Text: Outi Salovaara
Illustrations: Anna Mu
In late 2013, Irina Grigor started watching the news of the escalating situation in Ukraine in disbelief. Protests had been held in the capital Kyiv since November 2013, and in early 2014, the protests lead to dozens of casualties. In April 2014, the fighting started in Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine. Based on Russian television, Ukraine appeared to be full of exploding grenades and floods of refugees consisting of weeping mothers and children. Had Ukrainians really suddenly turned into fascist beasts?
Grigor and her family were living in Finland where she worked as a doctoral student at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Social Sciences.
The events in Ukraine had a special significance to her, as her parents Olga and Aleksandr lived in Eastern Ukraine near the metropolis of Kharkiv.
“I was deeply affected by the events. I was terribly restless and sat in front of the TV from morning till night, watching the news and trying to understand what was going on,” Grigor says.
Grigor abandoned her previous research topic and decided to tackle a new one. This was the beginning of her doctoral dissertation, completed in 2020, on the information influence activities of the Russian Federation.
Ukraine in the throes of conflict
Ukraine gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The young state had major economic, political and social problems. Its location between east and west, between Russia and Europe, and between the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the EU, resulted in destructive conflicts.
A large part of the Russian-speaking population in Eastern Ukraine wanted to rely on the Kremlin, while speakers of Ukrainian, who are a majority in Western Ukraine, were oriented towards Europe.
The main candidates in the 2004 presidential elections were pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko and Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovych.
Neither of them won half the votes in the first round. In the second round, suspicions of electoral fraud drove Ukrainians to demonstrate on the streets.
The result was the Orange Revolution, which propelled Yushchenko into winning the repeated second round ballot.
OSCE observers declared the result of the second run-off vote fair. Russia claimed that the presidency should have gone to Yanukovych.
Although economic difficulties, widespread corruption, state fragility and political instability did not disappear, under Yushchenko’s leadership Ukraine took steps towards democracy.
The new Constitution increased the power of Parliament and the Prime Minister, and Ukraine began to negotiate an Association Agreement with the European Union.
The democratisation efforts quickly came to an end when Yanukovych became president in February 2010. Pressure was put, for example, on the media.
In November 2013, Yanukovych rejected the negotiated EU Association Agreement. The Kremlin and Yanukovych did not agree to the EU’s principles of the rule of law.
This infuriated the Ukrainians, the majority of whom wanted a closer relationship with the EU rather than Russia. Protesters filled Maidan, the Independence Square in Kyiv, and some of them camped there for months.
In February 2014, the Euromaidan protests became more violent. Yanukovych was ousted and Oleksandr Turchynov became acting president.
Russia took advantage of the situation. It placed masked soldiers in green army uniforms with no identifying insignia in Crimea and very quickly organised a referendum on the annexation of the peninsula by Russia. Russia claimed to be defending the Russian ethnic majority in Crimea.
A large majority of Crimeans voted in favour of the accession of the region to the Russian Federation, and the Russian State Duma endorsed the annexation in March 2014. The referendum was widely regarded as contrary to international law and, for example, the UN General Assembly declared its result invalid.
During the same time, a war began in Eastern Ukraine that continues to this day. The pro-Russian separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence with Russian support in April 2014.
Television-transmitted image of Ukraine changed
Irina Grigor was born and raised in a family with three children in Kyrgyzstan. Her father was Uzbek by nationality and her mother was Ukrainian. The language the family spoke at home was Russian.
As a child in Soviet Kyrgyzstan, Grigor considered herself Russian, although others disagreed: after all, her father had an Uzbekistan surname, and she herself had brown eyes and dark hair, which are atypical for Russians.
After growing up, the siblings moved to different parts of the world. Irina Grigor moved first to the United Kingdom and then to Finland, while her sister and her family settled in Ukraine and her brother in Russia.
After their children had left the nest, Grigor’s retired parents no longer had ties to Kyrgyzstan and began planning to move out.
Russia was out of the question, because the only connection they had to the country was the language. The best option was Ukraine because it was Grigor’s mother’s native country and there they would be close to at least one of their children and her family.
In 2006, Grigor’s parents moved to a small village near Kharkiv.
They continued to watch Russian television as they had done in Kyrgyzstan. So did Irina Grigor, who had moved to Finland from the United Kingdom in 2009, but she also followed the news about Ukraine on Ukrainian and international media.
At the turn of 2013–2014, she noticed a change in the way Ukraine was portrayed in the news on Russian television.
Previously, Ukrainians had been seen as a small Slavic brother nation of Russia. Now Grigor was shocked to see Ukrainians being branded fascists more brutal than the German Nazis in Russian television news. Her parents in Eastern Ukraine were equally shocked by the news on television.
“As a legacy of the Second World War, my parents remembered the deterrent of fascism during the Soviet Union and were horrified by the news,” Grigor says.
The change in the portrayal of Ukraine was the result of the Kremlin’s conscious and powerful information influence activities.
Soviet-time fear of fascism revived
To assess the truthfulness of Russian television news, Grigor began asking her parents questions, as they lived near Luhansk and Donetsk and were eyewitnesses to the events.
Did they see large numbers of soldiers and refugees in the Kharkiv region, were there bomb or grenade explosions, and had the relations between ethnic Ukrainians and Russians become strained?
No, her parents had not seen any soldiers, floods of refugees or explosions, and the relations between Ukrainians and Russians were unchanged.
“Nothing they had seen matched the image transmitted by Russian television. Obviously, people were suffering due to the war but there were no floods of refugees, for example, as portrayed by the Russian television,” Grigor says.
The EU countries supporting the democratisation process in Ukraine were presented on Russian television as countries suffering from social problems and the decline of traditional values, with homosexuals luring children into indecent acts. The authorities in Finland were said to snatch children away from their Russian mothers.
“When my parents came to visit me in Finland, they were amazed to see how clean and well-organised things were, contrary to the reports they had seen,” Grigor explains.
The Ukrainian state media initially tried to refute the untrue allegations made on Russian television.
“For a few months, they tried to convey the message that Ukrainians are not fascists and not against the Russians at all and that they just wanted a better life. Later, the Ukrainian media also realised that for their message to be registered, the enemy had to be demonised,” says Grigor.
The demonisation of Russia has also been observed in American and European media. Oliver Boyd-Barrett, an American professor who has studied propaganda and war journalism, came to the same conclusion in his study on Ukraine news published in 2016, called Western Mainstream Media and the Ukraine Crisis: A Study in Conflict Propaganda.
Curiosity grew into a doctoral dissertation
Irina Grigor had come to Finland from the United Kingdom in 2009 with the purpose of writing a doctoral dissertation.
At the start of the crisis in Ukraine, she had just come out of a difficult period in her life that ended in burnout. In addition, Sinikka Sassi, her dissertation supervisor, whom Grigor revered, had died unexpectedly at the beginning of 2013.
Grigor was considering giving up her entire dissertation.
She shared her thoughts and feelings with Mervi Pantti, Professor of Media and Communications at the University of Helsinki, who listened to Grigor’s anxious reflections on the events in Ukraine and the way Russian television was portraying them.
“Why don’t you write your dissertation on this subject?” Pantti suggested.
Grigor got to work, and Pantti became her mentor and dissertation supervisor.
Her dissertation Weaponized News – Russian Television, Strategic Narratives and Conflict Reporting was approved in January 2020. In it, Grigor analyses Russian state media’s reporting of two international conflicts that Russia was a part of, one in Ukraine and the other in Syria.
In each, the Kremlin made use of television in an exceptionally intense way to gain popular support for its attacks. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine effectively shaped the observations made by citizens about the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
All traditional, linear TV channels in Russia are currently directly or indirectly owned by the state, and the state heavily controls them, both economically and administratively.
Television became a political tool and, in the words of researchers Elena Vartanova and Natalia Roudakova, journalists became ‘obedient children’.
“Journalists no longer bothered even to pretend to adhere to journalistic ethics and standards, such as assessing the reliability of sources of information or checking facts,” Grigor says.
Russia returns to state-monopolised media
Russia’s long history of state-manipulated media began in 1702, when Peter the Great founded the Vedomosti magazine to share his plans with his people.
After the Second World War, the Soviet Union used the media to build a picture of itself as a hero state that had defeated fascism. Soviet propaganda successfully made the west a scapegoat for the deteriorating living conditions in the country after the war and for the political pressure exerted by the state.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, a time for media freedom began. State subsidies ended, and the press became weaker as prices rose and circulation plummeted. Television became the main Russian media.
President Vladimir Putin has reinstated a centralised political system in Russia in which state-controlled media play an important role.
Already in his second year as president in 2001, Putin wrote a decree that allowed the state to take over all television and radio channels and broadcasting stations. Pressure was put on independent media. Journalists have been threatened, arrested, imprisoned and murdered.
The 2011–12 election protests and the fear of the Orange Revolution led those in power to interfere with the contents of the Russian-language internet, Runet.
Since 2012, the authorities have been able to shut down websites and block IP addresses that allegedly disseminate unspecified extremist content.
The 2019 Sovereign Internet Law goes as far as giving the Kremlin the right to partition Russia entirely from the international Internet.
Even blatant measures against the freedom of speech do not cause major protests. As a legacy of the Soviet Union, citizens believe that the role of the media is to guide citizens instead of informing them.
“The media must not rock the boat. Instead, the media is expected to clearly state who is good and who is bad,” says Grigor.
All Russian television channels are controlled by the state, and the government’s main and largest mouthpiece is Channel One (Pervyi kanal). In 2014 after the Ukrainian crisis had begun, about 80% of Russians cited it as their main source of news.
Russians often say they consider television unreliable, yet it remains their main source of news by a huge margin. Despite their distrust, the majority also believe that television provides reliable and undistorted information, for example, about the events in Ukraine.
Strategic narratives in the service of the government
At the heart of Grigor’s dissertation is the concept of strategic narratives.
“For example, the concepts of propaganda war or information warfare do not describe equally well the way Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria are explained and defended by the state media, following the method built for it by the Russian regime.”
Behind people’s thinking, observations and moral choices there is always a narrative or, simply put, a story that helps people arrange the way they understand the world and find logic in a chaotic flood of information.
Narratives must reflect the values, expectations and prejudices of the public. Collective narratives are particularly useful in complex situations that are difficult to interpret and explain by logic or facts alone.
Strategic narratives serve as a means of communication for the political elite. A narrative conveyed through the media creates a common understanding of why political processes have been started, what stage they are at and where they may lead. This is an attempt to influence the behaviour of both domestic and international actors.
The link between political action and persuasive narratives was cleverly built, for example, in the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: President George W. Bush’s administration made the invasion of Iraq look like a patriotic duty and its opponents like unpatriotic anti-Americans.
Narratives gain extra power from news photographs and videos. They can be used to inspire sympathy or aversion and to reinforce political myths, cultural stereotypes and historical memory.
Grigor assumed that the Russian government’s narratives about the conflict in Ukraine would differ according to whether they were directed at domestic or international audiences. However, the results of the study do not support this view.
Atmosphere drawn from the Second World War
Grigor investigated the matter by comparing news from Ukraine published on the website of Channel One for the home audience and on the website of the Russia Today (RT) channel, which is intended for the English-speaking public.
She found a total of 1,700 pieces of news between early December 2013 and February 2015. The news covered Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
Grigor categorised and analysed news images, headlines, news texts and captions, as well as audiotapes.
Despite the notable similarities between the narratives, more often than RT, Channel One portrayed Ukraine as a failed and economically troubled state immersed in a constant threat of radical nationalism and fascism. This allowed the news to justify to the audience at home why Crimea and Eastern Ukraine wanted to join Russia.
RT, on the other hand, more typically portrayed the West as a biased party that interfered with the affairs of others and was to blame for the problems in Ukraine and for the deteriorating relations between Russia and Ukraine.
Neither channel included the annexation of Crimea in their main headlines – after all, it also caused Russia a great deal of negative political and economic consequences, even though the annexation helped to raise patriotic feelings in Russians.
As regards the events in Donetsk and Luhansk, Channel One published several times the amount of news about them as RT. Grigor’s interpretation of this is that it was more important for Russia to gain sympathy for the events in Eastern Ukraine among Russians than among the international public.
Channel One used videos of ordinary citizens as illustration, while RT used photographs of politicians.
The illustrations did not always match the contents of the news texts and headlines.
For example, a correspondent in Ukraine might report on aggressive Ukrainian protestors at the Maidan, funded allegedly by the West and extreme right-wing combatants, but the images showed peaceful and smiling protestors.
RT and Channel One’s news images also showed hardly any victims of war, even when the news were about the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the alleged atrocities committed by Ukrainians.
Channel One typically used historical documentary films from the Second World War as illustration.
In November 2014, for example, Channel One reported that the Soviet army had liberated Ukraine from fascism 70 years earlier. The illustration used in the report, along with historical film material, included photographs of weeping and ragged elderly people from Donbas who believed that the Ukrainian army’s bombs had destroyed their homes.
The news report also included a picture of an unidentified soldier wearing a Nazi swastika symbol on his helmet. The news claimed that Ukrainians were committing worse crimes than Nazi soldiers.
The report also interviewed an unidentified man from Donbas who said he was the leader of the local community. The interview went viral in Russia, as the man claimed that Ukrainian soldiers were involved in the conflict because their government had promised to reward them with ‘a piece of land and two slaves’ in Donbas.
The news on Channel One did not reveal which party was actually behind the bombings that had occurred.
Blatant fake news create an emotional response
Outright fake news violate journalistic principles particularly blatantly. Fabricated and very strange news spread far and wide on the Internet and are a good propaganda weapon to stir up the public’s emotions.
According to Grigor, fake news can be seen as an extreme manifestation of Russia’s strategic narratives, which the Kremlin used to justify its Ukraine policy. Fake news highlighted the contrast between Russia and Ukraine and were used to link Ukraine to Nazi Germany.
The Internet and social media make it possible to spread fake news, but also to expose them and build counter-narratives.
Grigor studied the fake news published by Channel One based on material from the Ukrainian website StopFake.
Founded by journalistic students in early 2014, StopFake is a group that expanded quickly and that reveals fake news related to the Ukraine crisis.
It has received international awards and recognition for its work. (The difficult and complex situation in Ukraine is reflected in the fact that last year StopFake was accused of fraternising with neo-Nazis and that the journalist who reported on this was threatened and pressured.)
Between December 2013 and February 2015, the StopFake website had uncovered 30 pieces of fake news published by Channel One, and Grigor analysed the ten most widely read and distributed of these in more detail.
Perhaps the most blatant piece of fake news on Channel One was the story of a 3-year-old boy who was allegedly crucified by Ukrainian soldiers on Lenin Square in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk in July 2014. In addition, the soldiers were said to have dragged the boy’s mother behind a tank on the square until she died.
The story was told to Channel One by a woman fleeing Sloviansk with four children. The woman’s spouse fought in the separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine, and the woman claimed that Ukrainians were worse than fascists.
No proof for the story was found – Sloviansk does not even have a Lenin Square.
Locals told the newspaper Novaya Gazeta that, on the contrary, Ukrainian soldiers were very polite. The family of the woman who told the fake story thought she had given the interview in exchange for money.
Fake news prove that a narrative does not always have to be rational, logical or truthful to be effective – it is enough to appeal to people’s emotions.
Brother nation turned into arrogant ‘Others’
When necessary, a narrative can be modified to achieve political objectives.
In a fraternal narrative inherited from Soviet times, Russia was the caring big brother with whom little brother Ukraine shares a Slavic ethnic, cultural and Orthodox background. The narrative portrays Ukrainians as direct, peace-loving, hospitable and patient – the same as Russians.
Grigor’s research showed that the narrative changed as the agenda of the political elite changed.
Grigor compared the narrative of Channel One’s news about Ukraine from the period preceding the conflict from November 2012 to October 2013 and from the time of the conflict from November 2013 to October 2014.
Out of more than a total of 7,000 pieces of news, Grigor analysed 480 in more detail. She classified them according to whether Ukrainians were portrayed positively, neutrally or negatively in them.
In political conflicts, narratives are often built on dichotomy, i.e. a division, in order to distinguish between ‘them’ and ‘us’. In the case of Ukraine, finding differences is difficult for Russia, as Ukrainians are so similar in looks, history, language and religion.
For decades, Russia had exploited these common features and painted a picture of Ukraine as a brother to ‘us’. As recently as the summer of 2013, President Putin spoke sentimentally about the more than a thousand years of connection between Russians and Ukrainians.
Just before the Euromaidan, Channel One criticised Ukraine’s plans to accept the EU’s Association Agreement and the fact that representatives of the far-right had been elected to the Ukrainian Parliament.
At the end of 2013, when Russia could no longer tolerate Ukraine’s behaviour, Channel One turned Ukraine into an irresponsible youth who rejects the brotherhood with Russia due to the corrupting influence of the West.
Ukrainians became hypocritical, cunning, envious, arrogant, miserly and cruel ‘Others’, no longer a part of ‘us’.
The defenders of EU cooperation were presented as misguided, stupid or at least naïve. Eastern Ukrainians who supported the Kremlin, on the other hand, were portrayed as sensible and hard-working.
The mass grave in the news was from Chechnya
Ukraine’s positive attitude to the EU was not enough, however, as political justification, for example, for annexing Crimea. What was needed was an image of a real threat, and the Kremlin reshaped its narrative to make it even more extreme.
The narrative began to be strengthened with recollections of the Second World War, which helped Channel One turn Ukraine into a fascist, aggressive, radical right-wing extremist country and its people into inhuman ‘Others’.
Ukraine’s attempt to move closer to the EU was presented as turning its back on Russia and embracing fascism. To ensure its message registered with viewers, Channel One even went so far as to use a film of the 1930s’ torchlight parades in Nazi Germany as an illustration of its Ukraine news.
Its news also presented a photograph of a large mass grave of civilians, allegedly located in Ukraine. Fact-checking proved that the dead people in the mass grave were civilians killed in the Chechnya war in 1995. The Russian soldier standing on the edge of the grave had been airbrushed out of the photograph.
Channel One no longer distinguished between the radicalised Ukrainian minority and the moderate Ukrainian majority. When talking about Ukrainians, words such as monster, fascist, genocide, mass grave, junta, penal battalion and neo-Nazi were established as news terminology.
Russian-speaking Eastern Ukrainians, on the other hand, were portrayed in the news as sympathetic weeping female refugees and their children, or as pro-Kremlin, masked rebels who heroically helped refugees and sick children, repaired bomb damage and provided humanitarian aid.
The Kremlin narrative achieved its purpose.
According to a survey by the Levada Analytical Center, 74% of Russians in 2012 had a positive attitude towards Ukrainians, while in November 2014 this number had dropped to only 28%.
At the same time, the number of Russians who had a negative attitude towards Ukrainians increased from 17% to 59%.
Syrian civil war presented as a technological triumph
The wars in Ukraine and Syria were presented in completely different ways on Channel One.
In her study, Grigor compared a total of about 3,500 news reports on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine between April 2014 and March 2016.
Channel One’s news about Ukraine reminded viewers of Russia’s (the Soviet Union’s) victory in World War II, which is the foundation on which Russia’s entire national identity has been built.
The news images showed Russian-speaking civilians from Eastern Ukraine: weeping, scarfed old women or mothers carrying children. They talked about the brutality and fascism of Ukrainians, which was demonstrated by destroyed monuments from the Second World War shown in the news images.
The impression of Ukrainians’ fascism was increased by displaying the flags and other symbols of the combatants of the Ukrainian extreme right-wing organisation, Right Sector.
The news images were designed to arouse the feeling that Russia had the right and a duty to intervene in the events in Ukraine and to protect the country’s Russian ethnic minority.
Russia became a part of the Syrian civil war in September 2015 at the request of President Bashar Al-Assad’s government. Russia justified its bombings in Syria as supporting the global campaign against terrorism, but the Kremlin was also interested in the Tartus military base in Syria and maintaining its own influence in the region.
In the news about Syria, suffering civilians and destroyed homes were conspicuous by their absence, even though Russian bombings resulted in a large number of civilian casualties.
In their place were images of Russia as a military superpower: modern fighter aircraft, strong-minded Russian soldiers and satellite images of targets Russia had bombed, allegedly the bases for Isis and other terrorists.
The fight against terrorism by the US and its allies, on the other hand, was portrayed as unsuccessful and unskilled on Channel One.
People are drowning under the flood of information
Irina Grigor understands why people believe in the strategic narratives built by the Kremlin and transmitted by Channel One.
“Channel One is everywhere. It is the only channel that everyone has access to and that has information on what is happening in the world. You cannot get away from it, and the opposition has no chance of getting its views heard.”
Even if you don’t watch TV, the same news are quoted in newspapers. If you don’t read the papers, your friends and acquaintances will quote the news.
“I think that the goal is to drown people in a flood of information so that it becomes impossible to think rationally.”
The news have convinced Russians that there are enemies all around – in Ukraine, Europe, the USA – and they have to protect themselves against them.
Their only protection is their president who cites the Second World War and the victory gained over Nazi power and who makes the fascist outside world fear Russia and protects Russia from Western liberalism.
People turn a blind eye to Kremlin corruption and anti-democracy.
In his documentary, opposition politician Alexei Navalny proves that a palace costing about a billion dollars in taxpayers’ money has been built for the president by the Black Sea.
Yet the public continues to accept the misconduct and ostentation: “Of course the President needs a castle.” They have learned that protesting does not pay or make any difference.
“They begin to protect those in power in order to maintain their internal balance,” says Grigor.
The researcher became the target of hate speech
Currently, Irina Grigor is involved as a University of Helsinki researcher in a project funded by the Academy of Finland. The project examines citizens’ rights to communicate in different countries in the era of digital fragmentation.
The current research topic will probably be a less emotive subject than her dissertation.
After completing her dissertation, Grigor posted about her research results on Facebook. The response was a huge avalanche of hate speech from Grigor’s Russian journalist and academic acquaintances.
“You have been given a grant to conduct anti-Russian research,” she was told.
Grigor answered them patiently, giving reasons for her arguments. She asked her critics to examine how the study had been conducted, what the research material consisted of and how it had been selected. She reminded them that she had analysed thousands of pieces of news for her dissertation.
No fact or argument helped. The hate speech kept coming.
One of them came from her former Professor of Russian History, who had once given Grigor the top grade.
Grigor reminded her professor that he knew her well and asked if he did not believe that Grigor performs her work with honesty.
“If I had known this, I would not have accepted you as my student,” replied the professor.
The tone of the avalanche of messages became increasingly threatening, and Grigor became seriously frightened. She is grateful to Mervi Pantti for her continued support and listening.
“Then they threatened the lives of my family members. I believe they really could have carried out their threats. I was frightened and I didn’t want my doctoral thesis to become any better known than it was.”
Grigor destroyed everything related to her dissertation on Facebook.
The strategic narrative had demonstrated its power.
Irina Grigor is a Postdoctoral Researcher in University of Helsinki. Her dissertation Weaponized News – Russian Television, Strategic Narratives and Conflict Reporting was approved at the University of Helsinki in 2020. Currently, she is researching citizens’ rights to communicate in the era of digital fragmentation at the University of Helsinki in a project funded by the Academy of Finland.
Correction (20 October 2021): The first paragraph of the article has been edited. The original version gave the wrong impression that the fighting in Eastern Ukraine in April 2014 had started already in the winter 2013-2014.