oDR: Opinion

The best antidote to Russia’s disinformation is to listen to Ukrainians

The first casualty of war is “whatever is left out” – this is why the West must hear what Ukrainians are saying

Phoebe_Page_photo.jpg
Phoebe Page
6 October 2022, 1.14pm

April 2022: Bucha, Kyiv region

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Image: Mstyslav Chernov

Phoebe Page is a postgraduate student of political sociology at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East-European Studies in London. A recent University of Cambridge graduate, she has lived in London and Kyiv and works part-time for the Ukrainian Institute London. This essay is titled "On which side?" You can read it in Ukrainian here.

On which side?

As if struck by lightning, the scorched bark splinters, twists and warps in horribly unnatural ways. It is terrible to look at. I realise this was probably the sculptor’s intention.

“I made this for Ukraine,” Peter tells me. Each summer the retired art teacher hosts an exhibition, and this year’s proceeds will go to a local charity supporting refugees.

The room is packed with Peter’s paintings, posters and personal belongings. No wall or floor is left bare. We stand shoulder to shoulder, admiring his latest piece. Behind the sculpture “for Ukraine” hangs a pen-and-ink drawing: a delicately sketched dove circles the bold outline of a symbol at once familiar and distant, recalling sit-ins and marches long before my time. I stare at the peace sign. Never before have I considered its trifurcate form. Now, I see a trident, inverted and encircled.

Peter follows my eye. He smiles. “As you might have guessed, I’m something of a pacifist.”

I turn to him. “Does that mean you are against arming Ukraine?”

Peter keeps smiling. He does not reply.

*

“It’s not common to talk about the war in this part of Europe. People try to distance themselves as soon as they hear where I’m from. It ends the conversation immediately.”

Sasha looks down at her lap. The tiny webcam distorts the space between her face and laptop, shortening the last stretch of distance between us.

“Sometimes I feel strong and motivated to keep talking about the war. But other days I feel like my voice means nothing. I keep shouting and no one listens. Our allies send us limited weapons deliveries. Just enough so that we can fight back. But not enough to take back our territories. And to suggest Ukraine gives up some of its territory… it crushes everything I believe in.”

We are speaking days after another so-called expert published an article proposing exactly that. Dozens of similar suggestions have appeared in the Western media, arguing that supplying weapons to Ukraine will prolong the war.

“In the country where I’m living now, the government is so loud about every tiny thing concerning people’s comfort. They do not understand that we had the same happy life in Ukraine before the full-scale invasion. They do not understand how fragile their comfort is.”

*

Inside the exhibit, people are swilling rosé and discussing how wonderful it is that art can be put to such good use. They look remarkably comfortable.

I used to come here for Peter’s weekly classes. I can still hear his teacher’s voice; the authoritative advice administered in short, sharp soundbites as he strode about the room appraising our work.

“Revel in the ambiguity.” This was a favourite. “There is no black, only varying degrees of shade.” Like most art teachers, Peter forbade his students from mixing colours with black. We were lectured on the intricacies of light and dark, on how to blend charcoal to create the perfect graduated shade.

Peter told us to “make use of the negative space” – the space around and between the subject of an image. Peter’s go-to example for new students was Rubin’s vase, the optical illusion where the curves of a vase suggest the outline of a forehead, nose and mouth on either side, bringing two profiles face to face in an awkward stare-off.

Negative space, Peter goes on, is defined by its relation to the subject. It has none of its own defining details, but the eye invites the mind to fill in the blanks.

*

“I’m tired of correcting colleagues’ use of the word ‘conflict’,” Sasha says. And she looks it. Her gaze is down. The lines around her eyes – incrementally inscribed by an instinctive impulse to smile in almost every scenario – have been overtaken by a creeping bruising, the colour of worry and exhaustion.

“I’m sick of hearing their latest theories. The US this, NATO that. Not everything is about their academic debates. We’re fighting for our existence. Edging a Ukrainian flag into your username doesn’t give you the right to say stupid shit.”

A new thought crosses Sasha’s face and she smiles. “Actually, did you see that tweet the other day? The one asking if people ‘understand how bad things are getting in Germany’?” The widely retweeted – and widely ridiculed – post rings a bell.

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In Russian propaganda, narratives are crafted from what is left out. When propagandists cite ‘referendums’ or the ‘will’ of the people, they fail to mention the vote rigging, persecution and brutal intimidation

“Of course, I understand people are worried about rising prices and energy shortages. But complaining about how difficult life is in Germany and then blaming what’s happening ‘in Ukraine’ – it’s like, hello! We didn’t choose to start being murdered! Things are pretty ‘bad’ for us too. It makes me laugh that people have so little self-awareness.”

We joke about ‘Westplaining’ – about the pundits and academics who condescend to explain the situation in eastern Europe. Sasha has an infectious laugh, the perfect antidote to all the crap contaminating our newsfeeds. They say Ukrainians are among the world’s most inoculated groups against misinformation. I marvel at the humour boosting Sasha’s natural defences.

*

I leave the exhibit with Carol. She asks what I think of Peter’s sculpture “for Ukraine”, and I recall our brief conversation. Or rather, I recall Peter’s silence. The jarring dissonance of the whole interaction hits me again.

Carol considers for a moment.

“Which side were you on?”

“Excuse me?”

“On which side of Peter? You do know he’s deaf in his left ear.”

*

The parts of a story we choose to tell are as important as the parts we leave out. Peter did not answer my question because he did not hear me. I do not know if he is against arming Ukraine, but what I inferred from his silence – and what the reader was encouraged to infer from my retelling – is that he was, indeed, critical of military support.

In Russian propaganda, narratives are crafted from what is left out. When propagandists cite ‘referendums’ or the ‘will’ of the people, they fail to mention the vote rigging, persecution and brutal intimidation that accompany so-called referendums. While discussions about culture and history are littered with adjectives such as ‘common’, ‘shared’ and ‘fraternal’, nouns such as ‘violence’, ‘cultural repression’ and ‘forced assimilation’ are nowhere to be seen. These absences confirm historian Ronald Suny’s dictum that the first casualty of war is not only the truth, but also “whatever is left out”.

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April 2022: Bucha

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Image: Mstyslav Chernov

In false narratives about the historical ‘unity’ of Russians and Ukrainians, defining details are erased and negative space reigns. ‘Objects’ are drawn in relation to the ‘subject’. The oppressed is defined by its relation to the oppressor, but that crucial context is deliberately omitted. Audiences are left to ‘fill in the blanks’ for themselves. Those not familiar with the centuries of Russian colonial violence against Ukraine will rely on their own frames of reference to fill in these blanks. From old-school realism to radical pacifism, they will apply outdated theories of international relations to explain Russia’s aggression in ways that make sense to them. Or worse – they will buy into alternative versions of ‘history’ so eagerly offered by the Kremlin.

*

Unfortunately, the negative space observed in Russian propaganda continues to exert influence in Western media narratives. In the most immediate sense, this takes place at the level of language.

Words such as ‘conflict’ or ‘war in Ukraine’ remove the aggressor from the picture. In doing so, they remove any acknowledgement of responsibility or blame. Naive slogans like “No war”, usually written in Russian, weaponise pacifist narratives used by Russian propaganda to blur the divide between good and bad, to redefine values and sow doubt in the truth. “No war” does not specify which war it is, who the aggressor is or what one can do about it. Such language revels in the grey space, the graduated shade – in deliberate, dangerous ambiguity.

Language also confounds questions of agency. While ‘war in Ukraine’ removes the aggressor, phrases such as ‘war over Ukraine’ reduce Moscow’s indefensible acts to a ‘proxy’ war between Russia and external foreign actors. Tired excuses about NATO ‘expanding’ or the West ‘provoking’ Putin endow external actors with total agency, turning a deaf ear to the active desire of countries to join international alliances, as well as their right to do so.

Having access is not enough. The most important thing is what we choose to do with that information

Where some look at Rubin’s optical illusion and see the vase as the subject of the image, others see only undefined negative space between two faces on either side. In the Westplainer’s view, the faces are the real ‘subjects’ of the image and the vase a mere ‘object’, a ‘buffer zone’ between two more significant players.

And yet, whichever way you look at Rubin’s optical illusion – whether you see the vase first, or the faces, or you’ve now spent too long looking at the bloody thing to remember which jumped out first – you are regarding the two-dimensional image from the outside. If you can see a vase and two faces, you are necessarily standing outside the frame, looking in. Your position will have shaped your perspective.

The most significant ‘negative space’ dominating false narratives about Ukraine is the absence of Ukrainian perspectives.

*

Sasha reaches down for a drink. The blue and yellow of her brightly painted nails are momentarily refracted in the glass.

“I wouldn’t exactly call it a positive thing about the war, but I’m learning so much right now about Ukraine, about our history and culture. I’ve learned how subjective history can be.”

Most of us recognise the limitations of knowledge. We accept our perceptions are shaped by context and constrained by lack of proximity. By now, many foreigners are aware of the need to amplify Ukrainian voices when discussing the war, and with millions of Ukrainians sharing their stories across social media platforms, it is difficult to find reasons not to.

The Kremlin, however, is working hard to provide those reasons. By blackmailing governments over gas and grain, by planting bots to flood our newsfeeds with disinformation, Russia is targeting our weak spots in a desperate attempt to break Western unity. The Kremlin welcomes division among Western liberals, and laments calls to listen to Ukrainians. It smiles when the non-interventionist Left champions pacifism over protecting freedoms, and curses when those bearing the brunt of such hypocrisy expose its contradictions.

Appeasement – a brief glance at recent history will quickly reveal – serves only to embolden and escalate, yet appeasers rarely find themselves in the firing line of Russia’s ramped-up aggression. As journalists reporting from behind that line suggest, pacifism is a privilege for the peaceful and the empowered. By failing to acknowledge the perspectives that shape our understanding, we fall into propagandists’ hands.

There are times when subjectivity is not required; when the existential threat must be recognised for what it is, when evil must be called evil, and any ambiguity or ‘graduated shade’ rejected outright. As Russian propaganda attempts to lure us towards the more agreeable realm of uncertainty – “surely, we couldn’t have seen this coming…?” – we must confront the uncomfortable truth that ignoring Ukrainian voices in the past has contributed to where we are today. It is only by listening and learning that we can confidently call out colonial aggression for what it is; that we can see Russia’s acts of torture, rape and massacre for what they are; that we can describe the intent to wipe out a group of people by the word no one wants to hear.

*

“My hometown was bombed again last week.” Sasha pauses. “I had a work event the same day. I was trying not to think about my friends, my relatives, my city. Then some guy asked me: ‘Is there still a war in Ukraine?’ I couldn’t believe it. At that moment I realised, whether people want to or not, we have to keep talking about the war. Because the second we stop talking about it, that’s it – the world will simply move on.”

I think back to the front pages over the last few months: invasion – shock; massacre – outcry; war crimes – helplessness; more war crimes – fatigue; inflation – silence.

“The speed at which people get used to those headlines… it takes my breath away.” Sasha is talking about the people trapped in occupied territories. Her speech grows faster and faster.

This is the media fatigue Putin is counting on – it is the deaf ear we turn – and it is far more powerful than any propaganda the Kremlin is pushing

“I’ve been hosting a mum and daughter from Mariupol. The most terrifying thing, they said, wasn’t the explosions, or the mass graves, or even the body parts lying on the roads. The most terrifying thing was living without access to information. You are trapped in the city, with no access to any kind of signal, no news from the outside. You have no idea if your relatives are dead. All you can do is hope that Ukrainian forces break through and rescue whoever is still alive. The Russians have bombed the phone lines and taken control of the radio, so all you hear is their lies. And when they say, ‘you’re surrounded, no one is coming to save you, you have no choice but to surrender’ – there is absolutely no way of knowing if that’s true.”

Sasha takes a breath. “It’s psychological torture. They are starving people of information, shelling them into submission, waiting for them to break.”

*

In the hyper-online world where most of us watch Russia’s war in Ukraine unfold from a distance, there is little information we cannot access. But having access is not enough. The most important thing is what we choose to do with that information.

Reading an earlier draft of this piece, a British friend asked, “What is the word no one wants to hear?” I had fallen into the echo-chamber trap of thinking everyone’s Twitter feed was filled, like mine, with the same word: genocide. Had my friend not heard about the Kremlin’s consistent denial of Ukrainian identity, about the “filtration camps” Ukrainians are being deported to, or about Putin publicly inciting the elimination of Ukrainians as a people? “I listen to the news,” she said. “But it’s so hard. Sometimes I turn it off.”

As with Rubin’s optical illusion, all the information we need is in plain view, but so often our eye goes elsewhere. Whether we struggle to make sense of the shapes, or we simply choose not to see them, this information hovers in the undefined negative space that allows us to acknowledge its presence while diverting attention elsewhere.

These blindspots allow us to take up contradictory positions, revelling in our own ambiguity: asking for peace yet refusing to arm; calling ourselves allies while refusing to listen.

The experiences shared from Ukraine ask us to step out of this position and consider events from another side. Peter’s sculpture was difficult to look at because Peter knows terrible things are terrible to look at. And when we are overloaded with too many of the same stories, we disconnect.

This is the media fatigue Putin is counting on – it is the deaf ear we turn – and it is far more powerful than any propaganda the Kremlin is pushing. The only antidote to these informational black spots is not fact-checking, but listening.

Ukraine Lab is run by the Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with PEN Ukraine and Ukrainian Institute. It is supported by the British Council as part of the UK/UA Season of Culture 2022. Ukraine Lab pieces that tackle environmental challenges appeared in The Ecologist, while those focussing on the war were published in MIR Online. Ukraine Lab is curated by Sasha Dovzhyk.

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