Nataliya Teramae: How we brought up a dictator

Artists do have the gift of prophesying. For Ulf Stark’s book ‘The Dictator’ Linda Bondestam created a picture of a little dictator being pushed in a tankstroller. It looks exactly like Victory Day parades on May 9 in russia where parents were dressing their children in the uniform of soviet soldiers and sitting them in hand-made military looking constructions put over strollers. ‘Oh, you have seen those photos!’, – we told Linda at our presentation of the Ukrainian translation of ‘The Dictator’ in Helsinki in autumn 2020. She was surprised. She had never seen such pictures.

The dictator who is today threatening the world with nuclear weapons was brought up by this world. I’m turning the pages of the book – here he is greeted by the crowd, babied, and kissed by his staff and praised by his soldiers. ‘He is a true strong leader of his state’, – people used to say about him. In 2007 ‘Time’ magazine put his face on the cover and called him ‘Person of the Year’. It was a year before russia (it’s not a typo, this country and its people don’t deserve a capital letter) invaded Georgia and occupied its northern part.

This dictator is obsessed with restoring the russian empire with the soviet ideology. That’s why he chose the Soviet anthem. That’s why red stars and military uniforms are so valuable in Russia. That’s why the dictator hates Ukraine – for the decommunization process. ‘Do you want decommunization?! Ok, we agree with that. But you should not stop halfway. We are ready to show you, what the real ‘decommunization’ means for Ukraine’, – said he angrily on February 21, 2022. On February 24 he ordered his army to invade Ukraine.

I woke up that same morning at 6 am. The previous night was difficult – I bought tickets to Lviv to fly on Friday and was praying to get there before everything starts… Maybe my internal alarm set off – I grabbed the phone and read that russia is shelling Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, Zaporizhya, Odesa, and other Ukrainian cities. Roaring and crying were the only noises I could make. I covered my mouth so as not to wake up the children and showed the news to my scared husband.

Over the next days I talked a lot about the ongoing war to my 7-year old son. He knew already about russia’s backuped invasion to the eastern region in 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. May I say that he was kind of prepared? Anyways, he found ‘The Dictator’ on the bookshelf and started to read it again. He is too young to know all the background, but old enough to understand who the dangerous dictator is.

As you remember, Sirkka is a girl whom the little dictator likes and tries to befriend. But she doesn’t want to deal with him. ‘I’d rather walk with a monkey’, – she answers when the little dictator tripped Sirkka’s friend in order to get to stand next to her. As you understand, Sirkka here is an allegory/metaphor for Ukraine.

Ukraine never wanted ‘to be united’ with Moscow. The occupation of our territories started in 1654 when Cossack leader Bohdan Khmelnytsky made an agreement with Muscovy about establishing a protectorate with wide autonomy within the Ukrainian state. I won’t give a history lesson here. But one should know that all that ‘unity of brother peoples of Ukraine and Russia’ is nonsense. Fake. A lie. Starting from that time and until the collapse of the Soviet Union, anything related to the national idea was suppressed on Ukrainian territory. During tsarist times our language was banned, our history stolen, our culture destroyed, and our intellectuals persecuted. During soviet times Ukrainians were even physically destroyed – the artificial Stalinist famine Holodomor took about four million people. WWII started by Stalin among others cost us ten million military and civilian casualties. Add to this labor camps where Ukrainians were the ethnic majority – a great part of them were warriors of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army that was fighting against the Soviets until the 1950’s. Anybody who was involved or was even suspected of being involved in the Army’s activities was prosecuted or killed.

But dictator putin has a sick dependance on Ukraine. Why? Because he is nothing without Ukraine. Our capital Kyiv is the heart of our medieval history. Russia needs it to legalize its fake history of ‘russkiy mir’ that supposedly comes from Kyiv Rus time. You know that the first known reference to Moscow dates to 1147. At that time, it was a small town while Kyiv was already a big and prosperous European city.

If putin lets Ukraine live its own life, it will show the weakness of ‘a strong leader’ who let go of ‘a buffer zone’. All these years American and European leaders let little putin play his games with Ukraine. For the sake of peace in Europe, as it was said. But you forgot that the little dictator doesn’t know the boundaries – the more he gets, the more he wants.

I am indeed scared that his sickness can destroy our valuable historical sites, like the XI century St. Sophia’s Cathedral, Vydubychi monastery where my older son was baptized or Andriivska church that I was admiring through the window while sitting in class at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. By the way, the Academy was established more than 400 years ago. There were no universities in Muscovy at that time.

I am scared and worried for my friends and family in Ukraine. My leisure time is now spent watching the shelling of my beloved places. Yes, it makes me extremely angry.

I know that little dictator liliputin won’t defeat us. I see that Ukrainians are fighting like devils. They also are very angry and moreover witty. Even when they die, they make fun of the enemy. Because they know that their courage and humor will kill the little dictator.

I know that little dictator will vanish soon. But the people who created him will stay to live next to us. All those who were petting, kissing, flattering, and pushing a little dictator in the tank-stroller. Unfortunately, they bear no responsibility for bringing up a war criminal. ‘He is the state, we are the country’, – people of liliputin say. Poor dears, they don’t know that the state, the country, and the people are the same. But we all know who is responsible for raising a dictator.

Nataliya Teramae

Nataliya Teramae is a Ukrainian journalist based in Helsinki. She is also one of the authors of the book Sulava – Multilingual Literature of Finland: Compilation published by Finnish PEN in 2021.

The text was published in Swedish on Förlaget’s website March 7th, 2022.

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