A brief history of Russian propaganda
A brief history of Russian propaganda

Suspilne Culture is launching a project on how Russia affected the development of Ukraine. Russia's attempts to destroy Ukrainian identity have been going on for quite some time. Top historians are here to explain just how Russians have been trying to destroy all things Ukrainian for several centuries.

We will publish both English and Ukrainian translations of these texts. Russia's informational aggression has been a part of the daily discourse for a long time, but especially acute after 2014's Maidan. Now we need to spread awareness abroad to show just how much of a bad influence Russia has always been.

Yaroslav Shpet, an author of Prostir media, leads us through the development of Russian propaganda from the XVI century to the war today. Prostir is a historical media dealing with complex pages of Ukraine's history in both English and Ukrainian, founded by Vadym Kyrylenko and Mykyta Rybakov, also hosts of Gogol`s Mustache podcast.

Ukrainian version is available here.

Scientific editing by Mykhailo Nazarenko.

Translated from Ukrainian by Ivan Korniienko.

Propaganda spearheaded Russia's aggression against Ukraine. It began with an hour-long speech where Putin addressed Russians while manipulating facts and declaring a bunch of narratives that Russian foreign politics and propaganda are built upon. They served as a foundation of attacks like this one and were meant to imbue them with some historical sense. Let's debunk some.

Moscow is the third Rome

Split depiction of Moscow as the "Third Rome", stylized as Orthodox icon, 2011
Split depiction of Moscow as the "Third Rome", stylized as Orthodox icon, 2011.

First coined in 1523 by orthodox monk Philotheus of Pskov, this ideological and theological concept creates a doctrine, where Moscow, as the nursery of orthodoxy is seen as the inheritor of the Roman Christian Empire. Accordingly, "first Rome" fell when heretic papists Latins chose it as the capital of their empire; "second Rome – Constantinople" was captured in 1453 by Muslim Turks.

So, Muscovy is considered to be the last great orthodox country and the world is sure to end without itEven though ever since Ekaterina II Russia didn't stop trying to claim Constantinople, the "third Rome" doctrine came to visibility only by the end of the ХІХ century – Editor`s Note.

But there are countries other than Muscovy that have had a much longer relationship with orthodoxy: Moldova, Serbia, Georgia, and others. More than that, some countries have higher orthodoxy percentages than modern Russia: Greece, Cyprus, and others.

Ukraine is okraina

Map (Ukraine or Land of the Cossacks with nearby provinces of Wallachia, Moldavia and Tartary, depicted by Johann-Baptist Homann, Nurnberg 1720
Map (Ukraine or Land of the Cossacks with nearby provinces of Wallachia, Moldavia and Tartary, depicted by Johann-Baptist Homann, Nurnberg 1720.

Moscow's propagandists often say that the etymology of Ukraine's name originates from "okraina", literally "outskirt" of either Russia or Poland, trying to question the very existence of this "so-called border country". Let's entertain that thought. So whose border was it? The name "Ukraine" is first mentioned in the Kyiv Chronicle of 1187 when the provincial town of Moscow was founded on the northern border of Kyivan Rus', while the Polish border was in western Halychyna. "The outskirts of Rus" is a more likely meaning of the word, the borders of Kyiv's territory with its southern neighbor. On maps from the XVII century, we see the definition of "the map of Ukraine, the land of cossacks", not a borderland, but a separate country

Ukrainians and Russians are the same peoples

Fragment from the page of Kyiv Psalter from 1397, a large format handwritten parchment of 229 pages, a memorial of middle ages book art of Ukraine
Fragment from the page of Kyiv Psalter from 1397, a large format handwritten parchment of 229 pages, a memorial of middle ages book art of Ukraine.

This narrative has a long story. Under the empire's reign, there was a story of united Rus' people from the middle ages that fell into many tribes during the shattering of the Rus', but Moscow has brought them all back together. Modern Russian narrative also adds a common soviet past.

Still, facts deny this idea of unity. Let's prove it on basis of language and religion because in the middle ages they were the main markers of ethnicity. Church Slavonic (written) was the only common language in the Rus'. Based on old Bulgarian, it served the same purpose Latin didBut east Slavonic origin doesn't infer belonging to the same nation. Ukrainians and Hindu people both came from Proto-Indo-Europeans, but nobody is trying to say we're one nation – Editor`s Note in Western Europe.

As for religious unity, it has disappeared in the XIII-XIV centuriesKyiv published religious books were burned as heretical in Moscow in XVII-XVIII century. Sounds like confessional differences, huh? – Editor`s Note, when Volodymyr, Halych, and Vilnius (all parts of Kyivan Rus') had separate metropolises.

Volodymyr Illich Lenin's Ukraine

Volodymyr Lenin on a vacation in Horky, 1922
Volodymyr Lenin on a vacation in Horky, 1922.

"Modern Ukraine was utterly and completely created by Russia <...> but Lenin & co. were rather rough towards Russia in doing so, they tore parts of its historical territories", said Putin on February 21st, 2022, thus explaining why the so-called “L/DNR” needed to be recognized as independent.

Obviously, he meant the separation of Donbas from Russia and connecting it to Ukraine. Well, that's also a false claim, because when the imperial government in St. Petersburg fell, eastern Ukrainian lands joined the newly formed Ukrainian People's Republic (UPR). Bolsheviks, on the other hand, created a puppet state in Kharkiv, on December 25th, called the Ukrainian People's Republic of Soviets, meant to counterbalance UPR. That done, bolsheviks still left Donbas to Ukrainians. Conclusion: nothing was given to Ukraine. Only occupation happened.

OUN and UIA are nazis

Unknown division of UIA
Unknown division of UIA.

In Russian propaganda, a myth has persisted for decades and now more than ever, about how OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and UIA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) were collaborationists. Here the narrative of Ukrainians lacking the will to independence comes into play – Moscow always looks for interessants in Berlin, Vien, or elsewhere. First of all, we must note that Nuremberg Tribunal didn't find either UIA or OUN to be criminal organizations. OUN did collaborate with Germany to find help in rebuilding Ukrainian statehood. But the main goal was to get help in fighting the criminal Soviet regime. Still, the collaboration that took place was never institutionalized. When the Act of Restoration of the Ukrainian State was declared on June 30th, 1941, more than 300 members of OUN were arrested, among them – Stepan Bandera and Yaroslav Stetsko. 15 of them were executed by firing squad.

"Pobedobesie"

Military parade in Red Square dedicated to the victory in WW II, 2014
Military parade in Red Square dedicated to the victory in WW II, 2014.

The true cornerstone of Russia's propaganda machine is the attempt to own victor's laurels in World War II. "PobedobesieA portmanteau of "победа" meaning "victory" and "бес" – "a devil/person possessed by one" – Translator" is nothing else than a modern version of Russian anti-western revanchism, used to spread the ideology of great victory over evil by the Russian people, over and over again.

But historically that's not true, because Ukraine (like all other countries that took part in World War II) has paid a horrible price for the victory. It's possible that Ukraine's price was the highest of them all. If we count Ukrainian soldiers in the Red Army, that'd be about seven million people, about a quarter of the total Armed forces of the USSR. And if we count the losses, that makes more than half of the eight million dead.

But Ukraine remembers the reasons for this war. The Molotov – Ribbentrop pact, signed by USSR and Germany on August 23, 1939, has opened the gate for it.

Ukraine is ruled by nazis and Russian speakers are exterminated there

President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, during a phone call with President of the USA Joe Biden, 2022
President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, during a phone call with President of the USA Joe Biden, 2022.

Let us start by saying that nazism is banned by law in Ukraine. But that's not the most important part. To prove the lackluster logic of Russian propagandists, let's take a look at how parties from the right score in the elections. Joint results of "National Corpus", "Svoboda" and "Pravy Sektor"Ukrainian nationalistic parties – Editor`s Note in the Verkhovna Rada elections of 2019 were 2,15% total. In the same year, Ukrainian nationalist parties had their own presidential candidate, who scored a whopping 1,6% of the votes. Volodymyr Zelensky, a candidate of Jewish origin, won with 74%. During his predecessor's presidency, Petro Poroshenko, Volodymyr Hroysman was the Prime Minister, also a man from a Jewish family.

Russian propaganda and narratives will continue being promoted inside and outside of Russia. Its aim is to distort the image of Ukraine and Ukrainians not only in the eyes of Russians but the whole world. But it won't be so easy anymore: the EU has severely restricted the activity of the largest Russian propaganda media Russia Today/RT and Sputnik in March 2022.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Suspilne Culture.

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