The nightmare of history

A woman and her child crossing the border into Moldova on 1 March 2022. Photo: Orel Oberžan. Source:

As recent events have shown, after eight years of deceptive complacency, neither Ukraine nor the world is sleeping anymore.

Since mid-February, I had nightmares every night that groups of planes were bombing Kyiv. In these visions, the scrap of the night sky that I was accustomed to seeing from my window was totally filled with deafening jet fighters. There was no chance to evade their bombs — until I woke up.

The origins of these horrors are entirely understandable. Over the last few months, the entire population of the planet has been in the thrall of an information storm dedicated to Russia's probable invasion of Ukraine. Every day the Western media, which we are historically accustomed to trusting, have been publishing new investigations into the Russians' cataclysmic plans to capture and destroy Ukrainian cities, mass killings, and public executions of Ukrainians. These stories are so replete with horrific details that the conscious part of one's psyche resists perceiving them as real facts. We would sooner think about them as part of some kind of global special information operation. The goal of the operation was not very well understood, but the [psychological] defense mechanism insisted that, beyond the limits of the information front, the myth of the broad-scale invasion would not succeed — it simply could not succeed.

At dawn on the 24th of February, the nocturnal horrors of the bombing of Kyiv became a reality.

Every second of that night, I tracked the events unfolding around the military support that Russia was giving to the separatist formations in the east of the country. At one moment, I dropped into a brittle, one-hour slumber. When I woke up and read the announcement on the news ticker about Putin's order to launch an immediate attack on Ukraine and heard the first sounds of explosions on the outskirts of Kyiv, the paralyzing feeling came over me that life and history had changed forever in front of our very eyes.

A few minutes later, as I was preparing, for the first time in my life, to head to a bomb shelter, it occurred to me that this entire situation has a special dimension for me, precisely because of the connection to the terrible dreams that contained a premonition of the horrible reality.

Half a year ago, I began working on a new book: a study of the dreams that Jews had during the Holocaust. The impetus was my reading a unique work by the German journalist Charlotte Beradt. Her book, entitled The Third Reich of Dreams: The Nightmares of a Nation 1933–1939, is a collection of recorded dreams experienced by Berlin residents after Hitler's rise to power but before the outbreak of the Second World War. The range of subjects of these dreams reveals the horror of human existence during the period of state terror much better than the reams of official documents. Berliners had dreams in which they were the objects of abuse of power, coercion, bullying, and manipulation; dreams that were also a record of the murderous system that was unfolding around every citizen of Germany, as well as prognostications of events that truly happened later. In tracking the continuous restrictions of their liberties, the inhabitants of the Reich could easily imagine how everything would end.

Beradt's book was published in 1966, many years after the end of the war. It was received with interest by professional communities of psychoanalysts and historians. Beradt had secretly collected the dreams of Berliners from various social classes and ethnic backgrounds, recording how a person in a totalitarian machine loses his/her subjectness — even in dreams. In my book, a kind of sequel to Beradt's book, I decided to concentrate on the dreams of Jews both before and during the Holocaust because the Reich, according to its perverse "legislation," dehumanized the Jews as a community, condemning it to absolute destruction. Thus, the psychological space of Jews, including their dreams, is a special source of sociohistorical information about the realities of the Third Reich.

Today we can well imagine their feelings.

Today the Russian government is treating the Ukrainians the same way that Hitler's regime treated the Jews. It is resorting to the same mechanisms of dehumanization and killing everyone the same way. It, too, is depriving [Ukrainians] of their political and historical subjectness. Thus, many Ukrainians today are having the same dreams as Jews did during the Holocaust. To use Joyce's metaphor from Ulysses, these are the dreams of history itself: "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake."

All the terror that we are experiencing today is also, in a certain sense, the result of a dream — the phantasm of a political leader, a tyrant whom the Western elites treated indulgently for decades and who, thanks to them, turned into a real monster that is threatening humanity. Putin's speeches on the eve of and after the invasion were like a textbook illustration of paranoid discourse. Its peculiarity is that the layers of meanings and arguments in defense of a particular theory seem extremely convincing — so much so that their logic tempts you to share the beliefs or fears of someone who speaks in this register. But there is one key characteristic. At the center of these layers, there is always an absolutely ridiculous, absurd idea that does not stand up to critical scrutiny — like the idea of Nazis, who, having duped Lenin, are governing Ukraine on the orders of the aggressive NATO bloc.

However, being in a sense a hostage of this phantasm (clearly a product of Soviet official mythmaking), Putin has made Ukrainians, as well as the population of the entire planet, its hostages. Now we, together with him, unfortunately, are seeing his dream.

Will this last long?

Horrible dreams can have lasting traumatic effects. They may consist of complex material that is not easily processed by the psyche so that a person can have at least some spiritual peace. They can haunt us for years, returning after decades after the circumstance that had an impact on the substance of our dreams.

But all these are the effects of dreams, which need to be dealt with and processed.

Yet the fate of a particular, even the most horrible dream that has appeared one night, is short-lived. Because every horror ends at the moment of awakening.

As the events of these days have shown, after eight years of deceptive complacency, neither Ukraine nor the world is sleeping anymore.

Yevhen Minko is a Kyiv-based writer and essayist who studies contemporary culture and the history of psychoanalysis. He is working on a book of fiction about politics-induced paranoia and apophenia [the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things].

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.

This article originally appeared in Ukrainian in Krykyta magazine and was translated and published into English with the author's permission.