The details were horrifying. Ukrainian officials had nailed a 3-year-old, clad in just his underwear, to a wooden board “just like Jesus,” right before his mother’s eyes, according to Russian state television. Then, said Galina Pyshniak, Channel One’s sole witness and a pro-Russian refugee, the military in Slovyansk had grabbed the mother, tied her to a tank, and dragged her three times around the city’s central Lenin Square. “The Ukrainian army are not liberators—they’re bastards,” she said.
“One’s mind refuses to understand how anything like that could happen today in the center of Europe, while one’s heart does not believe that such thing is possible at all,” Channel One’s anchor philosophized.
But Russian opposition leaders said Monday that there was no evidence that such a public execution had taken place in Slovyansk. Alexei Navalny and Boris Nemtsov called the story “dangerously false” and called for the management of Channel One, Russia’s most popular channel, to be put on trial for broadcasting it.
The calls came after the independent Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta dispatched a reporter, Yevgeny Feldman, to Slovyansk last weekend to search for more witnesses of the alleged execution. “Nobody I spoke with in Slovyansk has heard a thing about this,” he tweeted.
Now Russian bloggers and opposition activists are accusing Channel One of manipulating its viewers’ minds. “On seeing the horrors of such inhuman torture, an ordinary viewer would have only one intention: to join the volunteer forces and ‘seek revenge against the Ukrainian fascists,’” Nemtsov wrote on his Facebook page. Navalny, a former candidate for Moscow mayor, insisted that misinformation on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine has become just as important as combat operations.
Over the last few months, any criticism of Russian state politics in Ukraine has been greeted harshly by pro-Kremlin patriotic organizations, which have condemned critics as betrayers of the Russian people. Both Nemtsov and Navalny have appeared on lists of “Fifth Columnists,” or traitors, for their opposition views. On Monday, activists from the art collective Glavplakat bicycled along anti-Putin marchers’ favorite protest routes wearing masks depicting the faces of opposition leaders and T-shirts with gay pride rainbows across their chests. The collective’s public action, dubbed “The Fifth Velo-column,” carried with it a message for Muscovites: “Strangers are still among us.” To many Russian intellectuals who disagree with the politics of the Kremlin but are still patriotic, such actions appear intimidating and hostile.
Who is more of a Russian patriot, someone who demands better quality television or someone who goes to the front as a volunteer to join the Russian Spring movement and fight the Ukrainian army? “Of course volunteers going to the front show real patriotism for Russia and the Russian nation,” said Sergei Surkov, a young Russian nationalist in St. Petersburg who said he planned to join the Rezerv Patriotic Club, a recruiting and training organization, to prepare dozens of young people for combat in Ukraine.
“Most of the guys I know decided to join the fighting in Ukraine after the Odessa fire,” Surkov, a former history student at Moscow State University, told The Daily Beast. “When I hear on television how Ukrainians are killing children, my blood boils.”