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The noise of Russian silence

By Ekaterina Thor

Opening our daily news feed on the 24th of February, most of us probably needed a second to realize what was going on. Ukraine, a country generally outside of our daily discourse and with a conflict old enough to have been forgotten about by the general public, was suddenly on everyone`s screens and tongues. Blue and Yellow became the colors we cannot unsee anymore. Kyiv was under attack, and suddenly our attention drifted away – two years of intensive Corona updates were left behind to follow the situation in Ukraine from afar.

When I was asked if I would like to share my stance on what is happening right now between Russia and Ukraine, I was afraid. Writing about something that complex? What sources to read and what not to? Who even knows what is really happening at the moment, and who else is involved? How much of the structural processes are held back by the media and whose propaganda is the strongest? 

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Photo by Irina Fetisova, St. Petersburg, Russia

But apart from the fear and insecurity on what the most trustful sources are, being personally connected to both Russia and Ukraine, and mainly influenced by a middle-European perspective, I do have strong feelings and thoughts towards the ongoing situation.   

My main worry, going non-stop through my mind, is, where does it leave us if we exclude everything Russian from the rest of the world? Things get tricky here. How do we handle Russia as a government, versus Russia as a culture? Can we even distinguish a civil Russian culture – now politicized enough to be counted as inherently existing under the wing of the governmental institution of Russia? The same goes for Ukraine. But while their traditional embroidered shirts are used by royals and celebrities to show support, people are becoming scared to admit their Russianness for fear of the reactions. 

Our emerging awareness of how Russian propaganda works seemed to be a required last drop for us to realize the importance of access and the political freedom to consume different and truthful sources of information. In that light, perhaps the question to ask ourselves is not only about the reality of Russians that are embedded in such a way of information handling, but about ourselves as outsider consumers. What happens if we lack a whole perspective, which is in this case, the Russian one? It feels strange to type out these words because the general tendency at the moment is simply and systematically to reject everything that is slightly connected to Russia as a culture. Is that a path we want to take? This is a question without an answer, but it highlights the complexity of the human, diplomatic, democratic, and moral aspects of war. Nevertheless, it should be seriously considered.

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Anonymous photographer, Lviv, Ukraine

As Russian social media is slowing down, we are also left in the dark in terms of valuable information from local Russians, which leaves us empty-handed when it comes to understanding what is socially happening right now within their country. Through Ukrainian social media, we gain access to people and where they are, how they feel, and possibly what is going on in their immediate environment. This information should not, of course, be handled as uniform truth – but it is interesting how the nature of social media allows such instant insider information; witnessing from afar how ordinary Ukrainians have now become victims of an immensely destructive conflict. While we see the fear, the tears, the hope, and the strengths, the Russian side is silent. 

It is silent because of the political risks that are imposed on everyone that dares to spread anything which is not in the government’s interest. It is silent because the access to the outside world got smaller and foggier for them. We do not know what is happening inside the country – almost nobody does. After contacting my extended family living there, I could not understand what was going on in their daily lives, people who have now become victims of the global reactions towards the government. What are we missing out on?

Writing a Russian friend about how she was doing, I got the response: “Horrible. On the TV there is constantly horrible propaganda in which we are the best and the rest of the world are traitors. Surrounded by lies. I really want this to stop. Everyone who protests gets pursued. I don’t know what will happen next. I am not just sorry for what is going on but I am in pain and ashamed” 

“So. People know!”, I thought. And now? One generation is glued to the TV, those for whom the government is the hero that saved Russia from falling apart after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. They are believing what is fed as it gives them a sense of safety. The others are paralyzed because of the measures that are taken up against those who speak up. And those who dare get removed.

And finally, what do we miss out on from the academic perspective, as research and information access has now become even more out of our reach? What about arts, about connection building previously derived from exchanges? What about activism, and movements that could have influenced the situation if they knew more?

In the end, there is a risk that the Russian propaganda as confronted by ordinary Russians, resembles the “propaganda” we are exposed to as well by not accessing the perspectives of those who are not allowed to speak up. We are steadily and securely losing their insights. How are we supposed to fully understand this conflict, and get the information necessary to act, if a whole perspective – that of the general population – is missing?

While anthropology attempts to understand all positions, actors, reasons, contexts, and dynamics, it is scary to witness how a whole perspective and culture gets slowly excluded from the outside world. I am left wondering what consequences this will have, as we are losing the chance to talk to all sides involved in this heartbreaking mess.

Ekaterina Thor is a second-year bachelor student in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology. 

One Comment

  1. Ton Salman Ton Salman

    Lovely text! It helps us to avoid seeing “Russia” or “the Russians” as one uniform, homogeneous entity. We should not loose our interest in, or attention for, the Russians, the Russian cultures, music, literature, and, most importantly, citizens. We should do our best to look beyond the Russian government’s version of things, and do our best to avoid doing silly and counterproductive things such as stopping academic cooperation, museum exchanges, or stop playing the music of Russian composers. Russia is so much more than Lavrov’s perspective on “the liberation and denazification” of a sovereign nation. Loathe Putin, and love trying to dialogue with Russians!

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