Betty Roytburd: Snegurochka
Luhansk, Ukraine / Russian-occupied Luhansk, People’s Republic of Luhansk
On the outskirts of the city, the camp is framed by a giant rusting gate with a massive black paw at the center, metal silhouettes of bikers atop motorcycles, and the numbers 14 and 23 — the former a reference to the fourteen-word credo of white supremacists worldwide (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”) and the latter a nod to the twenty-three precepts governing the Southern Brotherhood, the largest white supremacist prison gang in Alabama.
Beyond: rusting, hollowed-out cars lie alongside weapons caches in a sea of mud. But among this familiar detritus of war lies an unlikely sight: a rabbit farm. Children, families. Laughter. A group of bikers pass rabbits into young hands.
In 1974, Soyuzmultfilm releases episode eight of cult Soviet cartoon Nu, Pogodi. A scheming, hard-living wolf disguises himself as Snegurochka, the benevolent granddaughter of Father Frost, to lure and catch a cunning rabbit. In turn, the rabbit disguises himself as Father Frost, hoodwinking the wolf and escaping his grasp. Nu, Pogodi — well, just you wait! — calls the wolf as the episode ends.
With about 11,000 members worldwide, the Night Wolves are Russia’s largest and most infamous biker gang. But to characterize the Night Wolves as simply chest-beating petrolheads would be to woefully underestimate them. Straddling a bizarre seam between militants and missionaries, the Night Wolves are a crucial arm of Putin’s covert military operations in Eastern Ukraine, which has become one of the most heavily-militarized areas on Earth as pro-Russian separatists — supported by the gang — fight to cede Ukrainian lands to Russia and return the Motherland to her imperial glory.
But for all the Wolves’ bluster and violence, their power is often surprisingly soft. As instruments of the Russian international and domestic propaganda machine, they throw parades, organize festivals, undertake cross-country rides — and even start rabbit farms.
In Winter, around the turning of the new year, the Wolves stage wild, pyrotechnic holiday performances, where the effigies of old stories and familiar faces — Stalin, the Statue of Liberty, Orthodox saints, fallen soldiers — share the stage with holiday folktale characters like the yuletide snowmaiden Snegurochka. The result are bizarro mash-ups of traditional folklore and geopolitics — all-ages propaganda bonanzas.
In a recent holiday performance in Luhansk, the Statue of Liberty is portrayed as a dancing snake-like villain with a striking resemblance to the innocent Snegurochka. Lady Liberty joins forces with an immortal skeleton king to steal Russia's soul, and the Wolves, donning oversize wolf masks, storm the stage on their motorbikes and save the day. At the end of the performance, “the prosecutor” — the leader of the Wolves in Luhansk — waves the flag of Novorossiya (“New Russia”), Russia’s proposed name for the separatist-occupied “people’s republics” in Eastern Ukraine.
Nu, Pogodi! runs for another thirteen episodes, and is still syndicated to this day. The wolf never catches the rabbit. It turns out each episode ends in the same way — just you wait. The hare is warned. The wolf still waits.
For some residents of the city, beleaguered by information warfare and appeals to darker, nationalist impulses, they can bask in the bright colors and pageantry that all but disappear in wartime, feel themselves vanish into an imagined yesteryear of simple and straightforward morality in a world built by the state. Bags of chocolate candies for the children and pints for the adults. The Snow Maiden is resplendent in a fur dress and coat. She is beautiful, kind, and innocent, a holiday princess. Good is good, evil is evil. The spectacle — a Wolf in Snegurochka’s clothing — appears on social media platforms across Eastern Europe.
As Winter deepens and 2018 winds to a close, the tragedies and traumas of the past four years weigh heavily on Luhansk. The twinkle of holiday lights makes an odd bedfellow to a pervasive, sinking dread. An end to the war and its attendant humanitarian crises, its thousands of casualties, feels desperately out of grasp.
One day, some residents find the rabbit farm empty. It is later rumored that the Wolves have slaughtered the rabbits for food and fur.
The wolf never gives up on the rabbit.