Part Four: Hearts and Minds
To walk through the streets of Lviv is to experience a society that has mobilized the entirety of its population towards the war effort
LVIV, UA — The boy stood guard outside a brick and plaster building downtown, armed with a walkie talkie and a knife tucked into his belt.
He couldn’t have been much older than 15.
Dan, my interpreter, asked him if we could visit the supply depot inside. He called his boss and soon a slightly older boy stepped onto the sidewalk, doing his best to project an air of authority. They chated for a few moments and pretty soon their boss, a boy scout called Jaroslav, arrived to shake our hands.
“Come in,” said Jaroslav, a 21-year-old computer technology student. “You’ll have to be quiet as some of the refugees are still sleeping.”
Jaroslav is unfailingly polite, with an easy smile and a Boy Scout sash wrapped around his neck as he leads us through the facility.
Jaroslav and his mates run a refugee centre/supply depot that ships medicine, food and tactical gear to the eastern front. Their office is the local headquartered in a crumbling three-story building with stairs so warped you have to hold onto the bannister to keep from keeling over.
In North America, their priorities might be school, Instagram and parties. But in a country beset by airstrikes and a 40-mile column of Russian tanks, they’re in the ugly business of war. On the third floor of their base, three college students worked the phones, coordinating humanitarian aid to besieged cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa.
“Please don’t photograph this wall,” a young woman said. “There are phone numbers that can’t fall into the wrong hands.”
While the rest of the world is waking up to the threat Russia poses to Ukraine’s sovereignty, the country’s youth have known war since fighting broke out in Crimea half a lifetime ago. The women organizing the supply line balance their studies and jobs with volunteer work in the resistance effort.
There are no weekends or parties for them.
To walk through the streets of Lviv is to experience a society that has mobilized the entirety of its population towards the war effort.
Government buildings are guarded by sandbag and concrete fortifications guarded by young men and women carrying kalashnikovs manufactured when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. Convoys of delivery trucks and taxis sport a cross made from red tape to indicate they’re carrying aid to the battlefield or civilians out of danger. And everywhere you look there is propaganda.
It isn’t terribly subtle.
In one, a woman in a traditional Ukrainian dress has a pistol in Vladimir Putin’s mouth.
“Don’t call me honey!” it reads.
In another, a hand is dropping sunflower seeds onto a dying Russian soldier, who sinks into Ukraine’s famously fertile soil.
“Russian soldiers, you’re not coming onto our soil, you’re going into it.”
Dan noticed my interest in the posters and started translating them for me as we walked through the old city.
“It sounds better in Ukrainian, it’s a word game,” he said. “My brother works at an industrial print shop and he used to do all kinds of billboards for all kinds of products. Ever since the invasion, he makes only propaganda posters.”
The most ubiquitous among them is the infamous “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”
You see it on bumper stickers, billboards above commuter trains, outside shops and there’s a huge concentration of them in Lviv’s impoverished housing projects on the outskirts of the city. It refers to an incident, early in the invasion, where a Russian warship demanded some border guards surrender before being told to go fuck themselves. Audio of the radio exchange was leaked online and the phrase went viral.
Whereas North American governments aren’t above feeding their citizens propaganda, it’s a bit sneakier — fighter jets that fly over football games, police officers singing the national anthem at an Ottawa Senators match or recruitment commercials during the Olympics. Of course, Canada and the United States aren’t being invaded by Europe’s largest army but the intention behind our propaganda remains the same: patriotism and military recruitment.
In Ukraine, there is no need to dress up the messaging with such niceties.
It screams at you on television screens during primetime, in news broadcasts, social media posts and on bus shelter signs where you might normally see an ad for vacation packages. There are also graffiti stencils that were either commissioned by the defense ministry or might be the work of an overzealous artist.
One piece pays tribute to the activist Katya Hanziuk, who died in 2018 after having sulfuric acid thrown in her face. Hanziuk was involved in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Euromaidan protests, which culminated in the ouster of pro-Russian president Victor Yakunovych.
“They will use your right hand to fight your left hand. Then they will take your left hand to fight your right. And then they kill you.”
The quote, attributed to Hanziuk, is spray painted in black against a wall by a busy roundabout in downtown Lviv. Hanziuk sports a steadfast look next to her words.
Her murder remains unsolved but is one of dozens of similar killings of anti-Russian dissidents in 2017 and 2018. The attacks died down after the election of president Volodymyr Zelensky three years ago.
Even in countries with democratic traditions, wartime propaganda takes hold. “Keep Strong and Carry On” became London’s rallying cry during the blitz at the outset of World War II and the Uncle Sam character was used to drum up American recruitment during the first World War. Traditionally liberal news outlet like the New York Times and CNN were also swept up in the post 9/11 fever pitch for a war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And it’s impossible to talk about propaganda in Ukraine without mentioning the information war Vladimir Putin’s government has waged on its western neighbour for years. State-run media dehumanizes Ukrainians for hours a day on their networks — referring to them as a nation of Nazis, drug addicts and subhuman idiots who “aren’t a real people” for hours every day.
During the 2014 invasion of Crimea, Russian news outlets promoted a disproven story claiming Ukrainian soldiers had crucified a three-year-old boy. In this latest phase of aggression, media are barred from using the words “war” and “invasion” when referring to the conflict with Ukraine.
Dan and I spoke to Ukrainian refugees whose friends and relatives in Russia either don’t believe cities are being bombed or don’t seem to care.
The information war runs much deeper in Russian society.
Putin has also enlisted his allies in the Russian Orthodox Church in the propaganda efforts. Church Patriarch Kirill has referred to Putin’s regime as a miracle of God and appeared to justify the invasion of Ukraine on “gay pride parades” that “promote sin” in a sermon he delivered Sunday.
In Ukraine, the national media is an active participant in battle for hearts and minds. A Feb. 26 TV news segment broadcast instructing civilians on how to make Molotov Cocktails. The international media centre in Lviv is watched over by a pair of city guards who sit just a few feet from reporters as they file their stories for an international audience.
While I haven’t witnessed or heard reports of any journalist being told to change the content or tone of their dispatches, it feels surreal to work under the watchful eye of law enforcement. Although, in fairness, they mostly just look at their phones. And Reporters Without Borders — an NGO that supports press freedom — has an office in the media centre. RWD wasn't immediately available for comment.
As I left the downtown office Wednesday night, five black-clad police officers approached me, demanding I show my press credentials. They also asked to check my camera to make sure I hadn’t photographed them — which is forbidden under martial law. When I refused, showing them the camera was off, they shrugged and kept patrolling the streets with their weapons at the ready.
Ukraine is at war. Ukraine has been at war for eight years. Russia interfered with the 2004 presidential election and intervened again in 2014 when peaceful protesters took to the streets during the Euromaidan movement. After Yakunovych was driven from office, he sought refuge in Russia. It’s hard for my western mind to wrap my head around the intensity of life in Vladimir Putin’s shadow.
We may not be in immediate danger near the Ukraine-Poland in Lviv but there’s a tension in the air that becomes more palpable with every day. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to has a friend or relative on the eastern front. When I sat down for pizza with my driver Nick on Monday, he checked his phone and dropped his shoulders.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I lost two friends today,” he said.
“Jesus, I’m so sorry. Do you know where they were stationed?”
“Kyiv, I suppose.”
Silence lingered over us for a few minutes.
A few days later, I asked Dan if he worries the propaganda could lead to indiscriminate hatred of Russians among the Ukrainian people.
“I believe in truth and justice, I don't believe in hate,” Dan said. “One day this war will be over. I don’t want us to hate anyone. I just want to live my life.”