Snow White and the superfluous dwarf: a story from Putin’s Fairy Tale War

It has been said that God is the greatest novelist but with a weakness for irrelevant sub plots and useless minor characters. Maxim Butchenko’s novel The War Artist draws on the work of the almighty by combining “real” people with fictional creations, writes Steve Komarnyckyj.

The grisly cast of characters we encounter in the book includes several genuine Russian commanders. Mozgovoy or “Ghost” is, fittingly enough, just a spectre flitting through a paragraph. The Georgian Giwi is glimpsed by the light of a fire flickering in a hangar at Donbas airport. However, the book focuses in detail on the psychopathic war lord Motorola. We see him screaming at his men as they dodge bullets and shells in the approach to the terminal at Donbas airport. We watch him bunglingly cremate dozens of Russian marines. It’s hard to view him simply as a creation of the greatest novelist. 

Putin and his henchmen have been building a fairy tale reality by telling different stories to different audiences. We need to understand the myth of Motorola so we can appreciate how Putin is manipulating the minds of people across the planet.

Russia has realised that people can now choose what they believe by selecting their sources through social media. They have grasped that the enlightenment did not dispel humanity’s yearning to over write reality with myths. They know that the “truth” can be a tale an audience tells itself, with a little help from fakes which they are only too eager to believe.

Even before Yanukovych fled Ukraine in 2014 Russia eagerly began crafting a fairy tale in which Russian speakers were oppressed by Ukrainians. After the Revolution of Dignity they embellished this myth with tales of a “Fascist Junta” in Kyiv. The tale bore no relation to reality: in fact the Russian language dominated the media and higher education in Ukraine. The Ukrainian language had been strangled by centuries of prohibitions and the genocide of the nation including the mass culling of authors in the 1930s. 

However, in the weeks following Yanukovych’s fall, Russian special services and paramilitaries seized buildings in the Donbas. They issued ultimatums calling for the protection of the Russian language. It’s important to realise that for Russian nationalists there is no such thing as Ukraine. There is only Russia, and Ukrainian identity is an artificial construct dividing a single people. 

Every good fairy tale needs a hero. Jack and his beanstalk, Snow White and her Dwarves. Motorola and his AK 47. 

Before he seized on the chance to play a part in Putin’s war Motorola, was an ex-marine turned drunken car thief called Arseny or Arsen Pavlov. He turned up in Kharkiv during the Russian sponsored protests of 16 March 2014. Putin believed that by stimulating revolt across Ukraine he could create a “Russian Spring”. Millions of Ukrainians would suddenly realise that they were in fact Russians and had been labouring under a delusion for centuries. The project failed because the two nations are utterly different. Ukrainians have, in the absence of a state, developed a ferocious capacity for self-organisation. 

Ukrainian demonstrators can spontaneously construct a catapult or fill crates of Molotov cocktails. The language with its quirkiness and lyricism, and Ukrainians themselves, can never be immersed in Russian authoritarianism. Sooner or later they break out like a nettle splintering a concrete floor. Putin could only hold onto a Crimea where Russia had a vast military presence and a small area of the Donbas packed with Russian troops and tanks. 

The fairy tale had to be revised. Instead of a Russian Spring there would be a heroic fight for freedom in the coalfields of the Donbas. A tiny proportion of the indigenous population were fooled into joining brigades which were in reality Russian army units. The locals in their ranks were topped up by Russian citizens trained by Putin’s intelligence services. This ploy fooled many journalists who spoke about separatists and local rebels. They were, and still are, enabling fantasy to break into reality. 

Motorola, a stunted man with a bushy red beard, was raised onto a pedestal by those manufacturing the fairy tale. He resembled the eighth dwarf who had left his brothers labouring in the mine to pursue a more glamorous career as a mass murderer. Although he had a wife in Russia he married a leggy young local woman from the Donbas… One bizarre photo showed him kneeling before her in military uniform and kissing her foot. It was the Brothers Grimm meets Joseph Goebbels, a Fascist Fairy tale. Snow White Supremacist perhaps? 

As The War Artist makes clear Motorola was protected as a Faberge egg throughout much of his brief career. He would bark orders into a radio urging his men across the corpse strewn expanses of Donbas Airport while safely out of range of Ukraine’s indomitable Cyborgs. Yet myths of his military prowess were circulated. The eighth dwarf’s image adorned the “separatist” social networks that were crucial to Russia’s information war. The phoney separatist formations would have collapsed without the support of the regular Russian army. The legend of Motorola helped bolster the illusion that the war pitted heroic miners and ordinary Russians against a Fascist “Junta”. The regular Russian soldiers dying in Donbas were buried in secrecy and sometimes in unmarked graves. The recruits into the pseudo separatist battalions were disposed of anonymously like trash. Ukrainians by contrast knelt by the roadside to pay homage to their fallen heroes when their bodies returned home.

Motorola was just a character in one of the fairy tales Putin tells to different audiences… the tellers of the tales and their heroes must always seem to be independent of Russia. The journalist given privileged access to the Kremlin who then writes an “objective” article criticising Russia while referring to the separatists. The assistant newspaper editor paid for media work who foams about the Nazis in Kyiv… the swashbuckling commander who claims to have taken a trip to Ukraine to make his own mind up before fighting for the “rebels”… the neo Fascist politician “loaned” billions… and crucially the army of bots and hired trolls spreading across social media… the tales can be contradictory. Ukraine is both a Fascist Junta and on the brink of becoming a “Godless Gay Colony” of the west. Putin is seeking to reverse the enlightenment and create a new and managed mythology. Instead of the beautiful tales of yore… the kelpies basking on the Scots coast, Deirdre of the Sorrows, Hansel and Gretel… told in the flickering firelight of a winter’s eve, we see fake stories swirling across our laptops and smartphones… a Ukrainian jet shot down MH 17 …. Samantha Lewthwaite the “White Widow” died fighting for the “Kyiv Junta”…. etc. 

If Motorola had known how his employers would treat him he would have built a shrine to the Kyiv junta out of rainbow coloured flags and asked for the hand of Conchita Wurst in marriage. There are no happy endings for the heroes of Putin’s fairy tales when they outlive their usefulness. A conventional employer might hand you a redundancy notice. Russia’s intelligence services, by contrast, regard assassinations as the best tool for management restructuring. We know a lot about Motorola’s death thanks to the work of Ukrainian hacking collectives…. These groups, (CyberJunta, FalconsFlame, RUH8 and Trinity) have handed their materials over to INFORMNAPALM. This brilliant volunteer initiative which analyses Russia’s hybrid wars in Syria and Ukraine argues that Motorola was murdered by his own masters.

In the last weeks before his death the “separatist commander” was anxious because of a conflict with the Russian curators of the  “Donetsk People’s Republic”. The DPR was and remains absolutely under the control of Russian intelligence. Motorola knew that had outlived his usefulness and the fairy tale was about to come to an end. He tried to save himself by living away from home. He warned his wife not to trust the FSB operatives who control the “local heroes” of the DPR. The guard protecting his flat was removed on October 15. Motorola was assassinated by a bomb in the elevator of his apartment building on 16 October. These two events are the easiest join the dots puzzle in history. Russia began telling a fairy tale about his death blaming it on the Kyiv Junta. A ludicrous video of supposed Ukrainian Nazis claiming responsibility for his death was produced. 

Motorola’s fellow commanders Giwi and Mozgovoy were also murdered in all probability by their own side. Mozgovoy, a hero for neo Nazis, had been feted by a Jeremy Corbyn linked bunch British front organisation as an “anti-fascist”. The Fairy tale had been tweaked for their consumption….. The story he, Giwi and Motorola played a role in was eagerly believed by Putin’s paid pals on the extreme right and left in the west. But the lives and deaths of these men and tell quite another tale and one that we must listen to.

Ukrainian civil society was able to field an army within weeks of Putin’s attack on Ukraine while simultaneously challenging the corruption and oligarchy of their own state. Ukraine has also developed NGOs such as StopFake to tackle Russian psyops. The conflict is the focal point of a global war between populist oligarchy and popular sovereignty. Ukrainians, for so long the largest stateless people in Europe, have become the standard bearers of people power. Russia, with an autocracy reaching back to the era of the Golden Horde, is the wellspring of oligarchy. 

The front line runs through the Donbas. However, this war is also fought in bucolic French villages where Marine Le Pen posters smile in Front Nationale offices. Putin is not the only oligarch seeking to keep a population in thrall by mixing terror with mind control. We may lose this conflict in the battlefield of our own hearts and minds. Each of us now has a choice. We can allow democracy to perish and become bit part players in a script written for us in an increasingly oligarchised society. Or we can write our own story. Liberty will only survive if we all choose to have a choice. We can start by helping those Ukrainian soldiers who are shedding blood for their and our freedom.

Steve Komarnyckyj is a translator and co-director at

Twitter: @KalynaPress

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Steve Komarnyckyj

Steve Komarnyckyj

Steve Komarnyckyj's literary translations and poems have appeared in Index on Censorship, Modern Poetry in Translation and many other journals. He is the holder of two PEN awards and a highly regarded English language poet whose work has been described as articulating "what it means to be human" (Sean Street). He runs Kalyna Language Press with his partner Susie and three domestic cats.

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