acceptable.’

Gwara Media is the newest member to Eurozine’s network of cultural journals. Olena Myhashko’s residency is the first of what Eurozine hopes will become an ongoing programme supporting writers and editors. Swedish partner journal Glänta is currently hosting the Belarusian journal CityDog.

How fetal politics stole Americans’ reproductive rights

This article first appeared in Public Seminar on 25 June 2022.
In preparation for the day when a reversed decision on Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey might come, Claire Potter interviewed Jennifer Holland about her book, Tiny You: A Western History of the Anti-Abortion Movement.
Claire Potter: I want to start with the arresting title of your book, Tiny You. Can you tell our readers why you chose it?
Jennifer Holland: The book describes how a host of white, conservative, religious people become personally invested in fetal politics, and the title comes from a brochure created by the anti-abortion/movement for small children. It explained pregnancy and it said: ‘Everything that you are was there at this moment–a fetus is a “tiny you.”’

Next, the brochure describes abortion as when a parent chooses to kill their fetus. It’s very explicit. So, the pamphlet captures what I think is happening in the movement as a whole: inviting people to have a relationship with fetuses, imagine themselves as fetuses—and especially aborted fetuses.
Claire Potter: So, tell us how do fetuses at all stages, from conception to birth, become transformed into babies and children?
Jennifer Holland: The movement works hard from the beginning to sell this idea. First, they use analogy. They narrate themselves as a civil rights movement, comparing abortion to slavery and the dehumanization of Black people during Jim Crow. But also, they compare abortion to the Nazi Holocaust.
Second, they pair their messaging with fetal imagery to humanize fetuses and persuade people to see them as babies. By the late twentieth century, Americans cannot live their lives without encountering anti-abortion arguments conveyed through visual ephemera.
Claire Potter: What is the tradeoff between images that are arresting and suck people in, and images that risk people turning away and disengaging?
Jennifer Holland: That’s why the movement generates so many kinds of fetal ephemera because they are worried about it. It’s not that they don’t want to keep the gory photos and the embalmed fetuses, but activists realize they’re not good for every situation. For example, in the 1980s, they come up with these little plastic fetus dolls, which you can use in situations with children and young adults, dolls that aren’t going to immediately horrify parents. As the movement develops in the 1980s and 1990s, activists also invest in the idea that they are protecting women from trauma. Those that create crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), turn away from the gorier representations and towards ultrasound imagery and fetal models.
Plastic fetus dolls. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Claire Potter: But the anti-abortion movement does not actually start out as a religious movement, and churches must be persuaded to embrace it.
Jennifer Holland: It’s a little messy, because all the activists are, in fact, religious and they are coming out of religious organizations like the Knights of Columbus, or the Catholic Lawyers Guild. Religious institutions, especially the Catholic churches, prime them for activism. The default assumption is that anti-abortion activism is a top-down movement that individuals can’t possibly be invested in.
But, especially if we look at the early 1970s, that was not the case. The Catholic church hesitated in a way that Catholic activists were upset about. So, you have activists who are meeting with priests and pressing them to give anti-abortion sermons. Not every priest needed to be pushed, but many did. And activists kept meeting with higher-ups saying, you need to commit to this, in infrastructure and money.
By 1975, the Church made those commitments.
Claire Potter: So, a grassroots movement pushed churches into this struggle.
Jennifer Holland: I don’t want to deemphasize how important religious leaders were, especially later and particularly on the religious right. But that doesn’t explain why those leaders have such an audience in the first place, and why they have such power. It’s largely because this movement has already created that audience, and those leaders tell stories that resonate because people already understand them.
By the time activists politicize churches, they’ve already integrated anti-abortion politics into the rhythms of how so many white people experience their faith.
Claire Potter: And some activists must overcome theology. In the Mormon Church, the soul does not enter the human body until birth, so to imagine abortion as killing a soul, Mormons must override their own theology.
Jennifer Holland: There are a lot of people who believe that fetal politics represent their church’s theology, even when it doesn’t. Catholic anti-abortion activists pitch the idea, hard, that the soul enters the body at conception, and the Mormon church doesn’t press hard to correct that.
I don’t think they know this, but Mormons often take up Catholic visions of spirituality and conception and they incorporate it into their vision of what Mormon theology is. Then there is the power of what Mormons are already invested in, social conservatism.
Claire Potter: One of the things I hope our readers are noticing is that you keep saying white Christians, white evangelicals, white activists. Even though many Black and Latinx people are Catholic, they don’t get involved in the anti-abortion movement. Why?
Jennifer Holland: This was a question I had from the beginning, since the book is set in multiracial spaces with a host of religious people who, as you say, are people of color. And I found that they didn’t participate in the movement, or they did for a day at most; they’re very peripheral. Longstanding activists agreed; they had all these explanations for why, but none of them really explained it.
I think that the answer is that this is a movement of white people that co-opts civil rights and racial justice rhetoric and narrates themselves as the inheritors of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. They speak in that language, but they don’t do any work in communities of color on any of the other issues around race. They don’t even talk about involuntary sterilization.
The people of color who came in for a day did all sorts of racial justice work, but you don’t see white anti-abortion activists going and doing work alongside them. So, abortion was a civil right that was very contained. It was a movement that was contained to white people and to fetuses that were either narrated as universal subjects or as white. That didn’t sell to communities of color, even conservative ones. They weren’t ready to imagine abortion as the origin of all social problems, which is the primary argument of the movement.
Claire Potter: So, there are people of color who are personally anti-abortion, but the movement is a big turnoff.
Jennifer Holland: Yes. So, surveys show that Latinx Catholics are more against abortion than white Catholics overall, but that does not translate into movement work. For the most part, it does not translate into voting. White activists notice this, and keep saying, ‘We don’t see them around and they don’t seem to vote on this issue.’
Claire Potter: In the book, with narratives about the fetus itself, and then you move outward toward the woman who is carrying the fetus and beyond. One of the things activists realize early on is that they cannot demonize the women who are choosing abortion. Why?
Jennifer Holland: Well, the 1970s is a moment in which feminism is reshaping conversations about sex and gender, as well as American politics. When abortion was illegal, women were punished in myriad ways, but they weren’t often prosecuted. It was abortion providers who were prosecuted.
Abortion seekers were a thorn in the movement’s side because if you’re saying that abortion is murder, well, abortion is murder. Abortion providers are murderers in this formulation, but it only makes sense that women would be too, because they’re hiring abortion providers. However, the movement realizes very quickly that that is not going to sell.
Yet, you do have a deep hostility to women that bubbles up: birth needs to be a repercussion for sex, it holds people accountable. Mostly, the movement tries to not talk about women having sex in that way: instead, they portray motherhood as the thing that makes women special.
But in the 1980s, they come up with a new idea: women are victims of abortion, that that they are both physically damaged and psychologically traumatized by it. They invent the idea of ‘post-abortion syndrome.’ This is not supported by the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, which keep saying, ‘No, this is not a common traumatic event.’
But it doesn’t matter. The movement runs with this idea that women are hurt by abortion. Laws are passed with names like ‘Women’s Right to Know’, or ‘Women’s Protection Act’. Right? And even the Supreme Court, prior to this one, starts to parrot the movement and say that women are hurt by abortion.
Claire Potter: It’s also one of the ways that fake science creeps into conservatism. Rejecting mainstream science and psychology powers a social movement.
Jennifer Holland: I thought about this a lot in relation to contemporary misinformation. Anti-abortion activists started saying very different things than they had a century before. You couldn’t trust doctors, you couldn’t trust universities, or the scholars that produced knowledge there. Even the word ‘fetus’, they argued, was a way that doctors hid the truth from you.
The only people you could really trust were in the movement.
Claire Potter: Then, the anti-abortion movement starts running pseudo-therapy groups for women who have had abortions, where they are taught that everything in their life that has gone wrong is because they had an abortion.
Jennifer Holland: I found that part of the book hard to write, and sometimes when I go back and read it, hard to read, because it’s so manipulative. The movement creates a diagnosis, ‘post-abortion syndrome’, and in CPCs, their fake reproductive health clinics, they organize ‘post-abortion therapy’, or ‘post-abortion education’. They would bring in women who had had abortions and then ask them questions intended to lead them to conclusions about their experiences. Every story led back to the idea that abortion was a traumatic event, and that doctors hadn’t told them what the negative outcomes were.
The counselors organized those details into a story, and they would try to get women to reconcile with God and with their fetus, who would get a name. ‘Can you tell God who you killed? Can you talk to your daughter, Brittany, and tell her why you killed her?’ And they imagined that by reckoning with this, by making peace with abortion, acknowledging it as a moral crime, and reconciling with God, women could regain their well-being.
Then, once they got women to that space, they asked them to become activists and speak to legislatures or go into CPCs to stop other women from having abortions. So, this was not just about emotional health, it was about making their clients into the face of abortion’s damage. What they call ‘post-abortive women’ take up important roles in the movement by the 1980s.
Claire Potter: Perhaps it’s my age, perhaps it’s the circles I run in, but I’ve never known a woman who regretted having an abortion.
Jennifer Holland: That’s what the American Psychiatric Association found too. There were a very small number of people who felt what they called ‘abortion regret’, and even that often coincided with other kinds of things going on in their lives. There were people I found whose lives didn’t pan out the way they expected, who imagined themselves as upwardly mobile, and who thought sex would lead to marriage and a middle-class lifestyle. Instead, the sex they had led them into bad marriages, unexpected pregnancies, abortions, and lives that were more working-class. We can imagine the structural or personal reasons why that occurred, but at least some believed that their lives didn’t pan out because of abortion.
Claire Potter: Let’s dig back into the crisis pregnancy centres. We mentioned them earlier but they’re a highly visible and enduring part of this movement.
Jennifer Holland: The first ones were started in Canada in 1968, but they almost immediately moved into the United States. I call them fake clinics because they masquerade as abortion providers, and their advertising is geared to that. Common advertisements say: ‘Pregnant? Need help? Call this number.’
Once they got abortion seekers into their space, they gave them a political pitch. They gave them free pregnancy tests to make sure they were pregnant, they got ultrasound machines, and then they would make anti-abortion arguments, showing them images and fetal models, and trying to convince people to keep the pregnancy. And they would never refer anyone for abortions or birth control.
One of the later strategies was to put these CPCs right next to abortion providers in the same complex, so that people became confused. And they were. Activists I talked to said that everybody was calling them was looking for an abortion, not to be talked out of it. Only women activists staffed these centres: they imagined themselves as mothers or friends, having a kitchen table conversation. But they also falsely presented themselves as medical providers: taking urine, and giving clients medical arguments about why abortion is murder and the physical damage it will do.
Even if they didn’t convince a ton of people, they convinced some people, so this became a special space for women anti-abortion activists to try to stop abortion one woman at a time. Importantly, these spaces also get an incredible amount of state and federal money, especially as the movement gets stronger in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. And the people who come are young women and poor women and women of color, they’re all people who for one reason or another are not getting their healthcare in other places.
Claire Potter: They’re women who aren’t attached to the healthcare system at all.
Jennifer Holland: Right.
Claire Potter: The other thing this makes me think about is when the Jane Collective began its work in Chicago, they put flyers up on telephone poles that said: ‘Pregnant? Don’t want to be? Call Jane.’ And there’s a number.
Jennifer Holland: I think anti-abortion activists were drawing on that ambiguous message, but of course, they want to reverse the desires of the people coming to them. That’s the whole pitch: luring in people who don’t want your services and convincing them that they do.
And of course, a lot of people became traumatized by this bait and switch. They were shown graphic imagery and films, they were told terrible things, and they had been brought there by deceit. In more feminist-oriented states, Democratic states, you get a lot more interest in trying to get these people to represent themselves accurately.  That never really pans out because that would ruin what these centres are built to do.
Claire Potter: These CPCs also decide to work on their clients’ moral fibre too. How does that shift happen?
Jennifer Holland: Well, the fact of the matter is, many abortion seekers live in cities where people circulate knowledge, and one thing CPCs always had was to serve a donations closet with diapers, clothes, used furniture, and so on. They hoped that if they could convince someone not to have an abortion, and provide a little bit of material help, it would be enough. But then, they realized that some people were not actually considering abortion at all, and knew that if they came and said the right things they could get access to things they needed.
And so, you have a whole host of centres who say, ‘These women are taking advantage of us.’ Then, one activist came up with a program that became a national program in CPCs called Earn While You Learn. Some of them were about prenatal care and taking care of your newborn baby. But a lot of classes were about conveying conservative ideology. You had to take these classes to get your ‘mommy dollars’, which you could then use to get things from the donations closet or ‘baby boutique’, as they sometimes call them.
Claire Potter: Then, these activists extend the circle of trauma to living children. Why?
Jennifer Holland: Early on, the movement was concerned that schools and the media were creating a ‘pro-choice generation’ by indoctrinating children. And so, they imagine that they need to come into youth spaces and politicize young people.
One of the central arguments they make is that young people are survivors because they were born, as opposed to being aborted fetuses. And so, as survivors, children have a responsibility to speak on behalf of those who didn’t survive. There are organizations that call themselves Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust that invite young people into the movement, saying: ‘You have a responsibility to engage in these politics because you were born.’
Evangelicals build whole worlds around young people so they don’t have to go outside for their music, their reading – they can just consume evangelically oriented stuff. So, activists come into schools and homes, and churches, and I think it resonates with young people in part because of the ways in which this movement, unlike a lot of conservative movements, draws on rights rhetoric. A lot of young people want to be part of a justice campaign, which was so much a part of American culture by the late twentieth century. Anti-abortion activism means that white conservative youth can do that in a way that feels meaningful, and that doesn’t overturn social hierarchies.
So fetal politics becomes more and more central to what it means to a young person to be evangelical, to be a young conservative, and to be an American. In addition, the idea of young people as lives that have been saved plays an incredibly important role in the movement, since activists imagine that abortion is a slippery slope to all born people being at risk. They argue, inaccurately, that abortion was central to Hitler’s philosophy, a path to dehumanization and genocide, the killing of the elderly, and anyone we don’t want around anymore.
Claire Potter: So, we are entering a period in which abortion will be available in some states, and not in others. How will the movement adapt to partial victory?
Jennifer Holland: There are two big avenues that I see. One is that they will continue working for a total victory. Dobbs is not the end game. People talk all about differences between radical and mainstream anti-abortion activists, and there are differences in strategy. But there are no differences in the end goal, which is to make abortion illegal everywhere. The only exception would be the life of the mother, and that’s not a stable exception.
So, overturning Roe and Casey is not the end. They need to continue working to make abortion illegal everywhere, and that could either come through Congress, and I think they will go back to the court and see if they can get fetuses protected under the 14th Amendment as citizens. So that’s one direction.
We also need to see what the next steps are in terms of the other cases that rely on a right to privacy. Gay rights, birth control, marriage issues—all these things look like they could be on unstable ground.
But I think there are new challenges for the movement because Roe has been an easy punching bag: you had the government protecting at least some abortions in every state. But they don’t have that anymore, and more importantly, in the states where abortion will now be illegal, they will now have the power of the state.
What will they do with that? Anti-abortion activists have been able to imagine a future where everyone is better off without legal abortion. Women are no longer traumatized, they’re having bigger families, violence is stemmed, racism gets better. But once they have the power of the state, and Roe no longer stands, they’re going to have to face it that the future they promised people isn’t coming.
In addition, to stop abortion-seekers in Oklahoma, where I am, they will have to stop those people from moving across state boundaries. They must stop the mail from coming in with abortion pills. Are they going to use the power of the state to do that? Are they going to track people online? Are they going to prosecute people who have sought abortions? Because these things will run up against some of the core arguments they’ve made in the past: that women are not going to be prosecuted, that they were only always victims, and they were going to be better off without an abortion.
The movement is going to have to reckon with that. I’ve heard that some people in the movement think that deeply Republican states will, or the movement itself, will press state legislators to create new social safety nets for all these people who have larger families than they thought. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I can say pretty certainly that Oklahoma’s legislature is not going to be passing such laws.
So, there is now a possibility that the movement’s own narratives will come under pressure within the movement itself, and potentially, from the voters who’ve supported them for so long.

On the battlefront of history

In the clamour of war, the definitive act to shut down Memorial International on 28 February 2022 went under the radar. Two months earlier, the response to threatened closure had been very different: a section of Western media had decried the initial Russian Federation’s Supreme Court decision. Undoubtedly, the court’s position on the NGO’s appeal was well understood by February. Moreover, Russia’s launch of hostilities against Ukraine on 24 February 2022 had catapulted Europe into a new era, with new priorities and new crises. Europe has since ostracized Russia, the aggressor, and only a handful of Russian citizens dare oppose Putin’s regime and the war.
Memorial activists and supporters gathered outside the Supreme Court on the day of the appeal hearing, all wearing black masks on which the NGO’s famous rallying symbol, MY (we), had been replaced with MIR (peace). Today, the pre-eminent fight of all Memorialtsy and their supporters is to put an immediate end to Russian aggression against Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has theorized and justified his war on the pretext that a ‘fascist’ Ukraine was about to attempt genocide against Russians in the Donbas and that the time had come to ‘de-nazify’ Ukraine. Such falsification of history is monstrous and validates, a posteriori, the fight that Memorial has led for over three decades. Never before in Russia has history been so flagrantly manipulated to political ends, to construct a national narrative that allows no dissent and serves the geopolitical interests of a dictatorial regime to the point of justifying the unthinkable: aggression against Ukraine.
Memorial was shut down because it always pushed for a scientific approach to history, advocated the establishment of a national memory that would allow the country to confront the darkest chapters of its past, and resolutely opposed, from 2014 onward, Russia’s transparent annexation of Crimea and covert control of part of the Donbas.
Memorial’s remarkable work combined the study of Soviet history, including the traumatic dimension of ‘an ever-present past’, conservation of the memory of mass repressions and the defence of present-day human rights. A democratic society based on respect for human rights cannot be built without knowing, understanding and remembering the past.

Moreover, this past cannot be limited to the patriotic exaltation of a few ‘glorious episodes’ of Soviet history, such as the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45, a significantly revised and edited version of which tends to lead the charge. This has been the belief of Memorialtsy – women and men, of all ages and backgrounds, from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok – who took part in this fight for history and against forgetting, and for a democratic Russia.
In this article, I will not discuss the substantial work of the Memorial Human Rights Centre but will concentrate instead on Memorial International, which focuses on history and memory.
Return of the Names ceremony, Solovetsky Stone, Lubyanka Square, Moscow. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Remembering repressions
Over the last thirty years, Memorial International and its sixty or so regional branches became the principal centre for the study, research and documentation of the history and memory of mass repressions (primarily, yet not exclusively, in the Stalinist era). This activity took many forms: publishing research and volumes of documents; organizing conferences and symposiums; creating databases on the millions of victims of the repressions; collecting testimonies from survivors of Gulag camps; erecting hundreds of commemorative monuments and plaques at execution sites (mass graves from the Great Terror of 1937–38, discovered for the most part by Memorial activists) or internment sites (camps and prisons); preserving objects related to daily Gulag life in museum displays; organizing citizen initiatives (e.g., Return of Names, Topography of Terror and Last Address); and setting exam questions for high-school students related to the history of mass repressions.
From the beginning of the 1990s, historian colleagues at Memorial played a key role in enacting vital laws that enabled the substantial expansion of knowledge about the hidden face of Soviet history: the law of 18 October 1991 on ‘the rehabilitation of victims of political repression’; and that of 23 June 1992 on the ‘declassification of official documents that were at the origin of mass repressions’.
Memorial International historians revolutionized our knowledge of the Great Terror of 1937-38, that paroxysmal episode of Stalinist violence long presented, also in the West, as a series of political purges, more violent than preceding ones, primarily targeting communist elites. Bringing the then secret, now notorious, operational orders of the NKVD (the Interior Ministry of the Soviet Union) to light, Memorial’s historians showed that the Great Terror had been a vast and murderous programme of ‘social cleansing’, aimed at eliminating any ‘socially harmful elements’ from the ‘socialist’ society being built – in short, the biggest state-organized massacre perpetrated in Europe in peacetime.
Historian colleagues at Memorial were also pioneers in the previously unexplored history of forced Soviet Union labour camps. I will limit myself here to citing a single, essential work: Ispravitel’no-trudovye lageri v SSSR, 1923-1960 (The Directory of Forced Labour Camps in the USSR, 1923-1960), edited by Arseny Roginsky and Nikita Okhotin, published in Moscow in 1998. This encyclopaedic work presented, for the first time, the ‘fact sheet’ of more than 600 concentration camps in the Gulag system. Precise data for each camp includes: its name and structure; detail of countless outbuildings; dates of operation; geographic location;  economic activities; the changing number of detainees; the biographies of camp directors; and the location of camp archives.
Subsequently, between 2000 and 2010, collections of documents on the history of the Gulag and mass deportations were also published: from the first deportations of the kulaks (peasants in Russia wealthy enough to own a farm and hire labour) in the early 1930s to those of Polish and Baltic civilians from 1939-1941, and ‘punished peoples’ in the 1940s.
Memorial historians also engaged with other taboo aspects of Soviet historiography: the fate of prisoners of war and Soviet civilians deported to Germany during the Second World War; the abuses of occupying Soviet forces in Germany at the end of the war; and the issue of dissidence in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Over the years and through dozens of major Memorial-organized international symposiums between 2000 and 2010, the NGO became a formidable hub of discussion, debate and information for those studying Soviet history. Memorial’s headquarters in Moscow (whose future is today uncertain, now that the NGO has been shut down) houses Russia’s largest library of texts on the mass repressions (more than 40,000 volumes and 500 periodicals in some ten languages) and a collection, unique in the world, of private archives (more than 60,000 files) left to Memorial by families of victims.
Another of the main elements of Memorial’s work was the creation of an immense database detailing 3.5 million victims of political repression. Through this database, Memorial’s activists respond to the famous plaint of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova: ‘I’d like to name them all by name, But the list has been confiscated and is nowhere to be found.’ Thanks to this database, hundreds of thousands of descendants of victims have finally been able to discover what happened to their disappeared family. It is accompanied by a sound archive, compiled since the end of the 1980s, comprising thousands of witness statements from the last Gulag camp survivors and deportees. In addition, there are collections of objects and clothing, and of drawings and paintings done by detainees shortly after their release from the camps or by deportees recently returned from exile; these are all kept in the Gulag History Museum housed in the NGO’s premises in Moscow. More than thirty exhibitions have been organized by Memorial based on these unique collections.
Each of the NGO’s regional branches has its own database on victims of the repressions, its own publications, archives bequeathed by families of victims, recorded testimonies of escapees and internet site. A large part of the publications and archives, both in Memorial’s Moscow centre and its regional branches, have been digitalized; it should be possible to make copies and save them remotely.
The ‘memorialization’ of mass repressions had been a major part of the NGO’s work since the 1990s. Activists erected hundreds of modest memorials on detention facility, massacre and cemetery sites. Thousands of commemorative plaques were put up at the ‘last addresses’ of disappeared persons. Every year, on 29 October, the day before the Russian Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions, the names of the victims were read out by a volunteer at a symbolic site such as in front of the Solovetsky Stone, erected in 1990 in Lubyanka Square, opposite the FSB, formerly KGB, headquarters in Moscow.
Attempts at falsification
The official, unifying, historical narrative attempts to glorify the history of the nation, whose most brilliant episode is considered the victory of the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War. All Memorial initiatives significantly thwarted the extensive business of rewriting history that the regime began in 2010.
Since 2020, this new national narrative has been inscribed in the very text of Russia’s Constitution. It now includes this phrase: ‘The Russian Federation, the successor State of the USSR, protects the historical truth. . . , forbids the minimization of the importance of the heroism of the people in defending the Fatherland and exalts the sacred character of the USSR’s victory in the Great Patriotic War.’ However, the official narrative doesn’t entirely efface  dark chapters of the Soviet past: the re-opening of the expanded Gulag History Museum on a new site in Moscow in 2015 and the Wall of Sorrow erected in memory of the victims of repression in 2017 being two examples.
Nevertheless, the state seeks to frame and control all discourse and initiatives coming from Russian civil society. Crimes of the past are cut loose from reality: no information about the identity of those responsible is available and no judicial enquiry has been opened to discover those responsible. Victims, too, are cut loose: no action is taken to identify them, to help families find the bodies of their relatives, nor to offer reparations, whether symbolic or material, to survivors. As a result, the mass crimes of the Soviet regime appear as a sort of natural catastrophe for which no one, and especially not the state, bears responsibility. Given that these crimes were committed or approved by the country’s most senior leadership, recognizing them and identifying the culprits would mean condemning the entire Soviet regime and shaking the very foundations of the current regime, which presents itself as the ‘successor of the USSR’ and whose president is a former KGB officer.
The attacks against Memorial escalated significantly when the NGO began publishing not only the lists of victims of mass repression but also the names of NKVD officials implicated in the mass arrests, torture and executions. The organization was already a target: since the enactment of the 2012 law on ‘foreign agents’, which applies to Russian NGOs receiving funding from outside Russia, the authorities had been piling on the pressure: perquisitions, repeated audits, smear campaigns in the media, astronomical fines for ‘failing to display the foreign agent label’, and threats against its members.
Yury Dmitriev, Sandarmokh. Image via Wikimedia Commons
However, a new line was clearly crossed in 2016 when several Memorialtsy, historians from the organization, were arrested for having published lists of NKVD agents. The most emblematic case was that of Yury Dmitriev, the head of the NGO’s Karelia branch, who in 1997 discovered the Sandormokh mass grave in Karelia, where more than 9,000 people convicted during the Great Terror of 1937–38 had been executed in utmost secrecy. Dmitriev had also compiled numerous Books of Memory dedicated to the victims of repressions in Karelia and authored various articles revealing the identity of those responsible. The state prosecutor brought far-fetched and defamatory charges of pedophilia against him, leading to his arrest in 2016. He was subsequently released in 2018 – an exceptional occurrence in the annals of Russian jurisprudence – but remained in pre-trial detention until 27 December 2021, when he was sentenced on appeal to fifteen years in a high-security prison colony
We could also cite the case of Sergei Koltyrin, a historian, director of the Medvezhyegorsk museum in Karelia, and member of Memorial. In 2018 he was sentenced to nine years in prison, also on charges of pedophilia, after having spoken out against two historians from the official Russian Military Historical Society. He declared their hypothesis that bodies found in Sandormokh mass graves were those of Soviet prisoners of war executed by the Finns in 1941 ‘absurd’.
This Russian Military Historical Society – flanked by a history commission established to ‘counter attempts to falsify history to the detriment of Russia’s interests’ and directly linked to President Putin – has led the charge against any deviation from the official narrative on the ‘battlefront of history’. Headed by Vladimir Medinsky, Minister of Culture from 2010 to 2020, the society has recently encouraged Tver authorities to remove the commemorative plaques to victims of Stalinist repression that Memorial placed on the walls of the city’s prison, where many people had been tortured and executed between 1937 and 1941.
A few months ago, the same society caused a stir when it denied that the USSR bore any responsibility for the massacre of the Polish elite at Katyn in April 1940, even though Boris Yeltsin had officially recognized the fact in the early 1990s. ‘The so-called historical consensus around Katyn is part of a more general propaganda campaign aimed at making the USSR take responsibility for the outbreak of the Second World War,’ declared one of the society’s representatives.
A pretext for war
The regime has added key elements about the Great Patriotic War to the Constitution in a bid to legitimize its new national narrative. It has also enacted a series of memory laws, the most notorious of which is article 354.1 of the penal code of the Russian Federation, which criminalizes the ‘denial or the rehabilitation of Nazism’. On the surface, the clauses of this article resemble the memory laws adopted in other democratic countries, but in reality their scope is far wider, since they also criminalize the ‘dissemination of false information on the activities of the Soviet Union during the Second World War’, ‘the dissemination of information that casts in a negative light the glorious military history of Russia’, and ‘the denigration of those who fought in the Great Patriotic War’.
Moreover, the last memory law enacted by the Duma at the start of 2022 prohibits ‘any public attempt to interpret the aims and actions of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during the Second World War’. Two days before the invasion of Ukraine, the Duma toughened the potential penalty for anyone contravening these laws to a maximum of one year in prison.
Since the enactment of these memory laws, hundreds of people have been charged and sentenced. Examples of blog entries include statements that: ‘Soviet communist leaders actively collaborated with Nazi Germany to divide up Europe in accordance with the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact’; ‘the USSR and Germany jointly attacked Poland, the Second World War began in September 1939 and not in June 1941’; mention the ‘crimes committed by the Red Army against the German civilian population in 1945’. Others simply remind readers that General Rudenko, the Soviet Union’s chief prosecutor in the Nuremburg trials, had also sat on the extraordinary courts during the years of the Great Terror, from 1937 to 1938, and, as such, could be considered the executioner of thousands of innocent victims. A whole series of other measures – such as the refusal to declassify sensitive archives, and allowing a thesis to be defended or accepted if it contains themes ‘tarnishing the honour of the Russian people’ – impede research on several subjects. Information on Soviet collaboration with Nazi occupiers, the staff and hierarchy of organizations involved in repression, and foreign activities of the secret services as a core element of Soviet diplomacy, for example, are taboo.
For many years now, another issue, related to the central preoccupation with the Great Patriotic War, ‘the historical centrepiece of Putin’s regime’, has been keeping both the Russian Military Historical Society and the Russian media busy: the Ukrainian ‘neo-Nazi’ movement. While any attempt to recognize that Russian or Belarusian people collaborated or even adapted to life with Nazi occupiers is stubbornly rejected and subject to prosecution, Russian propaganda heavily targets Ukrainian nationalist movements (the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army).
In the chaos of the war and double occupation – first by the Soviets (September 1939-June 1941), then by the Germans (June 1941-summer of 1944) – these movements unsuccessfully tried to create an autonomous Ukrainian state, and subsequently offered determined resistance to the re-Sovietization of western Ukraine in the post-war years, until the end of the 1940s. According to the Soviet state security forces, no less than half a million Ukrainians were killed in guerrilla warfare led by the partisans of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army or deported to the Gulag camps between 1944 and 1948.
Yet it is this same nationalist movement from western Ukraine, active between 1930 and 1940,  that Russian propaganda today brandishes as a bogeyman. The influence of this supposedly fascist or neo-Nazi nationalism is negligible in Ukrainian political life and society. Its influence is infinitely less than that of the German, Dutch, Flemish, Italian, or French extreme right parties.
Yet if we are to believe Russian media, Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians, for years labelled Ukr-fascisty (Ukrainian fascists), are contaminated by this so-called neo-Nazi virus and ready to lead a genocide against Ukraine’s Russian minority. This monstrous falsification of history, whose discovery has recently stupefied global public opinion is the work of years of steady preparation. Memorial was its first victim. Today, the Ukrainian people are paying in blood for these crude falsifications, which serve as a pretext for the criminal aggression of Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial regime against an independent and democratic Ukraine.

Translation and initial edit by Cadenza Academic Translations.