The Ghost of Lawlessness

August 23, 2023
The use of Soviet flags in occupied territories is the figurative attempt to erase the last three decades.
Photo credit: Visegrad Insight
  • Volodymyr Yermolenko, Ukrainian philosopher, Editor-in-chief of UkraineWorld, for Visegrad Insight.

The symbolism of Russia’s propaganda in occupied territories showcases its complete disregard for reality, decency and the rule of law.

One of the first things the Russian army did during February-March 2022 on the occupied lands of Southern Ukraine, those close to Crimea and the Sea of Azov, was put red Soviet flags over the city’s major buildings.

This happened in Melitopol; this happened in Berdyansk – as refugees from both these cities recently told us when we met them in Zaporizhzhia.

This is an important point: the first symbols the Russians turned to embody their occupation were not Russian but Soviet.

As if they were trying to refer not to the actual reality of the Russian imperial state but to the ephemeral reality of the non-existent country, the Soviet Union.

This fact has at least three important dimensions. The first one relates to time; the second one to law, and the third one to Europe.

Back to the past: fantasy against the reality

By putting red flags on the occupied cities’ buildings, the Russians brought nostalgic fantasy into the Ukrainian space. They established symbols of a state that ceased to exist 30 years ago, trying to deny the whole history that has happened ever since.

The red flags were a marker of a message the Russian army tried to convey to their Ukrainian victims: we are the same as you; we should only erase several decades of the recent history and come back to our common reality of the past.

The illusory character of this Soviet identity is impressive. 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, you will not find too many Ukrainians having Soviet nostalgia – except, perhaps, some groups of elderly citizens.

What Russians bring to Ukraine is an idea that has been dead a long time ago. A fantasy that has no relation to reality. A nothingness of a political simulacrum.

Blaise Pascal said in his Pensées that we never actually live in the present. We live in the past, in the world of our memories – but even more, we live in the future, in the world of our hopes.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine shows signs that in the current Russian imagination, the past has replaced the future. Hopes, expectations or fears that we have about the future have been replaced by past hopes, expectations or fears. The future was replaced by this surreal future-in-the-past, where all our emotions having the relation with the future and its unpredictability, are replaced with emotions from the days long gone.

The Russian political imagination creates a human being whose key hope is that no real future comes, that it will only be a repetition of the past – a senseless and absurd repetition, replacing reality with a surreal image. For example, that of a red flag.


However, the red flags are not only about the past; they are also about the law. Or, rather, the absence of the law. The red flag over a Ukrainian administrative building puts an end to the law – even that weak and imperfect law which has existed on these lands before the Russian invasion.

Russia can claim that the occupied territories of Ukraine are part of Russia, but the reality is that the Russian occupation turn them into territories of the absence of law, even of Russian law.

People can be kidnapped, and nobody will investigate their disappearance.

Moreover, it is dangerous for family members and friends of those kidnapped by the Russians to report that their close ones are missing.

Quite often, the Ukrainian citizens illegally detained and tortured by the Russians don't come back. Their family members wait for them for months and years, with very little hope of having them back and with no connection with them at all.

But the Russian occupation authorities don't care. They can pick up dozens or hundreds of people, kill them, force their family members to keep silent, and then pretend these people have never existed.

The lawlessness applies to property too. It's a common thing in the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia that a house, an apartment, or a car would be illegally taken away from its owner without even opening a legal procedure of "confiscation" or "nationalisation".

You can live in your house, and then a Russian occupant or their collaborator would come to you with armed men and order you to leave.

Of course, lawlessness is the reality of Russia itself. Yet, in the occupied territories, the situation is even worse than in Russia. As these lands became lands beyond the law in a matter of days, people here no longer have rights, including the right to life.

Fragile Europe

The 20th-century European history gives us a reminder of what happens when the law disappears.

Timothy Snyder described it in Bloodlands and Black Earth. During World War II, which was one of the most notorious acts of killing the law, both Nazis and Soviets destroyed the existing legal systems of the lands they occupied. This destruction of legal systems created spaces for violence - an infinite space in which you can kill without consequences.

To oppose that, postwar Europe was based upon the idea of law. The major form of Europe's enlargement has been the enlargement of rules. The European Union is often called a regulatory empire, and although the word "empire" here is misleading, it is certain that the major form of European soft power is the expansion of law.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Europe extended its rules systems into the space in which older rules didn't work. They were fading away, and the societies of Central and Eastern Europe were gradually "harmonising" their rules to those of the institutionalised Europe. No alternative rules systems seemed to be present on the horizon. Fukuyama's "End of History" was a tune of the day.

Today, everything is different.

Russia does not set an alternative system of rules, but it is trying to destroy the very idea of rules. The anatomy of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that Russia uses war to destroy the law. While in the past century, international humanitarian law tried to invent rules which would limit violence, Russia is using violence to limit (and destroy) rules.

While Europe is torn in the debates and struggles about which rules are better, it is missing a profound point: today, we are facing a force that destroys - and consciously wants to destroy - the very idea of rules.

In this context, Ukraine is no longer a country of the "transition" in which the goal of the game is to adopt European rules and apply them effectively; Ukraine is the country that is defending the very idea of rules and law. It defends not only the idea of rights; it defends the right of rights themselves to exist.

So when Ukrainians are frustrated when they see that Ukraine's EU integration is facing "scepticism" in old Europe, and when NATO is still devoured by a fear of inviting Ukraine to become its member, it is because they expect a more profound change of thinking which should come as a reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Europe is still trapped by old thinking, confident that "sooner or later" democracy will win and that a peaceful democratic state is a self-evident normality. Like it or not, this thinking belongs to the past.

Unfortunately, in the 21st century, democracies will be increasingly finding themselves in the hostile environment of rising authoritarianism and facing threats that are very difficult to cope with.

The red flags imposed by the Russian occupants are surreal and detached from reality, but the problem is that they are accompanied by a systemically organised violence that destroys the idea of rights and law and that kills with cynicism comparable to that of the past world wars. In fact, this surreality becomes a reality.

Ukrainian resistance to Russian violence is no longer a story of a transition to some better rules. It is a story about whether the European idea of rules and law will still exist in the 21st century at all. Whether it will survive or, instead, be devoured by nihilistic energy turning every law into a fake. And thus opening the space for lawless violence again.


Featured image uses: "Ukraine Under Attack - Broken vehicles of Russian occupiers on a highway in Bucha, Kyiv region" (CC BY 2.0) by manhhai.

Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.