Friday, 18 March 2022

The Politics of Whitewashing

Halyna Kruk, a Ukranian poet, member of the Ukrainian PEN

One of the worst mistakes of war is to underestimate the enemy. Many of us are engaged and focused on defense at home, so naturally there is no point in being distracted by what is happening outside the country. That is why, since the first days of the Russian attack, there has been a surprising, disappointing and worrying information policy, with a large part of the Ukrainian airwaves devoted to the so-called Russian liberal pundits who are opposed to the Putin regime.

What is worrying is that this is giving rise to another angle in our internal information space, from which the enemy ceases to be an enemy at all, and the idea is gently but persistently being put forward that Russia is heterogeneous, that part of Russia is not the enemy, that that part of the enemy must be sympathised with because they support us, that far from all of Russia is fighting us and that this must be taken into account.

All those pictures of Russian protests, where unarmed protesters are being dragged into vans and beaten with sticks, all those calculations of the percentage of protesters to the total population, all those calls from unhappy, snivelling and tearful Russian boys on the phone to their mothers - this is a very worrying trend of information policy in a war.

I understand the purpose and the reason for it, but it has not been thought about the fact that in the inner field of information, Ukrainian women and mothers are also listening to these conversations, and they are affected by it in their own way.

To humanise the enemy, to show their human motivation, to show them not as an army that attacks, kills and destroys, but as individual people who are doing something not of their own free will, but through coercion, under the pressure of official Russian policy, is now extremely harmful.

First of all, it undermines the fighting spirit, the morale of the army.

Secondly, it gives civilians in the occupied territories the false hope that they will be treated humanely.

Thirdly, and most importantly, it becomes an evidence base for those European citizens and institutions that still cannot recognise the Ukrainian crisis as a war. And this angle is not accidental; this ground has been prepared by Russia for decades, and it is a mandatory part of Russia's foreign policy abroad, which also includes cultural strategy.

Since the first days of the war, the policy of "Russian whitewashing" has been intensified in Europe, and its main narratives and tendencies are visible to the naked eye.

Together with the first reports of the Russian offensive, the first pictures of shelling, the first civilian casualties mentioned in European public sphere, on social networks and in the comments on official news from Ukraine, alternative voices have been raised, trying to refute the facts and the photographic reports of the attack and destruction as lies, as exaggerations, as events caused by the Ukrainian army itself, as provocations and manipulations, exerting psychological pressure on Europe.

Some of these narratives were even very successful from the outset, falling on the fertile ground of Russian sympathies and Russian-fed Western institutions. Eventually, the escalation reached a point where the enemy had to abandon this narrative and other forces were brought into play.

In the early days of the war, some cultural institutions in Sweden, Germany and Italy independently of each other started to organise pro-Ukraine campaigns under the common apolitical slogan "no to war". Ukrainian authors were invited to take part in these campaigns alongside Russian authors who were also against the war.

The organisers of such discussions argued that they wanted to show that not everyone in Russia is in favour of the war, that the war was initiated by Putin, and that Russian citizens, and in particular people of culture, were therefore hostages of the situation and could not be subject to sanctions, exclusion and boycott policies.

And the fact that Russia started a war against Ukraine as early as 2014 and that prominent

Russian cultural figures have had 8 years to speak out publicly against the war and against the aggressive policies of their own country does not convince my Western colleagues.

Some cultural institutions even started to treat Russians as victims and offered them shelter and support on an equal footing with Ukrainians. As one scholar from Germany wrote in a commentary, 'they are victims because they have been brainwashed to believe every lie told by their government’.

I think we don't really understand the consequences of a centralised big-power media and a generalised rewriting of history (starting with education) to make the country look big and powerful, because we could grow up and live in an open democracy.

The familiar arguments started pouring in about the greatness of Russian culture, about Ukrainian russophobia (Coelho's tweet), about aggressive and militant Ukrainian nationalism, which supposedly threatens the whole of Europe if it is allowed (conversation with another well-known writer), about Ukrainian xenophobia, etc.

University Professor Martin J. Shtift, in response to my article on the Ukrainian PEN website about how the great Russian culture has long been a Trojan horse and a cover for the Russian policy of conquest, and should now be boycotted, accused me of:

1) incitement to hatred; 2) ethnocide of Russians; 3) degradation of their human dignity.

And he claimed that such publication of the Ukrainian PEN Club is propaganda, worse than the Russian one, because it shows the distortions of the last 100 years of history (here, of course, he did not hesitate to accuse the Ukrainians of "glorifying the Bandera times" and to add that even Nazi literature did not contain such calls). A wonderful set of values that a part of cultured Europe uses to distance itself from the war and Ukraine.

Similar narratives and arguments have been and are actively circulating in the cultural and academic communities of Europe, through authoritative figures, and are achieving their goals of causing confusion and creating an alternative reality to the news of Russia's war against Ukraine. It replaces the real ethnocide that Russia has been carrying out in Ukraine for three weeks now with a 'cultural ethnocide' of Russians, Russians who are threatened with nothing but external sanctions and internal repression. However, this is not Ukraine's fault in the first case or, even more so, in the second.

There is no point for Ukrainians to debate from this point of view, so this narrative continues to persist.

Another trend that the enemy in Europe will take up is the discrediting of Ukrainian refugees wherever possible, the aggressive prejudicing against them of the citizens of the various countries that have accepted large numbers of refugees, the accusations of various threats, the incitement of hatred and so on.

Such demonstrations have already taken place in some German cities, initiated by the Russian diaspora. After all, the shift in the focus of the world's major media from news about the war in Ukraine to protest sentiments inside Russia is also one of these alarming information trends.

The fatigue and irritation about the war in Ukraine, which is slowly building up in the prosperous countries of Europe, risks, over time, to be transferred to the Ukrainians themselves, especially if the informational accents for this are skilfully placed.

European policy of whitewashing Russia is very dangerous indeed, because it is the result of effective Russian propaganda. It distorts the situation beyond recognition, presents it in the opposite light, and, by appealing to democratic and humanist European values, casts doubt on the news from Ukraine.

Sympathy for the aggressor, while devaluing the victims of the aggressor, despite the thousands of Ukrainians killed by the Russians and the millions of damaged lives, proves that a large number of Europeans are still unable to admit their mistakes and to overcome their mental-psychological sympathies and addictions, which have been formed over the course of centuries, and which we Ukrainians are now having to fight against on an external informational front, as if an internal front were not enough for us.


 Translated by Paulina Pukytė







Lietuvos kultūros taryba
Lietuvos Respublikos kutūros ministerija
EU: Creative Europe