Sandra had written to me a few days ago that there was a missile struck in her town. I called her this morning to ask how she was doing and to continue our conversation on her work as an influencer fighting Russian misinformation and propaganda in the Ukrainian Internet Army. We ended up talking for three hours. She elaborated on the details of the missile strike:
“A missile struck and damaged a fuel storage tank that was serving our military. There was a big fire. I saw it from my window. It’s about five kilometers away from where I am hiding.
I was in Kyiv when the missile stuck, and I knew about it from the news of Telegram.”
“So, you’ve been able to travel back to Kyiv since the Russian army has retreated from the towns surrounding the city?”
“I went to get some clothes. I left Kyiv with only one bag. There is silence now in Kyiv. No one knows what will happen next. I had only one hour to go to my flat and fetch my things. Because of the war, the trains are not running on schedule, and I had to get back on the next train. I ran all the way to my flat. There are a lot of cars and people in Kyiv now. More people are thinking of going back, but the local government says to wait because the Ukrainian army needs to have mobility on the roads. People miss Kyiv. The government says that people need strength, but to be cautious. Our government knows some facts that they cannot state directly. They know Russia will come back and bomb, but they don’t say anything because it would cause panic. They say that people should have a bag and know where the bomb shelter is.”
“Have you resumed your doctoral work with your university?” I asked.
“My university classes start today,” Sandra said. “We are back in session. We are working online.”
“Are you staying in Ukraine then?”
“I’ve received an offer to study abroad in the West for a while. I have academic mobility and have accepted the offer. I thought it was the right time to take it,” Sandra said, then added with a touch of hesitancy, “Someone has to do academic work. We cannot let the war destroy intellectual work in our country.”
I remembered Ričardas’s statistics on the number of educational institutions bombed into rubble in Ukraine. The first targets when Russia invaded Ukraine were schools, daycares, hospitals, maternity wards. Russia knows from its experience occupying sovereign countries and absorbing them into the Soviet Union that reprogramming people starts with education. There have been reports that in Russian-occupied territories in Eastern Ukraine local teachers are being forced to teach according to the Russian historical revisionist curriculum. Many teachers and school administrators are resisting. We are now witnessing Soviet terror methods being used against Ukrainian civilians minus the communist ideology. Sandra is right. Someone needs to continue doing academic work.
“It is safer abroad,” Sandra continued. “I will be at a different university. I will study in English and that is a challenge. However, Ukraine requires PhD students to write a few articles in English and to publish internationally, so I am already prepared with all the terminology in my field.”
“Speaking of terminology, did you receive a response from Neil How regarding to your inquiry about the use of the term ‘Generation Z’?” I asked.
American writer Neil Howe has written non-academic books on generational trends and is best known for his co-authored works with William Strauss on generations in American history. His work was the basis of Sandra’s thesis.
“Oh yes,” Sandra’s voice brightened up, “I did.”
She sent me a screenshot of her conversation online with Neil Howe.
Sandra: Hello, Neil! I am a Ph.D student from Ukraine and I make a research that’s connected with Gen. Z. But now the whole meaning of “Z” has changed due to symbolizing open aggression of Russia. I ask for the possibility of scientific community to rename the generation.
Neil Howe: Thx. We did not coin the term Gen Z, Strauss & I chose the term Homelanders or Homeland Generation back in 2006. Only time will tell what the final name of a generation will be…
“I will change my thesis and not use Generation Z,” Sandra continued. “I will focus on intergenerational theory.”
Sandra had also texted me a few days previous that she did not have the strength to talk after the bombing of civilians at the train station in Kramatorsk. I asked her now how she was coping.
“Everyone has their own method of coping. The train station bombing was so shocking. When I heard about the train station bombing, I was just crying. Everyone was crying. You cannot understand how it could happen. The Russian nation’s message written to us on the bomb, ‘For the children’ hit everyone very hard emotionally.”
Sandra admitted that there are times, despite her work following Russian propaganda and working to stop disinformation, that it is difficult for her to even read the news.
“I think sometimes, why am I opening the news?” Sandra said, echoing the feeling that I’ve heard expressed by many Americans around me, who do not live in the war zone like Sandra does, but thousands of miles away.
“After I start reading, I might find myself scrolling the news all day and doing nothing else. Then I have no energy to do anything else and that’s bad for my mental health. Now I try to limit myself to half an hour to read all the news and then move on with my day,” Sandra confided.
She also explained how cynically the Russians behaved online in the aftermath of the train station bombing.
“The Russians posted that they are planning to bomb Kramatorsk. When the bombing was done, they posted that they bombed the railway station because there was a big number of Azov soldiers there. At the same time, our media posted that Kramatorsk railway station was bombed and many civilians were injured, and children died. After Ukrainian media reported that, the Russian media changed the message to read: ‘The Ukrainian army bombed the railway station where there were many civilians.’”
“That is Orwellesque. Remember the Ministry of Truth where Winston Smith works at constantly revising the news, and especially the news about the ongoing war?”
Sandra explained to me how slippery Russian media and propaganda is and how effective they are in influencing those who are blind to watching for nuance. She cited the example of Russian propagandist/journalist Marina Ovysyannikova, who stood behind the newscaster of the state-run Russian evening news, Vremia, holding a placard that read in English: “No War.” Scenes of the incident instantly went viral globally, perhaps because so many are hungering for just that sort of an expression of dissent, of humanity, of empathy from the Russian people. However, in Ukraine and in the Baltic States, in the days following the incident, it was proven that this was a fake, a clever media stunt to divert attention away from war crimes committed against civilians, mainly women, children and the elderly, in Ukraine and towards sympathizing with Russian’s allegedly protesting Putin’s war. For one, in totalitarian Russia the news is not actually broadcast live. There is a lag time of a few minutes that gives censors enough time to disrupt the programming if a newscaster were to actually go off script.
“There is a Russian propaganda strategy to create a myth about the ‘good Russian,’” Sandra explained. “This idea of the ‘good Russian’ and the ‘bad Russian’ is very dangerous for Ukraine’s future. For example, a country like Italy might fall for the propaganda of the ‘good Russians suffering under sanctions’ and take measures to soften or stop sanctions against Russia. An example of creating a myth of the ‘good Russian’ is the media stunt with Marina Ovysyannikova jumping behind the newscaster on the Vremia program. We have studied the details, and it has been proven that this is a fake and a diversion to attract attention. That image went viral all over the globe and helped generate the idea of the suffering ‘good Russian.’ Of course, we now know it was staged and she has benefited from it tremendously personally. We say that people should not repost anything about the suffering ‘good Russians.’ Just leave it be.”
Sandra continued, “Russian soft diplomacy has been very successful over the last decades. In 2017 a Ukrainian soccer player went to play in Spain and got off the plane wearing a T-shirt with a traditional Ukrainian symbol. He was excluded and ostracized by the media in Spain and elsewhere because they believed that the Ukrainian folk symbol was actually a Nazi symbol. Spanish media reported that he was a “Ukrainian Nazi.” These types of messages are designed to make the West doubt Ukraine and they are generated from Russia who claims that Ukrainians are Nazis.”
“Russia is creating cognitive dissonance,” I said.
“Ukraine is a nation that is connected from the bottom up. Russia is a country that is connected from the top down. That is the difference between Ukraine and Russia,” Sandra stated.
“If we don’t like something, we meet on the Maidan and protest.”
“Is there anyone left in Ukraine who believes Russian propaganda?” I asked.
“There is a very small minority in Ukraine who still believe Russian propaganda, but they are the elderly,” Sandra responded. “We are confidant because we have the support of our government. We have the constant information updates from our government. The president speaks to the nation every evening.”
I shared with Sandra that I was horrified by the brutal rapes of women and little girls in Bucha, held under Russian control for nearly a month. Rape has always been a Russian tool of war, but it is too painful to think about in any rational way when it has been resurrected in the 21st century.
“The history of our countries shows us that physical safety for women is always an issue,” Sandra said. “I am always afraid of rape. You get this fear of men who you don’t know. Many Russian men drink and are therefore dangerous. In Russia, rape is common, but the women do not report it because they are scared. Ukrainian women broke this silence by openly talking about the problem of rape in Russian culture. We are scared, but more open to talk about rape.”
“Those rapes in Bucha went beyond any shred of human decency,” I said. “The Russian soldiers routinely sliced open the vaginas of little girls with their knives so that they could enter and rape them. These children now have to live with that, if they didn’t kill them. A team of researchers from The New York Times investigated war crimes in Bucha and reported that a group of Russian soldiers kept a naked woman locked up in the potato cellar of a house they used as their headquarters and used her as their sex slave. Before they retreated, they shot her twice in the skull.”
“We were prepared at some level to see Russia do this, but not on this scale,” Sandra said.
“Do you think people will want revenge?”
“Revenge? We believe in our army. If you want revenge, join the army,” Sandra said calmly. “Some accept the pain, some join the army. We cope in different ways.”
Sandra pointed out to me that the shocking Russian pro-war protests abroad were timed at exactly the same time the news of the Bucha war crimes emerged in the media. Russian propagandists timed this to coincide to divert attention away from their crimes in Bucha.
“We are grateful for the demonstrations in support of Ukraine abroad,” Sandra said. “There was one in Lithuania this weekend. There is the red blood lake in front of the Russian embassy.”
“Yes, I know,” I said.
“Please don’t let the world stop talking about Ukraine. This is an ongoing war. Russia will never change,” Sandra pleaded.
That is the sad truth. There is little evidence that anything can change the Russian mentality. I confided that I thought there was still some shred of hope for Russia believing that the statistic that 86 percent of Russians support the war against Ukraine was not accurate because the people’s responses may have come under duress. However, I recently learned that this survey was not conducted by a Russian company, but by international media.
“It’s hard to find the truth in this information war,” Sandra said. “When this war ends, decades later, we may know the truth. Views of social media are pro-Russian, but do we know if they are real or paid for. Influencers for Russia are paid.”
On the other hand, Sandra told me, sometimes Ukrainian influencers let off steam with amusing posts that make people laugh. For example, they posted a Russian general’s statement that it was safe to dig holes in the Red Forest in Chernobyl. People had a lot of fun poking fun at his ignorance about radiation.
As we closed our conversation, I sent Sandra my strength and hope for the best for her as she transitions to a new university, new country, new life abroad. I know she will return. Ukrainians have proven to the world in this war that they love their country too much to ever truly leave.