An attempt to understand how Russian propaganda works
On Thursday, March 18, 2022, 41-year-old father of two Sergey woke up in a festive mood. Nothing interesting happens in his small Siberian village of Karymskoe, located in southeastern Russia. There’s not a single theatre, museum or club, and people are busy with their crops, chickens and cows. But today the local government is holding a special event, an auto convoy, to celebrate the anniversary of the reunification [The Russian media and officials call this event “reunification”, while the rest of the world uses the term “annexation”] of Crimea with Russia and to express support for the Russian army that is fighting in Ukraine.
Sergey polished his car and inflated balloons for his children. He didn’t think much about the rationale for the event. He has never been interested in politics, but the TV told him that Russian troops are freeing Ukraine from Nazis.
“Of course I support the Russian army,” Sergey tells me a few days later. “My daughter and I spent the whole evening drawing the letter “Z” [Letter Z has become the symbol of war for Russia] on cars.” I asked if he knew what “Z” stands for. Sergey looked at me as if it was a very strange question.”I guess it means you’re a patriot,” he replied after a long pause.
On Thursday, March 18, 2022, the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, Lyudmila woke up in Ukrainian Mariupol to the sound of an air raid siren. During the 18-day blockade of their city by Russian troops, she had almost become used to it and moved very quickly: she woke her daughter, took the emergency bag, and together with her brother and his family ran to the bomb shelter.
“When the attacks started, my daughter and I came to live with my brother,” she says. “His flat is on the first floor; it’s closer to the basement. We try to stick together; some of us cook on a fire in the yard, others search for food and water.”
There’s no access to drinking water since all life support systems have been destroyed. Lyudmila tried to get water from sewer pipes, but it contained chemicals. “The happiest event for us was the snowfall,” she says. “We could melt the snow and drink.”
I spent all my childhood in that small Siberian village where my relatives and friends (or people who used to be friends) celebrate the war. Since I left for Australia 10 years ago I have only been there once and spent the whole week going from one house to another where everyone tried to feed and entertain me.
We didn’t talk about politics, because politics for these people was something abstract, happening thousands of kilometres away, in Moscow. And now, when I see their social media profiles marked with “Z”, I ask myself: did I miss a chance to tell them something important? How did it happen that these nice and kind people support the murder of other nice and kind people? And would I have done the same if I had stayed there?
Thousands of people in Ukraine and around the world whose relatives in Russia support a “special military operation”, as the Russian authorities order people to call it, are asking the same questions. Just saying the word “war” in public today can lead to fines and arrests in Russia, and there were already arrests made even for the encrypted message against the war: the picketer Dmitry Reznikov was fined for a poster with asterisks instead of the words “No War “ (“Нет войне” in Russian).
In the reality of increasing repression, fewer and fewer people dare to protest openly, while the majority sincerely believe the TV more than even their own relatives from Ukraine. A few weeks ago, CNN published the story of a famous Ukrainian restaurateur, Misha Katsurin, whose father lives in Russia and doesn’t believe his son who tells him there’s a real war in Ukraine. I talked to Misha a few weeks later when his dad had completely stopped communicating with him.
“On the second day of the war I realised that my father didn’t call me,” Misha recalls. “It was strange, because he was supposed to be worried. I called him and heard that we had nothing to worry about; the Russian soldiers only target the Nazis and we need to be patient.”
Misha said that the next day he called again, recorded their conversation and posted it on Instagram.
“This post got thousands of comments, people wrote that they faced the same problem. According to the last census, 11 million relatives of Ukrainians live in Russia. And for them I started the website Papa, believe.”
The website contains tips on how to talk to relatives in Russia who are under the influence of propaganda. “Call your loved ones in Russia,” it says. “They were lied to for 20 years. It’s hard for them. And they are already scared. Help them; tell the truth. It will be difficult, they will not believe at first, there will be hatred. But lies cannot beat the truth. Once most loved ones believe each other – the war will end!”
After two months of war, Misha’s dad stopped picking up the phone. “Dad got a call from the Russian authorities and is now afraid to talk to me.” Misha sounds hopeless.
I get the same feeling of hopelessness after talking with my Siberian relatives about the war. For several days I couldn’t come to my senses after speaking with my distant aunt Galina, a 75-year-old librarian from Karymskoe. Galina doesn’t read news on the Internet, calling it a “garbage heap”, but she watches Russian official television because there is “verified information”. And recently the TV told her about the Ukrainian biological laboratories where bats and flies were infected to exterminate the Slavic nation.
“You remember last winter I lost all my chickens,” she says to me. “I bought new ones, and the same story. Only now I realised that those flies from Ukraine infected my chickens.”
This sounds so crazy that I want to laugh and cry at the same time.
“Fortunately, not all Russians believe in propaganda,” says Olga Yurkova, a Ukrainian journalist, researcher, and co-founder of Stop.Fake.
She’s talking to me via Zoom from a town in Western Ukraine, where she had to temporarily evacuate from Kyiv. Yurkova has been monitoring Russian media for the last eight years. In that time she has published several papers on Russian propaganda, and identified its 18 main narratives and several target audiences.
“The downing of Malaysian Boeing MH17 was surrounded by the largest amount of fake news in Russian media with very different versions of events. At first I couldn’t understand why there were so many contradictory scenarios if all the Russian propaganda is conducted from a single centre. But then it became clear that this is special technology for creating information noise: when a general reader sees so many different versions in their news feed, they get the feeling that ‘everyone is lying’. That’s the most dangerous thing, because even when this person comes across the truth they will not recognise or believe it.”
Yurkova studied the propaganda of the First and Second World Wars and explains that wartime propaganda works according to its own rules.
“The simpler it is, the more effective it is,” she says. “After the world saw images from Bucha, which were taken by not one, not two, but dozens of journalists from the most reputable media, the Kremlin simply stated that it was all fake and that the West wanted to slander Russia. And ordinary news consumers in Russia are so accustomed to believing TV that even such primitive lies work perfectly.”
Russia is now the most sanctioned country and the world hopes people in Russia will feel the consequences of the sanctions and let the authorities understand that the war must end now.
There was never McDonald’s, Ikea, or Zara in Sergey’s village. He noticed that the flour, from which he bakes bread in his small bakery, has risen in price. But he’s not afraid of financial difficulties because “people who grew up in the ’90s can’t be scared by any sanctions’.”
“Now it’s the time to unite around our president,” Sergey texts me and sends another video about “Ukrainian Nazis”, which I immediately delete, as if my phone would become infected from it. In response, I send him a link to the “Voices from Ukraine” podcast series, which my team at SBS has been producing since the beginning of the war. I’m 99 per cent sure he’ll do the same with my link as I did with his. But there is still one per cent of hope, and I hold on to it. I also hold on to the hope that even if I still lived in Russia, I would be creating this very podcast today.