Polite people with guns

For 20 years Russians saw Ukraine as a parody of Russia, because 'Ukraine isn't Russia.' Now, our neighbours are suddenly our enemies; and nobody is laughing. How did we get here? (на русском языке)

Oleg Kashin
16 April 2014

At the moment I’m using an interesting document as a bookmark: an unused boarding pass for Ukraine International Airlines Flight 61 from Kyiv to Simferopol. I was supposed to fly at 7.30pm on 28 February, but at the time when the plane should have been taking off, an airline employee was explaining to passengers that the flight had been cancelled, ‘owing to the situation at Simferopol airport.’ Passengers were instructed to return to the ticket desk to receive a refund. I then had to spend $100 and 11 hours in a taxi-bus to get to Crimea, and only discovered the reason for the cancelled flight the next morning from reports in the Ukrainian media. Or to be more precise, from one report (in Russian), cited by every paper and news agency.

Simferopol airport had been seized by unknown armed men who ‘politely asked airport security officers to leave’

Every journalist probably wants to write at least one article that will go down in history, but not many have their wish granted. However, an anonymous reporter from Navigator, an obscure Kyiv internet newspaper, got lucky. On the night of 28 February - 1 March he managed to get through on the phone to Crimean police headquarters, where the duty officer told him that Simferopol airport had been seized by unknown armed men who ‘politely asked airport security officers to leave.’

This chance remark by an unknown policeman to an unknown journalist was enough to enrich the Russian language with a new catchphrase. These soldiers, in their green uniforms without any identifying insignia, had already been the main topic of Ukrainian politics for three days, but although everyone knew they were Russian troops no one could prove it. They appeared in the Crimean regional parliament building on 26 February, whereupon MPs, in their presence or even under direct pressure from them, speedily elected pro-Russian activist Sergei Aksyonov as the peninsula’s new Prime Minister.

Soldiers without insignia politely patrol Simferopol airport on 28 February.

Soldiers without insignia politely patrol Simferopol airport on 28 February. CC Elizabeth ArottAksyonov’s party had only won 4% of the vote at the last regional elections, but that was before the arrival of these mysterious people whose identity Crimeans had been struggling to define for three days. So, thanks to the Navigator report, where they were described as ‘politely’ asking Ukrainian security forces to leave the airport, a new political definition was coined: they were ‘the polite people.’ The name caught on immediately among both supporters and opponents of Russia’s invasion of Crimea: ‘polite people’ is less insulting than ‘invaders’ or ‘occupiers’, but still has an ironic ring to it, since courtesy and submachine guns aren’t natural bedfellows.

Three weeks later, when the USA introduced sanctions against businessmen close to Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, speaking on TV, pretended that he was bothered by them. Talking about Kovalchuk, Rotenberg and Tomchenko, the objects of the sanctions, he said, ‘I’d better stay away from them… after all, they are polite people with masks and submachine guns.’ As a joke it wasn’t up to much, but it confirmed the use of the new term in Putinist official-speak.

A PR-perfect invasion…

The invasion of Crimea in general gave the impression of being planned not only by military and political strategists, but by talented marketing people as well. Apart from the ‘polite people’, the most prominent players in Russian Crimea are now public prosecutor Natalya Poklonskaya and Aleksei Chaly, the leader of the pro-Russian activists. Poklonskaya, an attractive young blonde appointed by the new Crimean government (controlled by the ‘polite people’) as Prosecutor-General of the peninsula, immediately became the darling of the official Russian media, who have packaged her life story as a modern romantic fairy tale.

Natalia Poklonskaya at a press conference following Crimea's referendum.

Natalia Poklonskaya at a press conference following Crimea's referendum. (c) RIA Novosti/Taras LitvinenkoAn assistant prosecutor in Kyiv, she refused to work with the new interim government and instead resigned and went to live with her grandmother in Sevastopol, but on her arrival in Crimea she discovered that none of the local prosecutors was willing to head its Public Prosecutor's Office and that she would have to leave her Grandma and take the heavy burden of duty on her own frail shoulders. No one will ever know whether this was all a matter of chance or whether it was the work of some cunning spin doctor, but in just a few days the young Prosecutor General’s portrait, done in the style of Japanese anime cartoon films, was appearing on anime fan sites and she was the object of a mass cult.

One of at least dozens of anime style fan drawings of Crimea's prosecutor at her press conference.

One of at least dozens of fan drawings of Crimea's prosecutor, Natalia Poklonskaya. CC 薫Aleksei Chaly, on the other hand, was a well-known figure in Crimea long before he was elected ‘people’s mayor’ of Sevastopol on 25 February. His company, ‘Tavrida’, which is based in Russia, supplies electrical switches to industry in many European countries as well as the USA. Chaly, who is himself a Russian citizen, had obviously long dreamed of attaining political office, at mayoral level at least, and had bankrolled several monuments to World War Two heroes in and around Sevastopol. He also owns a TV channel in the city and a popular local news site.

The young Prosecutor General’s portrait appeared on anime fan sites and she became the object of a mass cult.

Under Ukrainian law, Sevastopol’s mayor should be a presidential appointment, so Chaly’s election at a public meeting is not legally valid, but Russia, which suffers from a shortage of loyal Ukrainian politicians, recognised him immediately as chair of the ‘coordinating council for city government.’ And this was the guise in which he signed an agreement with Vladimir Putin in Moscow on the accession of Sevastopol to Russia, appearing at the official ceremony not in a suit, in accordance with protocol, but in a casual black sweater, which he evidently decided was more fitting for a man too concerned about the fate of his city to think about such trifles as dress code.

In fact this grey haired, bearded man in his sweater, exchanging a hug with Putin, looked so charismatic that many Russian commentators suggested that he might even become the next president of Russia, a country traditionally so lacking in charismatic figures that it’s become a tradition that any new darling of the TV screen is immediately hailed as a possible future president.

…backed by the Russian public

The official Russian media generally haven’t even tried to present the invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea as legally sound, and indeed they have no particular need to do so. Their Russian audience has always found an abstract idea of justice preferable to any right based on law, and in terms of justice a public consensus on Crimea existed long before the events of February. The only real southern European region that for 200 years belonged to the great northern power, Crimea was where Russia’s rulers, from the Tsars through the Soviet period to Mikhail Gorbachev, had their summer residences. Chekhov lived in Crimea; Tolstoy fought in it; Pushkin wrote about it and Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill carved up post-war Europe in it.

Crimea is where Russia’s rulers, from the Tsars to Mikhail Gorbachev, had their summer residences.

In the years of the Cold War Crimea’s coast provided the only subtropical seaside resorts accessible to Soviet citizens (apart from Abkhazia, which has also become a de facto part of Russia again). Although more recently Russians have preferred to take their holidays abroad, in post-Soviet times Crimea was still for most people their most sensitive territorial loss and the fact that it belonged to Ukraine was regarded as an unfortunate historical accident. In 1954, after Stalin’s death, his successor Nikita Khrushchev, who for many years had headed the Ukrainian Communist Party machine, made changes to some of the USSR’s internal borders, and among them was the handover of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine, so that a region the majority of whose population was ethnically Russian, ended up outside Russia.   

The feeling of injustice that this produced among Russians was stronger than any international treaties about the permanency of frontiers, and even if incontrovertible proof emerges of irregularities during the referendum about Crimean reunification with Russia, this is unlikely to change their perception that Crimea is part of Russia. The Kremlin propagandists had no need to convince people about this.

The virtual reality of the Russian media

The situation with Ukraine as a whole is considerably more complex. From the start of the protests in central Kyiv the official Russian media have devoted an unprecedented amount of airtime and newspaper columns to creating a totally virtual version of what has been happening. Here they have been aided by old stereotypes, such as traditional Russian hatred of the Ukrainian collaborators who worked with the Nazis during the Second World War. According to the Russian media it was the successors of these collaborators (known in Russia as Banderists, after the ideologist of Ukrainian nationalism Stepan Bandera, who incidentally spent all of WW2 in a Nazi concentration camp) who occupied the Maidan to overthrow President Yanukovych.

Russian television presenter Dmitry Kiselyov reminds viewers of Russia's nuclear deterrent.

Russian television presenter Dmitry Kiselyov reminds viewers of Russia's nuclear deterrent. via youtubeNow that Yanukovych has fled the country, the Russian media claim a junta has seized power in Kyiv (‘junta’ is the standard term they use for Ukraine’s interim government) and that this junta is determined to subdue the mainly Russian-speaking eastern part of the country by force.

Another aspect of the story much stressed in Russia is the idea that the Kyiv junta is reliant on support from the USA and the EU, who will use it to help them weaken or even destroy Russia. In one of his shows Dmitry Kiselyov, the star presenter of Russian state TV, even put forward a theory that the main driver of Yanukovych’s overthrow was Sweden, which is seeking revenge for its defeat by Russia at the beginning of the 18th century, when Peter the Great led his forces to a resounding victory over the Swedes at Poltava, now part of Ukraine.

The standard term used by the Russian media for Ukraine’s interim government is ‘junta’

In other words, the Russian propaganda machine claims that all Russia’s enemies of the last 300 years, from the Swedes and the French to Nazi Germany, are closing ranks in support of the new government in Kyiv. There are supposedly even Islamists involved: for a long time notorious Ukrainian nationalist Oleksandr Muzychko featured regularly in Russian TV news programmes, thanks to having fought in Chechnya on the side of the separatists in 1994. More recently he had been closely involved with the ultra-nationalist ‘Pravy Sektor’ group; the lurid tales of his crimes, real and imaginary, only disappeared from the TV screens a couple of weeks ago when Muzychko, whose image had become a symbol of the new Ukrainian government on Russian TV News, was shot dead by police during a raid on his gang.

The Banderists are coming!

Once they seize Kyiv, these enemies will of course move eastwards through Ukraine into nearby Russian regions – that, at least, is what Russian TV is convinced will happen. The recent pro-Russian rallies in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv are nothing to do with separatism, but merely a pre-emptive defensive move against the ‘Banderists’ who are about to launch an attack on them. That is what the Russian-speaking inhabitants of these cities hear when they switch on their TV sets, since it’s Russian stations they mainly listen to.

Western Ukrainians greet the arriving Wehrmacht with flowers in 1941.

Western Ukrainians greet the arriving Wehrmacht in 1941. Many Russians and Ukrainians have never forgiven such actions.On 11 April I heard PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a boring economics expert, explain to foreign correspondents, in good English, how the Kyiv government would attract foreign investments to Ukraine’s eastern regions. After the press conference I went to the regional administration building, occupied by the pro-Russian activists, where people were chanting, ‘Yatsenyuk’s a Fascist!’ and one woman stood weeping in front of the stage: ‘Why has he come here? He’s a Banderist, he’s going to kill us.’

Twenty odd years ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russians experienced their first wave of national reflection over the fact that Ukraine was now a foreign country. In the mid-90s there was a popular comic song that ran, ‘I can’t point my big gun at my Ukrainian wife’, and Russians laughed because Ukrainians weren’t foreigners, they were relations. And attitudes to this country have remained ironically patronising: ‘they’re just like us, but for some reason they pretend to have their own country.’

For 20 years Russians saw Ukraine as a parody of Russia, symbolised for many years by a book written by Leonid Kuchma, independent Ukraine’s second president, and entitled ‘Ukraine isn’t Russia.’ You can’t deny that there is something comic about a country whose sense of identity boils down to its not being Russia. Now the official Russian media are turning this comic ‘UnRussia’ into a dread and dangerous enemy. Twenty years ago Russians laughed at the idea of going to war with Ukraine. But now this idea has moved from the realm of satirical comedy to that of TV News, and the big gun is already pointed at Russia’s Ukrainian wife.   

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