Words And The Stories They Create Are Powerful Enough To Start Wars
How does a community form?
In 1750, very few “Americans” would have considered themselves anything other than British colonists. The process of creating a new community of belief required creative writing about who we were and what our community was.
Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” changed the narrative across the 13 colonies. Later, Thomas Jefferson’s penning of the Declaration of Independence helped colonists cut the cord. These stories allowed us to wonder how an island could rule a continent or make an argument for our “unalienable Rights.”
Yes, the American belief in self-governance began with storytelling.
The power of stories in modern geopolitics
With Mythos, we often talk about the power of stories. Today, we are seeing that truth play out on a global scale in Ukraine.
The majority of Ukrainians were born as citizens of the Soviet Union. They were encouraged for hundreds of years to identify as Russian. Over the last 30 years, they have embarked on the long and hard process of building a foundation of belief around a new Ukrainian community. Currently, they are fighting a war of words.
Even as Russian ships impose a de facto blockade of Ukrainian ports, the flow of information from Russian broadcasting stations and online influence operations flows unabated across the border. Through social media, the Russian propaganda machine asserts that Ukrainians are Russian and that pro-western and pro-democracy forces within the country are simply artificial plants of western intelligence agencies operating against their interests.
The Ukrainian people have rejected this narrative once before. Inspired by stories told over social media and the promise of a better future, the Euromaidan protests overthrew a pro-Russian dictator in 2013.
Yet like any community of belief, there were fault lines in Ukraine. Eastern Ukraine has always been both linguistically and culturally closer to Russia than the west. In Ukraine’s eastern rust belt, the Donbas, stories of economic decline since its separation from the Soviet Union resonated with many.
Russia made good use of these stories in 2014 when it encouraged, armed, and eventually fought alongside separatist forces to seize portions of eastern Ukraine. But in trying to undermine the idea of Ukraine, Putin fundamentally miscalculated. Russia unwittingly provided Ukraine with the stories it needed to bind itself together.
Russia unwittingly provided Ukraine with the stories it needed to bind itself together.
Ukrainians tell stories of the men and women who braved the secret police in Kyiv to topple the government. They tell stories of the massacre of Ukrainian troops retreating under a flag of truce at Ilovaisk by Russian forces. They tell stories of how their elite airmobile forces held Donetsk Airport for months against swarms of Russian tanks. The two-year war in eastern Ukraine wrought stories of heroism, treachery, and tragedy. Stories that created a stronger sense of national pride and identity than the Kremlin’s narratives.
The West is telling its own stories to the Russian people—stories of what will happen if this war of words transitions to a war of bullets. Words and the stories they create are powerful enough to start wars, but they are also powerful enough to avert them.