When Putin’s holy war began Alexey checked himself into a psychiatric ward. He had come back to Russia in 2012 after working as a journalist in London, where we met (I had just moved to London after a decade in Moscow). The protests against Putin were cresting, and change seemed imminent. ‘London is boring, everything has already happened here,’ Alexey said. ‘Russia is extreme but exciting. Real history is being made now.’ He got a job at RIA Novosti, the state-owned news agency and beacon of Medvedev’s media ‘reforms’, designed to prove that the Kremlin could be objective and transparent when it wanted to be. RIA’s reporting was fair, its live streams of crooked trials against dissidents were a must-see. Alexey edited Ino.Smi, an online site that translates the best writing on Russia from around the world, including the most critical things about Putin you could find. But with Putin’s return to the presidency the Kremlin’s approach to information changed.
RIA Novosti was killed off and merged into Russia Today. Alexey’s new boss was Dmitry Kiselev, one-time mouthpiece of perestroika who is now the mouthpiece of Holy Russia, using his primetime shows to call for the burning of homosexuals’ body parts (so they don’t infect potential organ recipients with gay DNA). ‘My approach is somewhat theatrical,’ he told Alexey and other staff on his first day, ‘but I stand by every word.’ RIA began to change. The live streams of trials stopped. Hope for a rebellion against the new masters faded when a poll inside the organisation showed that some two-thirds of employees didn’t care what ideology prevailed: it was just a job. ‘At Moscow State Journalism School they have people like Deputy Minister of Communications Volin telling students that journalism is basically a propaganda tool,’ Alexey says. ‘So many young hacks just shrug and accept it.’ (In a speech in 2013 Volin had said that students should be given ‘a clear understanding that they are going to work for the Boss, and the Boss will tell them what to write, what not to write and how this or that thing should be written, and the Boss has the right to do it, because he pays them.’)
Kiselev would wear orange trousers and bright green socks to work. His shows warned that paedophiles were taking over the EU; that it’s normal in Sweden for nine-year-olds to have sex but by 12 they are impotent. Alexey began to have trouble sleeping. He drank more. The people who worked for him wanted to know what the future held but he had no answer. He started having panic attacks on his way to the office. He drank to get over them, which didn’t help. Then he added antidepressants. One night he went on a booze-pill binge and woke up blue and mumbling in hospital. He booked himself into a psychiatric treatment-and-research department in the north of Moscow.
I realised Alexey was in a hospital ward when I saw the photos he was posting on Facebook: ‘Welcome to my new home,’ he joked. It seemed fitting that my Facebook feed was filling up with posts from a mental institution. As the conflict over Ukraine intensified my social media feeds became more and more unsettling. Acquaintances from Moscow, the ‘creatives’ who make up the semi-mythical Russian middle class – that normally apolitical but vaguely anti-Putin iPhone crowd who’d joined the protests in 2011 and 2012 – were suddenly frothing with patriotic passion. I imagined myself in some downmarket horror movie where you wake to find your neighbours are vampires, with little ultra-patriotic bite marks on their necks.
The early symptoms often took the form of harmless scepticism about the protests in Ukraine and whether they were genuine. ‘Who is behind the Maidan?’ people would write, or they’d say: ‘Those poor Ukrainians are being taken for a ride.’ Soon the conspiracy-mongering got worse. ‘It’s clear the West is behind all these events,’ Eduard Boyakov, the bohemian head of Russia’s most avant-garde theatre festival, wrote. ‘Absolutely obvious.’ I didn’t pay much attention at first. A conspiratorial mind-set is the default of Putinism, inherited from the late Soviet period: ‘Perestroika came much too late,’ Alexander Yakovlev, one of Gorbachev’s mentors, remembered. ‘The years of social stagnation almost killed social idealism … sowing cynicism, disbelief and social lassitude.’ In the 1990s this attitude was strengthened by reforms that weren’t reforms, and kept going by the creation of puppet political parties and fake civil society bodies which no one takes at face value.
The Kremlin has, however, become adept at turning Russian scepticism towards their rulers to its own advantage, actively promoting a conspiracy-driven view of everything that happens in the world. Once you stop trusting your own institutions you’re easily convinced that everything, everywhere is a sham and that events are directed by a hidden hand. Russian TV is full of chat shows about Scientologists in cahoots with Greek-Catholics and Masons to take over the Russian near-abroad, or Swedes who want to avenge their defeat at the hands of Peter the Great (that pearl came from Kiselev). It’s hard to find anyone who takes this stuff literally, but it helps to create a climate in which conspiracy becomes the norm. The Ukrainian crisis has also triggered other, far less savoury associations. At one point my wife clicked on a series of Facebook posts by an old (Russian) schoolmate showing pictures of a blood-splattered American eagle with the tag: ‘The Americans first killed the Red Indians – now they’re interested in Ukraine.’ This was fairly standard, but a little later Mr Burns from The Simpsons morphed into Lord Rothschild. The line read: ‘You know who is behind it all.’
The Kremlin celebrated the annexation of Crimea with fireworks – and the fervour on my Facebook feed grew. Eduard Limonov, a great writer who in the 1970s wrote frankly of his homosexual experiences and went on to become a hard-core anti-Putin revolutionary, was now encouraging Putin to expand the invasion and ‘harden the metal while it is still hot’. Now was the moment for Moscow’s Pounds and Marinettis to emerge as cheerleaders of the new imperialism. Former cultural heroes – mine anyhow – signed a public letter of support for Crimean ‘reunification’. ‘This guy came from the Culture Ministry and said if I didn’t sign I’d lose my band,’ one musician explained. ‘What could I do?’
Post-annexation, as the ground was being laid for a potential military push into east Ukraine, the emphasis shifted away from conspiracy and fervour towards the humiliation of the enemy. ‘Ukrainians don’t really exist, they’re not a real nation,’ people wrote. It was easy for the Kremlin to tap the rich tradition of Russian chauvinism where Ukraine – ‘Little Russia’ – is concerned. It can take patronising forms, as in Ivan Bunin’s ‘Little Russia has no history … it has only songs, legends, it is somehow outside of time’; or it can be more insulting, as in Joseph Brodsky’s (unpublished but publicly performed) poem about foolish ‘hohli’ – the pejorative term for Ukrainians – and their ‘gibberish’ national poetry. But the language and imagery were more sombre in internet gifs and jokes. Ukrainians were portrayed as prostitutes, whoring themselves to the Kremlin or the EU. This seemed a deliberate flip on the cliché of Kiev as ‘the mother of Russian cities’: in order to break the deep emotional bond with Kiev, the mother had to be debased. When I looked for the social-media roots of this mother/whore configuration I found it was regularly reinforced by Kremlin spin doctors such as Konstantin Rykov. Rykov also liked to refer to Ukrainians who had been on the Maidan as Mai-Downs (as in Down’s syndrome), hammering home the idea of Ukrainians as Untermenschen. Rykov, who once produced the Russian version of Pop Idol, is one of the many political technologists working the internet. A common myth about social media is that it’s a priori a tool of liberation, taking publishing out of the hands of power. But Facebook and Twitter are a perfect vehicle for postmodern authoritarian regimes that focus on opposition narratives instead of simply suppressing them. You can switch off the TV, but you can’t stop a political technologist getting inside social media and generating memes from within.
Then came the fire in Odessa, where more than forty pro-Russian separatists were killed after being attacked by a crowd of pro-Ukrainians. Everyone was sharing photos of charred bodies, limbs suspended in mid-motion, hands trying to cover burned-off faces. A woman who looked pregnant lay asphyxiated on a desk, her belly hanging loose (‘her child will never be born,’ someone wrote, but it turned out that she was merely overweight). Among the colour shots of charred bodies in Odessa there were black and white photos of naked, murdered and wounded women and children, slaughtered by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 1943 in Volhyn, as if the massacre constituted an eternal judgment on the Ukrainian character. From Volhyn to Odessa. The term ‘Euro-Auschwitz’ began to gain currency. ‘As the building burned, fascists beat the survivors … There will be a terrible rise in anti-Semitism … Let’s not pretend hundreds of angry people carrying bats are anything but fascists,’ the film director Alexey German Junior said. German, like many others, failed to mention the many Ukrainians who also helped separatists get away from the fire, or that the separatists had shot and killed people taking part in a pro-Ukrainian march. The point isn’t so much the truth of what happened (the inquiry into the fire is ongoing: I have no evidence and nor does anyone else online) as the eagerness with which the event was woven into the Kremlin narrative, as if it came as a relief to throw up one’s hands and agree that the Ukrainians were archetypally evil, and it was fine to invade their country.
Conversation between Muscovites and friends in Kiev became difficult.
‘Are you safe from the fascists?’ the Russians would ask.
‘What fascists?’ the Kiev residents asked.
‘Those fascists,’ their friends replied.
In 1996, when Yeltsin’s spin doctors helped him win re-election by conjuring fears of a fascist menace, the propaganda was vague, playing on fuzzy fears. Now it was alleging specific facts. What will happen when people begin to realise it isn’t true? When they visit relatives in Kiev and see that Russian speakers aren’t at risk, that everyone is speaking Russian; that, yes, there are some alarming right-wingers (polling currently at around 2 per cent), but the country hasn’t been taken over by a fascist junta?
In a more open political system when the general public is forced to swallow a lie in order to justify a war, one can grope towards recovery by electing a new president, one who opposed the lie, but even then it takes time. What do you do when you can’t get rid of the liars? Will the anger quietly fade away? Ever since the Kremlin recognised the Ukrainian elections the rants on social media have been dwindling: it’s as if someone somewhere had turned off a tap. My Moscow friends are posting cats and culture again. The default mode – cynical, worldly-wise – is back: ‘Ha, the Ukrainians got rid of one oligarch in order to elect another!’ Or: ‘Yanukovych and Poroshenko even look the same!’ The snide tone came as a relief – until I received a message from my cousin in New Jersey.
‘Oh my God’, she wrote, ‘fascists have taken over Kiev!’
This was new. My cousin never mentions politics. Like me, she is from a Russian-speaking Jewish family who left the Ukrainian SSR in the late 1970s, but I’ve never known her give a thought to the old country until now. I told her she was misinformed. A few days later she wrote again, this time about attacks on synagogues in Ukraine. I told her local rabbis denied it. I was troubled: my cousin, or someone near her, seemed to be trawling for information which proved that Ukrainians were Nazis. I asked where she was getting her information. She said it came through the Russian émigré grapevine on the East Coast, where they have their own radio and TV stations. Not long afterwards, another friend whose family is in Eastern Europe posted the assertion that ‘33 per cent of the Maidan are Nazis.’
Could all this, I wondered, have something to do with a Jewish émigré memory of Ukraine? For those of us who grew up hearing stories of pogroms, Ukrainian nationalism and anti-Semitism are almost indissociable. My grandmother used to tell stories her mother had told her about how, during the Civil War, Jewish children would run through Ukrainian towns shouting: ‘Er Kommt! Er Kommt!’ ‘Er’ referred to the image of Jesus on the crosses carried by the pogrom gangs. In today’s Ukraine, Jews and Ukrainians have pretty much made peace (even Jews and right-wing nationalists pay lip-service to getting along). But in the diaspora old fears still resonate.
When she wasn’t repeating news from Brighton Beach my New Jersey cousin was sending me links to the Guardian. Comment is Free has become well known for its references to the Ukrainian fascist takeover. My Kiev friends began to message me, looking for an explanation: ‘Is Seumas Milne in the pay of the Kremlin?’ they would ask. Probably not, I said. ‘It all fits into a larger pattern of English racism towards Eastern Europeans,’ Oksana Forostyna, executive editor of the Ukrainian cultural magazine Krytyka, told me. She too spoke of the Ukrainians as ‘the new Untermenschen who get called whores and fascists. All those English jokes and novels about Ukrainian sluts; the weird fixation you had during Euro 2012 that Ukraine was full of neo-Nazi hooligans – there was even a BBC documentary warning football fans not to come – when in truth there are fewer racist attacks in Ukraine than in Britain … Now Putin can play on those prejudices.’
This strange complicity with the Kremlin’s cause was the theme of a lecture I gave to students in Lviv in the midst of the crisis, with Russian troops massed on the border and the threat of outright invasion very real. ‘Do many believe the English editorials about Ukrainian fascists?’ the students asked. I said I thought outright lies were eventually disproved but prejudicial memes were tougher. We looked at how disillusionment with the EU was used to clobber Ukraine’s European aspirations. ‘To avoid facing up to its own inexorable decline, the postmodern EU … has plunged ahead with a radically anti-Russian geopolitical and ideological agenda based on left-wing fantasies about resurgent nationalism in Moscow,’ John Laughland wrote in the Spectator (the magazine didn’t mention that Laughland’s think-tank was set up by Kremlin-connected officials). We went over texts by former British ambassadors such as Tony Brenton who lean towards a vision of the world which is forever Yalta, and where London and Moscow divide up Central Europe. ‘It is a fond delusion,’ Brenton wrote in the Financial Times, ‘that big states no longer decide the destinies of small states in this way.’ Whichever narrative path we took, it seemed to lead somewhere bad for the Ukrainian students.
After the lecture I walked through Lviv. It is a beautiful city, still just this side of being ruined by tourism, and before I knew it I was lost in a labyrinth of cobblestones, arches, alleys and spires. It was late – and dark – and I had no idea where my hotel was. Ahead of me were some young men. I started to approach them to ask the way in Russian – I don’t know Ukrainian. But as I opened my mouth to speak I stopped. Wasn’t Lviv, I suddenly thought to myself with alarm, the place where some 30 per cent had voted for the right-nationalist Svoboda party in the last parliamentary elections? Sure, some might say this was a protest vote, or even that Yanukovych was boosting Svoboda to make himself look more of a centrist by contrast, but people had still voted for them. And hadn’t I seen a photograph somewhere of two of their MPs, red-faced and drunk, holding up cloakroom numbers which signified Hitler’s birthday? And what about all those stories I’d seen online about Russian speakers being abused, even beaten for speaking their native language?
Turning back would have looked odd, so I tried to walk briskly and give the young men a wide berth, but as I drew closer, I realised they were speaking Russian themselves. I relaxed and asked the way. As I walked back to the hotel I noticed most of the people who were still out were speaking Russian. I too had fallen prey to Kremlin propaganda. I wondered what other propaganda odds and ends I’d internalised – propaganda of any kind, on behalf of any cause – without noticing.
‘The only thing to do if you want to stay sane in this war is quit social media,’ Alexey said when I Skyped him. He was out of the psychiatric ward and now felt it was the sanest place in Moscow: ‘I met some really interesting people. There was a physics professor. A guy who had snorted cocaine for 66 days straight and liked to show off the hole in his nose. We just talked about our health. Nothing about politics.’ But after three weeks in the ward he’d felt no better. ‘All they can treat there is schizophrenia. They kept asking whether I heard voices. When I said I didn’t the doctor lost interest and went off to find a patient who did.’ He quit his job at RIA/Russia Today and moved out to the country, to a small dacha 20 kilometres from Moscow; he cycles, barbecues, sunbathes and gardens. ‘I switched Twitter on the other week and saw that the dissident journalist Masha Baronova was in Donetsk,’ he told me. ‘There was a shower of abuse from Russians calling her a traitor. And then the Ukrainians went after her, calling her a provocateur. Christ. The Ukrainians are at it too now.’ Alexey is not rushing back to broadcasting. He will stay at the dacha until the end of summer. Maybe things will be better when the hot months are over. He says he doesn’t regret returning to Russia in 2012, though it turned out a little more stressful than he’d imagined.