The Fight for Ukraine in Our Minds
On Media, Russian Propaganda, and Genocides
The Russian invasion against Ukraine has now passed three full months. Thousands of peaceful Ukrainians have been killed, many of them tortured by the Russian military. Millions (more than a quarter of the country of 40 million people) have been displaced internationally and internally as refugees. Ukrainian lands, nature, creatures, and historical sites have been obliterated or horrifically damaged in many places. Despite “good news” of Ukrainians’ continued fighting and victories against the “Number Two Army in the World,” Ukraine is facing continued shelling, bombing, cyber attacks, and sadistic brutality.
Much of the world media has focused on the remarkable courage of Ukrainians and their passion for democratic self-determination. Many global politicians, human rights activists, and cultural leaders have remained committed to ending aggression against Ukraine as well as now seeking justice for crimes against humanity committed by the Russians.
Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer and activist, in her recent speech to the informal meeting of the UN Security Council, decried that “Ukraine has been a slaughterhouse,” describing forced deportations, extensive sexual violence, and purposeful murder of children – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3JTLn01_ps. A growing number of countries have begun to term Russian aggression against Ukraine as a genocide.
However, the media can also keep us distant and, worse, dangerously misinformed about this war. The numerous evocations of “alleged,” paired together with images of crimes and destruction, is one such tool. Even though we now cannot pretend not to know about atrocities because of the technology that transmits information and images, even though international experts and world leaders directly witness and document the aftermath of massacres, the term “alleged” continues to float next to descriptions of sadistic brutality unleashed by the Russians on peaceful Ukrainians. Even worse, at times, journalists who have never directly reported from Ukraine write pieces to encourage Western audiences not to be “emotionally manipulated” by images of war! If an image of a grieving Ukrainian mother discovering a body of her tortured and executed teenage son in a well is an “emotional manipulation,” then what these media pundits are encouraging is the denial of truth and basic human compassion as well as the denial of justice.
In my view, media worldwide is also quite willing to repeat stunning lies promoted by Russian propaganda. Among those lies are descriptions of supposed Ukrainian bioweapon labs (“sponsored by the Pentagon”) that apparently create bio-agents (“distributed by migrating birds”) that only attack ethnically Russian women and their capacity to have children, or only attach ethnic Russian’s enjoyment of their ethnic foods (i.e., no vodka or caviar?). If you think that this information is being promoted to Russians and the world by some conspiracy nuts on TikTok, please be aware that it was disseminated by both politicians as well as scientific leaders, including the head of “RusKosmos” Rogozin. Rogozin occupies the position equivalent to the director of NASA — responsible for the Russian space station and space programs.
Seeing through not only the Russian propaganda lies directed at the world by its politicians but in fact their all-encompassing assaults on truth may help you navigate the ever problematic presence in Western media of supposed “experts on Ukraine” who minimize the war, blame Ukraine, or question reality, i.e., atrocities as staged “Hollywood fakes.”
Another tactic has been to somehow to represent Ukraine as a colonial power, which along with the West has been oppressing non-Western nations. Whereas, somehow, Russia represents the anti-West and anti-colonial — anti-NATO and so on — efforts. In fact, one of the most active Russian propaganda-promoting politicians, Lavrov, has just released statements about the supposed Russian unity with Africa, Asia, and Latin American against the “Western oppression” via Russia’s war on Ukraine. This rhetoric merely plays on a complete unawareness of history of Russia’s colonial oppression, especially against Ukraine.
For centuries, Ukraine has fought for its independence against Russian colonial domination. Ukrainian history has been marked by purposeful genocides against Ukrainians by the Russians such as the 1932-33 Holodomor, during which nearly 10 million Ukrainians were purposefully starved. The countries that have been the most active supporters against recent Russian aggression are Russia’s former “colonies,” including Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland.
In addition, the Russian Federation has been an active sponsor of numerous international white supremacy and white nationalism groups, including in the U.S. — see the reports by Just Communities, the BBC, and the U.S. Department of State. Just think of whom Russia backs in its meddling election interference in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. Both white supremacists and dictators worldwide love Russia.
In the U.S., KKK leader David Duke hailed Russia as a “key to white survival,” and Putin has been saluted as an “anti-woke” hero by many in the U.S. who are white supremacists and anti-LGBTQ pundits.
I encourage you to read up on history of Ukraine as a country that fought against Russia’s direct and indirect forms of oppression for hundreds of years, as well as about Russia’s long standing active role as a colonizing aggressor with a track of human rights violations in its own lands and worldwide.
Russia’s evocations that it is fighting “Nazism” in Ukraine and “denazifying” the country should have been long gone from all media accounts while being noted as evidence of Russian propagandist idiocy. To remind the reader, Ukraine’s remarkable President Zelensky is a Jewish Ukrainian man whose ancestors were killed in the Holocaust, perpetrated by the actual Nazis. The media often misrepresents the fact that Ukraine has a vibrant ethnic diversity and has been known for its commitment to the rights of ethnic groups historically oppressed by the Russians, such as the Crimean Tatars. As one journalist noted, a simple test of fascism is to stand with a “No to Fascism” poster in Russia and Ukraine and see in which country you are sent to prison — and that’s the country with a fascist ideology. Or, as both politicians and critics have termed it — “rushism.”
Last, the continued rhetoric of “peace” and “brotherhood” in relation to this war is misleading, and to Ukrainians it is often distasteful. If peace occurs in Ukraine, then on whose terms? Should Ukrainians be forced to live “in peace” under the Russian occupation, in which people are brutalized and have no rights, no freedom of speech, no choices? Or does peace mean that Ukrainians should not be fighting to defend their lives and their homes — and that the world should not help them defend themselves? While Russia has actively promoted itself as a “big brother” to Ukraine and other nations it previously colonized, the advancement of such “brotherhood” narratives is disrespectful to Ukraine and all the nations, which Russia has deemed inferior to itself.
Historically, Western and American media have played key roles in misleading and even hiding Russian genocides against Ukrainians. In the 1930s, New York Times correspondent and Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Walter Duranty promoted Stalin and Russia in more than 1,000 articles. Duranty actively denied that Stalin and his Russian military were purposefully starving millions of Ukrainians. Not only did Duranty, who was based by the Times in Moscow, claim that he “saw no one dying,” but he decried any efforts to show the world the atrocities to be a form of politically motivated “emotional propaganda.” Instead, he hailed Stalin’s efforts of “collectivization” as progressive and claimed that any “problems” were to be blamed on “lazy Ukrainian kulaks” themselves.
The brave British journalist Gareth Jones paid with his life — murdered by the Soviets a few days before he turned 30 — for sharing the truth about the Ukrainian Holodomor. Jones’s life and work, as well as these propagandist media misinformers, directly inspired George Orwell’s works, including the Animal Farm and 1984. (You can learn more in a 2019 film Mr. Jones.) It might be the time to re-read Orwell, since today, as then in his books, Russia is eager to promote Big Brother’s 1984 slogans: “WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”
I invite our community to remember that ignorance is not strength — please read about Ukrainian history — written by Ukrainians — and turn to accounts of journalists and activists on the ground in Ukraine today. Russia’s enslaving politics and its propaganda-machine methods are the opposite of freedom. To achieve genuine peace, Russia’s war aggression must be stopped, and all responsible for war crimes should be brought to justice.
To all of you who have supported Ukraine and Ukrainians – Дякую — Thank you! Слава Україні!