Ukraine, the Media, and the Truth

For intellectuals of the left, no writer holds more allure than George Orwell, the man who got it right on imperialism, but then after his experiences during the Spanish Civil War also saw the truth about Stalinism as well, and told the world about it in simple, clear prose. It is an awesome legacy and what writer on the left would not wish to be seen as the new Orwell, prescient enough to see the true dangers of the age that others on the left are blinded to by the ideological fashion. But it is also a perilous path that can lead to grave error, as illustrated by the sad case of Christopher Hitchens’s battles against “Islamofascism.” For even as Orwell remains a hero, no writer on the left wishes to find that they have become the next Christopher Hitchens whose desire to be the next Orwell led him to support a spectacularly bad military intervention based on flimsy evidence his idol would have questioned. Thus, it is with some trepidation that I suggest that the cause of Ukraine represents just the kind of issue of brutal truth-telling we associate with Orwell, and which Hitchens so desperately wanted to be a part. Yet month after month there accumulates further evidence that the crisis in Ukraine and westerners’ response demands people deal with some very uncomfortable truths.

There is a certain irony that Ukraine is once again the focus of an intellectual debate. Just over 80 years ago was the Great Famine, which was largely ignored in the west at the time and even denied in the mainstream western media. The Famine was a landmark event demonstrating the brutality of the Stalinist regime, which Orwell became committed to broadcasting, even if his awareness about the famine came after the fact.

This time round the issue is not the willful murder of millions. So far taking into account conditions that have made accurate assessments difficult over the past year only a few thousand people have died. What matters is the true nature of the Ukrainian Maidan Revolution and those who have taken up arms to challenge it. It is that which brings Orwell to mind because one of the central fault-lines in this matter runs through the left just as some 70 years ago did the nature of Stalinism. On one side are the Nation and others outlets who decry the Maidan protests and eventual ouster of then President Yanukovych as a fascist overthrow of a legitimate government that the west, especially the U.S., has supported as part of a longstanding effort to encircle Vladimir Putin’s Russia. On the other are other left of center journals like the New Republic and the New York Review of Books that have come out strongly in support of the Maidan and the post-Yanukovych government. Nor is this a dispute with relevance limited to the left. The mainstream media, despite showing some general tendency to be sympathetic to Ukraine has clearly not made up its mind. The position advocated by the Nation continues to be accorded air-time indicating that the mainstream media continues to feel it represents a legitimate point of view, despite Putin’s admission that Russian troops seized Crimea, strong evidence that it was a Russian missile that blew flight MH-17 out of the sky, and further evidence that Russian troops are on the ground in Eastern Ukraine despite multiple denials.

For those who are well informed about Ukraine, the result has been frustration, as illustrated by a recent campaign by Canadian politician of Ukrainian heritage Chrystia Freeland. In September, she put out a plea for friends of Ukraine to start including the hashtag #RussiaInvadedUkraine on all posts about current events in Ukraine. Like other communities of what during cold war were called captive nations, the Ukrainian diaspora’s commitment to the cause of independence above all else is well known, so perhaps we should expect no less. Freeland, however, hardly fits the stereotype of a diaspora nationalist. She was for many years a reporter and editor at the Financial Times before being elected to the Canadian Parliament as a member of the left of center Liberal Party. That ought to have given her some clout, but her appeal has evoked little interest outside dedicated supporters of Ukraine. Journalists at major news organizations continue to refer to the armed opponents to the authority of the Ukrainian central government as “separatists” despite the plethora of evidence that they are run by Moscow.

To the uninitiated these may seem a small matter, but by not being clear journalists end up doing Putin’s work for him. In particular, Western journalists with their emphasis on presenting the different sides of an issue are an easy mark for the notion that language and nationality are driving the cleavages in Ukraine. While easily refuted, it provides a dynamic that a reporter rushed in to cover a story they themselves have only been following through news media can use, however wrong it is, to build a story quickly. This unintended embrace of a narrative favorable to the narrative favored by Putin, who after all has made protecting the Russian speakers of the Donbas his mission, perpetuates confusion that is then used by Western commentators sympathetic to the Kremlin to split the left. If successful this tactic would create a sizable alliance of foreign policy “realists” and anti-interventionists on the right, for whom what Putin does in his backyard is less important than any help he can offer in keeping order in the Middle East and Putin sympathizers on the left, for whom concern Putin stands as the main defense against IMF and WTO led globalization.

Achieving that result would be a massive achievement, but remains a difficult sell. While the RT network, formerly known as Russia Today, has won over some with its friendly coverage of the Occupy Movement and staunch opposition to fracking, their numbers are well short of those needed for a left-right coalition of Putin supporters to hold sway. Consequently, it is no surprise that Putin apologists play up certain keywords like “fascist,” “junta,” and “CIA involvement” and regularly suggest that western intervention is simply a continuation of the Cold War. Ironically, they have been given a hand from unconstructed cold warriors like John McCain, who have loudly supported the new Ukrainian government and belittled Russia at every opportunity, for McCain and his reckless adventurism is hardly something that sits well with the peaceful sensibilities of the left.

Alongside the Nation, alternative media outlets like Alternet, offer their readers a sense that they are on the right side, nor is it difficult to do given Ukraine’s history. During WWII Ukrainian partisans cooperated to varying degrees with the Nazis, and some of the groups who participated in the Euromaidan, especially in the fighting on Hrushevsky Street, see themselves as descendants of those earlier groups. Moreover, the greeting “Glory to Ukraine” “Glory to Heroes” used by those partisans during WWII has become the rallying for supporters of the Euromaidan revolution. That narrative conveniently obscures what has been the real story of contemporary Ukrainian politics as demonstrated by the recent presidential and parliamentary elections – whatever the past, today the vast majority of Ukrainians have demonstrated that they are not inclined to fascism.

Meanwhile, calling the new Ukrainian leaders a Junta and pointing to Victoria Nuland’s leaked phone conversation as evidence of nefarious involvement by the CIA easily brings to mind past covert efforts that have outraged people on the left for years. Yet in so doing those words take us away from Ukraine and what is going on there to make the story about us. This is a tactic that progressives have long complained about in respect to the treatment of indigenous people all over the world, and it is not even a correct analysis, for while Arseniy Yatseniou is now prime minister as Nuland recommended, Klytschko is not the new president.

How successful such misdirection has been is hard to say, but if you are reading this article you probably know people who have bought these arguments. Yet beyond the fallacy of such claims, they continue to restrain the discussion about Ukraine because the media feels obligated to include them in the debate. Each column inch or broadcast minute dedicated to the views of the political scientist Stephen Cohen, Ray McGovern, or some other figures who seek to make the story about us, is space and time that real experts on Ukraine have to explain what is actually going on.

Measured that way, such arguments have been quite successful not the least because their narrative works well for the western news media, because it places the United States and west Europeans at the center of the Ukraine conflict, and that is something people can easily process. What is more it means there is no real need for tv producers and op-ed page editors to update their list of authorities or reevaluate their coverage. So, with few exceptions (interestingly the Washington Post, especially through its Monkey Cage blog, has been more open) we have seen many of the same names as we saw twenty years ago, old hands in Russia-hands, who back in the day were experts in the Soviet Union, who often as not know remarkably little about Ukraine.

There is another narrative available to the news media, but it has largely been ignored because editors and producers fear their audiences will not see it as sufficiently juicy and may be harder to follow because it involve considerable nuance. Yet it would provide lay people with the information and insight they would value if they new it existed. The problem is it would require the news media to develop a completely different mindset from the one governing news media today. First, instead of closing news bureaus newspapers and broadcast media could have opened permanent bureaus in all or most of the Soviet successor states and invested in creating journalists who became well steeped in those cultures. Had they done that the mainstream news media would have been able to explain to Americans how a society functions in which bilingualism is common and accepted. In so doing the split between Ukrainophone and Russophone would cease to be the default explanation for the tensions in Ukraine. Second, such coverage would have been equipped to explain the pervasiveness of corruption of Ukraine and how Yanukovych’s Donetsk clan were able to seize control of the country despite his defeat during the Orange Revolution. This in turn would have allowed western audiences to see that the Euromaidan protests triggered by Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement last November were not driven primarily by Ukrainians’ burning desire to be part of the EU, but the recognition that Yanukovych was attempting to establish permanent mafia-rule in Ukraine. At the same time, Putin’s willingness to help Yanukovych could be seen for what it was, a means to give Yanukovych the rope needed to continue his corrupt ways and weaken the Ukrainian state to the point where it would become beholden to Russia.

Likewise, we would have been clearer understanding of the discontent among the people in the Donbas. For theirs is a sad story that few have bothered to tell. Held up as heroes of labor in Soviet times, no one bothered to explain to the miners and steel workers that one of the reasons for the Soviet Union’s economic difficulties was that after 100 years of exploitation, their pits were becoming unprofitable. Indeed, miners and steelworkers voted for independence in large numbers in the 1991 referendum because they thought this would lead to reinvestment, only to see their businesses bought up by the well connected at bargain prices who preferred asset-stripping to reinvestment. and the politicians were no better. They happily demagogued about how the Donbas was feeding the rest of Ukraine and warned against the ungrateful fascists of Western Ukraine, while doing nothing substantive to resolve the massive unemployment. So no constituency was more disenchanted with Yanukovych than the people who had supported him as their native son, and yet because Yanukovych and his cronies restricted the broadcast of information about the events at the Maidan in Kyiv, the people of Donbas were ripe to be deceived.

To be sure, having a better informed American public might not have changed the way events have unfolded in Ukraine. Had the complexity of the Ukrainian crisis been better communicated, however, we would have been saved some of the confusion about ethnic tension between Russians and Ukrainians that reporters flown in for the moment kept repeating. Further, it would not have taken the recent statement from the president of Belarus, Aleksander Lukashenko, for people to grasp that, for all the discontent among the people in Donbas, the armed resistance to Kyiv has only survived as long as it has because Putin’s team in the Kremlin want it to.

Of course, such journalistic neglect over the years cannot be made up for overnight, especially when the executives in charge are basically satisfied with their product as the truth gradually comes out. They should not be. It is no wonder that the most compelling English language journalism on the Ukraine crisis has been from the internet disruptors that have transformed the environment in which newspapers like the New York Times operate. Vice News, especially its lead reporter in Ukraine Simon Ostrovsky, has reminded people how good on the ground reporting can be when journalists speak the native language and have a deeper knowledge of a country than that gathered by reading one book and some background briefings. Vice News reports, however, are grounded in the militarized conflict in the east, and for all their vitality they do not offer a deeper analysis that would explain the context more comprehensively even if they provide hints that things are more complex. (For example, in the most recent “Russian Roulette from 19 September 2014 while traveling in a private jet owned by Oleh Taruta, Kyiv’s governor responsible for the Donbas region where the fighting is, Ostrovsky mentioned that his crew was told to minimize filming of the plane to downplay Taruta’s status as an oligarch.)

So far Vice News has not been ready to supplement its on-the-ground report with analysis. If they did it could be a major step, especially if they sought out the experts on Ukraine and Russia, who have until now been largely snubbed by the mainstream broadcast media, like Yale based historian Timothy Snyder or political scientist Oxana Shevel based at Tufts, to name just two of a number of insightful scholars. Meanwhile, the conventional media seems to be catching on slowly, which no doubt defenders of their coverage of Ukraine will point to as a vindication. On 28 September 2014 the New York Times began a series investigating “Putin’s crony capitalism” rich in detail. Still, strikingly missing from the initial expose focused on Bank Rossyia, was any reference to the scholar Karen Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (Simon & Schuster), especially given the controversy the book caused when Cambridge University Press refused to publish it in England for fear of a libel case.

The truth told by Dawisha and now being presented in the New York Times suggests that the most influential of media leaders are finally coming to grips with the sad devolution of democratic dreams in the former Soviet Union over the past twenty years. As that happens, perhaps finally we will escape the shadow of the Cold War Soviet specialists, who preferred to present the world with their own vision of the collapsing Soviet Union rather than the one that was visible on the ground, just as unapologetic Stalinists shrank in numbers thanks in part to Orwell. That said, it would have taken amazing skepticism and knowledge to go against the grain that imagined that the following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine, if not other former Soviet republics, were moving towards greater democracy and a more transparent economy. There is, after all a reason most historians shy away from the very recent past, even if like other specialists, they must be open to how current events reshape our understanding of the past. For while it is popular to see Putin as a devious chess-player who has planned out his entire game after just looking at his opponent, the fact is like any other chess player he must react to his opponent move by move.

So far our failure to see things as they are has played into his hand, but he is far from checkmate. The elections on 25 October in Ukraine have confirmed the new western-oriented leaderships position, even if many of Yanukovych’s old supporters won seats, mostly in single mandate elections. That is a beginning. There is much work to be done to undo the rampant corruption that has crippled economic development in Ukraine for more than two decades. If the new parliament bites the bullet then Putin will have to react to that and so must we. Above all, we need to get beyond the easy narrative of an interfering and rapacious West that Putin is relying on to help him build his new Russian Empire, that is accepted all too readily in the west. Yet, we must also connect the dots and how we in the west are implicated in the rise of Putin. It was an act of hubris to think that our democratic and free market institutions would be naturally resilient to influence of corrupt crony capitalism. In retrospect, it is not hard to see that there is a connection between the embrace of Russian oligarchs, most of whom are among Putin’s favorites, and the similar contempt western business elites have increasingly shown ordinary people, which underlay the global financial meltdown of 2008. For that reason, our greatest hope, whether it is the development of democracy in Ukraine and eventually Russia or the revitalization of our own democracy, is that journalists and readers stop accepting easy ideological explanations Putin or Wall Street masters of the universe urge on them, and instead accept the brutal truth just as Orwell did eighty years ago.


Hugo Lane is a long-time observer of Ukrainian affairs, having become interested in the development of Polish and Ukrainian nationalism in the Habsburg Empire while in graduate school. He holds a PhD. History from the University of Michigan and has published articles in Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Nationalities Papers, and Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung. He has taught at a number of institutions, most recently York College and Seton Hall. He is a administrator of Euromaidan News in English, a Facebook group focused on events in Ukraine that was started shortly after Ukrainians began gathering at the Maidan in Kyiv at the end of November. He is currently completing a manuscript about the emergence of Polish and Ukrainian national communities under Habsburg rule entitled Nationalizing Ethnicity: Culture, Politics and the Making of the Polish-Ukrainian Divide in Habsburg Galicia.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1