Russia evokes Nazi horrors to criticise Ukraine’s fledgling government
Associated Press in Zhdanivka, Ukraine
Moscow calls the detention centre under construction near the Russian border a “fascist concentration camp.” Inside the barbed-wire fences, the reality is less ominous: It’s an EU-funded project to hold asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, similar to other such detention centres across Europe.
The accusation is part of a relentless Kremlin-driven propaganda offensive that uses second world war-era terms and imagery to rail against Ukraine’s fledgling government. “Nazis,” “fascists” and “Fritzes” are some of the terms that Russia is hurling at Ukrainian authorities who took power after the ouster of the last elected president, a reversal in political fortunes that has led to a pro-Western Ukrainian government in Kiev and a pro-Russian insurgency in the country’s east.
It’s an effective tactic because of the emotional weight that the second world war has in Russia. The Soviet victory against Hitler is the nation’s single most powerful rallying cry. In evoking the ugliest words related to Nazi Germany, the Russian media loyal to President Vladimir Putin is galvanising support for his aggressive stance toward Ukraine, both among his countrymen and among Russian-speakers in Ukraine’s east.
It’s also a dangerous tactic, because the inflammatory propaganda may provoke the anti-Kiev opposition in the east.
The propaganda assault began during the months-long pro-Western protests that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian president in February. Russian state news media were quick to dismiss the protests as the work of Ukrainian neo-Nazis, a particularly loaded accusation because Ukrainian nationalists collaborating with the Nazis are blamed for horrific reprisal attacks during the second world war. The Maidan movement did contain an ultranationalist element, known as the Right Sector, but its influence appears greatly amplified by the Russian media.
Putin has set the national tone by eagerly using the word “Nazis” to refer to the protesters in Ukraine. Speaking at his annual April call-in show, Putin warned that “neo-Nazism is on the rise” in Ukraine.
By invoking second world war imagery, the Kremlin is stirring a cauldron of emotion; millions of Russians were killed in battle or thrown into Nazi camps in a war that left no family unaffected.
“The only thing that truly unites the nation is the mythology of the second world war and the idea of victory,” said political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. “Putin appeals to that; there’s nothing else to rally around.”
Arkady Mamontov, a TV journalist who led the media assault against punk band Pussy Riot, broadcast footage of the Zhdanivka detention centre, about 40 kilometres east of the major eastern city of Donetsk, on his Sunday program and declared that Ukraine was constructing “fascist concentration camps” for pro-Russian activists rallying in eastern Ukrainian cities.
“There will be enough cells for everyone,” Mamontov said as he walked along the barbed-wire fence, though he failed to provide any evidence of it.
On an unannounced visit to the facility, The Associated Press was given an extensive tour of the grounds, and found nothing to suggest it was not an ordinary detention centre. There were rows of barracks under construction for 100 people, but no barred windows or watch-towers.
“We’re not building any Auschwitz here,” said Volodymyr Pashchenko, a Ukrainian official with the Turkish company building the facility. “This is not a prison. This is a centre which is to provide normal accommodation to people who have fled to Europe or who have somehow ended up in Ukraine illegally.”
Pashchenko said his company secured the deal in 2010 to build the immigration detention centre, which is being completed under an EU-funded project.
There is a deep and dark history behind the anti-Ukrainian messages now emanating from Russia.
When Nazi troops entered Ukraine in 1941, they enlisted local Ukrainians to fight for them and against the Soviet Union. The nationalist Ukrainian brigades that were formed saw themselves as patriots fighting for independence. But while serving under the Nazis, some participated in war crimes, including extermination campaigns against Jews, Poles and fellow Ukrainians. Even after the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, bands of Ukrainian nationalists fought on in the forests against the Soviet re-occupation of Ukraine until finally subdued or annihilated by around 1948.
Pro-Russian protesters in eastern Ukraine are drawing inspiration from the Kremlin in pushing the fascism narrative. “No to fascism” banners flutter and wartime songs blare from loudspeakers in front of occupied government headquarters in the eastern city of Donetsk. One poster inside shows President Barack Obama’s face with a Hitler moustache and the distinctive blond braids of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Alarmist rumours have proliferated since Russia began calling the Ukraine leadership fascist. One popular claim is that the Kiev government has hatched a plan to “exterminate” Russian-speakers in the east. The rumours feed into Putin’s argument that Moscow needs to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
“They already have it all planned out,” said retired coal miner Volodymyr Chernenko. “In the social networks, they say that a partisan war should be waged, and they list the names of those whose throats should be slashed and who should be blown up.”
Russian news media regularly distort information to make it fit the black-and-white second world war mindset, condoning vigilante violence.
Pro-Kremlin Life News television recently showed footage of gangs wearing St. George ribbons - the symbol of the pro-Russia movement - viciously beating marchers at a peaceful Ukrainian unity rally.
Instead of condemning the brutality, the TV anchor announced: “Donetsk self-defence broke up a neo-Nazi march.”
Russian officials have gradually adopted the media’s second world war rhetoric.
The Russian foreign ministry quoted Mamontov’s concentration camp report in a statement and went further, asking: “Is the Kiev regime going to throw discontented citizens from the country’s southeast in there?”