Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the world has been shocked by scenes of massacred civilians and flattened residential blocks. Even in the Kremlin-controlled media, the images have not been censored, they have been misrepresented.
As a result, many Russians still believe the version of events presented to them by their televisions: that Russia is fighting to liberate Ukraine from Nazism. In many cases, not even first-hand accounts from their Ukrainian relatives can convince Russians that the Kremlin’s made-for-television narrative does not correspond to reality on the ground.
Until March, Guran, a mechanic, and Yulia, a doctor, lived in the northern city of Kharkiv. Since the beginning of the war, the city has been subjected to almost daily Russian bombardment.
“We were taking shelter in the basement,” Yulia recalled. “There was dust falling from the ceiling due to the explosions outside, but when we talked to relatives across the border [in Russia]They told us: ‘Don’t worry, the Russian army is not targeting civilian objects, so they will be fine'”.
“When we told them that the apartment buildings were being attacked,” Guran said, “they suggested we stay with them in Russia. They were sure that if there was any danger to us, it could only be from the Nazis in Ukraine.” army, which they said was fighting to prevent us from being released.
“We try to tell them that there are no Nazis who dominate us,” Yulia added. “But it is impossible to convince them of anything. They just reply that it is we who have been brainwashed, as if their televisions are telling them the truth and it is the Ukrainians who are confused with the reality in front of their very eyes.”
Since 2014, when a popular protest movement led former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia, successive Ukrainian governments have been portrayed as “neo-fascist junta” by the Kremlin-controlled media. The fact that incumbent Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian of Jewish origin, won 73% of the popular vote in the country’s 2019 election did little to change this common misperception in Russia itself.
The independent polling agency Levada Center published results in March showing that 81% of Russians supported Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation”, which the Russian president justified on February 24 as necessary for the “denazification of Ukraine”. Although poll results released in April showed a moderate decline in confidence, 74% of Russians responded that they approved of their president’s actions.
In an interview with Deutsche Wellethe director of the Levada Center, Lev Gudkov, explained how it was possible.
“Propaganda is constantly operating,” Gudkov said. “They show you a picture of corpses, of destroyed houses, and they say that it is the result of Ukrainian fascists destroying, mocking and humiliating Russians in Donbas.”
The Russian state media figures who spread these distorted versions of events maintain that they do so because they genuinely believe that the Russian interpretation is, in fact, the correct one. A prominent Russian talk show host said news week in March that, “Your country [the U.S.] armed and trained these Nazis. You gave them excuses and whitewashed them. You are an accomplice of Nazism.”
The idea that Ukraine is dominated by neo-fascists or nationalists of any kind is not consistent with real life in Ukraine, although the extreme right makes its presence known from time to time. There have been photos of Ukrainian soldiers displaying fascist paraphernalia, and every January 1, a few hundred torch-bearing Ukrainians march through central kyiv to honor Stepan Bandera, a controversial World War II-era partisan leader who turned side of Nazi Germany in its fight against the Soviet Union. Union, whom Vladimir Putin likes to quote in his speeches about the Nazis in Ukraine.
But at the polls, where it counts in a democracy, Ukraine’s far-right parties consistently receive nothing close to the 5% support needed to qualify for representation in parliament, and in society itself, their presence is minimal.
“There is anti-Semitism in Ukraine, just like there is anti-Semitism everywhere,” said Jewish-American journalist Anthony Bartaway, co-host of the Ukraine Without Hype podcast. news week. “But the far right in Ukraine is politically marginal and anti-Semitic violence is extremely rare.”
Until February 24, violence of any kind in Ukraine was similarly rare. Despite an eight-year conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-controlled separatists in the eastern Donbas region, Ukrainians living beyond the front lines can feel reasonably secure about their personal safety.
“There are always problems in life,” said Larissa, a hairdresser from a small town near Kherson, “but looking back now, it’s amazing how well we lived.”
For Larissa, all that changed in the first week of March, when Russian forces entered the southern areas of Ukraine along its border with occupied Crimea.
“When the column of Russian military vehicles passed through our town on the way to Energodar,” said Vladimir, Larissa’s husband, “they fired two rounds into our neighborhood. A house about 300 meters from ours was burned to the ground.”
“The children and the women were already in the basement,” Larissa recalled, “and the men were in the attic watching the vehicles go by. However, they came down to join us after the shooting started.”
During the following days, there was intense fighting in the area. After the region came under Russian control, Larissa participated in local pro-Ukrainian marches. On March 8, International Women’s Day, she received a call from an aunt in Russia.
“My aunt said, ‘We’ll free you from the Nazis and you’ll thank us,'” Larissa recalled. “Everyone in Russia seems to be sure that we have been dominated by the Nazis here, and yet somehow we ourselves did not realize this. At least, until February 24, we did not see any Nazis. Then the real Nazis came.”
Larissa and Vladimir, like Guran and Julia, have not spoken to their Russian relatives in several weeks.
“What is the point?” Vladimir asked. “We already know what they are going to say and they already know what we are going to say. Despite everything that has happened, nothing has changed.”