Vladimir Golstein is a professor of Slavic studies at Brown University. He was born in Moscow and emigrated to the United States in 1979
Why is the Western press so invested in expounding the highly unconvincing narrative of the official line?
Growing up in the Soviet Union, I used to approach words like "Voice of America” (Golos Ameriki), BBC, Deutche Welle (Nemetskaia volna) with a certain reverence: they meant hidden, clandestine and therefore precious truth. Truth and news were not found in Pravda orIzvestia, regardless of the explicit claims of these newspapers’ titles; truth and news dwelled in the little short-wave radio, which would tell its eager audience what was really happening in the world.
Official Soviet press was notorious for its manipulation of facts, and even more so for its tendency to ignore particular issues altogether. Dissident activity, Israel, unrest in socialist countries—these stories were off-limit, unless the most vicious vitriol was thrown at them. This policy bordered on the ridiculous.
I learned since then that these radio stations were government-sponsored, that they rarely reported "the whole truth,” but still, the facts that they reported were sufficient to break through the all-encompassing fantasies created by the Soviet media.
With the recent crisis in Ukraine, and much to my dismay, I've begun to experience an eerie sense of déjà vu. It is as if I'm observing the good old days of the Cold War but through some distorted mirror. Too many major news organizations believe, rather naively, that simple echoing of their government lines will somehow work in the West, even though it failed in the Soviet Union. It is rather ironic that Secretary John Kerry has decided to make RT the subject of his criticism, by calling it the "propaganda bullhorn” echoing the accusations that good old Soviet apparatchiks would hurl at Voice of America.
The official line for the Ukrainian story has been already scripted: Ukrainian desire to embrace Western and democratic ways is blocked by spy-master Putin who utilizes his guile and aggression in order to restore the Soviet Empire. And therefore, any unexpected impediment in Ukraine’s march toward Europe is to be blamed on Tsar Putin. The concrete changes and challenges that time brings to this story are ignored, dismissed or misread. Be it the refusal to take Russian interests into consideration, or the causes behind Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or the Russophobic hysteria that keeps ostracizing large segments of the Russian-speaking Ukrainian population. Not to mention the current Ukrainian government’s heavy handed and violent tactics, including the military excursions into the east of the country that have pushed the country to the brink of civil war. All these unexpected events are set aside, while the wheels of the press keep on turning in the same rut and dutifully condemn Putin’s aggression, or articulate different ways of punishing Russia, or juxtapose thuggish Russian separatists with the benevolent and restrained Kiev regime.
One salient example of the western information blockade is the Odessa massacre of May 2, 2014. When not ignoring the story, the western press articulates a version of it, which is as biased as the Soviets' reports about their invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Czech’s quest for independence was blamed on the West, and the presence of Warsaw Pact tanks on the streets of Prague was explained by Pravda as the need to thwart the plan cooked up by Pentagon and CIA. In other words, the tanks were not the means to intimidate Czech citizens, but the weapon against American imperialism. Likewise, in discussing Odessa, the Western press dutifully refers to "the clashes between pro Ukrainian and pro-Russians,” without any explanation as to why several dozen unarmed citizen of Ukraine were burned alive in an Odessa building. Reading western reports, one gets the impression that pro-Putin "separatists” in their stupidity locked themselves into the building and set themselves on fire. 170 years ago the most celebrated Ukrainian author, Nikolai Gogol, mocked Russian bureaucratic abuse by presenting the corrupt mayor, explaining to the inspector general that the widow of the soldier who was whipped by his orders, "did the thrashing herself.” This prophetic mockery is indeed echoed in the BBC report, which states that "someone threw a Molotov cocktail through the closed window… the glass didn’t break and a fire started inside.” Russians seem both skillful enough to organize the whole mess, and so incompetent as to set themselves ablaze by their own Molotov cocktails.
Likewise, the Wall Street Journal’s article entitled: "Deadly Ukraine Fire Likely Sparked by Rebels, Government Says” asserts that "Rebels Accidentally Dropped Molotov Cocktails on Roof, According to Preliminary Investigation.” Why quote the government on the issue that is so controversial and explosive? In all fairness, the newspaper does present the view of the victims, at least acknowledging the presence of those who "challenge” the story. They are: "victims’ relatives,” "Pro Russian activists,” "Russian media” or "the Speaker of the Russian Parliament.” In other words, the very way in which the people challenging the official line are introduced casts them in a suspicious light, suggesting that their objectivity is mired by anger, political posturing or nationalist commitment. Doesn’t the fact that unarmed people end up butchered and burned warrant the reporter to question the official line on his or her own?
In its turn, the Washington Post’s report introduces the violence as the result of "clashes …between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists.” It then interviewed an "ethnic Russian” who provides the following explanation of the massacre: "Victor Dementyev, an ethnic Russian who says he is on Kiev’s side, described seeing anti-government activists attack a crowd of young ultranationalist Ukrainian football hooligans Friday. …”I know that it doesn’t take much to provoke their fury,’’ Dementyev said of the ultranationalists. "By killing one of their friends, separatists made them crazy.’’ In other words: blame the victim. And of course, even that doesn’t work, since there is no reports of any "ultranationalist” being killed. But rumors of such violence were surely spread, and the mob was incited.
The New York Times’s report of May 3, 2014 follows the familiar pattern: "An official in the city said 46 people had died as a result of street battles between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine groups; many of the dead were pro-Russia militants who had retreated into a trade union building that was then set on fire.” Acknowledging that the violence was rather one sided, the newspaper still fails to state the obvious, suggesting though that the ultranationalist mayhem was almost ritualistic: "Amid the chaos… it was not immediately clear who had started the blaze, though a report from a pro-Ukraine national newspaper, Ukrainska Pravda, suggested that Ukrainian activists had done nothing to help those inside. … As the building burned, the Ukrainian activists continued to scream mottos about Putin and sing the Ukrainian national anthem.” Yet without pursuing the questions that such ritualistic display of violence has to raise, the report quickly hides behind its ever useful even-handedness: "Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry blamed the day of violence on provocateurs 'paid generously by the Russian special services,' while Russia’s Foreign Ministry blamed a Ukrainian nationalist group, Right Sector.”
With serious news outfits failing to investigate what really happened in Odessa, the field has been left to conspiracy theorists who follow the familiar pattern of blaming either Western or Russian machinations. Thus, according to an essay published online by National Review, the former KGB officer Putin must have organized the whole thing.
In their desire to whitewash the current Kiev regime and its Western backers, the western press avoids stating the obvious. The Odessa massacre was a blatant and violent attack against the civilian population intended to intimidate and silence. At least BBC, rather than camouflaging the one-sidedness of the violence behind neutral "clashes between,” described it more vividly: "several thousand football fans began to attack 300 pro-Russians.” But who directed the soccer fans toward the square where protesters—in the manner of the Occupy movement—were camping? Who taught young girls to prepare Molotov cocktails for the attackers? Who organized the retreat of the protesters into the building, where they were ambushed and killed, axed—according to recent reports—before being set on fire? Where were the police and fire engines? If security forces are at fault for failing to protect the civilians who simply refuse to share the radical nationalist agenda than emanates from Kiev, can we call those same civilians "separatists” or "terrorists” only because they want Russia to protect them? Why not call them moderate Ukrainians? Incompetent at best, and vicious at worst, the Ukrainian government is failing its own population by radicalizing and ostracizing big segments of it. This is major news, yet the tenor of western coverage is reduced to reports on deaths, and suggestions that since the details are murky, there is nothing else to discuss. Those who want to understand this awful act of violence that can become a watershed in the unfolding drama of Ukrainian civil war will have to rely on the information that is gathered piecemeal from eyewitnesses and published by various alternative sources of information.
Odessa appears to be intimidated and scared, and no pro-Russian demonstrations are taking place there now. Whoever was behind the massacre has clearly succeeded in delivering the strategic Ukrainian port to the Kiev rulers. But for how long?
The question remains, however, why is the press so invested in expounding the highly unconvincing narrative of the official line? Why such clumsy reporting on the part of such a sophisticated instrument? Why the reluctance to expose the glaring failures of the current Ukrainian government and its western backers? Why on earth does the western press want to emulate this universally ridiculed feature of the Soviets? Is it that difficult to proceed from the fact that we do not yet know all the forces that are vying for control of Ukraine, that we don’t know who is behind the events in Odessa, or how to interpret the rebellion in the East of Ukraine? Only by incorporating different voices we can hope to get closer to the truth of real life, rather than to the monolithic truths of Pravda.
It is a clear indictment of the current Ukrainian government and its leaders that the candidate who is winning in the polls and who will most likely be next president of Ukraine is Petro Poroshenko, the oligarch-politician who kept his distance from the rhetoric and the violence unleashed by Kiev. The politicians who wanted to reap the benefit from playing the nationalist, anti-Russian card, such as Iulia Timoshenko, are clearly falling in popularity. Moderate people in Odessa and the rest of Ukraine might be intimidated but they are hardly in the mood to forgive such actions. One hopes that the new Ukrainian government will find perpetrators, and re-establish national dialogue on the way various groups of Ukrainians treat each another. Without such a dialogue, the future of Ukraine looks very grim indeed.