Propagandalands

Peter Pomerantsev

 1

Of all the things Tetyana thought she might become, a soldier was never one of them. Yet here she was. Not a regular soldier, more like some sort of general, someone able to command life and death. Sitting in her father’s apartment, in her pyjamas, with her hand over a keyboard, knowing that if she pressed one key she might send many very real people to a very real death, and if she pressed another the revolution and all that she, her friends and thousands of others had fought for might be lost.

Tetyana ran the Facebook page of Hromadske Sektor (the Civic Sector), one of the main opposing groups in the Ukrainian revolution against President Yanukovich and his backers in the Kremlin. It was her job to propagate the idea of positive, peaceful change: videos of a protester playing a piano out on the street when facing a row of riot police; pics of protesters holding mirrors up to the security forces; a drawing of a cop duelling with a protester with the cop holding a gun and the protester ‘shooting’ with a Facebook sign. Yanukovich controlled the old media but online activists could organise everything from medical help to legal aid, coordinating million-strong protests and raising funds from Ukrainians abroad for food and shelter.

Tetyana had kept up the click-beat over many months of protests. Hromadske Sektor had 45,000 followers and 150,000 visitors attended their events: people who didn’t trust politicians but believed in civic leaders and volunteers like Tetyana. She had joined Hromadske because she wanted to be part of a historical moment: something to tell her future children about. But it was just a part-time thing. She would post on the site as she filed stories for her real job as a financial journalist. She told herself she would somehow stay above the fray; she was for democracy and human rights, sure, but she wouldn’t get dragged into disinformation; wouldn’t get her hands dirty.

Tetyana’s shift was in the morning. She was usually based in Kiev but today she happened to be in her home town of Luhansk, one of the capitals in the far east of the country known as the Donbas, where most people watched state or Russian TV, which portrayed the revolution – referred to as the ‘Maidan’, its name taken from the square where protesters gathered – as a neo-fascist, US-orchestrated conspiracy. Out here, Tetyana never mentioned her work for Hromadske Sektor.

She had woken at 9 a.m. and switched the computer to the live feed coming from the Maidan. At first she thought she had tuned into some action movie by mistake – snipers were mowing people down, and there was blood on the streets. Then her phone rang: activists at the Maidan, relaying messages from the Hromadske Sektor leaders. She could hear guns going off behind them and after a small time-lapse heard them crackle on the live stream too.

‘Get people to come to Maidan. We need everyone here.’

But Tetyana could also see posts popping up on her Facebook feed from people on the square warning everyone to flee and save themselves. The activists kept calling her, demanding she tell her followers to come.

‘But there are people being killed,’ she said.

‘The snipers will stop shooting if more people come.’

‘And what if they don’t?’

‘It’s your decision.’

It wasn’t the first time she’d found her journalistic instinct to remain above the fray clashing with her revolutionary loyalties. A few weeks previously, the pagan-nationalist, balaclava-clad Pravy Sektor (the Right Sector) had started hurling burning Molotov cocktails through the snowstorms at the riot police. Few people had heard of Pravy Sektor until then. There were only a few hundred of them, but all the publicity around their violence had increased their e-profile wildly. Kids looking for a little ultra-violence were now signing up to join them.

Tetyana didn’t approve of Pravy Sektor’s violence or ideology. The Maidan was full of different ‘sectors’, including neo-Cossacks and neo-fascists, all able to organise with the help of the Internet. The different sectors had nothing much in common, but it didn’t seem right to attack people who were beaten up by the same riot police who beat you up.

Hromadske Sektor decided to ignore Pravy Sektor’s violence, but Tetyana couldn’t ignore the massacre on Maidan Square that morning. What was her role? Was she, ultimately, a propagandist? A journalist? Was she reporting on the war, or was she a soldier in it? Every time you post or tweet, or just repost or retweet, you become a little propaganda machine. In this new information flux, everyone has to find their own boundaries. Tetyana had reached hers. She refused to encourage crowds to come to the Maidan. She simply reported on what was going on and let people make up their own minds.

Various Hromadske Sektor leaders logged on themselves and urged crowds to come to the Maidan. One hundred and three protesters died in those few days. But the crowds didn’t stop coming and the revolution was successful. President Yanukovich fled to Russia, and Hromadske Sektor leaders joined political parties and stood for election. Tetyana didn’t want to be involved in party politics and left the movement altogether.

Then the Kremlin began exacting its revenge: Russian TV filled up with invented stories about how Pravy Sektor was coming to slaughter ethnic Russians in Crimea, where most of the population are ethnic Russians. In Sevastopol, the Crimean capital, Cossack groups, separatist parties and Orthodox priests (all funded by the Kremlin) led crowds begging Putin to rescue them. He obliged and annexed the peninsula.

Russian TV broadcast scare stories about Pravy Sektor coming to murder Russians in East Ukraine, too. The Internet, the medium through which the revolution had been empowered, was flooded with Kremlin content pumped out of ‘troll factories’ in Russian suburbs. Students were paid a few hundred dollars a day to post pictures, comments and videos, sowing confusion, enmity and panic. The Supreme Allied Commander of NATO called it the greatest information blitzkrieg in history.

In Severodonetsk, Babar Aliev woke to find fifty new Twitter trolls on his tail. Severodonetsk is in East Ukraine, just a few kilometres from the border where Russian troops were massing. A rumour had swept through Severodonetsk’s Internet forums about how Pravy Sektor were on their way to haul down the town’s Lenin statue, a symbol of their pro-Russian leanings. A motley crew of pro-Russian local groups – Cossacks and wrestlers, fans of laser tag and literary clubs – gathered to defend it. The rumour was false. Someone was just trying to get the pro-Russians fired up.

That wouldn’t be hard. Severodonetsk is not a town that feels much historic loyalty to the Ukrainian state. It was built up in the 1950s and 60s: a perfect grid of Soviet blocks of flats, modernist white rectangles designed around a number of science colleges and chemical plants. Like much of Eastern Ukraine, the inhabitants came from across the USSR. After the Second World War, it was one of the few places in the Soviet Union you could go with no papers, a bureaucratic gimmick to gain a new workforce for the heavy industry in the area. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the town slowly went to pot: the factories closed and were stripped of anything valuable, the neat modernist blocks of flats cracked and peeled. Now, the mix of symmetry and dilapidation gives the town the air of an abandoned experiment; people like lab rats, left to eat each other. For many, Russia seems a better place.

Babar (father Azeri, mother Siberian) noticed that the pro-Russian clubs had started to proliferate in 2012, just as Vladimir Putin was facing mass protests against his rule in Moscow. When the Maidan protests began, more clubs appeared. At the time he had thought nothing of it – Ukraine was a democracy after all. Now, he suspected someone had been planning something for a while. During the day the pro-Russians would gather on the main square, where Orthodox priests from the Moscow patriarchate and Communist Party leaders were holding daily rallies calling for unification with Russia, claiming that the Maidan was led by fascists and fed by drugs.

Babar had been in Kiev during the Maidan. He felt that the revolution was a historical leap forward, and was disgusted when he saw the riot police beating up students. He had seen how Yanukovich’s party was raiding businesses and pillaging the country: this was a government run as a protection racket, propped up by Putin. And Babar knew about rackets. As a teen in the mid-1990s he had been a gang leader. His speciality was planning and executing complex burglaries. Then he moved on to stripping the local chemical plants of precious metals – gold and platinum (he read up on the periodic table). He dropped the thug life after he was finally caught (he had studied law, and knew how to bribe his way out). But even now, long after establishing himself as a web designer and minor Internet -PR guy, he had the swagger, the shell suits and the fast eyes of the smart hoodlum, as well as the sudden, ecstatic grin of a toddler. In Severodonetsk many still found it hard to believe that Babar had, as he liked to put it, ‘developed an aversion to slicing’.

During his time on the Maidan, Babar had developed a Facebook following among pro-Ukrainians in Severodonetsk. Now he used it to fight back against the separatists online, to ‘nightmare them’ as the Russian phrase goes. Babar put out a story that separatists had beaten up some gay activists and that a battalion of gay fascists was coming from Holland to take revenge. The story was ridiculous but some of the separatists fell for it, which made them look like idiots. Babar also put out a story that two hundred Pravy Sektor agents had holed up in flats in Severodonetsk; that they recorded the names of taxi drivers who wanted Severodonetsk annexed by Russia; that they rode the trams listening to people’s conversations; that when they heard pro-separatist talk the agents would take people off the trams and disappear them. The separatists’ portals were in a panic and Babar felt he was winning the disinformation war. He wanted the separatists to doubt everything and lose their bearings – he wanted to do to them what the Kremlin was doing to Ukraine.

He also tried to bring a pro-Ukrainian coalition to the streets. But how would he motivate people when there was no overall idea of Ukraine that they related to, and when each tribe in the city lived in its own little information bubble? Babar went to his old friends, the organised-crime bosses, known as ‘Vor v Zakone’ (thieves in law), who lived according to the strict prison code. Some of them had been in Babar’s first gang before he went straight. ‘How can you be on the same side as the cops?’ he asked them, slipping into Fenya, the old prison jargon which Vor v Zakone still communicate in. ‘You used to be an “honest prisoner” (someone who lives by the prison code), now you’re a “goat” (a turncoat, the lowest of the low).’

But ultimately it was about money: Babar helped the gangs count the costs to their business interests if the Kremlin invaded. They decided to back Ukraine, and offered him men and guns. So did the hoods who ran the protection rackets, after he made them see where their interests lay. Did they really want to have Russian gangsters on their territory? And while the local gangs had the Ukrainian police in their pocket, the Russian police might have other ideas.

Then Babar went to the businessmen. ‘You guys have been to Europe,’ he said. ‘You know how much easier it is to do business there; no hassle from bureaucrats wanting bribes or gangs wanting protection money. Well, the Maidan is all about us having European rules. Don’t you want that?’ The businessmen came to his side too.

Now that he had his coalition, Babar reached out to Maidan activists with connections to the new government for backup. Just a few special forces would be enough, he thought. In the spring of 2014, town after town in the east was being taken by separatists backed by Russian special forces, raising the flag of the independent Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Babar waited for a sign from Kiev but none came. He began to suspect the Donbas had been traded in – Moscow would get East Ukraine in return for money and peace. In April the separatists took power in Severodonetsk. The local administration welcomed them, took down the Ukrainian flag and replaced it with the tricolour of the Luhansk People’s Republic. The thing that hurt Babar the most was that when the separatists came for him they sent only three men. When he had been arrested back in the 1990s the cops had sent three vans with SWAT teams wearing flak jackets. Now there were just three guys with guns, who put him on a train to Kiev.

By July the Ukrainians had rebooted their decrepit army, now reinforced by volunteer battalions, including the ever-increasing Pravy Sektor. The Ukrainian army surrounded Severodonetsk and lobbed it with heavy artillery. The separatists pulled back to the heartlands of their new republics, the areas around the towns of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Babar returned, but he felt little sense of victory. I met up with him at a Severodonetsk restaurant that was blaring the hi-hat beats of a Russian girl band. The same politicians and cops who had backed the separatists were still running the town, he told me. He complained about the Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer battalions, some of whom had alienated the locals – there had been a shooting during a bar brawl. Worse, one of the volunteer battalions had decided to enforce their authority over one of the local mafias by forcing a gangster to swim across the river. They shot him in the head when he was halfway there. This, Babar felt, wasn’t the way to build coalitions.

‘The worst thing about all of this,’ he told me, ‘is that I have to carry a weapon again. Ten years ago I promised never to carry a gun. But I regretted that promise when the separatists came. Next time I will be ready.’

I asked what his plans were for the future. His website business had crashed in the war. He wanted, he said, to create media literacy classes that would help local people distinguish information from disinformation online.

Hadn’t he used disinformation himself when he ‘nightmared’ the separatists with his fake rumours? How did he square that with promoting media literacy campaigns?

‘I believe in disinformation for the other side and media literacy for my side,’ smiled Babar.

 

2

‘R U still alive you separatist? I wonder how long for?’ said the SMS on Andrey Shtahl’s mobile. ‘As always, there’s no number to trace it back to,’ said Andrey. He seemed to be used to receiving this kind of message and was more worried that the pro-Ukrainian activists in his home town of Kramatorsk had given out an old address when they had put him on a list of ‘traitors’: ‘What if they go round and beat up the person living there now – someone completely unrelated to any of this?’

Andrey works at the Kramatorsk municipal gazette. When the separatists took Kramatorsk and announced it part of the Donetsk People’s Republic, most of the staff fled, but Andrey stayed, taking on the post of editor. His paper published information about sewers and roadworks and schools, and he never strayed into anything political. This saved him when the Ukrainian army took back the town. He was arrested by a pro-Ukrainian volunteer battalion and taken to Dnepropetrovsk. They beat him and held him for three days with a bag over his head, but eventually he was released.

It’s Andrey’s poetry, rather than his journalism, that has him in trouble with the pro-Ukrainian activists. ‘In poetry I can be myself. The head of the Donetsk People’s Republic likes my poetry, and responds with improvised verses on Facebook.’

We walked across Kramatorsk’s tidy city park and down a grand, neoclassical Soviet avenue to a local cafe with Wi-Fi so we could look up his poetry. In the distance you could see the sun shining off the hills of the Donbas.

There were dozens of pages of Andrey’s verses on local poetry forums. We clicked through to his most recent work. It started with satires about the Maidan, done in the style of a Soviet children’s poem.

They will create hell here and horrid night,
And turn you, my hero, into a sodomite.

‘I was against the Maidan,’ Andrey tells me. ‘I sensed straight away that it would lead to war. I can see the future sometimes.’ He had grown up with the young men who joined the separatist forces in Kramatorsk. In his poetry he conveys the careless, chaotic way they decided to take up arms and seize power. ‘They were local druggies and gangsters, the kids of policemen and officials. How could I hate them? No one hears the Donbas.’

No one hears the Donbas. I heard that phrase often in the east, a catchphrase expressing the sense that politicians in Kiev didn’t understand local needs. As the conflict spread eastwards, Andrey’s poetry became more grim:

I used to be a musician and artist,
But now I woke up as a separatist . . .
I live in Rus, Rus isn’t dead yet!
What I wish for is a bullet in the Prime Minister’s head!

Much of the poetry evokes Soviet motifs and songs. Andrey is haunted by a memory from his teens, when he was on a school trip to Lithuania in 1991 and witnessed the crowds trying to pull down a statue of Lenin. On the long train journey back to Donetsk he wrote his first poem, an allegory of the Soviet Union as a train that has become too old, and of a country falling into civil war.

‘Lenins were falling then and they are falling again now,’ he sighs. ‘Back then I already had a bad feeling about the future.’

When we met in Kramatorsk the government in Kiev had just passed a set of laws forbidding Soviet street names and symbols. The Lenin statue on the central square had already been pulled down, leaving an empty plinth with a Ukrainian flag tacked on. These directives were pushed through by a former leader of the Hromadske Sektor, Volodymyr Viatrovych, and had been condemned as ‘vague and potentially authoritarian’ by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Viatrovych had argued that the laws were part of the information war against the Kremlin and its non-stop diet of Soviet movies and social-media campaigns that reframe the present as perpetual war against eternally returning fascists. But if anything, these anti-Soviet laws played into the hands of the Kremlin, shifting the political discourse of the Maidan from the future to the past.

‘The communists built everything here. Anyone who ever achieved anything was from the party – why should we forget them?’ said Andrey. ‘There are a lot of people here who can’t talk openly about what they think. They live online instead, and it’s important for them not to be lonely. I can understand what they are going through.’

It was online, I noticed, where Andrey’s nostalgia was nurtured. The plethora of new media broke up a shared vision of the present, but kindled virtual realities of hallucinated pasts where something whole still seemed possible.

I was denied entry to the Donetsk People’s Republic – there was an uptick in shelling during my visit and many foreign journalists were denied visas, but in Kramatorsk I found the former head of information policy in Donetsk, Elena Malyutina. What remained of her ministry-in-exile had set up office in a disused bank in town. Every weekend Elena travelled to see her husband and parents in Donetsk: unlike her, they had pledged their allegiance to the pro-Russian republic, a family split apart by propaganda. She spoke calmly and slowly, like a patient teacher to a child, her large blue eyes looking straight at me and her neatly made-up face nodding as if to check that I understood everything she talked about was quite serious, however absurd it sounded. Many of her sentences started with ‘You have to understand . . .’

‘You have to understand: when I cross into the DNR [the Donetsk National Republic, another name for the Donetsk People’s Republic] it’s like going through the looking glass. A parallel reality.’ She took out her laptop and opened photos of cheering crowds in the centre of Donetsk, all draped in banners and ribbons with the Ukrainian flag. ‘This is at Euro 2012,’ explained Elena. ‘We organised all the festivities. We followed the model of Soviet parades, something people in Donetsk understood, and grafted Ukrainian motifs onto them.’

But it was hard to connect locals to Ukraine. Kiev had allowed its leaders to run Donetsk as their personal fiefdom. In surveys people described their identity as ‘Donbasskij’ or ‘Soviet’. To the south Donetsk had the sea and to the north it had forests: it was a self-contained zone. If locals travelled anywhere it was to Russia, though many wouldn’t even register that they were crossing into a different country: borders were loose here, state borders as much as those between past and present.

‘Deep down many people hated Ukraine,’ says Elena. ‘My husband was one of them.’

The Maidan was an affront to Donetsk male pride. Kiev had stood up to a president from Donetsk while Donetsk, whose people knew Yanukovich’s corruption better than anyone, had always put up with him. When separatists and Russian special forces took over government buildings and announced a referendum calling for independence, her husband and parents voted for it, while Elena and her teenage daughter voted against.

‘You’re a lawyer,’ she said to her husband. ‘You must realise you can’t build anything on blood. You need evolution.’

‘Evolution hasn’t worked for us. We’re going to build a new republic,’ he responded.

The new republic closed down access to Ukrainian media. Now there was just Russian TV and the new DPR channel, which used all the language of Sovietica and the Second World War: ‘We will liberate our villages from the fascists’; ‘The fascists won’t pass!’ There were Soviet-style military parades and Soviet-style pioneer groups; Soviet-style sports festivals and calls to ‘live like our ancestors’, to ‘protect our roots’ and ‘honour our grandparents’. ‘Everything will be like it once was,’ people said. Quotes from the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic read like posters of Lenin in Soviet times.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army had advanced and was shelling Donetsk and the surrounding cities. The DPR had promised a return to the USSR and now it was being shelled with Soviet-era weapons. Civilians, including children, were killed. Russian and DPR TV didn’t need to invent horror stories any more as they could now show authentic footage of dead children.

‘The enemy’s cry of “Ukraine above all else” clearly shows they want to destroy anything Russian,’ said the leaflets handed out on the street. ‘They always wanted to kill us.’

‘Kiev wants to drag us into the EU and destroy our Orthodox churches. It means we will end up poor. And those who put us in concentration camps will become richer. The US wants to take our shale gas and disgrace our holy places.’

It made no sense, but that almost seemed to be the point: break down critical thinking with absurdities and false logic, then open people up emotionally with images of suffering and trauma before promising them glory. Russian and DPR propaganda was working on the same psychological principles as that of many sects.

‘I want to go back to my motherland,’ said Elena’s best friend, a PR manager at Donetsk’s premier international hotel.

‘Which motherland?’ asked Elena.

‘The USSR.’

‘But can’t you tell this is not real?’

Her friend looked at her with glazed eyes.

Elena’s husband could see that gangsters were taking over the town, but he still thought separation from Ukraine was the way forward. When Elena pointed out that there were Russian secret service guys everywhere, he refused to recognise their presence. Her daughter was cracking, too: ‘It’s hard to be a Ukrainian patriot when your own side is bombing you.’

Every day the Donetsk People’s Republic project was getting darker. Pro-Ukrainian prisoners of war were interrogated on camera at knifepoint. They were made to eat their Ukrainian badges. They were marched down the streets to show that resistance was useless. The footage was put online by the perpetrators with the aim of intimidating any opposition. In the town of Slovyansk, run by the (allegedly retired) Russian FSB agent Igor Girkin, Stalin-era martial law was imposed. Girkin was a re-enactor of historical battles, who would express his fantasies in online communities of Stalinists and Tsarists, where nostalgists yearned for a return to Soviet order and empire grandeur: now he was making them real. When Slovyansk was retaken by Ukraine, human rights groups and journalists found that firing squads had executed people for petty theft and bundled them into mass graves.

Elena decided she needed to get herself and her daughter out. They left for Kramatorsk where most of her ministry had fled. I wondered how deep she thought the cult of nostalgia really went in her home town.

‘It’s partly a masquerade. Many people play along. Among my old colleagues maybe 70 per cent left but 30 per cent had to stay because they simply couldn’t find work anywhere else.’

For all the rhetorical passion of people like Andrey Shtahl, when the Lenins are brought down in East Ukraine, most of the time there are hardly any protests. Few actually care. The nostalgia turns out to be yet another hologram.

‘If there was no TV for a few weeks the DPR would fade,’ said Elena. In Kramatorsk she is setting up a regional TV channel which will avoid the Kremlin’s favourite playing fields of history and ideology and focus on people’s daily lives: roads and food prices. She wants to bring Donetsk back to reality.

 

3

I was in Kharkiv, crossing Europe’s second-largest square in Ukraine’s second-largest city, on my way to visit a refugee camp for those fleeing the shelling from the front lines of the Donbas. The light was golden, giving a Hollywood glaze to the Soviet neoclassical government buildings on the square, relics of Kharkiv’s seventeen years as Ukraine’s capital between 1917 and 1935. The memory of that lost status permeates this town, with TV shows and websites dedicated to recalling the ‘second capital’. It is this yearning that Yanukovich’s old party and the Kremlin tried to play on when, right after the Maidan, they attempted first to make Kharkiv the capital of a breakaway pro-Russian Ukraine, and then turn it into a new separatist city republic. There had been both pro-Maidan and anti-Maidan crowds on Freedom Square: 30 per cent of the people in Kharkiv define themselves as Russian, almost 70 per cent as Ukrainian. As the Russian army massed on the border a few kilometres away the anti-Maidan group swelled with busloads of Russian ‘tourists’ (you could see the Russian licence plates on the coaches). The anti-Maidan crowds dragged the pro-Maidan supporters across the square by the hair, kicking, taunting and spitting at them. One of the ‘tourists’ climbed the spire of the town hall and planted a Russian flag on it.

Unlike what they did in Severodonetsk, Kiev acted forcefully in Kharkiv, sending special forces to arrest the pro-Russian activists. Billboards went up, threatening people with a visit from the secret services for ‘Everyday Separatism’ (no one was quite sure what that meant). Menacing leaflets were handed out predicting problems for anyone who advocated joining Russia (no one was quite sure who was behind the leaflets). At the same time bombs kept going off at bars where pro-Ukrainians liked to meet. Three people were killed by a bomb placed in a bin at a pro-Ukrainian march.

The morning I arrived, the local Pravy Sektor threw stones at the office of the old Yanukovich party, whose leaders were trying to make a political comeback. Shots were fired. But the physical violence, I soon realised, was orchestrated. The Ukrainian side had come prepared with cameras to show their online supporters they had muscle, but they also filmed the events in such a way that it made it seem like they had been shot at first.

The pro-Russian side, on the other hand, had tried to provoke an attack. Toughs were bussed in from the suburbs to taunt the pro-Ukrainians. All of this was edited out of the evening news on the main TV channel: it looked like the Russians were victims of unprovoked pro-Ukrainian aggression. The channel belonged to the mayor, a former gangster turned billionaire known as Gepa – a member of Yanukovich’s party. At the start of the Maidan he had first backed the Russian side, then fled to Moscow (he later claimed he had been in Switzerland), then returned as a Ukrainian patriot playing all sides. After the evening news came a public service ad which showed beatific shots of Kharkiv. The screen suddenly went black: ‘Our peaceful city is under threat from terrorism,’ went the voice-over. A head in a balaclava appeared representing ‘terrorism’: it could have been a Pravy Sektor fighter, a separatist or even Pussy Riot. It was unclear what the threat was, all you knew was that it was out there. A news segment about how Satanists had defaced a children’s playground followed.

I found the refugee camp on the edge of town. Among tidy German Portakabins by pretty beds of posies and amid the smell of frying onions I talked to a family getting ready for dinner. I asked what news they watched. They told me they had given up believing anyone as both sides lied: the Russians would falsely report their towns had been laid to waste by Ukrainians; the Ukrainians would report great Ukrainian military victories when the separatists had merely retreated. But what emerged from their total scepticism was a sense that, if nothing around them could be trusted, then shadowy powers must be moving their lives: Obama’s or the Masons’ hidden hands stood behind every bombing.

‘Everything has already been decided’, they told me, ‘up on high.’

Dzerzhinsk is a mining town at the very edge of the territory held by Ukrainian forces: separatist positions are a couple of kilometres away. There was a summer storm brewing when I arrived, thunder mixing with the sound of heavy artillery. A few days earlier a shell had hit the local lake. Fish had flown out onto the cracked paths or floated dead to the surface. The people of Dzerzhinsk ate the fish, but there were still a few drying on the paths and many more were floating belly up in the lake. The smell was strong.

I travelled with a small crew from an Internet-TV station from Kiev, one of the few Ukrainian media organisations not in the pocket of an oligarch. Driving through town, we passed along roads with coffin-sized craters; empty factories with their walls ripped out. A young boy leading his drunk mother down the lanes; local men with scabs on their faces. I stopped to photograph a concrete coal store with a gaping hole in its walls. I assumed it had been shelled but it turned out it had been taken apart long before the war by locals looking for scrap metal.

Dzerzhinsk is named after Felix Dzerzhinsky, the man responsible for the first Soviet secret police, the notorious Cheka. When
I asked a local teenage girl whether she knew who he was, she told me she’d ‘heard of him at school but couldn’t remember’. This wasn’t unusual: a few weeks earlier, a TV channel had done a joke report about how young people in Dzerzhinsk had no idea whom the town was named after. Later that year it was renamed Toretsk, in accordance with the laws against Soviet names. There were no great protests.

The mineshafts were dark against the thundery skyline. Some of the mines were now disused. Others were rusty, but functional. The local bureaucrats sold the coal to subsidised electricity plants controlled by other friendly bureaucrats. It’s the subsidies that make money, not the sales. The people of Dzerzhinsk are bit players in someone else’s scam.

The mayor of Dzerzhinsk has weathered every revolution. In April 2014 he welcomed the separatists with open arms. The two newspapers under his control supported the Donetsk People’s Republic. When the Ukrainian army retook the town a few months later, they shelled the town hall. The mayor quickly cut a deal with them. Online videos of the mayor expressing support for the Donetsk People’s Republic were deleted, and the online archive of the newspapers was wiped. But though the town was now officially in Ukrainian territory, you still couldn’t get Ukrainian TV unless you had a cable package. Russian and DPR TV are still available everywhere – Dzerzhinsk may be in Ukrainian territory, but it is still under the Kremlin’s informational sovereignty.

The pro-Ukrainian activists were jumpy. There was Oleg, an older man with a grey moustache and a cap. He had been one of the miners who helped bring down the Soviet Union in the great strike of 1989, blocking the roads with broken glass to stop the Kremlin’s tanks. Volodya was younger, with big arms and a boy-band fringe. He was a miner too but had worked in Sweden for several years. He knew things didn’t have to be this way. Last week, Oleg, Volodya and the other dozen or so pro-Ukraine activists received army mobilisation orders. When Volodya went for his health check, the nurses blurted out that the activists were all on a list together.

Volodya and Oleg were sure the mayor wanted the activists, with their annoying anti-corruption rallies, out of town. They were worried that he’d bribed Kiev to stay in power. That Kiev was ready to abandon them.

‘If there’s no mention of us on TV, then it won’t be a big deal if the town is lost,’ said Volodya. ‘We’re being erased.’ In the front of his van was a stack of leaflets:

7 to 12 years punishment for everyday separatism: call this number if you spot an everyday separatist!

how to spot an everyday separatist?

calls for russia to invade

insults ukrainian values

spreads lies

plants defeatist feelings

I asked Volodya where he had obtained the leaflets. He told me with no little pride he had made them himself. I asked whether that was such a good idea.

‘The telephone numbers on them aren’t even real,’ he said. ‘They’re just to intimidate people. We’re all alone here. We need to do something.’

We arrived at a Soviet block of flats, rising above an area of wooden shacks, several of which had been blown apart. The Ukrainian army base was five hundred metres away and this area was hit frequently. Oleg showed us the shrapnel holes in the metal door of the apartment block. Some women were on a bench outside the front door. They were angry that the Ukrainians had put their base near here. There had been no fighting when the town had been part of the DPR. The Ukrainian army had brought the war with them. One woman told me how a shell had exploded through her balcony.

Oleg got angry: ‘Our mayor is a separatist. That’s why the army is here. He should be in prison.’

‘I worked all my life for pennies and what’s my reward?’ said a woman going past in a sunflower-patterned dress: ‘Bombs!’

‘They came from over there – those are Ukrainian positions! That’s not DPR,’ shouted one of the women. Later she showed me a crater in the ground. A tree had collapsed into it. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘it’s clear it came from the Ukrainian position.’

It didn’t seem clear at all. I thought it unlikely the Ukrainians could shell themselves from five hundred metres away. But this wasn’t about piecing together evidence. Journalists who had travelled the region had warned me about this phenomenon: people would rearrange the evidence to fit the world view they saw on television, however little sense it made.

‘The Ukrainians are bombing each other!’ said someone else. ‘The Pravy Sektor wants to march on Kiev and they’re fighting each other.’

‘It’s the Americans. They’ve come here to take our gas. I heard there are wounded American soldiers in the local hospitals.’

Oleg was becoming increasingly irate, shouting at the women that they were traitors. They started shooing him away. He took off his shirt and showed them a bullet wound: he said the Russians had shot at him when he delivered food to the front lines. He said Putin was in Ukraine because he was afraid that Russia would fall apart. The women said Putin wasn’t afraid of anything.

Oleg went to the car and came back with the leaflets and started handing them out.

‘Ha – you think we’re afraid of this?’ The women laughed and threw the papers in the bin.

Then they turned to the cameraman and me and started shouting at us.

‘You’ll re-edit what we say anyway. Why should we trust you? Nobody wants to hear the Donbas!’

That phrase again, repeated here like a mantra: Nobody hears the Donbas. It reminded me of a prayer, a religious lamentation for a lost God, the recurring theme of the Psalms crying out to a vanished God; the Yom Kippur prayers that beg God to hear the people.

‘O God who answered Abraham, Jacob and Isaac, O God who answered us in Sinai, Hear, Hear, Hear the Donbas!’

I woke up in the billiards room. It was still dark and I nearly collided with some soldiers who were slumped, fully clothed, on sofas. One soldier was sleeping with his head on the floor, propping up his fat torso; he was so exhausted that he didn’t notice he was sleeping in a half-headstand. Outside, the rose garden and tennis court were just becoming visible in the dawn light. The roses were wilted and the tennis net was missing. I could hear rhythmic splashing: a soldier was doing breaststroke in the outdoor pool. The light was coming on fast, revealing summer houses and garages; high-security fences; the hills beyond and the dark green, almost black, pine forests of the Luhanschina. We were north-east of Dzerzhinsk, on the edge of the territory held by Ukraine where it bordered the Luhansk People’s Republic.

I had tagged along with a friend who ran an Internet-TV channel in Kharkiv: the soldiers, who were from Ukrainian Kharkiv’s 92nd Brigade, wanted her to tell the country about their frustrations. They were bivouacked on the country estate of a deposed local minigarch, formerly the head of the Luhansk Court of Appeal. He was now lying low in Kiev, waiting to see which side would win. There was a hyperrealist portrait of his wife in the billiards room: a plump, grinning blonde lying in a summer field with a garland of red poppies over her head.

In a cottage near the pool an officer was making breakfast: chopped cabbage and corned-beef meatballs. He was angry at the government. ‘Look at this food: none of it comes from the government, it’s all delivered by volunteers.’

The Ukrainian army was fed and equipped by volunteers, many originally from the Maidan. They raised money on Facebook and crowdsourced boots, binoculars and uniforms, including US Army gear contributed by the Ukrainian diaspora – which had led some observers to conclude that American soldiers were fighting in the Donbas.

‘If you watched TV you’d think the government cares about us,’ complained the officer. ‘But Putin treats his army much better.’

Ukrainian TV was bursting with war propaganda. The President, Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate manufacturer who owns one of the 24-hour news channels, was filmed in military fatigues inspecting well-equipped troops. There were slow-motion clips of proud wives waving soldiers off to war, or meeting them by the train with tears of joy. It was the sort of war propaganda that was used to build national morale and spur mobilisation everywhere throughout the twentieth century: glossing over the failures of logistics, lying about the number of casualties and ignoring civilian deaths.

But there was something strange in this propaganda: for all the war visuals it never defined itself as a war rhetorically. On TV the President spoke of an ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’, an ATO. ‘What the hell is an ATO?’ cursed the officer as he chopped more cabbage.

One of the clever twists of the Kremlin’s doctrine of twenty-first-century conflict, known as ‘hybrid’ or ‘non-linear’ war, is that it allows a country to wage war without ever openly declaring it, while destabilising opponents from within through propaganda and infiltration, stirring civil war, and undermining the narrative of fighting a clear enemy.

Russia was not officially at war with Ukraine and the two countries had not broken diplomatic or economic ties. Business people carried on trading as if nothing was happening. Ukraine was reluctant to declare war first, thus becoming the de jure aggressor and imposing economic sanctions few people wanted. This had a knock-on effect on the war propaganda. On the one hand, the conflict in the east was not officially defined as war against Russia. But neither could it be called a war against Eastern Ukraine, since that frame was aligned with the Kremlin’s claim that this was a civil war.

Propaganda activists tried to define the war in their own ways online: this was a war against ‘Soviet mentality’, against the vatniki – a pejorative name for anyone who was against the Maidan. But plenty of Ukrainians shared the Soviet mentality, not least the soldiers. Most of the soldiers in the 92nd were professional troops from Kharkiv who had been against the Maidan: their sympathies were with the riot police sent to quell the revolution. The online activists were trying to make up their own propaganda as they went along, but it risked playing into the Kremlin’s strategy of divide and rule.

Later, the soldiers took us to the front line. Every vehicle was a different make. I sat in the back of a small Nissan jeep and was told to look out the window to watch for separatist snipers. The window had been shattered in a previous gunfight, and was held together with scotch tape. You couldn’t see a single thing through it.

We stopped on the edge of a bluff opposite the separatist positions on the other side of the river. You could just about see them with the naked eye. ‘If they start shooting, jump away from the cars,’ said the commander, known as the ComBrig. ‘They will aim for that.’

The ComBrig ordered heavy artillery to spread out along the bluff in a show of strength. Then he timed how long it took the separatists to get their people in position: a ruse to get the other side to reveal where they had hidden their forces on the far side of the bluff. The story was that new Russian units had recently arrived.

From there, we drove to the village of Lobachevo, a collection of single-storey wooden houses at skewed angles. A cow stood on the road, staring at an outhouse. Three elderly men in dusty string vests, flip-flops on dirty feet, sat drinking and smoking on some logs outside. One of them, known as Uncle Kolya, had no teeth. He claimed a separatist had knocked them out after he refused to sing the Luhansk National Republic anthem. The soldiers suspected he had concocted the story just for them, and that the second their back was turned he would curse Ukraine. ‘We spent a long time winning their trust,’ said the ComBrig. ‘At first they thought we were all Pravy Sektor monsters from the Russian propaganda machine.’

Across the riverbank you could see the separatists with rifles slung over their shoulders, pacing up and down by the old ferry station. The ferry had been blown up during the fighting. Families who lived on different sides of the river had been split. The school was on one side, and the shops were on the other. Local women crossed in a tiny rowboat with a tiny motor. They complained that if they carried more than one bag of potatoes they could be done for smuggling contraband. They didn’t care about Ukraine, Russia or the Luhansk National Republic. They cared about their village, and their potatoes.

We drove out from Lobachevo, past abandoned churches and blown-up bridges which had collapsed into the green river, past women walking with goats. There was no obvious profit to be made from any of this land. Kiev had done nothing to develop it in twenty years of independence but the Kremlin had little need for it either. If you looked closely, both sides were prepared to lose Luhanschina: the Kremlin wanted to hand it back to Ukraine while maintaining covert political control; Kiev made noises about ‘unity’ but many people, from top brass to academics, argued that the best outcome was a frozen territory the Kremlin had to fund and feed.

War used to be about capturing territory and planting flags, but something different was at play out here. Moscow needed to create a narrative about how pro-democracy revolutions like the Maidan lead to chaos and civil war. Kiev needed to show that separatism leads to misery. What actually happened on the ground was almost irrelevant – the two governments just needed enough footage to back their respective stories. Propaganda has always accompanied war, usually as a handmaiden to the actual fighting. But the information age means that this equation has been flipped: military operations are now handmaidens to the more important information effect. It would be like a vastly scripted reality TV show if it weren’t for the very real deaths: a few months after my visit, on 3 November 2015, the Kharkiv 92nd would be caught up in a firefight by Lobachevo. The ComBrig was wounded, but survived.

Our vehicles stopped by a bend in the river. The soldiers took off their donated uniforms, grabbed a Tarzan swing that drooped from a tree on the bank and leapt into the water, whooping. Some tried backflips and others bellyflopped: this was a daily ritual to help them wind down after the patrol.

The ComBrig was in the river when his phone went off. It was an emergency: shelling had started again over no man’s land. The previous day the 92nd had agreed on a ceasefire with the separatists so that electricians could come into the firing zone and fix some cables. Now the separatists were shelling overhead. If the 92nd fired back it would look like they were firing on civilians. ‘Whatever you do, don’t react,’ said the ComBrig, fatigues hurriedly pulled over wet boxer shorts. ‘It’s a provocation for the cameras.’

In the evening we drank moonshine cognac from a plastic bottle and looked up at the stars, as thick as grapes, listening for the sound of shells and following traces of missiles in the sky. We were looking for signs of our military fate like medieval men had looked at comets in search of meaning. Some of the stars moved around: drones, spying on us. I felt as though I was inside a modern icon: the information war had broken so much of my sense of scale. The activists behind their laptops seemed as big as ministries; mythological fiends from Twitter as real as tanks. The borders between Russia and Ukraine, between past and present, between soldier and civilian, rumour and evidence, actor and audience had buckled, and with that the whole rational, ordered sense of perspective suddenly gave way to a thinking which was magical and mystical, where reality was unknowable and seemed to be decided somewhere up on high by divine conspiracies. The layers of spheres and angels had been replaced with endlessly reflecting media stories, where information was no longer simply the recording of action but the point of it. We were all caught up in the recordings, revolving and refracting in the information heavens.

A drone paused up above us.

‘Smile,’ said the ComBrig. ‘It’s taking your photo.’

 

 

Photograph © Baz Ratner / Reuters
Donetsk airport, March 2015

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