They say the word “disinformation” originally comes from the Russian word dezinformatsiya. Fitting, since Russia is one of the greatest sources of disinformation and its invasion of Ukraine is now one of the greatest sources of propaganda, fake news and lies. To paraphrase an old saying, there now seems to be three sides to every aspect of the war: Russia’s, Ukraine’s, and the truth.
When I was recently on the Ukrainian border, I spent what little free time I had reading Western coverage and trying to keep a bird’s-eye view of events. But the problem is, a bird’s-eye view is low-resolution, and I noticed a lot of reporting that did not match what I was seeing on the ground, hearing from experts or what Ukrainians and Poles were telling me. So much of this coverage over-simplified aspects of the war to fit certain narratives.
For instance, there’s Vladimir Putin’s claim that he wants to de-nationalize and de-nazify Ukraine. This makes it sound as if the country is infested with SS troops keeping Ukrainians hostage from reuniting with Russia. Or perhaps Putin believes the public is part of the problem too, a nation of Hitler’s true believers. Meanwhile, many of Putin’s opponents say there is no Nazi problem in Ukraine and that this is a cynical lie to justify his imperialist land-grab. The truth is, they’re both wrong.
Ukraine does, in fact, have a Nazi problem. Not only do antisemitic attacks remain an issue, but there are alarming levels of violence against Romani, Asians, Blacks, Muslims, Tartars, and the LGBT community. The U.S. State Department once referred to Ukraine’s Interregional Academy of Personnel Management (MAUP) as “one of the most... antisemitic institutions in Eastern Europe.” In 2005, MAUP hosted David Duke as a guest speaker.
On the other hand, while attacks do happen, they are not all too common. In 2020, police recorded 203 hate crimes. While neo-Nazi political parties do exist, they wield little power. In 2012, the ethnic ultranationalist party Svoboda gained over 10 percent of the vote in parliament, but their vote share has since shriveled to less than 2 percent in 2019. And of course, President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. Not to mention the victims of Russia’s invasion and the bodies currently filling mass graves in Bucha are innocent civilians, not Wehrmacht infantry.
Then there’s the argument that Western nations care more about Ukraine because the victims are white. Often, the comparison is made to the Syrian refugee crisis. To be sure, racism is certainly at play here. New York Times Magazine reporter Nicole Hannah-Jones retweeted a thread of examples of reporters describing the invasion of this “relatively civilized” nation, relative to other parts of the world, and lamenting that “Europeans with blond hair and blue eyes are being killed.” But there’s more to it than this.
For one thing, it is understandable for European nations, especially Eastern European nations, to pay more attention to a war in Eastern Europe. It also makes sense for nations everywhere to be more invested in a war that may lead to global economic ruin, nuclear conflict or World War III, compared to other recent wars that did not appear to pose these risks.
When it comes to sympathy for refugees, there is no doubt people are more inclined to feel sorry for women and children fleeing war, and while 71 percent of Syrian refugees were men, virtually no Ukrainian refugees are men, and those that are men are predominantly over the age of 60 or disabled. Ukrainian refugees are overwhelmingly women and children, and about half of them are kids. They are therefore seen as less threatening, which partly explains why other communities have been more welcoming.
Finally, we have the idea that Ukrainians hate Russians, or are pro-Russia, or actually are Russian. Almost every Ukrainian I have met or spoken to readily discerns Putin and the Russian government from the Russian people. This is because Ukrainians are, in fact, part Russian. But this is partly the result of decades of deliberate population engineering by Russia as well as Russification by imperialism and conquest.
As for actually being Russian, the truth is: It’s complicated. Many Ukrainians, such as Mila Kunis, have long identified as Russian because it’s easier that way. Many others do so because there’s truth to it.
My own family is Russian. My grandmother was born in the Siberian city of Vladivostok. But my grandfather and his family came from the region that is now Belarus and Ukraine, and like many Ukrainians today, they were culturally Russian because they were Russified. My father grew up speaking Russian, just as Zelenskyy’s first language is Russian. My favorite food is pelmeni, and every Easter my babushka makes kulich. And yet almost every time I meet a native Russian, they notice the classic suffix -ko in my name and say, “Ukrainian, da?”
The truth is cumbersome and wordy and doesn’t fit into headlines. We have a digital media environment that is stunningly adept, not at spreading nuanced discourse, but simply at spreading whatever spreads. And that makes nuanced discourse more valuable than ever. Especially when the stakes are as high as they are now.