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25 May

War, JournalIsm, and the NatIonalIst NarratIve

Ekaterina Kotrikadze delivers P24's World Press Freedom Day lecture in honor of Mehmet Ali Birand


For many Russian journalists, myself included, March 1st was the day when everything ended: the job that we loved, the way of life we had grown used to, our very country as we knew it. The war in Ukraine was already in full swing, and the State Duma (the Russian Parliament) was preparing a law that would prohibit us from even uttering the word “war”, let alone citing the Ukrainian version of Russian army casualties and losses. The clear purpose of this new law was to forbid discussing the reasons Russia now found itself on the ground in a sovereign, neighbouring country. A couple of days later, the law would be adopted, and anyone violating the new rules would face up to 15 years in prison. The largest country in the world would slam shut the door on civilization. Today in Russia there is not a single independent media organization; not a single one. 

On March 1, 2022, I went on air with my program - Kotrikadze of Foreign Affairs. As it turned out, this was the last time the show would be broadcast and my last day at Dozhd TV or TV Rain as it translates into English. One of the hallmarks of the program was its op-eds. I would deliver to camera rather long monologues, giving my foreign policy analysis, evaluating Russia’s place in the world, and its relations with external partners. This time, while preparing for the broadcast, I sat down in front of my computer and realized that I could not write a single word. I sat endlessly staring at a blank page on the monitor. What should I tell viewers? How could I even begin to talk about my country’s place in the world when at that very moment it was bombing civilians? Russia, in the eyes of the intelligent inhabitants of planet Earth, had come to represent absolute evil. 

Eventually, and with a colleague’s help, I came up with the only possible topic circumstances would allow. I decided to talk about lies – and, in particular, the lie which had become state policy in Russia, the one that determined both its fate and the fate of Ukraine. 

Permit me to take you back to the recent past, to 2014 when Putin saw his worst nightmare come true. In Ukraine, a free people, deceived by a cowardly president, took to the streets demanding the country sign an association agreement with the European Union. These events went down in history as Maidan (meaning simply “square” in Ukrainian and referring to the square in Kyiv where the main protests took place). The Maidan movement, better known as Euromaidan, led to a change of leadership and a revision of Ukraine’s foreign policy. Kyiv had, to all intents and purposes, declared its independence from Russia. In reply, Kremlin ideologists constructed out of the real Ukraine a mythical Ukraine, one where power was concentrated in the hands of a junta and the disciples of Stepan Bandera. Bandera, for those who need reminding, is the villain of this Russian narrative. He was a Ukrainian politician, Nazi-collaborator and theorist of the militant wing of the far-right Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. But Bandera died in 1959. Fast forward to today, and Russian propagandists have been unable to come up with a contemporary candidate to present as the leader of Ukraine’s neo-Nazis. 

Some eight years ago, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, which, in accordance with international law, was and remains the territory of Ukraine. They lied to us about the presence of Russian soldiers there, or rather lied that there weren’t any. Putin himself “joked” that soldiers spotted in Crimea, the famous “little green men”, had bought their uniforms at the corner shop. In time, it turned out, of course, that these “little green men” really were Russians special forces, a fact which the President confirmed without blinking an eye.

Soon after the annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbas started. According to the official version, Russia was not involved. The battle in Eastern Ukraine has continued without stop for the last eight years. But now it has become more intense and Putin has finally admitted that the Russian army is engaged in military activity. Before that, Russian officials were stubbornly repeating the mantra that there were no Russian boots on the ground.  

These days the manual for bots, propagandists and pro-Kremlin politicians includes the obligatory accusation against the independent media in Russia: “Where have you been for the past 8 years? -- meaning that this media was not concerned with the fate of ordinary people in Donbas. The official version was that civilians in Eastern Ukraine were suffering under attacks by Kyiv and hoping for Russian help. Looking back, it’s amazing to see these accusations, considering that professional journalists remember how it all started. Donbas separatism, not without its own internal causes, was supported by Russia for years, even before Maidan. And when it broke out, it was Russia that became the sponsor, the inspiration and, as they like to say in the Kremlin, the master of the separatists. It was Russia –with its tragic experience of Chechnya, with constant statements about the inadmissibility of interference in sovereign affairs– that openly supported the civil war in word and deed on the territory of the closest among the ex-Soviet nations.

The person who entered the territory of Ukraine with weapons and captured the town of Slovyansk was Igor Strelkov, or Igor Girkin. A citizen of Russia, a former FSB (if there is such a thing as a former FSB officer), he gathered and armed a whole gang. In Russia, where they imprison children for sending each other foolish messages while playing Minecraft, Girkin was supported at the highest level. Following Girkin, fighters from the “Russian world” –military, men who surprisingly and in a very timely way, retired from the army - were drawn from Russia to Donbas. Were they stopped? Were they arrested? Interrogated? Accused of being mercenaries or participating in an armed conflict on the territory of another country? No, in many regions there was open recruitment alongside mobilization points. But it was not only so-called “volunteers”, who went to Donbas but Russian military advisers, instructors, special services officers, Chechen thugs. And, of course, weapons. There is countless evidence in the public domain to indicate the wide-scale presence of Russian weaponry in the territories of the separatist republics of the LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic) and the DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic) in 2014-15.

Meanwhile, Russian state TV was churning out reports of civil war and of militias who were “selflessly and completely independently” waging a liberation war against Kyiv and Ukrainian atrocities. The downing of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing in the summer of 2014 resulting in the murder of almost three hundred people, was the first serious signal to the world from Russia, the first warning shot, so to speak, to make the West shudder. The Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team held Russian authorities responsible for the actions of the separatists in Donbas – a heinous crime apparently committed by mistake (or so we understand from the reports of independent media and investigators), by militants without proper training and who thought they were targeting a Ukrainian military transport aircraft. The supposition is that the plane would not have been shot down without Moscow’s go-ahead. But the Russian propaganda machine blamed Ukraine for the crash. That’s what they always do: they offer you a million different versions, one crazier than the other. In this case, the conspiracy theorists were hard at work suggesting that the crash was an attempt gone wrong to assassinate Putin, who allegedly flew at the same time along the same route, or a plot hatched by the Americans. They make you confused and mixed-up, they make you conclude that “nothing is clear” and “everything is complicated.”

The lies have been raining down on us for the last 8 years. Ukraine has remained the main topic of Russian television all this time. Talk-show guests foam at the mouth, cursing fascists, insulting presidents and MPs, and all the changes in Ukraine brought about through elections. Finally, in 2021 –in winter and spring– after tens of thousands of Russian soldiers were found near the borders of a neighbouring country, they began to lie to us about the threat posed by Nato and, in particular, the United States. In America, there was a new  president, who at first did not want to think about Putin and Russia at all. To put it bluntly, in Washington, China was considered their main problem, and in the Kremlin, such an approach was considered an insult. “You underestimate us” – was Putin’s message.

On the last day of TV Rain’s broadcast, I realized that the only thing I could do, the only thing that made sense, was to try to tell the truth. And to do so until I could try no more.

At about 8 pm I went home, and on the way, I received a push notification: the websites of TV Rain and Ekho Moskvy radio were blocked. Echo was the last remaining independent radio in Russia, just like we were the last free television channel. There was also one remaining newspaper (Novaya Gazeta), which was later destroyed. The morning after our website was blocked, my children, my husband and I were sitting at Sheremetyevo Airport, trembling with panic: they will come and detain us, right now, I was thinking. But we were not detained – just as no journalists after the start of the war in Ukraine were forced to leave Russia. 

Many who left were checked at the border: the security officers read correspondence on phones, typed the first letters of the word “Ukraine” in the chat search to find out that person’s inclinations and asked questions testing their loyalty to the state.   But they let them all go. My husband and I –both executives at TV Rain– deleted all social media apps on our phones before the flight. We were not interrogated; we were lucky.

But we did not feel lucky the day before our departure when we were bombarded with thousands of threatening messages and calls. It is clear to me now that there was a concerted effort to get rid of us through intimidation and without red tape – to force us out of the country and to forget about our existence and to clear the field for the monstrous propaganda which is enshrouding Russians in these terrible days. 

The official story now is that soldiers of the Russian army are liberating a neighbour from Nazi tyranny. In Kyiv –they say– the Nazis are sitting, almost sleeping, under portraits of Hitler, embracing swastikas. Here is the answer of the press-secretary of President Putin, Dimitry Peskov to the question of what the Kremlin’s goals are: “Ideally, it’s necessary to liberate Ukraine, cleanse it from the Nazis. From pro-Nazi people and ideologies.” On February 21, three days before the start of the invasion, Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of the separatist republics of the Ukrainian Donbas (LNR and DNR). This was proceeded by an hour-long lecture to Russian citizens to somehow justify the attack. There was an attempt to tell the whole history of Ukraine in a way that could prove that this state does not exist and has never existed, and that Ukraine is Russia’s younger brother, an appendage and that Ukrainians and Russians are one nation that needs to be reunited. According to Putin, Kyiv was seized by nationalist radicals in the 2014 coup, who then launched an openly anti-Russian policy. As a result, Russia needed to defend its interests and its future. 

These are all lies. 

If there were any doubts about this, it is enough to know that in 2019 Ukrainian nationalist parties and radical organizations nominated a single candidate for the presidency. He received a miserable 1.6% of the vote. Volodymyr Zelensky, the man who won the election with 74% of the votes, is Jewish. A coalition of nationalist parties in the parliamentary elections in Ukraine took less than 3%, i.e. below the 5% electoral threshold to qualify for seats. Before TV Rain was closed, I spoke on air with the director of the Russian Holocaust Foundation, Alla Gerber. She almost cried: there is no connection between fascism, Nazism, genocide –all these words are being used by Russian propaganda– and the political course of Ukraine, said Gerber. Unfortunately, I can’t now even show you this interview: TV Rain’s YouTube channel is not working. But I can tell you that at the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 150 scholars from institutions around the world devoted to genocide and holocaust studies published an open letter in which they strongly rejected “the Russian government’s cynical abuse of the term genocide, the memory of World War II and the Holocaust, and equating the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime to justify unprovoked aggression.” The invasion was not supported by the facts but then facts are Putin’s enemies. He hates journalists –people like us. Therefore, back in August 2021, TV Rain was recognized as a foreign agent, and in March 2022 it was completely destroyed. Before our channel was shut down at the start of the war, we averaged on YouTube alone 25 million views daily. This suggests that millions of Russians at least doubt the official version of events and, it is safe to say, want no part in the crimes against humanity being committed right now, in front of our eyes, by the Russian Federation.  

There is no unifying ideology in Russia. There is no idea to bind its people together, to inspire them and to inspire patriotism. What is Russia? What is it striving for? Where is the country going?

During his 20 plus years in power, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly tried to find a narrative that would connect him with voters. And in this he has never succeeded. All his plans for the future concern only himself and his role in history. He was supposed to appear as a protector of Russian lands, a bogatyr –a warrior as in the folk legends– or in other words a hero from the KGB, who understood the hypocrisy of the Americans and outsmarted them, someone who had to shine. To the Russian people, this was not enough – they needed to understand not his prospects, but their own.

Putin’s rule began not through elections, not through fierce competition and victory in a fair fight, but by appointment. Boris Yeltsin led him by the hand to the Kremlin and seated him on the throne. The current president of Russia would not win elections until later. And that victory came thanks to the war in Chechnya that he had started. From the very beginning, Vladimir Putin stayed in power through repression: against big business, non-governmental organizations and, of course, journalists. Back in 2001, he closed the private NTV channel – this is how the war with the press first took shape in Russia. I was then a second-year student at the Faculty of Journalism of Moscow State University, the country’s main university. I remember how a sense of indignation took root all around me.  After a short time, it faded, as there were many other things to think about and many other media outlets to cover the issues of Russian society.

At the same time, the president was “bringing order” to the country: the level of crime was decreasing, and thanks to rising oil and gas prices, the economy was growing. There were opportunities to go on vacation to Egypt and Turkey, which meant a great deal to ordinary people. The man and woman in the street, used to the hardships of the Soviet era, grew soft and fat. In order to capture minds as well as bellies, Putin played up the idea of ​​conservative values; he came up with the “special path for Russia”. Family values, the church, the war against LGBT are narratives that have been imposed on Russians for many years, but recently with particular vengeance. In Russia, marriage is exclusively a union of a man and a woman, and domestic violence is part of the order of things. Putin calculated that such an agenda, preached to Russians from every television in the country, would placate the electorate. And it did create an air of complacency. After all, the mood in Russia long before Putin was rather conservative. He only strengthened obscurantism, slammed the door of progress for those who could, and perhaps would, develop and learn tolerance. But this agenda didn’t bring anything new.

The ideology of medieval conservatism was not enough. Putin remembered a topic that is sacred for every Russian, namely the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. By 1945, every Soviet family had lost at least one person in this war. The sacrifice of the Soviet people for the good of the world was so huge and indisputable that the Russian authorities found their salvation in it, as it seemed to them. While the few surviving veterans of World War II vegetated in miserable, tiny apartments and received a measly pension, there were speeches from all the grandstands and on television about attempts to “rewrite history” and rob Russia of its great victory. These attempts, it was claimed, were being carried out by the West, and above all by the United States. The Russian government began to fight a non-existent threat: not only were Europe and America unspiritual and immoral, but they were also Russophobes who do not appreciate Russia’s contribution to the great cause of defeating Nazism. And they were returning to Nazism.

In 2014, it became obvious that Russia’s most valuable neighbour, Ukraine, was leaving Moscow’s influence. As I’ve already mentioned, the Kyiv Maidan was a projection of Putin’s greatest nightmare –he’s extremely afraid of so called “color revolutions’’, and there, right next to him, were people taking to the streets and getting rid of their deceitful, weak government. Putin saw in the new, pro-European leaders of Ukraine a threat to himself personally. But he also understood how to turn Russians against them: he called Ukrainians Nazis. 

When Russia annexed Crimea (a peninsula recognized by international law as territory of Ukraine) they needed to explain this crime somehow, so they started to insist that Putin was saving Russian inhabitants of Crimea from those same Nazis. The support for the separatists of Donbas (and in fact the war of Russia in Eastern Ukraine) was explained in the same way. Let’s not forget that the war against independent media in Russia has never stopped, and after the Ukrainian events of 2014 it escalated. 2014 was the first time they tried to shut down TV Rain, and –surprise!– they accused the channel of violating the memory of the Great Patriotic War, in particular, the siege of Leningrad. What a “lucky” coincidence: the Kremlin found a poll on our station which they later called “blasphemous”. The anchors of one of our shows formulated the question this way: Should Leningrad have been surrendered to the Nazis in World War II to save millions of lives? This careless question was enough to start a campaign against TV Rain and the channel was excluded from the packages of all major cable networks in Russia. But TV Rain survived thanks to subscription and the support of its viewers. These were completely different times from today. It was difficult, then, but we only faced authoritarianism. Eight years later, authoritarianism has become dictatorship.

For the past eight years, Nazism and fascism in Ukraine has been a constant topic for the political talk shows of the main state media. As soon as Putin announced the recognition of the DPR-LPR (the Donbas separatist republics), and the start of a “special military operation”, state propaganda began to repeat these narratives with a greater sense of brutality. It seems that to believe the justification for what is happening, they need to shout louder and accuse more violently. They need to hate more. They see hundreds of photographs and videos of the bodies of civilians killed in Ukrainian cities and claim that this is all fake. The Director of the Information and Press Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharovsa, seriously accuses the Ukrainians of starting this war because they did not want to share the recipe for their famous borscht soup with Russia.

I have already said that the most important thing for Putin is how he is recorded in history. His whole ideology is built on the victories of the Soviet Union and his powerful propaganda machine is predicated on the absence of independent journalism. However, undoubtedly, many Russians are not ready to believe the “Nazis in Ukraine” narrative and are not ready to accept why Russian soldiers are dying. For these doubters, Putin has in store his last trump card – the power of fear. Repression will grow stronger, people will continue to flee from the country, and the brightest of those who remain will be put in jail. 

However, there is also hope. Vladimir Putin is the man who calls the collapse of the USSR the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” He focuses solely on the past, he does not use the Internet, he does not even have a smartphone (it’s confirmed officially). During the worst times of Soviet isolation, Russians had radios that played Voice of America and Radio Liberty. And if independent journalism survived back then, we will survive now. We are younger, smarter and faster. And truth is on our side.

I have now left Moscow along with hundreds if not thousands of other Russian journalists. Many of us have settled in Tbilisi, Georgia. We meet sometimes and we talk endlessly about our country, about the prospects of Putin’s government, and about our own prospects. It’s a weird feeling: the situation very much resembles the beginning of 20th Century, when liberals, educated people, the opinion makers of that time were fleeing en masse from the Bolshevik take-over of Russia. They were hoping to return home soon, just as we now do. I am not saying that we will have to wait 70 years before Russia will open its doors again to the world (and to us in particular). I am simply saying that we should learn from the experience of our predecessors, many of them journalists, as we acknowledge that the path we are being forced to take will not be easy. How can you cover Russia without being in Russia? This is something we are trying to figure out. 

In the beginning of 1920-s there were many newspapers published outside Russia (likeThe Days or The New World), but they had limited influence over the situation in Moscow. Today’s reality is very different. We have YouTube and physical distance matters much less. It’s important to underline the great demand for news and information in Russian society: my husband and I have very recently launched a YouTube channel and its success has been very gratifying. People do need journalism and our growing audience suggests, unlike the claims on government-controlled TV, there is no blanket support for Putin’s war. But Putin has already blocked Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. He will eventually have to shut YouTube down as well. Again, people learn to use VPN programs, but it is clear that in the fight for viewers, we need to be one technological step ahead. Will we be able to bring change to Russia? Will we win against this propaganda monster? Well, sometimes it’s all about journalistic professionalism. 

In July of 2014, Channel One, Russia’s main TV channel ran a story about a “crucified boy” in the town of Slovyansk in the Donbas. A woman named Galina Pishnyak told a reporter in great detail how Ukrainian soldiers killed a small child because he was a son of a pro-Russian rebel. Investigative journalists from Novaya Gazeta and TV Rain who visited Slovyansk found no evidence to back up these allegations, nor did they find any audio or video footage of the incident. Long story short, it was a fake and one which was to become a symbol of Russian lies during that war. A more recent example: the state Russia 24 TV channel broadcast a video of what the anchor described as Ukrainians in uniform using a mannequin to stage a murder they could blame on Russian soldiers in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha.  It later turned out that the incident was filmed at a Russian television set near St. Petersburg. Nadezhda Kolobaeva, a Russian director, posted on Facebook: “Guys, this is our footage, we are shooting a movie!” 

So, while we think of journalism as reporting news, it has become part of our job to expose fakes, to ask questions, to record interviews, to show what reality looks like. And if we succeed, our journey home and to a better future might be that little bit faster.  


*EKATERİNA KOTRİKADZE  was until recently the anchor and news editor for the Moscow-based Dozhd TV (TV Rain). Dozhd, the only independent television station in Russia, was shut down at the beginning of March shortly after Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine. Kotrikadze, her husband (also a director at Dohzd) and family were obliged to flee Russia.

Before starting with Dozhd TV in 2019, Ekaterina Kotrikadze worked as the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of RTVI, an independent broadcasting network based in New York. She remains an active journalist, a career she began in 2003.

Ms Kotrikadze Ekaterina was born in Tbilisi, Georgia. She graduated summa cum laude from Moscow Lomonosov State University. She is fluent in English, Russian and her native Georgian.


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