Russian State Television has entertained all these various fantasies to varying degrees over the past few years, and they have served as the discursive backdrop for specific instances of reporting. Certainly, the “Bandera” meme looks unstoppable; before Russia joined the fighting in Syria, scarcely a day went by without some television report linking Kiev to fascism. Even in this propaganda maelstrom, one story stood out, both for its intensity and its near-immediate debunking: the story of the crucified boy.
On Saturday, July 12, 2014, Channel One aired a report by Yulia Chumakova featuring eyewitness testimony from a woman named Galina Pyshniak, who claimed she saw Ukrainian troops commit an unspeakable atrocity on Lening Square in the city of Slovyansk (Slavyansk in Russian):
The fact that there were no other witnesses, that Slovyansk has no “Lenin Square,” and that the story resembled a Facebook post by the notorious right-wing ideologue Alexandr Dugin from a few days before (about a child three years older in a different location) did not initially bother Channel One. Scarcely was the story broadcast before it started to unravel, but its author remained at Channel One at least a year later. Pyshniak turned out to be the wife of a Berkut officer-turned-rebel-separatist. On December 18, 2014, Ksenia Sobchak asked Putin about this incident during a live press conference, but got no response.
As atrocity propaganda, the crucified boy, is, of course, brilliant. By offering up a child victim, this story intensifies the family metaphor usually reserved for civil wars. Now the Ukrainian conflict isn’t just fratricidal; murdering children is assault on the future itself. Christlike innocence and martyrdom are claimed by Russia, despite the fact that both countries are traditionally Christian (and have traditionally availed themselves of a common Slavic myth of victimhood, as the Christ of Nations). Not only that, but the means of the boy’s alleged execution (making cuts on his body “so the child would suffer’) echoes the old blood libel against the Jews, most famously the subject of a trial in the last years of the Russian Empire (a trial that took place in Kiev).
The Soviet past is also implicitly cited here, reviving the previously unexpressed Christological roots the 1932 story of Pavlik Morozov, the boy who allegedly turned in his own father for plotting against the State only to be brutally murdered by the rest of his family. As always, though, the most important context is the second world war. Here we go beyond the typical fascist characterization (even the fascists didn’t do this): the enemy is the great-grandchildren of the local SS. . In other words, we face a different kind of blood libel: hereditary fascism. Even “fascist” is too mild a term for them, as the enemy is downright satanic. Can a Ukrainian-born antichrist be far behind?
To the extent that this bit of “fake news” worked at all as propaganda, its success was based on the state media’s main strategy in demonizing Ukraine: prioritizing gut feelings over rational discourse. As one former state television employee told Colta.ru, reporters and producers working on Ukrainian subjects were told to “make it more hellish” (“делайте больше ада”). It is absolutely crucial that all the news from the Ukrainian war be not just bad, but a slow-motion catalogue of human misery that can only be the work of monsters. Even when the raw facts are so horrible that the need no embellishment (such as footage of crying old women standing outside of their bombed-out homes), the suffering is emphasized though seemingly-unnecessary production touches (repeating the same footage again, but in slow motion accompanied by mournful music).
Russian state television may have been unable to prove the story, but it did not have to. Nor did it have to retract it. The story was a useful component to the overarching narrative pushed in the media: the nation’s enemies, from America to the born-again Nazis, are hell-bent on Russia’s destruction. It is a narrative that would face an enormous challenge only five days after the “crucified boy” story was broadcast. On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. This terrible disaster set the Russian media on the path of non-stop paranoid fabrication.
Next: Flights of Fancy