Using SF/F to justify Putin

The past half-decade Russia's fiction market has seen
a new class of fiction novels, some SF, that portray the
Ukraine as a far-right dictatorial state with
military designs on Russia.  Jonathan Cowie
considers an Ukrainian publishers' perspective


We are all well aware of recent events in Ukraine and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin's purported goal to de-naΖify and de-militarise that country. In Russia itself, Russians today largely get their news through state-run and controlled media: Russian independent media is all but gone and internet connections to western news media and some social media platforms have been blocked. These media controls are recent and so you might well ask why many Russians have bought into the Putin narrative justifying invading Ukraine; after all Russians have had years of accessing other media and news sources. Well, the answer in part is that the Putin era has seen the seeding of this narrative within Russia culture for some years.

First, a flashback.  Back in 2006 that year's Eurocon was held in Ukraine: it was Ukraine's first Eurocon and I was there for it.  Yet one-and-a-half decades ago back then it was clear that Russia dominated the Ukrainian book market, but there were the embryonic signs that things were getting better with the first green shoots of a new generation of Ukrainian publishing opportunities. But even by 2013, according to the Ukrainian Publishers and Booksellers Association (UPBA), at least 73-75% of Ukraine's total book market were books from Russia: Ukrainian books remained in the minority, accounting for only a quarter.  Now, back to the present…

The Ukrainian fan, and SF²Concatenation's ISP facilitator, Borys Sidyuk, recently pointed me in the direction of an article on how Putin's message is promulgated through novels by a Ukrainian book-market news site.  It has to be said that the English in this article is a little clumsy (which is understandable given the translators are not translating into their own language and especially translating in a time of war), hence in part the need for this article.

Since 2009, Russia has been actively publishing books on a fictional, full-blown war between Russia and Ukraine in the fantasy genre, as well as historical and 'non-fiction' books about the 'collapse of the Ukraine project' and mocking the independence of the 'non-existent' Ukrainian people and their 'artificial' Ukrainian language. Remember, the Putin narrative has it that Ukraine is not a real country but a part of Russia, hence Ukrainian is not a real language. It is galling to him that Ukraine's move the past decade or so to a more democratic and western looking nation has seen the country begin to thrive.

In order to promulgate the Putin narrative, it has in recent years appeared in various guises Russian fiction novels. Naturally, such novels are offensive to Ukrainians and a number have been banned. provides the breakdown from which you can see that the three leading publishers of such books are: Eksmo, Algoytem, and Knnizhnyj Mir.

Kyiv Kaput by Eduard Limonov

Other than the faux historical, conspiracy theory and military thrillers based on something akin to Putin's geopolitical narrative, there are also SF and 'fantasy' novels reflecting Putin propaganda. However, in truth, anyone reading these hoping for an intriguing exploration of a science fiction genre trope will be sorely disappointed. These are, very much in the main, military thrillers with a very thin genre dimension to justify the plot. The SFnal dimensions could be alternate histories, parallel worlds or being based in the near-future, predicting military conflict with Ukraine, something that now has come to pass.

For example, Eduard Limonov's novel, Kyiv Kaput (2015), is a Russian populist depiction of events over the past two decades with the annexing of Crimea and the militia elections in the Russian occupied Donetsk and Luhansk. It then moves into the future with a vision of things to come…

Fault line by Alexander Afanasyev, is effectively a distillation of an extreme version of the Putin narrative.  Published in 2014, it is set in the year 2020 that sees Ukraine under NaΖi rule.  The Russian language is strictly forbidden, the population is forced to worship Bandera and Shukhevych, and any dissent is brutally suppressed.  The Ukrainian regime enjoys the unconditional support of the West, which controls all natural resources and industrial activity. However, not everyone likes life in Bandera’s paradise, and millions of refugees flee while guerrilla war breaks out, with families and former neighbours finding themselves on opposing sides…

The Third Empire: Russia, as it should be (2019) by Mikhail Yuryev, might be considered a Putin wet dream.  Set in the second half of the 21st century, it is a USSR utopia.  In 2053, as a result of the global wars, there are only five superpowers remaining on the political map, each of which is a special type of civilisation.  One of them is Russia, that stretches from the Iberian Peninsula to the Pacific Ocean…

You get the idea.

Of course, science fiction is a powerful genre.  At its best it can, among other things, stimulate an interest in real science: it has a genuine value beyond simple entertainment; not that there is anything wrong with entertainment.  Equally, as we have seen, it can be used to promulgate political perspective.

The Third Empire. Russia, as it should be
(2019) by Mikhail Yuryev

There is nothing new in this. For example, in the 1950s in the USA, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – based on the Jack Finney novel The Body Snatchers – sees human individuals subsumed into alien 'copies'. The plot's loss of individuality to a common hive mind has been considered an anti-communist polemic: remember this was the era of McCarthyism. Though, despite this perception being common, the film makers themselves denied it saying Invasion of the Body Snatchers was just a thriller.

Another work that has been claimed to be rail against communism is Kate Wilhelm's 1976 novel Where the Late Sweet Birds Sang.  It follows an experiment in human cloning to survive in a post-apocalyptic world.  It is an experiment that fails.

The thing is that both these, and other SF works, with a potentially political message have much else to offer other than the said 'message'. Yet, some SF novels are bare-facedly political and have become genre classics: Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World being notable exemplars. Though I note with some irony that some of the very people to whom the latter novel's message might appeal simply don't get it as some have sought to get it banned from schools.  Go figure!

And maybe that's the thing?  The majority of the Russian books produced spouting the Putin perspective are facile.  They lack sophistication, hence the room to debate possible sub-texts: there are no subtexts, just a bald, upfront message delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Again, this is not new.  We have seen something very similar before with the use of novels by the real, the original, NaΖi regime. Here, it is hard not to ask the question as to whether such Russian anti-Ukrainian book fiction is being similarly orchestrated?

Finally, we (in the West) should not make the mistake of thinking that the creation of a sub-genre of fiction, or counter fictions, is something to which only an unsophisticated Russian population would fall prey.  Elsewhere, worldwide there is all sorts of unsubstantiated mumbo-jumbo, religious-induced war, science denialism and politically motivated and unsubstantiated populism. Here, in Britain, we have had the recent promise of riding ourselves of import/exporter European Union (EU) bureaucracy, great wealth flowing to the National Health Service, no-border in the Island of Ireland with seamless trading between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, seamless financial trading with the EU, and our fishermen taking back control of British seas.  Well, we all know how that turned out.

Nor should our cousins in N. America feel that all this is some sort European thing. In recent years, it has seen, for example, QAnon as well as a Trump Presidency that, some say, treated the truth with a certain fluidity.  It too, almost had its regime change moment.

We don't seem to have taken the lessons of Newspeak, the Thought Police and the Ministry of Truth from Nineteen Eighty-Four to heart.  We all need to watch out for those seeking to manipulate meanings and perverse perceptions.

The Astronomer Royal and Past-President of the Royal Society, the Right Honourable Prof. Sir Martin Rees is fond of saying that, 'it is better to read good science fiction than bad science.'  Something to which I agree but add the corollary: 'better to read good science than bad science fiction.'

Jonathan Cowie


'Science Fiction can only be created by a free mind.'
(Igor Likhovoi, Ukraine' s Minister for Culture & Tourism in 2006
at that year's Eurocon's opening ceremony.)


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