They say the word “disinformation” originally comes from the Russian word dezinformatsiya. Appropriate as Russia is one of the biggest sources of disinformation and its invasion of Ukraine is now one of the biggest sources of propaganda, fake news and lies. To paraphrase an old adage, there now seems to be three sides to every aspect of war: Russia’s, Ukraine’s and the truth.
When I was recently at the Ukrainian border, I spent what little free time I had reading Western news coverage and trying to get a bird’s-eye view of events. But the problem is that a bird’s-eye view is low-resolution, and I noticed many reports that didn’t match what I saw on the ground, what I heard from experts, or what Ukrainians and Poles told me. So much of this reporting simplified aspects of the war to fit specific narratives.
For example, there is Vladimir Putin’s claim that he wants to denationalize and denazify Ukraine. It sounds like the country is being infested by SS troops holding Ukrainians hostage ahead of reunification with Russia. Or maybe Putin thinks the public is also part of the problem, a nation of Hitler’s true believers. Meanwhile, many of Putin’s opponents are saying that there is no Nazi problem in Ukraine and that this is a cynical lie to justify his imperialist land grabs. The truth is, they’re both wrong.
In fact, Ukraine has a Nazi problem. Not only does anti-Semitic attacks remain a problem, but there is an alarming level of violence against Roma, Asians, Blacks, Muslims, Tatars and the LGBT community. The US State Department once called Ukraine’s Interregional Academy of Personnel Management (MAUP) “one of the… most anti-Semitic institutions in Eastern Europe.” In 2005, MAUP invited David Duke as a guest speaker.
On the other hand, attacks do occur, but are not all that common. In 2020, police registered 203 hate crimes. Neo-Nazi parties do exist, but they have little power. In 2012, the ethnically ultranationalist Svoboda party won over 10 percent of the vote in parliament, but its power has since shrunk to less than 2 percent in 2019. And of course President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a Jew. Not to mention the victims of the Russian invasion and the bodies currently filling the mass graves in Bucha are innocent civilians, not Wehrmacht infantry.
Then there is the argument that Western nations care more about Ukraine because the victims are white. Comparisons are often made with the Syrian refugee crisis. There is definitely racism at play here. Magazine of the New York Times Reporter Nicole Hannah Jones retweeted a series of examples from reporters describing the invasion of this “relatively civilized” nation compared to other parts of the world and lamenting that “blonde-haired, blue-eyed Europeans are being killed”. But there is more to it than that.
For one thing, it is understandable that European nations, especially Eastern European nations, would pay more attention to a war in Eastern Europe. It also makes sense that nations everywhere would invest more in a war that could lead to global economic ruin, nuclear conflict, or World War III, compared to other recent wars that didn’t seem to carry these risks.
When it comes to sympathy for refugees, people are no doubt more inclined to feel sorry for women and children fleeing the war, and while 71 percent of Syrian refugees were men, virtually none of the Ukrainian refugees are men, and those who are men , they are predominantly over 60 years of age or disabled. Ukrainian refugees are mostly women and children, and about half of them are children. They are therefore seen as less of a threat, which partly explains why other communities have been more hospitable.
Finally, we have the idea that Ukrainians hate Russians or are pro-Russian or are actually Russians. Almost every Ukrainian I’ve met or spoken to easily distinguishes Putin and the Russian government from the Russian people. That’s because Ukrainians are actually part Russians. But this is in part the result of decades of deliberate Russian population manipulation and Russification through imperialism and conquest.
As for Russianness proper, the truth is: it’s complicated. Many Ukrainians, like Mila Kunis, have long identified as Russian because it’s easier that way. Many others do this because there is truth.
My own family is Russian. My grandmother was born in the Siberian city of Vladivostok. But my grandfather and his family were from the region that is now Belarus and Ukraine, and like many Ukrainians today, they were culturally Russian because they were Russified. My father grew up speaking Russian, just like Zelenskyj’s mother tongue is Russian. My favorite food is pelmeni, and every Easter my babushka makes kulich. And yet almost every time I meet a native Russian, the classic suffix -ko in my name catches my eye and says, “Ukrainian, da?”
The truth is cumbersome and wordy and doesn’t fit into headlines. We have a digital media environment that is amazingly adept at not just propagating nuanced discourse, but simply propagating anything that propagates. And that makes a differentiated discourse more valuable than ever. Especially when the stakes are as high as they are now.