A SPECIAL ESSAY BY KIANA KARIMI — “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight./Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.” The ancient rhyme holds as Russian forces signaled their descent with claps of roaring explosions and deadly sparks before first light on Thursday, February 24. Air sirens accompanied with malicious, global transgressions leave Ukrainians accepting their forsaken nightmares. Grabbing a child with one hand and a Molotov cocktail in the other, Ukrainian families and citizens bear the brunt of the Russian imperial-esque power play. As the Russian army continues its path of death and destruction, a dark, tempestuous cloud of strikes, gunfires, and warfare engulfs Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin’s soi-disant fulfillment of Russian empire sends tremors through the nerves of Ukrainians and vital state actors. The Russian leader’s archaic Napoleonic desires hold a demeanor eerily similar to that of Ivan the Terrible — a brazen Russian prince from the early 1500s who resorted to macabre means of retaining or expanding his power, with this exception: a ruling hegemon in the 21st Century comes with luxuries of potential nuclear warfare. Threats of the latter and constant consequences for NATO intervention suggest a deteriorating mental stability and allude to his desires for a palatial oprichnina.
Expecting his attacks to resemble a coup de main for Ukrainians, Putin, especially at first, got knocked back by local civilians’ resilience, fire, and passion, not to mention furious responses near and far. Besides fellow Ukrainians taking arms to confront Russian soldiers, young and old citizens alike are out protesting and sharing their remarks and footage on social media, namely TikTok.
TikTok is the premier social media app to readily obtain primary sources and updates. Unlike media and news networks in Eastern Europe, authentic TikTok content cannot be muddled or hidden. Weaponizing TikTok as a means of dissent and information, TikTok has become the primary mode of political communication – an influential way of obtaining and absorbing information.
WarTok – let us call it — takes you inside crowded subways, military sites, live Russian attacks, bomb shelters, and shows unbearable scenes. Pieces may be scattered across the For You Page (FYP), but a TikToker can quickly ascertain WarTok shots. In essence, TikTok provides a detailed timeline of the war via amateur documentary. WarToks are categorized as the following films: military attacks, Ukrainian soldiers training, and fighting, and ordinary citizens suffering the plight of their new normal.
Boom. Boom. Boom. Bursts of lights fill the night sky. Violent detonations reverberate ear-deafening noises and create smoke-filled, polluted air putting mental and physical pressure on Ukrainian minds and lungs. Awakening to noise-deafening explosions and air sirens, fellow Ukrainians film Russian forces pillaging their homeland. Captioned «24.02.2022 4:00 Началась война в Украине » “02.24.2002 4:00 The War Began in Ukraine,” a Ukrainian woman speaks with terror, saying, “oh my god. Lord somebody help,” as she witnesses Russia’s first round of assaults. Shaken and distressed, Molodoya Krasiyava shares her vulnerable state: “Helicopters are literally flying around us and shooting, you have no idea how scary this is.” Стас Ирина Кристина known as “Kris” declares, “Outraged people, I’m here. I’m in the center, nobody is here. Somebody open the door for me, just let me in somewhere. “As helicopters and missiles surround different targets, shaking cameras point to the remnants of their destruction.
Enter the crisp, heavy breezes of dilapidated neighborhoods and towns. In Kherson, Marta Vasyuta, a TikToker, and a couple of others walk through the burned dregs and offscourings of a former market. No roof, shelves, doorways, only destruction remains. After analyzing targeted sites, Russian soldiers are not only ordered to leave Ukrainians in a famished state, but also target Ukraine’s most vulnerable, the ill and children. In another TikTok, rounds of shots are fired at a hospital in Melipitol, and a kindergarten is left in shambles.
The average normal person will ponder the logic of targeting non-military sites, let alone a hospital and a kindergarten. Why would the Russian army waste military supplies to mass murder innocent children and debilitated people? My answer: sick show of power and aggression by Vladimir Putin. Embracing bloodshed, malignancy, and dancing over the suffering, Putin’s course of actions show that he’d stop at nothing to claim Ukraine for his imaginary Russian Kingdom.
Despite the sheer atrocity of the war, WarTok suggests that mobilizing Ukrainians possess a substantial degree of hope as they the fight. Take a military TikTok, a Ukrainian soldier declares that “[he] won’t stop and [he] will stand by Ukraine and [his] country, glory to Ukraine and it’s heroes.” Following an uplifting thematic pattern, soldiers tend to post light-hearted videos to boost local and global morale. An example of such is the following soldier, Александр (known as Alex Hook), clad in protective gear busting dance moves to Whitney Houston’s “Queen of the Night’‘ and Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” Another TikTok shows a Ukrainian soldier pulling the other with a shovel across the snow. Others suggest the humanity behind the camouflage military suits and hope even with these TikToks potentially showcasing their premortem moments.
Playing “Little Dark Age” in the background, another TikToker shows the Ukrainian military leading rifle training practices for Kyiv residents. Choosing the melancholic song is cogent yet straightforward. Apprised on the destructive deeds that befall them, Ukrainians resignedly accept current and future turpitudes. Instead of choosing self-interest and joining the shadows, Ukrainian fighters surpass obstacles to prevent the inevitable and embrace the notion of cessation. Embracing the subsequent logic bleeds into their fury and patriotism. For instance, the soldiers at Snake Island demonstrated the latter and famously declared, “Russian warship, go f*ck yourselves.” A young couple, Yaryna Arieva and Sviatoslav Fursin, married under the noises of air sirens to fight alongside each other.
Many of the fighters in Ukraine are volunteers ready for the grueling battles ahead for their liberties and freedom. Ukrainian President Zelenskyy himself recently filmed himself on the streets of Ukraine, declaring that all cabinet members remain in Ukraine and that “we are not putting down arms. We will be defending our country because our weapon is truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of this.” As his confidence pulsates throughout the nation, President Zelenskyy set forth an example of unseen, unrelenting bravery.
However, even equipped with lion-like ferocity and heroism, victims, now-refugees, and tragedies multiply one after the other. Visualize the subsequent horrifying scenes. Inside a bunker, infants from the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) are lined up with intubations through their minuscule nostrils as nurses use hand-held bag valve masks to pump oxygen. Infants wrapped in blankets and tubes outnumber the nurses who care for them. As the shot pans through each of them one by one, some peacefully sleep while some are dependent on low oxygen tanks. Panning over to the oncology ward, the latter is now nonexistent as pediatric cancer patients in need of blood transfusions occupy bunkers. The grim outcomes of these situations are implicit.
Amid absolute pandemonium, underground subways are transformed into bomb shelters. Refugees walk and drive for hours in hopes of reaching another country’s borders. Parents sew blood tag stickers on their children in case of harm. Fathers and brothers are ripped apart from their daughters and maternal counterparts.
Two TikTokers take viewers inside their journeys of fleeing the war zone and enduring the effects of living in Kyiv, respectively.
Zarina Siberiana (@zarina_siberiana) starts her WarTok vlog by showing compacted, crowded underground metro systems, mainly consisting of women, children, and pets (including her kitten). Sleeping on the floors and chairs, Zarina and her fellow Ukrainians wait hours on end for passage out of different Ukrainian cities, not to mention the 14-hour journey on the train. Distraught and holding back tears, Zarina explains her sorrow for her friends, family, and country. According to the UN, more than 1.3 million Ukrainians like Zarina have fled to Poland, Romania, Hungary, Moldova, or other countries.
Hunger enters the battle for Ukraine. TikTokers like Kristina (@moneykristina) note that Kyiv’s food supply is reaching near scarcity as people are shown waiting for hours for any grocery left. Kristina comments on the growing dire situation in Kyiv as her family starts taking in other families. As they cohabitate together, they attempt to ration food and supplies as there’s not only a paucity of gas and grocery supplies but also the jeopardy of merely stepping outside a warzone.
Speaking of the perilous nature of a warzone, Ukrainian TikTokers proclaim their notions of terror and disquietude. The realities stipulate the rapidly augmenting humanitarian crises that befall Ukrainians. On news networks and channels, viewers barely get a glimpse of the pain and torture of habitiating a war zone.
The influence and power of the app caught the eyes of the nation and beyond. Jill Doughtery, a CNN analyst, noted that young people tend to go on social media such as TikTok for news about the crisis.
TikTok has the innate ability to uniquely connect with those worldwide. Face-to-face interactions establish strong camaraderie and connections, unlike tweets, photos, or posts. Of course, viewers can pick up on the nonverbal cues of an apparently concerned professional news reporter. However, the latter does not nearly convey the same shattering impact as staring at tears inundating the faces of young Ukrainians shaking as they utter each tremulous phrase.
Interacting with different Ukrainians and knowing it may be their last moments is a gut-wrenching fact. Their words and conventions illustrate their passion and heavily impact different attitudes, namely empathy. Looking at the faces of these TikTokers, I realize they are my age, or younger, or barely older than me. The thought of losing heroes such as Alex, Zarina, Sviatoslav, and Yaryna is something neither I nor other TikTokers can fathom.
Foregoing narratives and tales are vital, lethal instruments to spread awareness and garner hope. Hearing stories about the famed hero, Ghost of Kyiv, watching protestors from fellow Eastern European countries, and a farmer stealing a Russian tank all have profound effects. As the beast blows gusts of vitriol and aggression, his monstrosities cannot rival the moral puissance of TikTok and the brave ‘directors’ behind the technology that helps cut though the traditional fog of war.
Kiana Karimi is a recent graduate of LMU and a regular contributor to Asia Media International.