Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the world has been shocked by scenes of massacred civilians and flattened residential blocks. Even in Kremlin-controlled media, the images have not been censored — they have been spun.
As a result, many Russians still believe in the version of events presented to them by their televisions: that Russia is fighting to liberate Ukraine from Nazism. In many cases, not even the first-hand accounts of their Ukrainian relatives can convince Russians that the Kremlin’s made-for-TV narrative does not correspond to the reality on the ground.
Until March, Guran, a mechanic, and Yulia, a doctor, lived in the northern city of Kharkiv. Since the start of the war, the city has come under almost daily Russian bombardment.
“We were sheltering in the basement,” Yulia remembered. “There was dust shaking down from the ceiling because of the explosions outside, but when we talked to relatives just across the border [in Russia]they told us, ‘Don’t worry, the Russian military is not targeting civilian objects, so you’ll be fine.'”
“When we told them that apartment buildings were being struck,” Guran said, “they suggested that we come stay with them in Russia. They were certain that if there was any danger to us, it could only be from the Nazis in the Ukrainian army, which they said was fighting to prevent us from being liberated.”
“We tried to tell them that there are no Nazis dominating us,” Yulia added. “But it’s impossible to convince them of anything. They just respond that we are the ones who have been brainwashed, as if their televisions are telling them the truth and it is Ukrainians who are confused about the reality in front of their own eyes.”
Since 2014, when a popular protest movement prompted former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich to flee to Russia, Kremlin-controlled media has portrayed successive Ukrainian governments as “neo-fascist juntas.” The fact that current Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskya Russian-speaking Ukrainian of Jewish heritage, carried 73% of the popular vote in the country’s 2019 election did little to change this common misperception in Russia itself.
The independent polling agency Levada Center published results in March showing that 81% of Russians supported Vladimir Putin‘s “military special operation,” which the Russian president justified on February 24 as necessary for the “denazification of Ukraine.” Although polling results published in April showed a moderate decline in confidence, 74% of Russians still responded that they approved of their president’s actions.
In an interview with Deutsche WelleLevada Center head Lev Gudkov explained how this was possible.
“The propaganda operates constantly,” Gudkov said. “They show you a picture of dead bodies, of destroyed houses, and they say that it is the result of Ukrainian fascists who destroy, mock, and humiliate Russian people in the Donbas.”
The Russian state media figures who propagate these distorted versions of events maintain that they do so out of genuine belief that the Russian interpretation is in fact the correct one. One prominent Russian talk show host, told Newsweek in March that, “Your country [the U.S.] armed and trained these Nazis. You made excuses for them and whitewashed them. You are an accomplishment to Nazism.”
The idea that Ukraine is dominated by neo-fascists or nationalists of any sort is not consistent with real life in Ukraine, although the far right makes its presence known from time to time. There have been photos of Ukrainian soldiers displaying fascist paraphernalia, and every January 1, a few hundred torch-carrying Ukrainians march through central Kyiv to honor Stepan Bandera, a controversial WWII-era partisan leader who sided with Nazi Germany in its fight against the Soviet Union, whom Vladimir Putin likes to quote in his speeches about Nazis in Ukraine.
But at the ballot box, where it counts in a democracy, far-right parties in Ukraine consistently fail to receive anything close to the 5% support necessary to qualify for representation in parliament, and in society itself, their presence is minimal.
“There is anti-Semitism in Ukraine, just like there is anti-Semitism everywhere,” Jewish-American journalist Anthony Bartaway, co-host of the Ukraine Without Hype podcast, told Newsweek. “But the far-right in Ukraine is politically marginal, and anti-Semitic violence is extremely rare.”
Up until February 24, violence of any sort in Ukraine was equally uncommon. Despite an eight-year-long conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-controlled separatists in the eastern Donbas region, Ukrainians living beyond the front lines could feel reasonably secure about their personal safety.
“There are always problems in life,” said Larissa, a hairdresser from a small town near Kherson, “but looking back now, it’s amazing how well we lived.”
For Larissa, that all changed in the first week of March, when Russian forces entered the areas of southern Ukraine along its border with occupied Crimea.
“When the column of Russian military vehicles came through our town on their way to Energodar,” said Larissa’s husband, Vladimir, “they fired off two rounds into our neighborhood. A house maybe 300 meters from ours burned to the ground.”
“The kids and women were already down in the basement,” Larissa remembered, “and the men were up in the attic watching the vehicles roll by. They came down to join us after the shooting started, though.”
For the next several days, there was heavy fighting in the area. After the region came under Russian control, Larissa participated in local pro-Ukrainian marches. On March 8, International Women’s Day, she received a call from an aunt in Russia.
“My aunt said, ‘We will liberate you from the Nazis, and you will thank us,'” Larissa recalled. “Everyone in Russia seems to be certain that we have been dominated by Nazis here, and yet somehow we ourselves did not notice this. At least, until February 24, we did not see any Nazis. Then the real Nazis came.”
Larissa and Vladimir, like Guran and Julia, have not spoken to their Russian relatives in several weeks.
“What’s the point?” Vladimir asked. “We already know what they’re going to say, and they already know what we’re going to say. Despite everything that has happened, nothing has changed.”