Iryna Zamuruieva reflects on the devastation wrought upon her native land, and the roots in language and culture that can sustain a deep sense of resistance and resilience.
We’ve seen many images of the Russian war against Ukraine: there is pain and loss on scales that are difficult to comprehend. A year into the full-scale invasion, there is one image I think of often. It is a photograph of a field punctuated with glaring black craters left by the Russian shelling close to Izium in the Kharkiv region. In it can also be seen the remains of burnt down tanks, iron debris sinking into the soil. This image for me encapsulates this war’s violence against Ukrainian land. The war has made me think deeply about my own relationship to land, both in my homeland in Ukraine and my current homeland in Scotland, wondering what political commitments a relationship to the land should entail?
There is a pervasive perception of Ukraine as an agricultural country: the ‘breadbasket of Europe’. This image can be traced back to the Renaissance when present-day Ukrainian lands were described as ‘the most fertile in Europe and with a mild climate’. Jump a few centuries forward and Ukraine has become the fourth largest exporter of wheat in the world, letting the market drive its land use. Besides being a ‘breadbasket’, Ukraine’s land is also a frontier for the EU’s search for alternatives to fossil-based fuel. The increasing volume of rapeseed produced in Ukraine, one of the primary biofuel crops, reflects the growth in demand for raw materials for biofuel in the EU. With 1.3 million hectares of land used for intensive and soil-exhausting rapeseed farming, the biofuel hunt, under the auspices of action to combat climate change in the West, perpetuates the degradation of Ukrainian land, leaving those who rely on it for subsistence in a position of even less power to influence how this land is managed and cared for. The shades of yellow that one sees from the train across Ukraine – corn, soybeans, sunflower and wheat – are also exported to the EU as raw materials for ‘sustainable’ biofuel. What is not immediately visible are the ripple effects of a profit- and export-driven orientation of land management, combined with the near absence or repression of any resistance efforts. This dynamic impacts most severely those already marginalised and imagined as less-than-human – other species, other-than-white-male bodies. What also remains under the surface is the toxicity spilling itself decades into the future, with intensive farming requiring large amounts of fertilisers that deplete the soil and leave it unsuitable for growing food for years to come.
Looking at the scale of ongoing war damage to the land, there are effects that remain invisible. Currently about 40 percent of all Ukraine’s territory is covered in mines and other unexploded ordnance. Lead, a key component of many Russian munitions, has a half-life of 700 years and will continue poisoning life for generations to come. This will take decades if not centuries to clear and, as WWI experience shows, some land will never recover. Some of the largest agricultural businesses in Ukraine are establishing their own ‘demining divisions’, but the effects for smallholders are far more devastating. Whilst surely the most devastating and damaging consequences of the war are unfolding on Ukrainian land, lands elsewhere are impacted too. This war has disrupted the outsourcing of biofuel production and we see farmers across the UK (and EU) growing more of their own biofuel crops. In Scotland in particular, the Government has encouraged farmers to grow rapeseed – a knock on vegetal effect of Russian invasion. While this may be good for farmers in the short term, it goes against the visions of thriving landscapes and rural communities presented by those campaigning for food sovereignty in Scotland.
The war in Ukraine has been widely written and talked about through the lens of national sovereignty. For centuries, Russia has been coercing Ukraine into its political, economic and cultural space. Russia’s war against Ukraine is a colonial war. This dynamic is important to understand. But if we’re to understand how to resist this violence in a meaningful way and in true solidarity with the people and place/land, it is essential that we pay attention to what war does to the land and our relationship to it, beyond an agricultural framing of ‘productive land’. I am thinking of adonis vernalis, a plant common in my home region and known in English as pheasant’s eye, spring pheasant’s eye, yellow pheasant’s eye and false hellebore. There is nothing terribly outstanding about adonis vernalis: it grows, it blossoms, it heals, it poisons, it is eaten, pollinated, it creeps northward with the steppes as the climate heats up and it is also going extinct as its habitat is wrecked, polluted, ploughed and shelled. Before the full-scale war started I was planning an expedition into my home-region’s steppes and forest steppes to spend time with this plant, which became impossible with the escalation of the war.
In Ukrainian there’s a way to describe your home-place as kin-place, ridnyi krai. It’s similar, but different to the notion of mother-, father-, home-land, different to the ‘native’ land or ‘ancestral’ land. There’s a sense of wider kin, rid, to it and there’s much more than blood connections to kin. Krai can mean both land, edge and region. In Scotland people sometimes use Gaelic dùthchas to describe this complex connection between people and land. It is perhaps the Gaelic word closest to ridnyi krai. With the impossibility of going to my own kin-region, the impossibility of spending time in the steppes with adonis vernalis, this plant became a path to thinking about the steppe environments and habitats. This very plant also constitutes home for me. A nation-state seems less significant, important, and worthwhile to think with, not despite the war, but because of it. Instead, what seems significant is my kin region with all its web of life, whose life-supporting capacity is being destroyed by Russia as I write this.
In the image from Izyum there are glaring holes on the agricultural field. There are thousands of such images and thousands of such fields in Ukraine now. Ukraine has become the largest minefield in the world, and the damage that this will keep doing, even when this war is over, is difficult to grasp. Preserving meaningful kinship and land-based solidarities through this war, as well as working out socially and ecologically just approaches to the land’s regeneration, depends on collectively remembering what we are defending, and telling the stories of our damaged land. It is about relating to the land in ways that run much deeper than national sovereignty or national sentiment. It is about sharing the history that people are making as they defend home in all its multispecies glory.
Iryna Zamuruieva makes images, writes, organises and performs. She works on land, resiliance and climate justice at a sustainability charity in Edinburgh.