Moscow. Kursky railway station. Summer 2015. In the waiting room a vending machine attracts my attention. It looks like many other vending machines, which usually sell water or coffee. But this is painted in camouflage, green and gray, and it sells Russian dog tags. That’s how military identification tags are informally called in English, because of their resemblance to actual dog tags. Today Russian soldiers wear metal, oval dog tags which contain the title ВС РОССИИ (“Armed Forces of Russia”) and an alphanumeric individual number. The machine advertises this object as a fancy and cool accessory. One can buy it for 400 roubles, together with a chain, to wear as a decoration, or with a ring, to use for one’s keys. If you wear this tag, you will be like a real Russian soldier. Every real soldier must have a tag. With his tag, his dead body will be identified.

In the past the train running from St. Petersburg to Donetsk stopped at this station. Now this unpopular destination has been cancelled. But in the fall 2014 I once took this train from St. Petersburg to Kursky station in Moscow. It was the cheapest second-class sleeping car, 900 rubles, no privacy whatsoever, but pretty ok beds. It was a day-long journey, during which, according to the old good Soviet tradition, one is supposed to engage in nice, warm conversation with a fellow traveler, without introducing yourself. Next to me there was a guy from Rostov. As is customary, we were drinking strong black tea with sugar, and the guy shared some sunflower seeds with me. He told me that he had moved to St. Petersburg and settled down, working as a sales manager. He was thinking of bringing the rest of his family over time, because, although, in general, life was still pretty safe around Rostov, there were some shootings now and then.

At some point, a small group of soldiers passed through the carriage. For some unknown reason, everyone, including myself, pretended not to notice them. My fellow traveler also kept talking. But I caught something in his eyes, like a very brief shift in focus, which I did not bother to interpret. These guys were so young, and the clothes they wore looked somehow excessively heavy. The thoughts that come to mind at the sight of soldiers in thick camouflage on the train to the Donbass in the fall of 2014, must be immediately repressed. One cannot dare to think these thoughts. No, this cannot be that. This might be mere Army conscripts going back home from their service, or something else. Anything but that. The soldiers had already disappeared towards a platform, slipping away like phantoms, and only a strange recollection remained, like the subtle smell of earth. Real solders with real dog tags, which they get for free.

Some touch of both anxiety and curiosity, raised by the sudden appearance of military personnel among civilians, feels somewhat embarrassing. It resembles this feeling when, sometimes, you see prostitutes from Russia or Ukraine, who are about to take flight to some rich Western countries for their work. One could say that they are the same as all other passengers, standing in the same line for the check-in desk, but there is something in their appearance – maybe their high heels, or their hair, or their make-up, or some details of their dress – and it gives away their involvement in another, unknown, dangerous world, the world of having sex with strangers for money. We cast our eyes down: no, this is not that, real prostitutes are somewhere else, where no one sees them, – and this is just some random aberration, someone is just dressed up too sexy.

Soldiers are the prostitutes of war. Just like prostitutes, they belong to another, sacred world. This world is based on the violation of a prohibition, be it the prohibition of sex or of murder. Just like the body of the prostitute, the body of the soldier is obscene and exposed to violence. Just like a prostitute, a soldier dwells in the area where average people do not go of their own accord. He is always somewhere else – in a zone of a military conflict, a flash point. The violence of war and sex is not meant for human eyes, – that’s what we think. If this is a spectacle, then it is sublime and can only be observed from a safe distance. The sublime is, according to Schelling, related to the uncanny, unheimlich: that which ought to remain secret, but which has come to light. The sublime uncanniness of war and sex violence. To be more precise, in modern times this domain is not called sacred, but unconscious, as if what previously was external and social has now become internal and individual, and it gives itself away through the language of symptoms. As Georges Bataille used to say – and he was right – in modern times the unconscious replaces the archaic sacred, or rather interiorizes it. In this way, forbidden areas, previously reserved for the sacred, do not disappear – instead, now the sublime uncanniness of the brothel and war has its internal agent within us, transforming the memory of our heart into a monstrous phantasm.

The function of mediation between this and that world – between an average man and a prostitute or a soldier – is taken by porn, which, as a privileged medium, gives us updates from the front of forbidden violence. Prostitutes are being raped in sex porn, and soldiers are being killed in so-called war porn. The visual evidence of war consists of dismembered bodies and dis-bodied members, spread legs and hands, breasts, open mouths without faces – in a word, what in psychoanalysis are called partial objects. War porn provides the mold for other forms of porn involved in the capitalist production and consumption of pleasures. A permanent condition of our life is the capitalist economy, which paradoxically finds its balance through an endless imperialist war roaming about the world – from Vietnam to Afghanistan, from Iraq to Palestine, from Ukraine to Syria. War in capitalism is a production line which provides partial objects for a great deal of porn. It is in that world of forbidden violence that the encounter between the soldier and the prostitute takes place.

But what is the difference, one would ask, between the archaic sacred and the modern unconscious? The difference is that the place of the archaic sacred is always somewhere else, beyond the border of prohibition, whereas the unconscious is always right here, without even “having a place” – what is forbidden and untouchable is at the same time the closest, the most intimate. What is the most frightening and alien is some truth about ourselves. With this impossible truth, we establish a relation of negation, repression, or rejection: this is not that. Anything but that.

“You ask who this person in the dream can be. It’s not my mother,” says the patient. To this, Freud adds: “So it is his mother.” [1] There are things which, according to Freud, can come to the light of consciousness only in negative form: “Thus the content of a repressed image or idea can make its way into consciousness, on condition that it is negated. Negation is a way of taking cognizance of what is repressed <…>. The outcome of this is a kind of intellectual acceptance of the repressed, while at the same time what is essential to the repression persists.”[2] In the dream-like language of the unconscious “no” simply means “yes.”

“This is not war”, – was said, when the situation between Russia and Ukraine was formally discussed, not only by Russian propaganda in the mass media, but by all interested sides, such as European and American officials. From the ATO to permanent breaches of the peace agreement signed in September 2014, in Minsk, for more than one year, this was called anything but war. “With whom is Ukraine at war?” This was the question a journalist asked Maria Gaidar, hired as deputy chair of the state government of Odessa. It was not easy to answer this question. Officially there were no Russian troops in Ukraine. With whom was Ukraine at war? With itself? With no one? The truth of the war is like the navel of a dream, which reveals itself through negation, by this repeated “this is not that”.

When they say, “this is not war”, it is not a lie (we are trapped in a self-referential paradox, also known as the liar paradox – but that’s what happens when we try to bring anything to light by means of language, since it is language which, by lying, speaks the truth). So, this is not a lie, it is negation in the Freudian sense – an attempt by the unconscious to say, yes, this is that. Thus, through the lie of media, we get a kind of inverted access to the truth of the social repressed. “No” is a paradoxical “yes” of the undeclared war, its peculiar evidence, together with other evidence, like groups of armed soldiers found in the territory of another state, or fresh anonymous or mass graves, or dead corpses with or without their dog tags, or negative evidence of those who have gone and never came back.

Another form of evidence is refugees. As the war goes on, it produces tectonic movements of people. Civilians run away from the places where combatants come. Those who can run, run, taking along with them what they can take. What or whom they cannot take, they leave – there are always those who do not want to leave their land, or those with whom running and crossing borders would be impossible or too difficult. Soldiers enter the cities and take selfies with abandoned cats, whose owners disappeared, escaped, or died. Prostitution is a privileged form of employment in territories invaded by soldiers. When factories, schools, hospitals and shops are closing, there is no great choice of potential workplaces. It also gets cheaper. Sex workers in war zones are ready to provide more services for less money. But they are also trying to escape to neighboring places.

As an unknown pimp reported, the Moscow black market for sex enjoyed very good times because of the invasion of people from Ukrainian cities and villages. He suggested that, for a sex worker, it is nicer to be from Donetsk or Lugansk than from Western Ukraine, because costumers feel much more compassionate towards them, whereas sex workers from the west are massively abused. One could probably explain this not only through nationalism but also through the idea of an alleged difference between refugees and economic migrants – those from the east seem to be fleeing war, whereas those from the west are simply fleeing poverty.

In Europe now, there are great attempts to apply this formal, abstract difference to real people running from the south. “Are these people really trying to escape from war, or they are just travelling in search of a better life?” That’s what they ask, addressing one and the same crowd of huddled masses, half of whom will be grabbed and sent back to their devastated homelands to try once more to live there, and the other half, the lucky ones, will get the appropriate status and join the growing army of cheap labor, whose basic, paradigmatic case is prostitution. In Russia now people from Lugansk and Donetsk are cleaning houses, doing laundry, renovating flats, etc. The supply of labor is huge; the prices are ridiculously low in this highly competitive market. No, there are no Russian troops and there never were any on their land. This is not war, this is just business.

In a way, our day to day reality is itself this negation, this horrified “no” to what is really happening. We think we live our lives as the civilian population of peaceful territories, whereas the war is somewhere outside. It is not here, not in Russia, not in St. Petersburg, but somewhere far away, in Donetsk or in Damascus, beyond the border. This border between the outside and the inside coincides with the imaginary border of the sacred, beyond which anything can happen. But in the non-place of the unconscious the inside and the outside coincide, and the territories of alleged peace, like my city, St. Petersburg, turn out to be nothing but a symptom of the war that is negated. We say: anything but war, and try to stick to this anything, which is just the negative of war. This is not a peaceful territory, but the home front. The war has been negated, pushed outside and repressed, in order to be found again as our deep interior.

The home front of our everyday life is a distorted mirror of that undeclared front where soldiers are being lost and prostitutes are being found. In St. Petersburg, I live next door to the Artillery Academy. From early morning till evening, big groups of conscripts, two by two, pass up and down my street. Every day I see them out my window. They are very young and dressed in uniforms. Recently I was cleaning my window, and they were looking at me, smiling and waving at me. I laughed and waved back – I’ve gotten used to them now. But a year ago, when I had just moved there from Berlin, these armed boys in uniforms walking up and down the street made me think that this might be a rehearsal for war, or maybe the beginning of war. No, this was not a rehearsal, or, rather, to say “this is a rehearsal” is just another way of saying: “this is not war”.

In the Russian language, for “rehearsal” we say “repetition”. Yes, sometimes language has these strange effects. A rehearsal rehearses something for the future, whereas a repetition repeats something from the past. The dialectic of rehearsal and repetition is thus to be found in translation. Recently I saw how they coincide – it was a parade of military technology in St. Petersburg on Victory Day, the 9th of May, 2015. Huge crowds, thousands of people, were on the streets – entire families with their babies, saluting the tanks with happy tears of patriotism, and with slogans: “We will repeat, if there is need!” Glamorous girls with bronze legs and plastic lips taking selfies, sitting on the knees of soldiers dressed in uniforms of the Soviet Army from the period of WWII. Civilians were both rehearsing and repeating a phantasmatic scenario corresponding to a universal death drive – a desire for a world where all men are soldiers and all women are prostitutes. This phantasmatic scenario of war points either to the past or to the future, or it points somewhere else, in order to mask the fact that “this is it”, here and now.

I have a big glass mirror, which is more than 100 years old. People say that old, silver-based mirrors keep on their inner surface a sort of record of what was happening in front of them. I ask this big, silent piece of furniture: What have you seen, mirror? I imagine it saw a lot. It might even have seen the worst, the blockade of 1941-1944, human beings losing their minds, eating other human beings, falling dead from hunger. I am living in the city which survived, in any way it could, a full military blockade. Some people are still alive and remember these 872 days in Leningrad. These people never throw out food. One of them was Rauza Galimova, 81 years old. On the 3rd of February, 2015, she was taken by the security guards of a small supermarket. A cashier suspected her of stealing 3 packs of dairy butter. She was brought to the police station, where she was treated badly and immediately died of a heart attack. 3 packs of butter, 50 roubles each. The price of a dog tag at Kursky railway station is almost 10 times higher. No, this is not that.

When one mirror is placed in front of the other, these two mirrors produce the effect of a corridor of infinity. That’s how our military unconscious is structured, as it mirrors the Real of the war. Each war repeats and rehearses some other war; wars reflect one another – thus, an obsessive repetition of the Afghan scenario in a Donetsk mode turns out to be a repetition before the Damascus premiere. And we stand in between these mirrors, as if caught in an infinite loop. We, peaceful inhabitants of the home front.


[1] Sigmund Freud, “Negation,” in On Metapsychology, The Pelican Freud Library, vol. 11 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977), 437.

[2] Ibid., p. 437-438.