‘The Truth over the Dnieper’
The official newspaper of the regional military administration in Russian-occupied Kherson was called Naddniepryanskaya Pravda, or ‘The Truth over the River Dnieper’. When Ukraine’s army liberated Kherson last November, locals tore down the ‘forever with Russia’ billboards and burned the propaganda sheets in the streets. As with other pro-Moscow propaganda newspapers published across occupied Ukraine, behind this newspaper’s crass triumphalism lie some clues to the contours of Russian military rule and the terror of daily life under it.
Not every copy was burned, but it’s hard to get hold of now. Kherson is subject to relentless bombardment; my friends there could send me scans of the paper only with difficulty. The rest of Russia’s local propaganda outreach remains online. As the Ukrainian investigative site texty.ua discovered, the Russian authorities launched an extensive network of collaborationist Telegram channels for several Ukrainian regions before their invasion almost a year ago. Last August in Kherson they launched Tavriya TV, a pro-Russian television channel headed by Kirill Stremousov, a local fringe blogger who was appointed deputy head of the occupation government in April. He died in a car crash in November, shortly before the Russian withdrawal.
As Russian state media put it, the printed paper was aimed at the elderly, the poor and the internetless. It was to be freely available in shops, pharmacies, petrol stations and public buildings. According to Ukraine’s union of journalists it was established last July, following the Russian seizure of the Hryvnia print house in Kherson. Serhiy Nikitenko, the editor of the independent website Most, drew my attention to the attempt to appeal to Soviet nostalgia: a Soviet-era publication called Naddniepryanskaya Pravda had struggled through to the 2010s. The resurrected version had the USSR’s Order of Labour medal in its masthead with the words ‘published since March 1928’.
None of the stories carried bylines, but independent Ukrainian media claim to have identified local journalists who offered their services. Although several Kherson journalists have told me that Naddniepryanskaya Pravda interested few and convinced even fewer during the occupation, it demonstrates the system of incentives in place at the time and provide context for the choices some locals had to make. An appreciation of that may be crucial in determining the attitude of the Ukrainian government to its recently liberated citizens.
The diktats of the Moscow-appointed governor, Volodymyr Saldo, were prominent on the front pages. Last June, Saldo outlawed ‘propagandising terrorism’ and ‘discrediting’ or ‘disseminating false information’ about state institutions. All of these were already illegal in Russia. But in Kherson, the punishment was to be ‘summarily deported’ from the region – potentially a crime under international law.
An article in August claimed that thousands of Ukrainians were fleeing into Russian-occupied territories, attracted by the stability, family reunion and ‘lack of Nazism’. Chiefly, though, they were coming for the jobs. The paper advertised employment in the many institutions controlled or established by the Russians. Hundreds of positions needed to be filled: cleaners, librarians, accountants, medical staff. Even former Ukrainian soldiers who had fought in the east were welcome to apply for a job at the local interior ministry, with the oblique demand that they had ‘not committed crimes’.
The lack of teachers became a major preoccupation as the new school year approached in September. It was ‘intolerable’ that teachers could sit at home while ‘continuing to be paid by the Kyiv regime’. The arrival of several hundred teachers from Russia wasn’t enough. Mayak, a collaborationist newspaper from the Beryslav district in the north of Kherson Region, mocked teachers in the village of Novovoskresenske who refused to go to work ‘because they want to introduce Russian there’. The anonymous author wondered whether physics and maths were also ‘Muscovite’, and reminded recalcitrant doctors of the Hippocratic oath.
These reprimands came alongside grand claims of Russia’s capacity to send in the Stakhanovites and rebuild the Ukraine it refuses to admit it destroyed – a mainstay of many Naddniepryanskaya Pravda front covers. While Russia was constructing on a Soviet scale – look at the Kerch Bridge, connecting occupied Crimea to Russia’s mainland – ‘a new building has become a rare thing in so-called independent Ukraine.’ As another bonus for Kherson, severance from Ukraine meant reunification with Crimea.
One headline described Kherson as a land of ‘Russian people with Ukrainian passports’. Even the Ukrainian census of 2001, the article claimed, acknowledged that 97 per cent of the Kherson Region’s population were Russian. If you look at the census, this figure can only have been derived by adding together Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians. It is a telling calculation, implying that Ukrainian identity may exist only as a provincial form of Russianness, artificially inflated to a nationality by foreign powers. They were all strongly encouraged to apply for Russian citizenship: life would be possible without a Russian social security number, ‘but it will be like the 1990s’.
Naturally, there were warnings of Nazis, defined by one anonymous contributor as those who ‘forbid being proud and remembering. They excise everything Russian: monuments, culture, language.’ An article on fascist movements in Ukraine was illustrated with a photograph of a far-right march in Moscow in 2012. Russia’s invading troops were not met with flowers, the paper claimed, only because the locals were too afraid after years of bans on overt pro-Russian activism. This is not so much about winning Ukrainians’ hearts and minds as restoring them to supposed factory settings.
As Ukraine’s counteroffensive crept closer to Kherson, the confident propaganda morphed uneasily into crisis messaging. It didn’t matter, the paper claimed, that the ‘monkeys with HIMARS’ had shelled the Antonovskyi Bridge, which connected the city to the Russian-occupied territory east of the Dnieper. ‘Normal life is gathering pace in the region,’ Naddniepryanskaya Pravda reported. ‘The only people who won’t see it are delusional, living in parallel realities created by Ukrainian propaganda.’
The Russian forces withdrew from Kherson on 11 November, taking their ‘truth’ with them across the Dnieper. Occasional copies can be still found for sale on Ukrainian auction websites, alongside other trophies that Kyiv’s soldiers have taken from the frontlines. Publishing continues on the other side of the river; a December issue of Naddniepryanskaya Pravda announced that Russian troops will return to the city of Kherson, which they describe as ‘temporarily occupied by Ukraine’.
With thanks to Marc Bennetts, Olena Makarenko and Evgeniya Virlich