I was born and raised in the Soviet Union, a heavily indoctrinated society. The only Soviet doctrine my heart responded to was “war is a tragedy and should never happen again.” Now we know that the Soviet regime was not living what it preached, but the concept of “never again” is forever engraved into our minds. Whenever there was a problem in our daily lives, my generation used to say: “Well, at least there is no war” and there was no arguing about that.
We have now lost this argument. Over a year into the biggest war in Europe of the 21st century, I still can’t believe that we are living in our worst nightmare, and there is no waking up from it.
While it is becoming clear that the “second most powerful army” was a hoax and Putin is unable to win on the battlefield, he is clearly winning the war for the minds of millions of Russians.
The fratricidal slaughter Russia launched against Ukraine has once again demonstrated that information is a weapon as powerful and deadly as tanks and missiles.
There is an old Soviet joke, where Napoleon says: “No one would know that I lost the battle at Waterloo if my newspaper had been Pravda’’ . The sad fact is that the blatant lies spoken by autocratic regimes have always been disguised and presented to their population as truth. The autocrats worked, and continue to work, to create a parallel universe in the minds of millions, where their doctrines fit right in and become an alternative Ten Commandments which the population under their control are willing to uphold.
It came as no surprise that George Orwell’s 1984 was named as one of the most read books in 2022 in Russia. I was struck by how precisely the prophetic genius of Orwell described Russian efforts today to alter the past, so that a mutilated version of the past could justify the atrocities being committed by the regime.
Putin regime’s propaganda has succeeded in creating a parallel reality for millions of Russians.
Many have come to love the Big Brother and believe that the best they can achieve in their otherwise meaningless lives is to die for Him on the fields of Ukraine. Putin says to die in battle is better than dying from excessive drinking or in a road accident (remarkably, he offers no alternatives to this, as if living a happy and fulfilled life in Russia today somehow is not an option). With hundreds of Russian media, of all types, fed by and loyal to Putin screaming in unison that ‘War is Peace’ and black is white, it is next to impossible for an average Russian to believe otherwise.
The cost of Putin’s propaganda to the Russian nation is enormous, in terms of massive loss of life by unskilled and ill-equipped combatants; collapse of the country’s reputation and its isolation from the western world; deterioration of the Russian economy and budget deficit. The stream of laws from the mad printing-house of the Russian State Duma creating a pretence of legality to the regime’s oppressive actions has succeeded in shutting down every independent or non-conformist voice in Russia. None are left now. Those few who dared calling the war “war” and not a “special military operation” – a euphemism invented by the regime to disguise the unjust and murderous nature of their invasion of Ukraine – are now serving prison terms.
Where does this leave the likes of me who live in Russia, struggle not to succumb to the poisonous propaganda and want to know what is actually happening on the battle fields, how the world is reacting to this and whether we will eventually see the light at the end of the tunnel?
The short answer is via the Internet. While the Putin regime got a tight grip on Russian TV, radio, and newspapers, they are unable to conquer the World Wide Web.
While Putin is trying to shut ‘the window to Europe’ once opened for Russia by Peter the Great, there are still gaps through which the truth about the war in Ukraine is trickling.
Currently we can use VPNs to access websites banned by the Russian regime, the undefeated Telegram and YouTube, although the country is rife with rumours of the upcoming repressions against those. Professional independent Russian media like Meduza, Novaya Gazeta Europe, TV Rain, numerous Telegram channels run by Russian opposition, independent experts and civil rights activists, after 90% of them were forced to flee Russia, are now working from abroad. There are also giants like BBC and CNN providing continuous coverage of the developments in Ukraine and running their own investigations into the atrocities committed by Russian military personnel on Ukrainian land. If you want the undistorted facts, you have to make an effort, but they are out there. As a popular book says, “Seek, and ye shall find.”
Sadly, few are trying, many preferring to keep their head in the sand and believe what their television tells them. That one of the reasons support for the invasion of Ukraine remains high in Russia. The rampant propaganda is definitely earning its keep. According to Russian official sources, 78% Russians trust President Putin and 70% support the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Even to those sceptical about the reliability of Russian government statistics, these seem alarmingly high.
Here are a few examples of how pro-government Russian media and officials portray the same events compared to independent Russian and international sources. If you are an average Russian age 60 or over, or a younger one but not a keen internet user, and you spend hours watching Russian TV, all you get is the right-hand column. What would the war in Ukraine look like to you?
|Independent sources||Russian pro-government sources|
|Why did Russia invade Ukraine on 24.02.2022?|
|In a revisionist attempt to re-create the once-powerful Soviet Union and challenge the role of the USA as the world leading power, Putin’s regime launched the war to install their puppet government in Ukraine but met with unexpected resistance to their invasion and unprecedented support of Ukraine by the international community.||Russia had no choice. We had to pre-empt the upcoming attack on Russia by NATO and Ukraine. Russia needed to “de-Nazify” and “de-militarise” Ukraine. We had to stand up for Russian-speaking population of Ukraine oppressed by the Kyiv regime run by the Nazi and drug-user Zelensky. We had to protect the people of Donetsk and Luhansk who had lived for eight years under the bombing by Ukrainian regime|
|Bombing of municipal hospital N 3 in Mariupol on 09.03.2022|
|Russian military aviation destroyed the hospital N3 in Mariupol killing 5 people, including a pregnant woman and a baby, and wounding at least 17. Shocking photo and video evidence portraying wounded pregnant women and destroyed hospital building was published.||All photo and video evidence of the incident is fake and staged by Ukrainians. There were armed Ukrainian nationalist militants based at the hospital, who had forced out the pregnant women, new mothers and medical staff well before the bombing took place.|
|Bombing of Mariupol Drama Theatre on 16.03.2022|
|Ignoring the large sign “Children” in front of the building, Russian aviation bombed the theatre in Mariupol where some 600-1,300 civilians, mostly women and children, sought shelter. The attack left some 300-600 people dead, but the exact number of victims remains unconfirmed.||Russian aviation hit no ground targets within the city of Mariupol on 16 March. We have information that the militants of the Ukrainian nationalist Azov battalion committed yet another terrorist attack by laying and detonating mines in the Theatre.|
|Massacre in Bucha during its occupation by Russian military|
|Russian military committed severe war crimes against the civil population in Bucha, including torture, rape and extrajudicial execution. In the mass graves, there are hundreds of bodies, including women and children, blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their backs.||This is yet another crime of the Kyiv regime aiming to escalate the violence. Russian military was not involved in the crimes in Bucha, and all publicised material to this effect is a provocation. Not a single civilian was hurt while the Russian troops remained in Bucha.|
|Bombing of a residential house in Dnipro on 14.01.2023|
|During a massive air strike, a Russian missile hit a residential building in Dnipro killing 45 residents including 6 children. At of 17.01.23, 70 people were wounded and 20 still missing.||The blame for the accident is on the Ukrainian air defence, which hit the strategically targeted Russian missile causing its deviation from the initial trajectory. The tragedy occurred because Ukraine places their air defence systems in between residential buildings.|
There is no consensus among those Russians who are against this war, if we, as a nation, should accept the blame for the atrocities in Ukraine when we have no control over our autocratic government. I have no answer to that, but one thing I know for sure: at the very least, we should make an effort to seek and find the truth about this war. We owe all those who are suffering that, and so much more.
The author is Russian and lives in Moscow, but their name is withheld for their own security.
In collaboration with Karen Culver
 Pravda (Truth in Russian) was the main Soviet newspaper, and a key tool of communist propaganda in the Soviet Union.