At Least Amsterdam Tried
There is little reason to spend leisure time at Leidseplein. It is more reminiscent of a mall than a city on the best of days, and an overbooked dayfair on all the others. By happenstance, however, I found myself doing just that. While focused on locating my expedited way out, my circumstances forced upon me by a GVB delay, shortage, and, ultimately, cancellation, I stumbled across an interesting sight: a destroyed tank and a demonstration. These two observations almost made my cancellation a serendipitous one, and I will endeavour to describe both separately below.
Pictured above, the tank, of Russian origin, is just shy of demolished. Tracks broken, evidence of deep fire damage, and scars of multiple impact events. Looking at the provided signage, it is explained that this is an art installation, already having been displayed for a spell in Berlin, and eagerly supported by multiple museums, the European Cultural Foundation, an Embassy, and a Ministry of Defense, alongside a number of art foundations. While such credentials often communicate to me there will not be much to look at, a destroyed armoured unit is a destroyed armoured unit. Allow us to see what can be learned.
## The Tank
The sign provided, entitled "About this Tank", leaves more questions than answers. It does provide the geographic origin of the tank - Ulan-Ude, Buryatia, Russia - and that it was destroyed just outside of Bucha on the 31st of March, 2022 - during the Battle of Kyiv. Sadly, the rest of the sign - a solid 85% of the text - was employed merely to restate that Russia has invaded Ukraine, that war crimes have been committed, and that democracy is not a given on the European continent. Notably, and strangely given the title of the placard, next to nothing about the destroyed vehicle itself. I shall attempt a modest remedy of this shortcoming below:
The vehicle appears to be a T-72B(1) (potentially later) upgraded with ERA (Explosive Reactive Armour) Kontakt-1 - which provided the unofficial designation T-72V, I have been told. The T-72 family of tanks encompasses a respectable compilation of deployments. Having seen combat in Sri Lanka, Nagorno-Karabakh, Sierra Leone, and other conflicts, it is sufficient to say this is a tank family of global impact. To these many fronts along the crucible of history, this tank has provided considerable firepower from its 125mm smoothbore gun, armoured protection from the aforementioned ERA Kontakt-1, mobility via a fuel-efficient diesel engine, and advanced fire control systems manned by a three-person crew.
Back to the tank temporarily in Amsterdam. Taking the signage's other detail about the tank into account, its geographic origin stemming from Ulan-Ude, it can be gathered that this armament belonged to the 5th Independent/Separate Tank Brigade, a brigade comprising part of the 36th Combined Arms Army. The 36th's history is scattered and odd, as is the case with most Soviet armies following the Second World War. One notable deployment of the 36th occurred in 1941 along the Trans-Baikal Front against Japanese forces.
The 36th was relocated to its current Far East base in 2009. Boasting, prior to 2022, 4 T-72Bs and 49 T-72BKs, it is quite possible that the very tank I speak of partook in the most recent 2018 regional military parade, as a symbolic reminder of the cost of security and projected power.
When the decision to deploy to Kyiv was taken is hard to say, though build-up of Russian forces were observed weeks prior to the 24th of February, 2022, but it does follow the logic that older and less maintained units pushed into Ukraine first as a mere next step of military action, not a doomsday-esque conquering move that it seemed to be from the outside. It is further more impossible to know of the fates of the soliders who fired at and were fired upon on the 31st of March, but we can easily observe that the tank itself has lived on, at some point ending up here, in the cheapened funfair of a Modern European Capital.
## The Art
The purpose of the art remains somewhat unclear to me. When coming across the installation initially, and still today writing this at my terminal, I have a hard time believing that this would be accepted by the European Elites if it carried anything other than a pro-Ukrainian message. The second section of the signage almost had me doubting this, as it did proclaim this wreckage to be the work of Ukrainian forces, but the rest of the sign (provided for a reader's convenience below) shifted the focus not to a face-to-face with the cost and power of modern warfare, but to a reminder of Russian war crimes committed since 2022 (interestingly, not referencing to anything prior from any party to the conflict).
If a bias is not picked up by the semantics of the description, a look at the groups funding it may change a viewer's mind. "Forum on European Culture" (itself an undertaking of the separately mentioned European Cultural Foundation) and its partnership with De Balie, an historic Dutch foundation that "produces independent journalistic programmes about art, culture and politics" are the main parties involved here. De Balie has done some great work, though I think they will be best remembered for saving their now headquarters, the 19th-century Amsterdam Cantonal Court, an absolutely gorgeous work of architecture located just around the corner from where this tank is standing. The bias really starts to show itself upon the second line with the National Museum of Military History of Ukraine, Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, and the Embassy of Ukraine of the Netherlands.
Now, I do not think that Ukraine's prowess in PR and public perception is anything to scoff at. I believe that the Republic of Ukraine has pioneered new areas of modern conflict dominance with its Digital Infrastructure and ability to harness the modern "churn of content" cycle of journalism. In any conflict, opinions or propaganda will be evident, and I think that needs to be accepted, understood, and allowed. Where I think these messages fall flat, is the tangible reluctance to admit that the public can and has seen much more of the battlefield, read much more of the history, and heard from many more armchair generals than in past conflicts.
This exhibit, which was displayed between the 25th of May and the 4th of June, was opened by a speech from the current mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema. In her speech,[^1] mevr. Halsema briefly, through truncated memories of the Second World War, decried President Putin's actions and identified, what she believed, to be President Putin's idea of a world where "there is no freedom to love who you want to love and to be who you are."[^2] She states further:
>Placing this tank is not a gesture of triumph.
>On the contrary, it is a gesture of pain, sorrow and snubbed democracy.
>The tank reminds us that we must defend democracy every day.[^3]
Simple and striking words. Words that will not upset anyone and still keep up European morale for support of a side in a grand conflict. I do find it odd, though, the constant attempt to divorce war from grand conflict to our East. Even with a destroyed tank, an act of destruction required to be carried out by Ukrainian soldiers, and an act that continues every day around the world, is only boiled down to corporate poetics that We Will Stand Strong and other sterile sentiments of the same. I try not to fear war, I wish it upon no nation but understand its necessity given the interests and desires of those in power. What I fear more is the mere commodification of conflict, a practice we have nearly perfected. Maybe we are only three steps away. Maybe even two. I do know, though, that should this war, indeed, reach many more "squares like this one" as Femke put it, I would not wish to be led by any person in Amsterdam, Den Haag, Brussels or Washington. For crying out loud, give us someone who at least pretends to know a thing or two about the realities of war. For the time being, we must continue to settle for Instagram caption-level speeches and us cosplay-level journalists attempting to critique them.
## The Demonstration
Now, the above was only half of the experience. The damaged vehicle was eye-catching, surely, but the crux of my curiosity stemmed from a gentleman standing in front of it. As is often the case with such gentlemen standing in the middle of Leidseplein, he had a sign and a bullhorn. The sign provided some shortlinks to Igor Lopatonok's 2014 documentary Ukraine on Fire with executive producer Oliver Stone.[^4] This documentary was controversial, as it was an early exposure in the West to the interpretation of Ukraine's 2014 coup d'etat being orchestrated by the United States, that Ukraine has long been a pawn of American-driven proxy conflict with Russia, and the Neo-Nazi connections to be found by protestors in the Revolution of Dignity. I will leave it to the reader to watch the film, found in its entirety here, to draw their own conclusions.
I am no stranger to such political activists. They often make interesting conversation partners, though the conversation never lasts long without repeating itself, in my experience. What I found admirable about this gentleman was the classic nature of his ability to monologue on a vast variety of tenets of anti-NATO theories and the general mistrust of Western Media/Propaganda.
On and on he was able to speak, to a mostly distracted and confused audience, but he was able to eschew much ridicule or jest. Some 23-year-old behind me states to his friend, "I think this guy is Pro-Russia, this I want to hear" and I believe he was genuine there. The juxtaposition of the tank, destroyed by Ukraine and a harsh reality we cannot even imagine seeing in reality, lent the gravity the broadcaster needed to maintain attention without risking aggression. Even being able to go so far as saying "Russia is serious about their threats. We must take them seriously and stand down as soon as possible".
His grasp of the political reality was firm enough that the only detractor I saw in the roughly 40 minutes I hung around, and it was exactly one detractor I witnessed, started yelling, in broken English, about how support for the "Marie LePens and Geert Wilders of the world" is not welcomed in the Western societies. I gathered quickly that he was an immigrant and, though parts of the broadcaster's views were, indeed, anti-European in nature, I believe the argument was born of misunderstanding and not political differences. In cooler times, these two would agree on more than they disagreed upon.
## The Attempt
All in all, it was truly the demonstration that allowed this tank to speak, and it was quite possibly the opposite interpretation of the intended exhibit that allowed this tank to live on and still serve any dreams of collective security. Alongside the broadcaster, just directly to the east of the tank on display, was the typical Rasta bike, complete with speakers, scatting over a reggae beat that "democracy has failed". This was a near effective, even healthy, coming together of various backgrounds towards an "anti-war" understanding. We almost saw the reality of the brutality behind war. We almost saw the difficulties behind relationships between modern military and modern peace we all have come to rely upon. By God, we almost saw each other.
I can only wonder how much more could be done, if our modern attempts at art did not rip the teeth from any radical or important idea before presenting it to us peasants on the street. Maybe a table would have found its way to a weeklong demonstration to facilitate discussions. Maybe new zines would be made explaining the historic reliance upon a military for a society to find peace.
Maybe I would have even believed Comrade Halsema when she said:
> "The tank reminds us that we must defend democracy every day... by being prepared, if we have to, to defend what we hold dear with all possible means."
If only, if only. If only it were easier to find time to look past our societal addictions. If only discourse were elevated to a level of effectiveness and protection. If only Halsema pretended to know what harsh reality faces a Frozen Conflict in the East. If only they let us know that this fallen tank was a T-72B(1) (potentially later) upgraded with ERA Kontakt-1. Maybe then, our preparations could begin.
[^1]: Available here (in Dutch)
[^2]: Original: In Poetin’s wereld is er geen vrijheid om te houden van wie je wil houden en om te zijn wie je bent.
[^3]: Original: Het plaatsen van deze tank is niet een gebaar van triomf. Integendeel, het is een gebaar van pijn, verdriet en geknakte democratie. De tank herinnert ons eraan dat we democratie elke dag moeten verdedigen.
[^4]: Days later, as I write my notes into prose, I realise that the sign attributed the film to Oliver Stone himself. When I first saw it, I also internalized it as "that Oliver Stone documentary about Ukraine" and it is only now in hindsight and quick research that I realise this political junky's folly of celebrity.