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Ukraine – In the Grip of Propaganda

In a dysfunctional and stagnant Ukraine, one sector nonetheless works extremely well – the lying oligarch-controlled media. The overthrow of Yanukovich was its greatest triumph yet

One day, when the cacophony of lies drowning out the truth of what has happened in Ukraine since the violent Maidan power grab last year is silenced, the entire episode will furnish rich material for social psychologists. 

That is, assuming the true facts ever become generally known in the West, for there are plenty of historical examples that the truth does not always “prevail,” as the adage goes. Instead, people’s views of history are largely formed by myths, and ever since Herodotus, the “father of history,” what we call history has been more legend than an impartial documentation of fact. 

<figcaption>Ukrainian army recruitment poster. War propaganda still inundates the country.</figcaption>
Ukrainian army recruitment poster. War propaganda still inundates the country.

It is telling that in all the major European languages except English, the word “history” means both “history” and “story” — in other words, there is an awareness, at least in our languages, that history is a story, i.e. that it is made up. Even in English, the two words have the same etymology.

When Ukrainians overwhelmingly backed the overthrow of the constitutional government by the putschist-led mob in Kiev, it was the result of a massive deluge of hysterical, usually nonsensical, fantastical, and always Russophobic, propaganda. 

This propaganda came in no small part through the late 20th century’s traditional medium — television. For all the hype of Yanukovch as a “dictator” by the Maidan crowd, his influence over the country’s media was weak. There were few, if any, open statements of support for Yanukovych on Ukrainian TV, which is largely owned and financed by oligarchs and the western powers. 

One of the main channels in country, 1+1, is owned by Igor Kolomoisky; another main channel, Inter, is owned by Dmytro Firtash.  The Starlight Media Group, which owns several Ukrainian channels, is owned by Victor Pinchuk;  and the primary 24 hours news outlet in the country, Channel 5, is the property of El Presidente himself. Another popular news channel, Hromodske TV, appeared suddenly on the airwaves in November 2013 (just in time to cover the “revolution”), funded by the USA, the Dutch, and the International Renaissance Fund of George Soros.

But among the younger generation, the primary instigator was undoubtedly the internet: the same social media which had played so large a part in the murky origins of the Arab Spring “revolutions”; Facebook and Twitter (which, it deserves recalling, are American) supplemented in Ukraine by the Russian networking site, Vkontakte. These websites served as the heartbeat of Maidan supporters. No sooner did a photo of dubious origin, or even a single inflammatory sentence, appear on one of these sites than it was propagated infectiously and accepted as an established fact by the Maidan crowd. 

Of course, it was not merely a question of mass media manipulation. There were genuine grievances behind Ukrainians’ support for “revolution.” Ukraine is ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Bribery permeates every level of society — from the presidency down to the cleaning lady. The country has suffered 24 years of economic, infrastructural, and social stagnation which no politician or political party has shown itself able or willing to remedy. Instead, many politicians — such as the current prime minister Yatsenyuk and the seemingly washed up Oleh Tyahnybok — have made careers plying the Russophobia, which underlies post-independence Ukrainian nationalism. 

“Manufacture of Consent”

In 1922, the journalist Walter Lippmann published a book, Public Opinion, in which he coined the term “manufacture of consent.” The basic theory is that human evolution has not equipped the average man with the ability to discern the truth from the vast amounts of information presented to him by means of modern mass media. Therefore, it is incumbent upon an elite — who will, of course, act in the best interests of society — to mould his worldview in such a way that is most beneficial to society. 

(We are here reminded of Lenin’s contention in his famous tract What is to be done? that in the modern world, the average worker did not have the time or ability to study and fully comprehend the theory of Marxism; therefore, a revolutionary vanguard became necessary.)

In the words of Lippmann:

That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough. . . . [a]s a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power. . . . Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.

— Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, Chapter XV

There is reason to believe that those who control mass media are students of collective psychology. Besides the ideas expressed in Lippmann’s Public Opinion, Propaganda by Eduard Bernays, and The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon, among other works, prove that the mechanisms for manipulating collective consciousness were already being studied and were known by the early 20th century. 

Myth vs. Reality

There exists a huge gulf between the myths promoted in Ukraine about Europe, and what Europeans actually think about Ukraine. According to German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Ukraine should not be allowed to join NATO, and joining the EU will take “generations.”  Joining the EU or NATO requires a unanimous vote of all members. If Germany says “no,” it means no.  

But since most Ukrainians’ beliefs and attitudes are formed entirely by their own reckless propagandistic — dare I say, lying — oligarch-controlled media, they will know nothing of this. They know nothing of how Western Europeans truly regard them, because they do not or cannot read international media. They could read Russian media, which would certainly provide an opposing perspective. But they largely do not, since the stigma attached to Russian sources is strong, and Russian channels have been banned in Ukraine since the coup regime took power. 

That’s how the Maidan coup leaders and Poroshenko were able to dangle the carrot of EU membership and visa-free travel (which he promised in his election campaign would happen in January 2015) and why the majority of Ukrainians were all too willing to believe the fantasies promised them. 

A failed “Revolution” 

Approximately one year later, most Ukrainians are disappointed with the results of their “revolution” —the promised visa-free travel in Europe and miraculous transformation of the country to Western European standards did not materialize. Corruption has not decreased, for that requires more than new “European” style laws and regulations — it requires Ukrainians themselves to change their behavior, to stop accepting and demanding bribes. That seems unlikely as long as they are encouraged to keep blaming the devil for their sin, i.e Russia and “Russian mentality” which, they say, is responsible for any flaws in their character. 

Many are beginning to see that it was merely a coup d’état by one set of oligarchs against one of their own — and the the Ukrainian people were duped, herded like cattle and used as pawns in a power grab. Their patriotism and dreams for the future were abused, just as in the earlier Maidan — the “Orange Revolution” of 2004 — and probably will be again. Ukrainians have an uncanny knack for picking a loser and siding with whatever new would-be slave master comes along — be it Charles XII of Sweden, Napoleon, Hitler, or Joe Biden and Victoria Nuland (my apologies to Charles, Napoleon, and Hitler). 

They are not yet prepared to see the role played by the United States and Western powers in Ukraine as pernicious. For that would mean, essentially, embracing Russia — which is now psychologically impossible for a great many. They forget entirely, or simply deny, that they come from the same origin: the medieval Rus state. As for the generation educated in the last 20 years — I doubt they are taught this in school at all. 

A typical example is one woman I know, whose husband is a rather prosperous businessman. She is fully aware that the Maidan events were not a revolution at all; that they brought the same politicians and oligarchs to power who have ruled the country since independence. Remarkably, she even suggested that the coup was supported by the United States. But as if forced by cognitive dissonance, she then interjected, “of course, we’d be a lot better off if Putin would just die.” Death wishes against Putin (also called “Putler”) are common. It is just too much psychologically for Ukrainians to look in the mirror for the source of their problems. They cannot admit that the bogeyman did not do it. 

Igor Kolomoisky: Defender of Ukraine

To most, the problem is not mainly the oligarchs. It is Russia and Putin. This is reflected in Ukrainians’ attitudes to the recent clash between Petro Poroshenko and Igor Kolomoisky. Though ostensibly about control over a state oil company, it was really about defining the limits of Kolomoisky’s power. Since the coup, Kolomoisky has ruled Dnipropetrovsk oblast as a personal fief - albeit one loyal to the Kiev regime. I have to admit that in confronting Kolomoisky, Poroshenko showed political and personal courage I did not expect from him. If he can escape the influence of the oligarchs and the United States, he may yet prove himself a true leader. 

But that is not how most Ukrainians view the situation. In the opinion of many, but not all, Ukrainians, the country’s oligarchs play nothing but a positive role in the country — especially Kolomoisky, who is considered to have stopped the “Russian invasion” of the country in its tracks through his financing of numerous private militias which now form the core of what is left of Ukraine’s armed forces. No doubt the oligarch-controlled mass media has something to do with their image. 

Already disappointed by his broken promises, support for Poroshenko is at an all-time low, and his row with the “hero” Kolomoisky has only exacerbated public disappointment. That having a billionaire warlord with a private army in control of a significant part of the country is not exactly compatible with “European values” does not seem to occur to a significant portion of Ukrainians. 

One client of mine, a doctor, actually expressed the view that Poroshenko was controlled by Putin - the same accusation leveled at his predecessor - and was acting against Kolomoisky at his behest. The new president of Ukraine should therefore be Kolomoisky and the new prime minister, Right Sector leader Dimitry Yarosh. Similar views can be heard from many people.

War propaganda continues

In today’s Ukraine, that old standby, good old fashioned war propaganda, is the primary means of keeping Ukrainians distracted from the IMF and oligarch robbery and subjugation of the country that is taking place. Despite the relative quiet of the current ceasefire, the vilification of Russia, “Putler,” and the people of Donbass as “terrorists,” continues. Few pay attention to the sell-off of the country’s resources when there is a “Russian invasion” to contend with. Factual evidence of such an invasion is not necessary to sustain the propaganda. 

Logical questions like, why, if Putin seeks the conquest of Ukraine, the Russian army only bothers to invade along a small section of Ukraine’s 2,300 km border with Russia cannot be answered, and by most Ukrainians brainwashed by the propaganda, will be refused with a charge that the questioner himself is “brainwashed by Russian propaganda” and the discussion will be terminated. 

To an American, who has lived through 15 years of “war on terror” — the themes are all too familiar. Whereas America has its “War on Terror,” Ukraine has its “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO). Whereas the war slogan in America is “United We Stand,” in Ukraine it is “єдина країна" (United Country). Variants of America’s “Support the Troops” appear on Ukrainian propaganda posters, as well as the slogan “ми переможемо!” — which is an almost direct translation of a late WWII German propaganda slogan “Der Sieg wird unser sein!” (Victory will be ours!) One could be forgiven for thinking Kiev and Washington use the same scriptwriters. 

When a government has to start promising victory in the future tense, it is because victory is not at all evident in the present. 

Breaking the propaganda stranglehold

But there does seem to be hope for breaking through the power of mass media propaganda. In 2013, during the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, even as the entire American corporate-controlled media was — as usual — agitating for aggression against another country, Americans rejected the propaganda. 

Incredibly, it was the unlikely partnership of the peace initiative of the Russian government and the war-weariness of the American voting public which combined to abort Washington’s attempt to bomb Syria. (Nevertheless, following the convenient emergence of the “Islamic State” the US and its Arab monarchy clients finally got their casus belli to intervene in Syria.) 

Polls show Americans are overwhelmingly against intervening in Ukraine’s civil war, even as the anti-Putin hate-fest and bizarre Russophobic carnival continues in Western mainstream media. 

The United States itself has not been touched by war since its own civil war, in the 19th century. To Americans, war is something that happens abroad, with little to distinguish the horrific reality of actual war from a movie or video game. Only those who have had a family member maimed or killed have some idea of its effects.

In Ukraine, there is a real war (albeit with a ceasefire no one expects to last). But it is a war entirely of Kiev’s making. When anti-Maidan protestors in Donbass merely reproduced what the putschists engineered in Kiev — occupying main squares and government buildings — Turchynov sent in the tanks. He did exactly what Yanukovych was constantly accused of preparing to do, but never did. 

Yet the war propaganda that Ukraine is a totally “united country” does not allow for the possibility that some people may have opposed the overthrow of constitutional order. There are no Ukrainian citizens fighting against Kiev — they are all Russian army, a.k.a. “terrorists.” So goes the narrative of the Ukrainian government and media. 

It has taken Americans 15 years of “War on Terror” to grow weary of, and begin to question. their war propaganda. One can only hope that for the Ukrainians, for their own sake and that of their country, the time necessary will be rather less. 

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