That phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ is mostly horse-dung, right? Right now, the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, isn’t asking the west for pencils. He’s definitely asking for drones and anti-tank weapons.
And yet, and yet.
I can’t help noticing that events in the Ukraine right now are proving the invincible power of story.
Putin’s (crazed) story about the conflict is that Ukraine isn’t really a real country; its soul belongs to Mother Russia, and always has. Hence sending 190,000 heavily armoured troops into a neighbouring country isn’t really an invasion, it’s a liberation.
Pretty obviously, you can refute this nonsense with facts. (Ukrainian democracy is vastly more real than anything in Russia. Large majorities of even Russian-speaking Ukrainians wanted to maintain independence. And so on.)
But Putin’s view of the world never depended on facts in the first place. It was all about the emotional rewards his narrative offered: a return to past glories, the country’s suffering and courage during the ‘Great Patriotic War’, the long line of Russian power that expresses itself through Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, and so on.
So, as well as a battle by air and ground, there’s also a battle of narratives.
On that score, and by a thousand Russian versts, the Ukrainian narrative is winning.
It turns out that Ukraine is a real country. Its soul does not belong to anyone else. The Ukrainian government is nobody’s puppet. It’s amply capable of managing its own affairs – and with remarkable courage and dignity. And so on.
But what’s really interesting, I think, to those of us who write fiction and any more creative flavour of non-fiction, is that the clinching elements of that Ukrainian narrative victory lie less in presidential addresses and more in the humble details. For example:
- The 13 Ukrainian soldiers who radioed, ‘Russian warship, go **** yourself’, even when faced with what must have seemed like certain death.
- A 60-something Ukrainian man who picked up a landmine with his bare hands and moved it to somewhere safe … a lit cigarette hanging from his lips all the while.
- Unarmed civilians standing in front of a Russian tank telling the soldiers to go back to their own country.
- In a virtually empty railway train running from Lviv, near the Polish border, to Kyiv itself, a journalist is told off for putting his feet on the seat opposite. Standards are standards, even in times of war.
And not just details, but the grimmest of jokes, or defiance laced with black humour
- President Zelensky, asked if he wanted American help to escape, responded, ‘The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.’
- A Ukrainian grandmother approached a Russian soldier to ask him to put her sunflower seeds in his pocket, so ‘there will be flowers there when you die.’
- When that same soldier asked the old lady not to ‘escalate’ the situation, she responded, ‘How can I escalate it? You invaded my country.’
And the thing about these details is that they prove the Ukrainian narrative is the true one, and that Putin’s one is false. The military battle is not even half-fought. The ultimate outcome is not known. But already, we know that Putin’s entire narrative has been defeated utterly – by grandmothers with sunflower seeds and 13 soldiers swearing at a Russian warship.
Indeed, one of the ironies here is how completely Putin managed to defeat himself. Perhaps, before this most recent invasion, there was some doubt about where the loyalties of Russian-speaking Ukrainians might lie. But not any more. Putin’s attempt to advance his narrative with tanks and howitzers has ended up destroying it. The Ukraine is now, in some ways, more independent, more essential, than it has ever been before.
I’ve said often enough in these emails that details matter, that sense of place matters, that little character observation is crucial. I’ve said so in the past because I thought, “that’s what you need to write a good book.” And OK, that’s true. But it turns out the power of those details is vastly greater than I realised. The power of those details is enough to win a war and consolidate a country’s sense of nationhood. They’ve been enough to secure the most important victory of all, the victory of narrative.
That’s why we’re not dumb for caring about those things. That’s why stories matter.
And here are my favourite memes so far: