Today I spoke for two hours with Sandra, a young woman in her early twenties, who is a doctoral student in Economics at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. Sandra has left Kyiv and is staying in an undisclosed location in the provinces where there is less military activity and where she is safer than in the city.
“Please tell me about your volunteer work in this war?” I ask Sandra.
“I am an Internet Soldier,” Sandra explains, “I am fighting this war, along with thousands of others of my generation, over the Internet.”
“Tell me how the Internet Army makes an impact.”
“The Russians think that here in Ukraine we operate as a centralized system, but that is not true. Every region and province have organized its own Internet army. At the same time, there is also a national Internet army. We fight the people in Russia who create propaganda and disinformation and spread it internationally.”
“How do you do this?” I ask.
“In the first week of the war, before Russia blocked Facebook and Instagram inside Russia, we used creative images and wrote articles in Russian describing to Russian readers exactly what was happening here in Ukraine. We told them about the reality of the war their country was fighting. Then the Russian government blocked Facebook and Instagram and accused those social media platforms of extremism. After Facebook and Instagram were blocked in Russia, we shifted our attention to combat propaganda in the West and to inform the West about what is happening here in Ukraine. We get our messages out over Twitter and other social media platforms. We write in foreign languages, and we tailor our information to specific countries. For example, we write in German to Germans about how relying on Russian gas and oil feeds the Russian war budget.”
“Lithuanians have a phrase for Germany’s financial support of Russia,” I note, “we call it ‘feeding the monster.’”
“Yes, exactly. We build awareness around how necessary it is to stop buying Russian oil and gas. We write about how the Nord Stream pipeline has emboldened Russia to attack its neighbors. We target different audiences internationally and we get the world to speak up for us. If we see that a country is slow to reacting to the situation in Ukraine, we write on the day that country’s parliament is in session asking for support. We also create visual images that tell the story of this war and put them out in social media. We have many talented creative people serving in the Internet Army.”
“So, you are fighting a war online while the Ukrainian army is fighting the war on the ground?”
“Yes. my generation understands the power and the dynamics of the online landscape,” Sandra continues. “This is how we receive our information and how we send out information.”
“Could you please share some insights?”
“Well, there are some countries that are not clearly stating their position on this war. We believe that democracy is about the power of the people; therefore, people should be aware of what their politicians are doing in their name. We are taking what is hidden and we are exposing it to the light of public scrutiny.”
“Do you use your real name online?” I ask.
“Yes, I do, although I turn off my location locators. It is the responsibility of the person who participates in doing this work online whether to sign their real name or not. I chose to use my name.”
“Were Russian influencers at work before the war?”
“In the provinces there were Ukrainian passport holders who were trying to undermine the government at the regional level. They were trying to destabilize regional centers.”
“Are you safe?”
“Today I am okay. Our region is not being bombed. For two days I’ve not heard sirens, and that is good. We see the missiles launched from Belarus and you never know where they will land. This first month of war has been devastating.”
“When your professor gave me your name and contact information she told me that you are writing your PhD dissertation in Economics.”
“Yes, I earned my Master’s degree a year ago and in 2021 I started working on my PhD.”
“It must be hard to do intellectual work in the middle of a war zone.”
“Yes, it is. The first two weeks of the war I could not do any work on my research, but these past two weeks I’ve been able to focus and do scholarly work. We are lucky that our university has given us a break until April 1st. That has given us some time to adapt to the situation.”
“What is the subject of your dissertation?” I ask.
“Suddenly, because of this war, I see my thesis completely differently. My work has to do with the symbol of the letter “Z” believe it or not.
“What is your thesis?”
“This is my thesis: ‘How to Develop Innovative Goods for Generation Z.”
“What is your definition of Generation Z.”
“Generation Z is the generation born between 1997 and 2010. That is my generation.”
“What are the characteristics that make up Generation Z?”
“Everything has changed now, but these were the characteristics that defined Generation Z when I started researching my thesis: 1) Generation Z has not lived through a war or military conflict; 2) Generation Z is a generation defined by renovation and rebirth, and 3) Generation Z is a generation defined by rapidly growing technologies. Now, we are exactly a generation that is defined by war. We are a generation that came of age in a democracy and is now called upon to defend democracy. Our generation will need to rebuild our country when this war is over.”
“I would argue that your generation has also been shaped by the pandemic.”
“Yes, the pandemic did affect us as a generation, but not as much as war. What the pandemic did was show us was how rapidly we could develop technologies to accommodate major changes in lifestyle,” Sandra explains.
“Isn’t it strangely ironic that the Russian soldiers invading Ukraine, according to their birth years also belong to Generation Z. And then, they have adopted the symbol of “Z” as their identifying symbol.”
“Technically, those Russian soldiers belong to our generation, and we share a common language, Russian, but they are motivated by fear. If they return to Russia without having secured a victory, they will be imprisoned or worse. We hear from the captured soldiers that they didn’t even know where they were going. They’ve been put in a position of ‘fight or die.’”
“But they also belong to Generation Z one way or the other?” I prompt.
“Yes and no. Their mentality does not fit the criteria that defines Generation Z. There is a jarring difference of mentality between Ukrainian people raised in a democracy and Russians raised in a totalitarian regime. We are all in our twenties, this is true, but when I was born, Ukraine was already a developing democracy. My parents lived through the oppression of the Soviet Union and the chaos of the post-Soviet nineties. But I grew up in a society that encouraged self-development, creative and educational pursuits, connection with the world. At the same time, these Russian soldiers, who are the same age as me, grew up knowing nothing but Putin and totalitarianism.”
Sandra continues, “Let me give you an example. We see over the Internet that right now in Russia young people are crying over losing Instagram and Facebook. But they do absolutely nothing to fight back and get access to their social media. They are completely passive. All they can do is complain. They are subjected to digital totalitarianism. And they just take it. Meanwhile, we in Ukraine, having grown up in a democracy, will fight for our rights and for what we want. That is a major difference in mentality that divides us. After twenty years of totalitarianism under Putin, they have no critical thinking skills. This is a Russian protest: They will say, ‘We are for peace,’ but they will take no action to actually help stop the war. They have no initiative. Putin miscalculated the Ukrainian mentality. He thought that people here would passively subject themselves to totalitarianism, but we are a democracy and will fight to remain a democracy.”
Sandra then adds: “Since the war began, I feel that the term Generation Z needs to be changed since Russia has changed the meaning of the symbol, “Z”. Russia has not made it clear publicly what “Z” means, but if you put two “Z” letters together you get the swastika. So, perhaps for them the symbol embraces Fascism?”
“They have left the interpretation of “Z” open to conjecture. I think of the Russian word Zvery (beasts) and Zombie, the way it is used to define mindless soldiers in the war.
Sandra reflects: “The Russian mentality is similar to the Chinese mentality. If you are in that system, you are content to remain in that system as long as your basic needs are met. The only problems you may contend with are personal problems.”
“When I lived and taught in Beijing for two years, even educated Chinese people would say to me: ‘My responsibility is to take care of my family and do my job. It is the job of the government to run the country.’”
“That’s true in Russia. Individual people feel no responsibility to participate in the governance of their country. My mom was born in Russia and all of her family still lives there. My mother tongue is Russian. You could say I am a member of the Russian minority in Ukraine. Since the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas in 2014, we cannot discuss politics with our family in Russia. They simply do not understand what’s really happening. When my mother tries to tell them about the war, they don’t listen to her. They tell her, ‘This war needed to happen because Ukraine is under foreign influence.’ Then, they invite us to move to Russia and live with them there in what they consider is safety. My mother has tried many times to tell them the truth of our experience, but they have their own opinions formed by the Russia media and will not listen to her. This is exactly how systems of governance affect family dynamics.”
“What are some of the key differences between Ukrainians and Russians today?” I ask.
“The two cultures are truly different although they share a common language. As members of a democracy, as people raised with freedom of speech, we are more active and fight for our values. Russians, meanwhile, live in fear. Russians tend to be pragmatic and opportunistic. They just want to get by. They feel as though they are living a free life, but in actuality they are not free because of the information blockade.”
“This brings us back to your work as a member of the Internet Army.”
“Yes, right now we are working on a project that defines how Ukrainian culture is different from Russian culture, how they stole our history and created their own version of our history. They are spreading that false history of our country internationally. The historical facts remain the same, but Russia changes the meaning – the interpretation – of those historical facts. So, the history in effect remains the same, but the history is interpreted differently.”
“The Lithuanian press reported yesterday that witnesses in the occupied territories of Eastern Ukraine have seen that the Russian military is confiscating and destroying Ukrainian books, removing them from libraries, especially books about Ukrainian history, politics, Maidan.”
“Yes, this is happening in Chernigiv, Mariupol, and Kherson. Russian soldiers are also hunting down and killing men who fought in that region in the Ukrainian military since 2014.”
“What about the idea that I hear even in the American media that Ukraine and Russia are brotherly nations?”
“That is Soviet-era propaganda. They wanted Ukrainians to become Russians, to blend in, but the mentality is different. Your identity is not automatically Russian just because you speak the Russian language. If I were to adapt my own mentality as a Russian speaker to that of a Russian citizen today it would mean that the only place, I’d feel comfortable living is in Russia. That is obviously not the case with me. Perhaps we have a brotherly nation next door, but it is totalitarian.”
“What is the attitude towards language in Ukraine right now?”
“We are all living under the stress of war, so it does not matter if we need to express ourselves in Russian or Ukrainian. The language a person communicates in does not define their choice of governance. All of Eastern Ukraine speaks Russian. Look at Mariupol. Ninety percent of the city is destroyed. The city is gone, wiped off the face of the earth. Most of the people in that city were Russian speakers, but they did not have a Russian mentality. Putin and his team are losing this war because they did not consider how the people in Ukraine think. They relied on their own stereotypes, and those stereotypes did not work. They lost the war from the very beginning because they thought they could terrorize the Ukrainian nation into submission.”
“Could you define for me, please, the main differences between the Ukrainian and Russian mentalities?”
“Ukrainians today are progressive. We are seeking a better lifestyle. We are oriented towards developing new technologies. Even when Ukrainians travel to the United States to develop new technologies, they claim their professional gains as Ukrainian. We have a strong self-identification as Ukrainians. We are proud to be Ukrainian. Even in politics we now define ourselves as Ukrainians. In the early years of independence, we had governments that leaned towards Russia, but that is no longer the case, at least not for the past seven years when we have battled corruption and have eradicated corruption.”
Sandra pauses to reflect, then adds a few more thoughts. “Another difference between us and Russians is that we take our mental health seriously. We are the generation who are the children of parents who lived in the Soviet Union. Alcohol is a defining factor for this generation, but we choose another path. When you live in a democratic country, you focus on yourself, on self-development. That is because you have the right to choose. If you live in a totalitarian system, you have no right to choose. You realize that you have a choice. You see that your life can be different from the life that you parents lived. You want to live better. We are the first generation in Ukraine that was born free and is integrated into the free world.”
“Does anyone support this war inside Ukraine?”
“In the Donbas region there were people who wanted to separate from Ukraine. Russian State Television was popular there. Elderly people who lived under the Soviet system relied on Russian news and they also have relatives in Russia. They wanted to join with Russia because they believed they would receive higher pensions in Russia. They had this idea that they wanted the social insurance of the Soviet Union back.”
“What about support for the war inside Russia?” I ask.
“Statistics show that 80 percent of Russians support Putin’s war against Ukraine. Statistics also show that seventy percent of women in Russia report having experienced marital abuse. However, no one is discussing abuse against women in Russia. Yet abuse influences the overall psychological and emotional health of the society. Psychological pressures are strong in Russia and people self-medicate with alcohol. The widespread use of alcohol in Russia influences the society. Alcohol is an easy way to suppress unresolved emotions. There are so many social and emotional problems in Russia and now they are spilling over into the West with this war. There ought to be more research done on how alcohol influences Russian society.”
“What are the attitudes towards alcohol use in today’s Ukraine?”
“In my circles, young people do not drink. We are more interested in intellectual work. When you can turn on your critical thinking skills, you realize the depth of some problems. You think of yourself as a whole person. You consider how your own psychology is built. This influences our choice not to abuse alcohol. We may drink a small amount at a party, but it is nothing to the quantity of alcohol consumed by our parents’ generation who lived through the turbulent nineties.”
“Have you considered leaving Ukraine?”
“I have been looking online for opportunities to do research and earn money to support myself in other countries if things get worse here. But honestly, I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave my family. It’s a hard decision. I love Ukraine. I love Kyiv. It is my city. I could not imagine living anywhere else.”
“What are your plans for the PhD?”
“For the first few weeks of the war I could not make plans for the future, but now I will continue my research. If I do relocate to another country, it will be hard, but I know it will take time for Ukraine to rebuild after war. I feel as though I must take care of myself and make something of myself and gain some financial security. I will acquire experience and information abroad and then bring it back to Ukraine with me.”
“How do you feel about President Zelenskyy?”
“I think he’s doing an amazing job. He communicates with our international partners. He makes them realize that Ukraine is not just fighting for Ukraine, but for the entire world. On the first day of the war, the Russians made it clear that they were going to capture and kill Zelenskyy. We all watched and wondered how he will handle this situation. Will he fight to defend Ukraine, or will he leave? He showed the entire world his courage and dedication by staying and standing together with the Ukrainian people.”
“I’ve been watching Servant of the People. That program depicts Zelenskyy’s fictional war with corruption so masterfully.”
“The lines blur between fiction and truth in that television series. It was a great marketing campaign because in 2019 Zelenskyy actually became president. However, we were used to Zelenskyy’s jokes about corruption. As a comedian, he was known for his political jokes about government corruption.”
“He’s like Shakespeare’s fool in King Lear,” I reflect, “as a trickster character, Zelenskyy was able to use humor to point out the nation that they could not move forward unless they tackled corruption.”
“The social media world loved Zelenskyy because he does not characterize the past, but the future,” Sandra added.
“A former Lithuanian ambassador to Ukraine in the early years of independence told me that there was a time when corrupt government officials would use trailers and fill them with cash and drive their money to Switzerland where they hid it in Swiss banks.”
Sandra laughs, then adds, “However, since 2015 the situation with corruption in Ukraine is much better. The level of corruption has really decreased. We have been fighting corruption these past seven years.”
“What do you think of Mrs. Zelenskyy?”
“I hope she is safe. I also hope their children are safe. She has made public statements supporting Ukraine. She’s been giving interviews. She has been advocating for people, getting international aid.”
“What do you think of the West’s strategy of punishing Russia with sanctions but not getting involved more deeply in the war?”
“I think that the United States and the West are making the right choices regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is the right strategy. Right now, our news sources are reporting that Russia is preparing to attack Lithuania and Poland. We did not expect the Russians to be so stupid as to disrupt the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, but they proved to us that they are. The West is doing the best that they can in the face of these nuclear dangers. All we need from the West right now are weapons because our army is strong. Sanctions against Russia have been a tremendous help. The economic crisis that is now developing in Russia has turned the Russian nation’s view away from the war on Ukraine to their own internal economic problems.”
Do you have some concluding thoughts?
“We will overcome this war and that will send a message to the world that there is a real need for national security for countries located next door to totalitarian regimes. This war is not just about destruction, but about the beauty of the world that we will rebuild. Ukraine will be stronger but more independent. We’ve learned that you cannot ignore politics. Politics are a big part of life, and you must be actively involved.”
“What do you think will happen if – God forbid — Russia succeeds in occupying Ukraine?”
“If that were to happen, then only those who support Russia will remain here. Also, people who cannot bear to leave their property will stay. Everyone else will leave. My generation will not stand for living under a totalitarian regime. But, let me state very clearly, this scenario will never happen. Ukrainians see only two ways that this war will end: Ukraine will win, and Russia will lose.”