Since Feb. 24, I can feel the weight of every breath I draw. It’s a surreal scenario, to wake up one morning and read that the president of the country you were born in, and are still a citizen of, invaded our neighbours. It seems impossible to believe.
Perhaps, as a Russian national who grew up in Italy and has lived in Canada for five years, I was living in a privileged bubble, unaware of the division and propaganda inside the country I come from. Perhaps, I subconsciously focused on other news in the past few months, ignoring what is now a reality: A barbaric invasion of the country so many of us have family and friends in, and perhaps the first step in Vladimir Putin’s endgame to rebuild either the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire, no matter who lives or dies.
In 2005, Vladimir Putin famously expressed that the fall of the Soviet Union was the biggest geopolitical tragedy of the last century. Over the past 22 years, he has ruled Russia with an iron fist, installing various puppet governments around him and creating a false sense of stability and power rooted in corruption and nationalism. Federal elections are a sham. His most famous opponents include Boris Nemtsov, assassinated seven years ago outside the Kremlin, and Alexei Navalny, who was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in 2020 and is now imprisoned on phony charges.
Today, Putin claims he is saving Russians who are victims of a genocide in Ukraine. He claims Russians are being stripped of their basic rights. Above all, he is convinced that it is up to him to “denazify” Ukraine. In his recent speeches, he has not recognized Ukraine as a sovereign country.
Though the claim to “denazify” Ukraine might seem completely preposterous, it’s worth noting that Ukraine did and does have a problem with neo-Nazi and far-right groups. However, it’s also worth noting that Ukraine is a sovereign nation, capable of solving internal problems with the help of its own, democratically elected, government. And while the conflict in the Donbass — a separatist region on the border with Russia — has truly been going on for eight years, invading a whole country without even openly declaring war certainly violates international law.
For many Russians, living in or out of the country or abroad, the horror happening in Ukraine hits very close to home. Some of us have friends and family hiding and fleeing from the war and destruction our government is inflicting, and most of us have family and friends who don’t even believe the war is actually happening, or even worse, are excusing it.
Seeing real footage of the war won’t enlighten nearly as many people as one might think. The propaganda in Russia goes much deeper.
Part of me always understood that Russia isn’t a democracy. And a part of me has always been ashamed of my origins because of the homophobic and nationalist rhetoric I am accustomed to hearing from my fellow nationals. What I seemed to be completely oblivious to was the danger of political propaganda within Russia. In the country, the war is called a “special military operation.” Spreading “fake news” about the war can cost teachers, journalists or ordinary citizens posting on social media up to 15 years in prison.
As of March 8, Russian police had arrested up to 14,000 protesters since the beginning of the war, the director of the CIA estimated, including elderly people and children. Independent media networks have been shut down, including TV Rain and radio station Echo. For Russians opposing the brutal regime, this is the beginning of a new era: an enhanced government crackdown on freedom, more internal propaganda, poverty and total isolation from the rest of the world.
This, of course, pales in comparison to the pain and horror Ukrainians feel as they try to survive. And while I’ve been oscillating between grief, shame, sorrow and anger these past two weeks, I asked myself how we got here as a people.
When I started posting about the war, distant relatives and acquaintances from Russia started unfollowing me, some even calling me a traitor and an embarrassment. At first, I was confused: are there really two sides to the situation? Then I realized how over 20 years of state-owned propaganda television can shape the thoughts of generations of people.
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What most people outside Russia might not understand about Russian propaganda is that it doesn’t stop at fabricated scenarios depicting a fantasy where there is no war and all Western news media is fake. Seeing real footage of the war won’t enlighten nearly as many people as one might think. The propaganda in Russia goes much deeper.
Russians have been brainwashed into believing that Vladimir Putin has saved us from financial instability, crime, Western aggression and Russophobia. If it wasn’t for him, many would say, the West would destroy the Russian Federation.
While it seems hard to believe that millions of people endorse this rhetoric, too many Russians are convinced that the world hates them because they are Russian. Unlike many people of colour, we are not automatically labelled as terrorists, criminals or COVID superspreaders, yet so many have bought into this myth.
This mentality is not only unhealthy, but extremely dangerous. Once you believe the world hates you, anything can be excused, even a war. While thousands are being arrested and some beaten for standing up to the regime, many are remaining silent and even justifying what is happening, believing that Vladimir Putin is doing what is right.
Perhaps COVID vaccine discussions have warmed us up to this new reality, where the lines between what is a personal choice and our moral and societal duty seem to be increasingly more blurred. But our lives, however this crisis unfolds, are never going to be the same. And we all need to decide what we will tell our children and grandchildren when they ask us where we stood.
Albina Retyunskikh is a copywriter and freelance journalist based in Montreal.
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