The propaganda war rages on while the Russians face intense pressure to support the invasion

While schoolchildren across Russia sat in compulsory classes telling the Kremlin version why Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine, Moscow teacher Kamran Manafly posted on Instagram about why he refused to subject his students to “state propaganda”. .

Within hours, the headmaster called him and demanded that he delete the post – and fired him when he refused. When some parents called for his reinstatement, the principal sent them pictures from Manafly’s Instagram feed showing the fired teacher waving a US flag and calling him an “agent of the West,” he said.

“Two years ago it was normal,” said the 28-year-old, who is considering leaving Russia for fear of his safety. “Now it’s like I’m an enemy of the people.”

As the war in Ukraine enters its fourth week, Russians are under increasing pressure to support it — or face the consequences if they speak out against it.

Putin spoke this week of the need for Russia to “cleanse itself” by “separating true patriots from scum and traitors” – language reminiscent of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s.

The center of the Russian propaganda campaign is the letter Z, which has become a symbol of Putin’s war after it was painted on vehicles taking part in the invasion.

Many Russians, seduced by the rosy picture that state television is painting of the invasion, were keen to show their support by putting Z – the first letter in za, which means “for” in Russian – on their cars and clothing.

State employees, including teachers, are being asked to show their support through what appear to be mandatory “flash mob” events, while images circulated of young children holding up hand-painted Z-signs or standing in a Z-formation. Anti-war activists have found a Z painted on their doors, among other ominous warnings.

“They should have done this in 2014, but better late than never,” Igor Mangushev, a nationalist activist who was one of the first to promote the letter online, said of the invasion. “The Armed Forces of Ukraine have waged a campaign of terror against them [Russian speakers] eight years,” he claimed.

Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said the Kremlin’s nationalist push is even bigger than the state-sanctioned euphoria after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which pushed Putin’s ratings to record highs.

“It’s a ‘you’re either with us or against us’ campaign. There’s no way to be neutral,” he said. “It can be through the education system or at work – you have to publicly declare your allegiance. And if you don’t, you’re against it. You are an outcast. They don’t support Russia and the letter Z.”

As the propaganda battle raged, state pollster Vtsiom claimed that 71 percent of Russians supported the “military special operation.” Hostility towards the West has risen sharply, according to the independent Levada Center, with 55 percent of Russians disliking the US in February, compared to 42 percent in November.

“It’s not as cheerful as during the Crimean campaign,” Kolesnikov said of the mood. “It’s very charged with negative emotions, harsh statements and a tough attitude towards enemies.”

For the Kremlin, the patriotic campaign is a kind of loyalty test for Russian citizens. “Many show their nature, they are traitors,” said Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, on Thursday, speaking of those who did not support the war.

“Some are quitting their jobs, some are leaving active duty, some are leaving the country. . . That’s how it is done [Russia] cleaned,” he said.

A Russian army truck painted with the letter Z drives through the city of Armyansk in Crimea

A Russian army truck painted with the letter Z drives through the city of Armyansk, Crimea © Reuters

Around 15,000 people were arrested across Russia for protesting against the war. Police have charged a further 186 under a new law that bans any “discrediting” of the armed forces or the dissemination of “fake news” and carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison in some cases.

The law has forced some of Russia’s few independent media outlets to shut down and others to stop reporting on the war. Marina Novikova, 63, who blogs about life in her remote Siberian town on the messaging app Telegram, was one of the first to be prosecuted under the new law. When she was arrested, she had just 170 subscribers.

“They passed the law to scare people and quell the protests,” said Damir Gainutdinov, head of the Net Freedoms Project, an NGO that monitors the cases. “That’s why they put it into action so quickly.”

The reprisals did not end there. Some Russians have reported being stopped in the street and asked to show their cellphones, particularly on days when opposition leaders have called for protests in major cities.

A St. Petersburg resident invited to an interview at a state museum in another city was asked by management to show her the contents of her phone. She agreed but didn’t get the job.

Nika Samusik, a biology student, learned last week that she was on a list of 13 people to be expelled from a state university in St Petersburg after she was arrested at a protest – although she went there to claim it for to photograph a news agency and said she had fully complied with Russia’s onerous requirements to cover public events.

She was jailed while covering previous protests and faced charges that were later dropped for photographing an art performance in Moscow’s Red Square last year. Police told her university this month that she had been convicted, she said – although her case had yet to go to court.

“They won’t let me work or study now. I don’t know what to do,” Samusik said.

Samusik’s friends, who became aware of the police raids on other journalists’ homes, urged her to leave the country, she said. But since she can’t afford the astronomical price of a ticket to any of the 15 countries that Russians can still fly direct to, Samusik said she has stopped making plans for the future.

“I’m a bit desperate and confused. And I deny what is happening,” she said. “I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. Things will only get worse.”

But for Mangushev, the nationalist activist, opponents of the Russian war got their due. “You cannot demand that your army be defeated,” he said. “That should be treated harshly.” The propaganda war rages on while the Russians face intense pressure to support the invasion

Adam Bradshaw

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