Sad predictions from Valentyn Vasyanovych’s 2019 postwar tale
In a recent interview with The Atlantic president Zelensky described the anticipated liberation of Ukraine in tragic terms. Ukraine could maintain its sovereignty, but Ukrainians could never feel victorious so long as the crimes perpetrated against them remain unpunished. Valentyn Vasyanovych’s film Atlantis foretold such a bleak victory. Premiering at the Venice Film Festival in 2019, Ukraine subsequently chose it as the entry for the Academy Awards. Despite the accolades, the film’s sales remained low before the Russian invasion. Since then, however, a recent uptick in interest in the film has led to its availability on MUBI, iTunes, Amazon Prime, and HBO Max. It premiered in Italian cinemas last week, and is slated for theatrical release in Japan as well. The film’s prophetic questions regarding the war remain as uncomfortable as before, although now they are impossible to ignore. These questions revolve not only around war’s tragic consequences (its toll on human life and environmental degradation), but also its causes – which persist in victory’s wake.
Filmed in Mariupol, an eastern city now declared by its mayor to be “90% destroyed”, Vasyanovych sets Atlantis in 2025, “one year after the war” with Russia. The first half of the film, and indeed most of it, confronts us with a series of static shots in which the action unfolds with cold indifference. The story focuses on Sergiy, a veteran and steelworker struggling with the aftereffects of war. The first of these effects is psychological. His friend, described as “shell-shocked”, struggles to adjust to civilian life once more. He both complains that his fighting was in vain and wonders if the two couldn’t become mercenaries somewhere else. Anything to get away from the mill, and from the same grind of industrial labor so fragilely dependent on market and political forces. “I went to war and thought something might change,” he complains. “No fucking way. They are still die-hard Soviets. They want a tsar to come and solve all their problems.”
Tortured by sleepless nights, the friend ends his life by throwing himself into a cauldron. These are familiar symptoms of PTSD, perhaps, but they are also all-too-familiar symptoms of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, as well. Settled in tsarist times by migrants from across the empire, Donbas was a planned industrial heartland; the product of imported British industrial expertise. We could always best understand its politics in that context: occasionally pro-Kyiv, occasionally pro-Moscow, all depending on the plight of the region’s uniquely diverse and industrialized residents. The fall of the USSR was much the same. Although the Soviets heralded the miners and factory workers of Donbas as Soviet, buying their goodwill became too expensive for Moscow in the waning years of its coal industry. By 1991 those workers had become separatists… pro-Ukrainian ones. Donbas, it turns out, has frequently prayed for something or someone to “come and solve all their problems”.
Those problems are familiar to anyone in the US with an awareness of West Virginia politics. Are the mines good for us? If we thought clearly, we would answer no. The work is hazardous, the technology obsolete. Yet the worker remembers a past “greatness” which seems easier to recapture through secessionism than adaptation. Where are the resources to retrain them and redevelop their region, anyways? Another election passes and promises dry up. Maybe EU membership could have drowned all the problems in a sea of investment? Not before extinguishing the region’s proud independence.
Sergiy and his coworkers gather in the mill before a screen on which a British man serves them a bitter pill of postwar neoliberalism. His words are translated from English for them: “You, your fathers and your grandfathers worked long and hard to produce this living for your families. You produced quality steel that was sold across the world. You delivered the old Ukraine. But the times are changing. Everything has a beginning and an end. Today, it is my sad task to tell you that these great works are going to be closed for reconstruction.”
The crowd erupts in protest. “Yes, I understand your concern,” he continues, “But there’s no choice. New times are upon us. New technologies make the old way redundant. These new technologies provide new opportunities. And together, we propose to work for a new future. A competitive Ukraine, a bright Ukraine. So let’s just not glorify the past. Yes, there was the heroic spirit of the past. Let’s harness the new technologies. Let’s celebrate the new future together. So, thank you. Let’s drink!”
Who can deny that this is the real fear of the pro-Russian separatists today? And while we hear about the Russian oligarchs backing Putin, have we compared their offerings to those that the Zelensky-backing Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky offers to the region? Kolomoisky, banned from entering the US in 2021 due to corruption and “ongoing efforts to undermine Ukraine’s democratic processes and institutions”, was declared by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to “pose a serious threat to [Ukraine’s] future”.
Sergiy’s co-workers continue their protests, “No one will invest into this.” “In the US, they don’t close their plants, you know,” says another, perhaps recalling Trump-era promises to bolster manufacturing. “It could still be profitable,” chimes in an optimist, aware of the force which dictates success and failure in a NATO economy. “It could be,” replies another, “We just have to stop stealing.” “Metal is exported, and brings foreign currency to the budget,” says the optimist. “And we have to pay off the debts which are higher than GDP,” replies the cynic, “Our grandchildren won’t be able to pay off these debts.” “In two years it will be a desert here,” someone says. If this is liberation, it certainly doesn’t feel like victory… and not because the Russians haven’t paid for their crimes yet, but because the workers haven’t been paid the futures they were promised.
“Are you happy they’re shutting down the plant?” a man yells, “Is this what you fought for? Is that the reason you killed people? How many lives have you got on your conscience?” “He was fighting to protect you!” replies another. “Me? Did I ask you to protect me? Was my life bad? I had a job. Now I don’t. Fucking bastards!”
Sergiy finds a new job delivering water in desolate zones devoid of civilians. The roads are full of mines which it will take decades to remove. Where there are no mines there are bodies. This leads him to volunteer with Black Tulip, an organization working to find and identify the victims of war – Russians, Ukrainians, separatists. A foreigner representing an NGO visits him one day, warning that his home has become uninhabitable: “Due to the war this territory became completely unsuitable for living.” Sergiy is hopeful. He fought for a new future, as the British boss at the factory had proposed. He knew that things might have to ‘close for reconstruction’ in Donbas. “Everything will change, with time,” he says.
The foreigner disagrees: “Hundreds of flooded mines, destroyed factories? They’ve polluted all the water. The changes are irreversible.” A ‘bright’ Ukraine, a ‘competitive’ Ukraine, remains at the forefront of Sergiy’s mind. “Water can be delivered, distilled,” he says. “Yes, it can, but it’s not profitable,” replies the foreigner. This is the ravages of war, to be sure. Yet there is another force here that no war could have stopped: the ravages of the market. “So many years of war, just to leave?” asks Sergiy, incredulously. “It took you ten years to clean this territory of the poison of Soviet propaganda and myths. But now you have to clean the water and soil. That will take decades, even hundreds of years.” So many toxins in this land from which generations had hoped to build their futures…only cleansed once its people are completely removed.
Sergiy isn’t going to leave. There may be little victory to celebrate, but there is freedom in merely remaining. And freedom has a value all of its own. He insists that there is no point in leaving: “It will be harder to live among ordinary people. You can’t trick yourself. You either take yourself as you are or you just disappear. I am fine with it. In fact, this is a real reservation for people like us.” That might be the best consolation available, whether one speaks of Donbas or Ukraine as a whole. To live in a civilization submerged in not only war, but also corruption, but to persist. To live at the whim of oligarchs, but to have those whom you struggle against at least be your own oligarchs.
In one symbolic scene, we see Sergiy prepare a hot bath for himself in an abandoned clamshell bucket. We see that Ukraine can go forward through whatever desolation it faces by relying on its most rudimentary skills. Even more telling are the pairs of scenes which bookend the film. There are two rooftop scenes, in the beginning with the mill in operation and in the end with the mill shutdown. The former is foreboding, the latter promising. Then there are the two thermographic scenes, putting us in the position of surveilling the characters. In the former, they are smashing a man’s head with the butt of a rifle and burying him. In the latter, they are lovers discussing their place in the world. Maybe there is something that the PTSD-afflicted friend got right: maybe we really do need to keep fighting.