From Fraternal Nations to Fratricidal War?

Published 19 April 2022 / By Ina Zharkevich

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In Belarus, where I come from, the war against Ukraine is often called fratricidal (братоубийственная). Calling the war against Ukraine a fratricidal war might seem as sacrilegious in the current context as the idea of the friendship between East Slavic fraternal or ‘brotherly nations’ (братские народы): Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. One of the popular Ukrainian memes in the first days of the war summarizes it all: ‘Thank God, we have only two brotherly nations’. It might be tempting to explain the shock of the first days of the war – for the full-scale invasion lay beyond the realm of the imaginable even for most people in Ukraine – by the common wisdom that says that kin do not turn against kin, brother does not turn against brother, even if brothers have radically different lives and values. Yet, one of the foundational biblical myths about Cain and Abel is about fratricide, alluding that kin relations are fraught with danger, envy and conflict. Likewise, history shows that conflicts between kin and neighbours – those connected by ties of intimacy and relatedness – might rival those fought against total strangers, the war in former Yugoslavia being one such example.

For all the talk about brotherly nations that has turned increasingly contentious over the years, it has never been just a political discourse, but also a lived reality because of the multiplicity of kinship ties that connect the citizens of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. People do have siblings living across the whole region. Millions of Russians have relatives in Ukraine. The situation is similar in Belarus: while I do not have numbers, I know that both of my parents have cousins living both in Ukraine and in Russia. So do many of my friends. In other words, kinship ties are ubiquitous among the citizens of the three countries. Yet, the war against Ukraine demonstrated what anthropologists have argued all along: while kinship has a lot to do with biology, it is a social phenomenon that cannot be reduced to biological relatedness. The war revealed the political dimension of kinship in modern nation states, for kinship networks have become a locus of (geo)political struggle, dividing kin in ways that have been hardly imaginable before.

Dace Dzenovska shows how the political register of kinship grounded in the shared history (and possibly a common enemy) is key in explaining the outpouring of support and generosity towards Ukrainian refugees in the Baltic states and beyond. Political kinship here is grounded in the idea of ‘amity’, which as shown by Heonik Kwon (2020) drawing on Meyer Fortes, is an element of kinship vital for establishing solidarity among and towards strangers. The political life of kinship, however, gets more complicated in the context of ‘brotherly nations’ at war, where enmity features as strongly as amity. The image of the enemy, which has been so carefully crafted by the propaganda machine in Russia over the last years – namely that Ukraine has been overtaken by ‘fascism’ and its citizens have been turned into ‘Nazis’ – managed to corrupt kin relations and the moral grounds on which not only kinship, but also human sociality in general is possible. Essentially, by constructing someone a ‘Nazi’ – a whole nation in this case – one dehumanizes them, thus making anything possible.

The war cut across kinship networks spread across the ‘brotherly nations’ in ways that only civil wars do, extending into the vast kin networks, where it becomes a cold civil conflict. There are multiple reports of Ukrainian citizens severing ties with their relatives living in Russia, because the relatives support the bombing of cities, trusting Russian state TV more than the words of their own children and relatives. Some relatives from Russia never wrote to their kin in Ukraine since the start of the war, which came as a shock to the latter. On 27 February, a Ukrainian, whose father lives in Russia, wrote an Instagram post about the conversation with his father who did not think there was a war going on. Instead, he believed Russia was engaged in liberating Ukraine from ‘Nazis’. The post went viral, with hundreds of people from all over the region sharing similar stories about relatives who did not believe or refused to believe that there was war at all or who blamed Ukraine for the start of the war. Since then, the same man started an initiative ‘Papa, believe me’ – that got almost four million views – encouraging dialogue between family members across different lines of political divides. But is dialogue possible? For many people, the answer is no, for the conflict is not only about civic values, but also human ones: condoning and, worse, supporting the war, or any war, oversteps the mark of humanity. As a result, the ‘real’ kinship ties are sacrificed, with the shared values and stance towards the war – political kinship – taking precedence over biological (and social) relatedness.

The conflict erupted not only in transnational kinship networks spread across several countries – where the irreconcilable differences could be explained by a different sense of belonging to the nation-state – but also within homogenous in terms of nationality families living in Belarus and Russia. While the war united the citizens of Ukraine, it divided others in the region. In Belarus, despite its involvement in this war, there is a strong anti-war sentiment and some partisan activity on the railroads, which has led to the destruction of some railway infrastructure, disabling the movement of military supplies to the Russian Army in Ukraine. However, whereas according to the Chatham house polls, the majority of Belarusians are against the war and 97 per cent are against the use of Belarusian Army in war, opinions as to what has led to this war are less uniform, leading to heated conflicts within families, predominantly along generational lines. I have heard of two major ways of responding to the conflict between family members. The first one is about boycott or practices of de-kinning: family members stop talking to each other, children stop visiting elderly parents, people unfriend their relatives on Facebook, stop going to the hairdresser who has been doing their hair for more than a decade etc. The second type of response is also widespread: it is a decision to silence the theme and remain mute, i.e. not to talk about war at all, effectively banishing politics from the domain of kinship relations, only in order for kinship relations to survive. People get worn out and fatigued by discursive battles at home, which, they say, usually lead nowhere, just to falling ill.

The phantasy about the possibility of apolitical life is quite tenacious, because politics is considered to be ‘dirty business’, contaminating the alleged purity of kinship relations. Yet, there are times when one is drawn into the whirlwind of the political, despite one’s choice, as happened in Belarus in 2020 with many formerly apolitical individuals becoming politicized overnight. Unlike in the so-called stateless societies, where the political organization and kinship were closely entwined and visible in stark ways, in modern nation-states the political dimension of kinship and personhood often remains invisible, despite the fact that they are as closely entwined albeit in different ways. It takes a situation of war or radical crisis – often of an existential nature, threatening the core of one’s existence or values – in order to reveal the political life of kinship and personhood in contemporary nation-states. It poses the question not only about the political life of kinship but also the political dimension of personhood. Is it possible to define oneself beyond the framework of the nation-state which lays claim to one’s body and soul and which imposes the framework of collective culpability? Can one protest this war from a position of neutral humanity especially if one is from one of the ‘brotherly nations’?

This war made people sever ties not only with family members, but also with the states that come to embody the values that people reject. This might take more subtle forms of distancing, such as the use of an alternative white-red-white flag, a symbol of the Belarusian protest movement in 20202, during anti-war protests in Europe in 2022 – a kind of symbolic communication which tries to save whatever is left from the ‘brotherly relations’ of Belarus and Ukraine, if it is possible at all. It might also take the form of leaving. Some émigrés from Belarus are double refugees by now, having first left Belarus after the events in 2020, many of them for Kyiv, considered a Mecca of freedom in the region, where they met war. I have recently talked to a friend from Belarus who moved to Russia almost a decade ago. He and his wife were in the process of selling their flat and leaving Russia with their child for Belarus. My friends explained that they could not imagine raising their daughter in a Russian city where an increasing number of cars with letter Z on the streets and where an increasing number of T-shirts stamped with the same letter were sold on the market. They did not even want to imagine what their child would be taught at school. His wife, Russian herself, was looking forward to receiving a Belarusian passport. Having recently returned from Belarus, she noted that it felt different there, one could still hear people talking publicly about ‘the foolish war’ – the kind of expression that one could barely hear in Russia, where the word ‘war’ itself is banned and constant self-censorship is the new normal. Their dream destination is Kyiv, however. For them, the question of leaving Russia, returning to Belarus and planning to move to Ukraine once the war is over had everything to do with a distinct set of civic values and a sense of belonging that went beyond either the logic of the nation state or kinship in the familial register.

If we see the emergence of a new form of political kinship, which appears to be transnational and cuts across states on different sides of the war, what are the contours of values, suggested but often not articulated, that unite people distancing themselves from Russia and from their Russia-supporting family members? Is one free to choose or fully sever relationships with one’s kin or one’s country in the modern nation state, and can attention to the practices of distancing and disconnection be as fundamental for understanding kinship as the focus on the practices of relatedness? Finally, should we, following the suggestion by Heonik Kwon (2020: 20) pay more attention to the political life of kinship in modern nation states, thus returning to the earlier debates on kinship as a locus of comparative politics?


About the author: Dr Ina Zharkevich is a Departmental Lecturer at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography and Junior Research Fellow, Wolfson College. Her research interests lie at the intersection of the anthropology of violence and social suffering, practice theory, and the anthropology of migration, with a focus on transnational family networks, debt-driven migration, and economies of waiting and hope under late capitalism.

This blog is part of the forum: Making sense of the war in Ukraine