An outdated missile system, captured by an inexperienced group of rebel fighters, could have plausibly taken down any aircraft within firing range. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Whoever shot down the Malaysia Airlines plane probably didn't know what they were aiming at

It’s highly possible that the civilian airliner was mistaken for a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane.

Whoever shot down the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Donetsk on Thursday, killing all 298 people aboard, probably didn’t know what they were shooting at. It appears that the plane was taken down by a Soviet-era Buk missile system, which separatists claimed to have gotten their hands on when they gained control of a Ukrainian air defense base on June 29.

The Buk is a Soviet-era air defense system used by both Ukrainian and Russian defense forces. “When you’re sitting behind a radar screen of one of these things, there’s no way to tell what it is. With the Buk, there’s no way to distinguish between friendly and foe. You’re just going to take a shot at it,” says Raymond Finch, a Eurasian military analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office. “If [the separatists] had reports that the Ukrainians were flying over their airspace, they would shoot. It begs the question of who is sitting behind the trigger. Are they highly trained? My guess is no they are not.”

It’s highly possible that the civilian airliner was mistaken for a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane, the same model that separatists in Luhanskshot down on June 14, killing all 49 people on board, mostly Ukrainian servicemen. This Monday, rebels from the Luhansk People’s Republic shot down another Ukrainian army transport plane.

If a Buk system was in fact used to shoot down the MH17, it must have lacked an automatic disengagement system that equips more sophisticated air defense missiles, designed to prevent deployment against civilian aircrafts. “A lot of these earlier systems don’t have that,” says Finch. “But they’re still highly efficient, especially against a civilian airliner.” 

There are unconfirmed rumors that rebel commander Igor Strelkov haspublicly taken credit for the incident, even though the Donetsk People’s Republic has officially denied responsibility. But it's not hard to connect the dots as to how this might have happened: An outdated missile system, captured by an inexperienced group of rebel fighters, could have plausibly taken down any aircraft within firing range. Plus, Nataliya Gumenyuk raises the point that Ukrainian forces haven't been using anti-aircraft missiles in this fight—the separatists don't have planes. 

It’s not the first time that Soviet-era weapons have mistakenly taken down a civilian aircraft. In 1983, the Korean Air flight 007 was shot down by a Soviet SU-15 interceptor after being mistakenly taken for a military aircraft. All 269 people aboard were killed, and at first, the Soviet Union denied wrongdoing. The Soviet pilot who fired at the Korean Air jet told The New York Times, “I knew this was a civilian plane. But for me this meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use.''

Thursday's incident is even deadlier, and will no doubt ignite an information war over who is in fact responsible for the 295 lost lives. But, Finch says, “With the facilities that we have, we’ll be able to tell who fired it. We’ll be able to say where that missile came from.”

This article originally appeared on the New Republic. Click here.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
Show Hide image

Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.