*** DEBUG END ***

Paul Vallely: On the front line of war, words matter

07 July 2023

In Palestine and Ukraine, artists fight back in their own way, says Paul Vallely


The Ukrainian novelist Victoria Amelina, who died last week

The Ukrainian novelist Victoria Amelina, who died last week

WHERE is the front line? For the award-winning Ukrainian novelist Victoria Amelina, it was in a pizza restaurant — 18 miles from the actual fighting — that was targeted by a high-precision Russian Iskander missile, which killed her and 12 others. She had set fiction aside when her homeland was invaded, and instead began to document Russian war crimes — until she became the victim of a war crime herself.

For the London-based Palestinian filmmaker Mo’min Swaitat, the front line was at the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, after a thousand Israeli troops, with air support and rooftop snipers, launched a dawn attack this week. The theatre where he trained, he’d heard, had been bombed, and the entire street bulldozed.

For the director Evgeniya Berkovich, the front line was in the Moscow theatre where she staged a play about women who travelled to Syria to join Isis — a cautionary tale of how Russian society marginalises young women. She is on trial after a Soviet-style pseudoscientist, calling himself a “destructologist”, claimed that the play’s “ideology of radical feminism” could provoke terrorist acts.

For the poet Artyom Kamardin, the front line was a square near the Kremlin, where he gave a public reading of his poem “Kill me, militiaman”, and urged fellow Russians to ignore the military call-up. For the artist Sasha Skochilenko, it was the St Petersburg supermarket where she replaced price tags with messages like: “My great-grandfather did not fight in WWII for four years so that Russia could become a fascist state and attack Ukraine.” Both face a decade in prison.

Words matter in war, or in a “special military operation”. That is why Israeli Defence spokesmen euphemise “fighting” into “friction”. Their soldiers do not “kill”, but, rather, “neutralise”. The media, afraid of being called anti-Semitic, subconsciously fall in line, using passive verbs for Israeli actions — “Hundreds wounded in Jerusalem clashes” — but using active verbs when a Palestinian “stabs” or “kills”.

Then there is language that implies a symmetry of power between Russia and Ukraine — or Israel and Palestine, when UN figures last month showed that Israeli forces have killed 114 Palestinians in the territory this year, while Palestinians have killed 16 Israelis. This is not to suggest any moral equivalence between Russia and Israel: Russia’s invasion was unprovoked; Israelis have been routinely attacked, even if their response is often disproportionate.

Writers and artists fight back in their own way. Swaitat’s Freedom Theatre recently staged a production of Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which the pigs who become indistinguishable from men controversially stand for the Palestinian and Israeli authorities uniting against the best interests of ordinary Palestinians.

After the Russians bombed the theatre in Mariupol, they declared that the stench emanating from the rubble had nothing to do with the hundreds of victims buried beneath. Rather, they said, it came from “fish storage in the theatre basement”. Berkovich responded with a sardonic poem beginning, “Do you claim to love theatre like the fish claim?”

Two weeks before she died, Victoria Amelina wrote about a painter, Polina Rayko, whose work had been lost in the floods unleashed by the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam. “Art lives as long as the world sees it,” she wrote. Perhaps that’s what the authorities are afraid of.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)