Democracy Lab

In a Divided Ukraine, Even Victory Over Hitler Isn’t What It Used to Be

As Russia marks the USSR's victory over Nazi Germany in 1945, the chill of Crimea casts a shadow over remembrances.

The American writer William Faulkner knew what he was talking about: "History," he once wrote, "is not what was, it is." May 9 marks the day, more than any other, when memories of the old Soviet Union rise from the ashes. All over the former USSR, from Vilnius to Vladivostok, people are carrying hammer-and-sickle flags to the monuments in city parks where "eternal flames" still commemorate the more than 20 million who lost their lives in the fight against Nazi Germany. In most cases, actually, those flames no longer burn full time -- but you can bet they'll be switched on again for the sake of the last few elderly veterans who manage to show up, proudly displaying their hard-won medals on their jacket lapels. (The photo above shows today's May 9th ceremony in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.)

Yet not everyone will be celebrating, especially this year. For some, May 9 is the cornerstone of the Soviet secular religion, an intensely emotional moment when the blood sacrifice of millions is used to justify the existence of a country that no longer exists. But for many other ex-Soviet citizens, Victory Day is an occasion for mourning rather than celebration, one that marks the moment when their forbears exchanged the horrors of Nazi occupation for the brutality of Stalinism.

In most of the ex-USSR, this contested sense of history hasn't generally been the cause for major political conflicts. But the crisis in Ukraine has brought those differences to the fore, fueling worries that today's observance of the date could trigger clashes around the country -- between zealous adherents of Kiev's independence (who tend to have a positive view of the Ukrainian nationalists who battled Soviet forces during World War II) and pro-Russian activists (who regard the Red Army's victory in the "Great Patriotic War" as the ultimate validation of Soviet ideology). Their nearly irreconcilable views on 20th-century history shape the two sides' positions on the nature of Ukrainian statehood today -- and few other moments bring out the differences more sharply than May 9.

Indeed, earlier this week, the Russian Foreign Ministry registered an official complaint with the government of Austria over an incident involving a statue commemorating Red Army soldiers in Vienna that was apparently vandalized by pro-Ukrainian activists. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin traveled to Crimea, where he observed Victory Day celebrations designed to underline Russia's claims to the territory, which was a major battlefield in World War II. Meanwhile, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin opted to observe May 9 in the separatist enclave of Transnistria in Moldova -- a gesture that amounts to one huge Bronx cheer aimed at the embattled government of that tiny country, which could be next in line if Ukraine succumbs to Kremlin pressure.

The Americans and the Europeans, who tend to see the war as a black-and-white conflict between Western liberal democracy and Nazi totalitarianism, tend to forget that it was a far more complicated affair for those unfortunate countries that found themselves squeezed between the Third Reich and the USSR. In August 1939, Hitler and Stalin signed a treaty that divided up Eastern Europe between them, giving the Nazis a green light for their invasion of Poland and the myriad atrocities that followed. Yet the Balts, Poles, Romanians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians who ended up East of that dividing line, and thus under occupation by the Soviets, found little to recommend the experience. Stalin's secret police, who accompanied the arrival of the Red Army, arrested and executed tens of thousands of real and imagined opponents throughout the new territories under his control, and deported tens of thousands more, at the cost of great human suffering, to Siberia or Central Asia.

Millions of people in Soviet Ukraine had already died from the great famine there in the early 1930s, which hardly endeared the survivors to the Soviet Communist Party. That also helps to explain why some Ukrainians (as well as others from the "bloodlands," as historian Timothy Snyder describes the region ravaged by both Nazi and Soviet rule) had cause to view the German invasion in 1941, at least initially, as a welcome relief from the horrors of Stalinism.

Some even saw this as a reason to cooperate with Hitler's forces -- including those nationalist anti-Semites whose active collaboration in the Holocaust would enable Stalin's henchmen to tar all resistance to Soviet rule as "fascist" (the same way that pro-Russian forces now like to characterize all the supporters of the current interim government in Kiev as "Nazis," even though modern-day ultranationalists remain a fringe phenomenon, while a far larger group of Ukrainians have been actively supporting pro-European Union views that make a mockery of such a labeling). The memory of Stalinist terror explains why many Eastern Europeans who watched the return of the Red Army in 1944 didn't experience that moment as the "liberation" depicted in Soviet propaganda. Indeed, many of those who had survived to experience the return of Soviet forces once again found themselves subjected to the familiar policies of arrest or deportation.

Many citizens of the former USSR don't know that side of the story, of course, thanks to the selective version of history served up to them in school. But they are intimately familiar with the other story of the war symbolized by May 9: the sacrifice made by the millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians who died in the fight against Hitler.

Ask any present-day Russian about the war, and they'll immediately begin ticking off the long family casualty list. This collective memory, handed down from generation to generation, helps to explain why even a 19-year-old Russian is likely to have a surprisingly intense emotional link to the legacy of the war -- and why imagery associated with the Great Patriotic War is so tangled up in the competing views of Ukraine today. For one side, Ukraine is part of the sacred Soviet soil that Great Grandpa was fighting to liberate; for the other, Ukraine is territory that was regrettably re-conquered by the Red Army's occupiers in 1944, condemning it to another 47 years of Communist rule.

Boris Hersonsky, a political analyst in Odessa, told me during a recent visit there that one of the most important aspects of the political struggle now dividing Ukraine is the "war of symbols," many of which are intimately connected with World War II. He pointed out that pro-Ukrainian forces identify themselves with the yellow-blue flag of independent Ukraine, a central symbol for the Ukrainian nationalist movement that Stalin's secret police spent decades trying to crush. Many western Ukrainians also profess sympathy for the World War II nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, whose Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) fought both the Nazis and the Soviets during the war -- though there were also moments when Bandera sought tactical alliances with the Germans, allowing the Soviets, and many modern-day Russians (including Putin himself), to vilify him as a collaborator. Nonetheless, modern-day nationalists often proudly display the red-and-black flag of Bandera's UPA, which they see as a sign of the stubborn endurance of the Ukrainian national idea even under the grimmest conditions.

"For people in western Ukraine, the Red Army were occupiers, no worse than the Germans," says Hersonsky. "Eastern Ukrainians can't accept that."

Indeed, the pro-Russian forces in the East, who despise the "Banderites" as Nazi collaborators, display their loyalties by wearing the black-and-orange ribbons of St. George, a traditional Russian patriotic symbol that was revived as a symbol of victory in 1945. For that reason, this year some of the Ukrainians commemorating May 9 have chosen to drop the ribbons, donning instead the poppies often used to memorialize the dead of the world wars in Western Europe. Pro-Ukrainians have taken to referring to the wearers of the ribbons as koloradki, a mocking reference to the Colorado potato beetle, an invasive and destructive pest that boasts the same color scheme.

The intensifying political polarization within Ukraine means, though, that the differences of opinion embodied by these symbols are no joke. Last month, when one prominent pro-Russian politician showed up in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the city's recapture by Soviet forces, he was surrounded in his hotel by pro-Kiev demonstrators, who considered his visit a calculated political slight. The local authorities managed to spirit him away, avoiding what might have otherwise become a major confrontation. The horrific deaths of more than 40 pro-Russian demonstrators in an Odessa building last week in the wake of a clash between them and pro-Ukrainian groups show, however, just how easily such situations can spiral out of control. Let's hope that this year's Victory Day can be commemorated in peace -- as it should be.

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Democracy Lab

How to Win the Information War against Vladimir Putin

The best antidote to propaganda isn't counterpropaganda. It's access to accurate information.

Let me tell you a little story about Turkmenistan, a country that rarely makes it into the news. (Bear with me, it'll be worth it.)

Turkmenistan is about as absolute a dictatorship as you can get in the modern world. The current president, who goes by the unpronounceable name of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, has reigned unchallenged since 2006. (In the photo above, protester carry a massive photo of Berdymukhamedov during an independence day parade in 2009.) His predecessor for the previous 16 years, Saparmurat Niyazov, was famous for adorning the capital with a big golden statue of himself that turned with the sun. Niyazov, who gave himself the title of "Father of the Turkmens," also published his own sayings in a book that became required reading for every citizen, and renamed the months of the year according to his own family tree.

Berdymukhamedov doesn't go quite to the same despotic lengths (though he has been known to order state television, the only kind in Turkmenistan, to broadcast videos of his singing performances). Yet there is no doubt in his country about who rules the roost. Courts, civil servants, and professors are all expected to do the president's bidding without a second thought. The secret police are ubiquitous. Opponents of the regime can expect to be abducted or tortured. In terms of press freedom, the country ranks 178 out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. (Now there's something to think about as we prepare to celebrate World Press Freedom Day tomorrow.)

All of which is why the recent track record of the Turkmen-speaking journalists of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty deserves some notice. RFE/RL is a U.S.-government funded broadcaster that has the task of providing "surrogate journalism" to autocracies around the world. The mission is to fill the hole left from the suppression of media in those countries (hence the "surrogate" part) by producing solid, professional reporting about them in their native languages that is sent back by radio and the Internet.

The current head of RFE's Turkmen Service, Muhammad Tahir, has taken this job to heart. (Full disclosure: I worked as RFE/RL's Washington Bureau Chief for one year, from 2010 to 2011, and Muhammad was one of my good friends there.) Before Muhammad became director, the Turkmen Service was a bit too much like Turkmenistan itself: Its programming featured lots of long, turgid segments featuring Turkmen dissidents (many of whom hadn't been in the country for years) droning on about the failures of the regime. Fair enough, I guess. The problem was that there wasn't much in the way of actual news. "It was all about big stories that had nothing to do with people's lives," Muhammad told me. "The key was making it relevant."

Muhammad decided to take a different approach. He invited the service's radio listeners in Turkmenistan to tell him and his reporters what stories they wanted to hear, and restructured the website to make it more open and interactive. The service set up a toll-free number in Moscow, easily accessible from Turkmenistan, that allowed listeners to call in and leave messages, as well as numbers that people could text to using their mobile phones.

It turned out that Turkmens had a lot of pressing, everyday problems that neither the state-controlled media nor the previous incarnation of the RFE Turkmen Service had really troubled to cover. Listeners started supplying Muhammad's journalists with tips about breaking stories, sometimes backed up with cell phone video. The RFE correspondents then did their own reporting to see whether the tips checked out, and once a story was deemed solid and newsworthy, it was broadcast back into the country. "This started the feeling that we're doing something credible, reliable," Muhammad told me. "And it started to have an effect on people's lives." His audience has rewarded the shift in emphasis.

The number of visitors to the Turkmen Service's website, for example, shot up from a few hundred per day in November 2011, before Muhammad became director, to roughly 14,000 per day by the end of 2013. The number of "likes" on the Turkmen Service's Facebook page went up from 217 in November 2011 to just over 13,000 today -- even though both of these sites remain blocked in Turkmenistan itself. (Many Turkmens now live outside the country's borders, especially in Russia. So it's easier for them to get access to the content, which they then share with their families back home.)

So what sort of stories are we talking about? Their sources inside the country told the RFE journalists, for example, that school kids had been sent out to the fields by local officials to pick cotton -- in violation of Turkmenistan's own laws. Not long after the story aired, the powers-that-be relented, allowing the kids to go back to class. There have been many other cases in which government officials have seen their failings exposed to the glare of public scrutiny.

Muhammad's journalists haven't confined themselves to doing public service, either: They've also been tackled plenty of big, national stories, such as the rising pressure on Turkmenistan's borders from insurgents in neighboring Afghanistan. The point is that they do far more than before to incorporate feedback from their audience and make sure that their stories are relevant. Needless to say, the Turkmen government has tried to push back in every way it can, ranging from detaining RFE correspondents to cyber-censorship. But for the moment RFE's journalists are still getting the stories.

So why am I going on about this? It's simple: The crisis in Ukraine is showing us once again how powerful propaganda can be. Vladimir Putin's state-controlled information machine is sweeping all before it, using slick, state-of-the-art production values and psychologically sophisticated content to put across the message that Kremlin is simply trying to protect the rights of embattled Russian-speaking minorities in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former USSR. To be sure, the reporting involved is often downright nonsensical -- but Putin and his cronies have dedicated so much money and resources to the task that the Russian version of reality ends up dominating the airwaves, 24/7. And it's being broadcast around the region, into Ukraine and beyond.

As Foreign Policy's John Hudson reported earlier this week, some U.S. lawmakers apparently now believe that the way to counter Russia's information offensive is by supplying propaganda of our own. The code for this is "messaging" -- in other words, the priority should be on "getting America's message out." That seems to be the idea, for example, behind the recent reforms proposed for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the supposedly independent public corporation that oversees Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, and other government-financed broadcasters. The logic behind this thinking is clear: "Why are we paying all this money for overseas news when the journalists we're paying for sometimes say things we don't like?"

The reason is simple. The people who live in these countries already spend a lot of their lives listening to news pumped out by governments with an axe to grind. And that's precisely why accurate, professional journalism can have a profound impact -- especially when it's not trying to persuade them of some particular viewpoint (such as "messaging" about the inherent superiority of the American system). The model of surrogate journalism practiced by journalists like Muhammad and his colleagues at RFE (and their sister broadcaster, Radio Free Asia) is exactly the right one. (For the record: I'm also a big fan of the BBC World Service and the BBC's various foreign-language arms, which have long wooed listeners and viewers in repressive societies like Burma, Iran, and China with their high, professional standard of reporting.)

If you stick to this model, you'll sometimes end up broadcasting criticism of the United States and its policies. And that's all for the good -- because it will show audiences that the reporters aren't beholden to a particular line. And, lest we forget, criticizing the government is a fundamentally American value, too.

But we do need to tweak the model a bit. To compete effectively with Putin's Russia and other autocracies, the United States needs to beef up its efforts dramatically. What the U.S. government currently spends on international broadcasting is a joke. (RFE/RL's current annual budget is about $95 million, the price of a couple of helicopters.) We need to spend a lot more money, and we need to spend it much more effectively -- perhaps by getting the private sector involved. (Looking at you, Google.) The trend in recent years has been more money for bureaucrats and less for journalists, which is, needless to say, getting it ass-backwards. And, to be sure, U.S.-sponsored journalism efforts should use social media far more aggressively, but we also need to find creative ways to challenge the autocrats' hold on national TV networks, which is usually their most effective tool.

Above all, we need to find ways to let audiences get involved and active, to speak up about the problems of their own societies. That's important not only because it's precisely what Putin and other dictators don't want to allow. It's also important because this is one of the most elementary ingredients of democracy. If we're really serious about convincing people of the virtues of our system, you'd think we'd be serious about this.

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