Anya (not her real name) is 16 years old and lives just outside Moscow. I first met her about a year ago as her online English language teacher. She’s bright, articulate, devours the Russian classics and has also read Orwell’s 1984 which, for her, is ‘about the total control of people by the government’, Big Brother interpreted as the USA. Anya’s father is a scientist, works for the Russian government and his job is so secret that even his daughter doesn’t know what he does. The practical implications of this means Anya’s travel options are very limited, although she’s holidayed in Belarus (where ‘the streets are clean and the people friendly’) and the Crimea (where ‘the referendum showed people voted for Russia’). Last year, I mentioned Navalny’s name. Anya flinched and said, ‘We don’t know where he came from. We don’t know who he is.’ Anya has an excellent grasp of the royal ‘we’.
On 17th February, in what became our penultimate lesson, Anya wanted to talk about Ukraine.
‘Russia isn’t going to invade Ukraine,’ she said. ‘Why do we need Ukraine?’
Later, I sent her an article to read for our next meeting: Five Things Ukrainians Want You to Know About the ‘Russia Crisis’. In response, Anya gave a rendition of Putin’s revisionist history in which the formation of modern Belarusians, Russians and Ukrainians emerged from the disintegration of Rus, all three share a common history and thus desired unity is ‘natural’.
The following Monday (21st February), I messaged Anya saying the situation had become much more dangerous with Putin bestowing independence on Luhansk and Donetsk, and sent her another article to read: Putin’s absurd, angry spectacle will be a turning point in his long reign. I suggested the Russian Ambassador to the US had lied when he’d said, ‘We are not trying to take any territories of foreign countries. I would like to confirm that Donbas and Luhansk is a part of the Ukraine.’
‘Putin didn’t take control of these new republics,’ replied Anya. ‘They have their own heads of their states. Putin doesn’t play any role in the government of them.’ Further, ‘Putin wouldn’t have done this if Ukraine hadn’t violated the Minsk Protocol. There’s only Ukrainian fault, unfortunately…’ To support this, she forwarded an article from the Russian state-owned news agency TASS – a summary of Putin’s essay, ‘Being Open, Despite the Past’. Here, Maidan is described as a ‘state coup’ which, according to Putin ‘was organized by the United States and only tentatively supported by European states’. Using Putin’s words to justify her own, Anya also reinforced a point she’d made previously: that it’s acceptable for a leader to be in power for more than 20 years ‘as long as the leader is a good leader’. Putin came to power 6 years before Anya was born.
We talked about Maidan in what became our final lesson on 22nd February. Anya informed me that Ukrainians were Nazis and that those who were anti-Maidan were ‘ordinary decent people’ while the pro-Maidan camp were fascists. We discussed language (Anya wants to become a translator) in terms of how it can define what it appears to describe. We discussed the difference between a ‘state coup’ and a ‘revolution’ in relation to their positive and negative connotations.
On the morning of 24th February, I sent her the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to be hit with the now familiar ‘Putin didn’t declare war! He started special operation…it is not the war.’ I told her Putin was lying and that 17 cities had been attacked. At this point, she wanted to end the discussion, saying ‘That’s pity the West doesn’t want to hear.’
We then reached our first point of agreement: that language is communication and once we stop talking, we lose hope, humanity and, ultimately, we die; that through discussion, we can find the truth and stay human. These moments of agreement have been few and far between, but they remain vital.
Another moment of potential understanding occurred when Anya responded to a photo of Sofya Rusova, co-chair of Russia’s Trade Union of Journalists, an anti-war solo protester in Russia who was immediately arrested.
‘I wish we could know more about all the things are happening now,’ said Anya. ‘I will watch then make my conclusion. Now a lot of information can be fake and it is better to wait a little.’
She made her conclusions quickly, however, responding angrily to a video of thousands of people protesting in Central Moscow where 850 people were detained by Putin’s regime.
‘Where were these people when common citizens were attacked by the Ukrainian army, when 140 people were burned by Nazis in Trade Union House?’ she asked.
An article about a 50,000 strong protest in Moscow against Russia’s occupation of Crimea didn’t seem to answer her question. Nor did a different analysis of what happened at the Odessa Trade Union House, where attention was drawn to a particular quote: ‘The narrative on the basis of this frame was supported by the state-owned Russian newspapers, websites and TV channels. Horrific fake details were generously added.’
Anya responded with words lifted directly from a speech given by Putin on 21st February:
‘oh, yes, of course! Russian always lie and people who live far from the place where it happened know everything better! of course, they know the history of Russia better then all of us, RUSSIANS! of course, of course…didn’t you know Ukraine has never existed? Lenin formed that REPUBLIC. Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic was formed by Lenin and Ukraine hadn’t ever existed before that.’
An historical critique of this assertion was again met with resistance: ‘Aha, of course, they know better… i’ve already learned about this. What they say is a nonsense. Don’t try to change my mind, please.’
Changing the mind of a 16-year-old girl saturated in Putin’s propaganda from the moment of her birth is a challenge when, for her, everything is clear: ‘today to be Nazi in Ukraine is ok (how could they let this happen?) Donetsk and Luhansk couldn’t accept such politics and wanted not to be the part of this Nazi country.’
@maqsudaliyev #украина #прикол #россия #москва #россия #сша #америка #рек #fypシ ♬ оригинальный звук – Maqsud Aliyev
She sent me a TikTok video which, she said, explained the situation very well: ‘Russian people least want war, but the West provoked it.’ The use of a naughty child to represent Ukraine was, in her words, a joke. Given Putin’s military was killing children as we spoke, the ‘humour’ was grotesque.
Anya’s insistence that the Russian army was disabling the infrastructure of Ukraine was undermined by a photo of a children’s playground covered with carnage in Kharkiv. Either utilising her father’s scientific knowledge or regurgitating what she’d heard on Russian TV, she informed me that ‘this is multiple launch rocket system which Ukrainian army uses. Russian army uses long-range cruise missiles in order to disable Ukrainian infrastructure. so, it means it is not Russian and not its fault.’ She’d never heard of any nuclear threat and said Putin had warned NATO not to get close to the Russian border and told the Ukrainian government to stop bombarding Donetsk and Luhansk – ‘do you want him to look at all this and stay silent?’
She was further incensed by the Ukrainian news with its caption ‘Russian soldier, go fuck yourself!’
When faced by your killers, Anya demanded respect be shown: ‘I hope you’ll be ashamed when you find out the whole truth. I think it’s unacceptable to show disrespect to ordinary people even during the war. It’s unpleasant for me, for my family and for many more Russian people. It sounds like Russophobia.’
Interestingly, Anya referred to ‘the war’ here – a momentary slippage from Putin’s vocabulary which, given the context in which it emerges, provides only a flicker of hope that her critical skills haven’t been erased completely.
By the time photos of Bucha appeared, our conversation had long since stopped. The whole truth about the execution of civilians, the torture and the rapes would, for Anya, be construed as fake, staged by the Ukrainians themselves. After all, ‘fake’ is how she described the killing of children and teachers during the very first week of the war in Ukraine, without providing any evidence to substantiate her claim.
One of Anya’s favourite sources of ‘information’ emanates from a man going by the name of Gonzalo Lira (‘Money Battle’), whose videos are readily available on YouTube. In one of these, Lira asserts that the Russians don’t want to destroy Ukraine but ‘they want to capture it intact. They don’t want to hurt the civilians…They want to capture Ukraine, change the political leadership of Ukraine, and instal a political leadership that is sympathetic to Russia’s security needs and is going to be a long-term ally…they don’t want to destroy Ukraine or harm the Ukrainian populace.’
This video was released on 26th February. OHCHR statistics from 5th May reports 3,280 civilian deaths, including 231 children, and 3,451 civilian injuries, including 328 children. As the report specifies: ‘OHCHR believes that the actual figures are considerably higher.’ An AP News investigation cites the number of civilian deaths in Mariupol as approximately 20,000.
Lira has been described as ‘a sleazy American dating coach [who] became a pro-Putin shill’. He mocks the West’s ‘demonisation’ of Putin while accusing ‘the Zelensky regime’ of ‘welcoming a humanitarian crisis’ and of ‘doing something frankly evil’. At the end of the video, he gets angry:
‘I don’t give a fuck what you think about me. I’m telling you the truth… I mean, in this channel, what have I always told you stupid motherfuckers. Think for yourself. Think.’
He then proceeds to tell us what to think by asserting that the Russians have a strategy for their actions and that ‘the best that we can hope for is that the Zelensky regime fails in its attempt to wrangle in the Europeans and the Americans into this war and the Zelensky regime collapses or flees or whatever and Russia is able to take Ukraine in one piece without harming too many people.’
The devastating nature and scale of the war crimes already under investigation brings Lira’s final comment into sickening focus.
On Monday 7th March, an unprompted message from Anya read: ‘About the family near Kiev. This is a terrible lie – an element of the information war, designed to incite hatred for the Russians. Russian soldiers do not even kill Ukrainian soldiers who surrender.’
The New York Times report on this killing fell on deaf ears with her insistence ‘that Bandera supporters (fascists) are in Ukraine now. And, at the same time, they are in all state structures of power and law enforcement agencies of Ukraine. They are supported by the USA and NATO. Zelensky is pawn in their hands. That’s why he is afraid of them. Today they (nationalist battalions) are supported by NATO with weapons that kill civilians in Ukraine… Fascists in Ukraine hate Russians. Fascists in Ukraine are a minority, but they are in power and in the armed forces and terrorize the whole of Ukraine. Putin is fighting the Nazis in Ukraine.’
Anya’s account holds up a stark mirror to arguments propounded by a particular group of Western critics, many of whom are associated with RT. The latter’s refusal to acknowledge their ideas prop up Putin parallels Anya’s stubborn rejection of Russian writers who don’t fit her literary canon. She said she’d never heard of Mikhail Shiskin, a writer and outspoken critic of Putin.
‘We don’t learn him,’ said Anya. ‘We learn Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and many writers who wrote about WW2 such as Tvardovsky, Sholokhov etc. they are really outstanding writers and poets!’
Anya then invited me to come to Russia, saying I was free to protest in Red Square. Reminded that thousands of protesters had been arrested, Anya explained that this was ‘because their demonstrations were not coordinated demonstration. coordinated demonstrations are legal…you can demonstrate, but you must not forget the law.’
Not long after this, a man was detained in Moscow for holding up a copy of one of the books Anya reveres – Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Predictably, a brick wall went up to the announcement that ‘On Friday, Putin signed into law a bill that introduced jail terms of up to 15 years for fake news about the Russian army, forcing many Russian and international outlets to cease their coverage of the events.’
‘Is fake news good?’ retorted Anya.
Without providing any criteria for what constitutes ‘fake news’, Anya sent me the documentary Donbass by the ‘journalist’ Anne-Laure Bonnel, accompanied by an interview with Bonnel in which she claims to have no political message. Liberation, however, examines her work, concluding that it gives a ‘very unilateral vision of the situation in the Donbass [which] is also that of the Russian authorities and their supporters.’
Anya’s links to Bonnel were sent on 8th March – the 7th anniversary of the murder of Boris Nemtsov. One and a half months on from this, Nemtsov’s friend and opposition politician, Vladimir Kara-Murza, was declared a ‘foreign agent’ and placed on pre-trial detention. Describing the Kremlin as a ‘regime of murderers’, Kara-Murza faces 15 years in jail.
Sticking to the Kremlin’s line, Anya gave a detailed account of the bombing of Mariupol Maternity Hospital to ‘prove’ that the hospital was emptied prior to the attack which, she insisted, was mounted by Azov militants and involved actors: ‘The Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation has repeatedly stated that they do not strike at civilian infrastructure facilities. The representative of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova called this [Western media reports] fake information terrorism.’
No matter how many sources were used to refute her claims, Anya’s world view remained a regurgitation of Putin’s propaganda:
‘in Russia we have our own democracy…not like in the USA, not like in the UK…we have different form of government, a form of state organisation, and don’t think that Russian people no longer have rights. All our rights are spelled out in the Constitution of the Russian Federation.’
Luckily for me, I don’t live in Anya’s ‘democracy’ so can avoid the fate awaiting Irina Gen, a teacher whose students recorded her attempt ‘to break through the propaganda that is being fed to this country.’ She’s now left at the mercy of the chilling ‘fake news’ law.
The new curriculum being implemented by Russia’s Education Ministry justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already been drilled into the head of 16-year-old Anya and, with all independent media shut down, her chances of escaping an Orwellian future seem remote. As Applebaum observes: ‘Instead of declining, the Russian state’s ability to disguise reality from its citizens and to dehumanise its enemies has grown stronger and more powerful than ever.’
Nevertheless, with Putin’s war not going as he’d planned, there’s always the possibility of light at the end of the darkest tunnel.