Russian President Vladimir Putin, March 4 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The very best time to catch up is between candle lighting and dinner on Friday night.
Last Friday the conversation topic between me and my husband during that blessed hour was unorthodox. We were debating under which family name I should publish this article.
Earlier that day, the news of a bill proposed to the Russian parliament came out. It called for treating anti-Russian media reports as treason. According to the bill, journalists that publish “false anti-Russian information, provide information and support to extremist anti-Russian separatist forces, including on events beyond the borders of Russia” will be considered traitors and punished with up to 10 years in prison.
In case you have not heard: Russia invaded Ukraine on February 28, after months of spreading anti- Ukrainian propaganda and weeks of staging subversive activities on Ukrainian territory. It was a carefully planned military operation. We have not yet seen the end of it. I am in touch with friends in Ukraine, who vehemently do not want Russian forces in their country. I fully share their outrage. I am also providing information to you that, without a doubt, can be considered anti-Russian under the proposed law.
And that is why we were concerned last Friday night. I have dual Russian and Israeli citizenship. Publishing under my maiden name exposes me next time I visit Russia. Publishing under my married name makes it a bit more difficult for Russian authorities to figure out who I am, but feels cowardly and dishonest to me. It boiled down to these two questions: how fast will Russia develop a system to monitor online publications, and how fast will they put together a list of people writing on Russia-related topics? The fact that I was actually having this conversation is still barely believable to me.
I grew up in Moscow in the Eighties and Nineties, and do not remember a time when I did not feel free to say what I thought. The Nineties in Russia were a heady time, when Russia’s difficult history was discussed with unprecedented openness. Political talk shows dealt with pressing questions every nation in the making has to face: how do we deal with our tragic history? How do we make amends for historic wrongs? What are the values on which we want to build the new, democratic Russia? That was time full of hope, promise, economic and political reform. That time has been over for a while. Over the past 10 years, Russia has been sliding back and down into a stupor. Today Vladimir Putin’s regime, directly or indirectly, controls most media outlets, and finds many creative ways to limit free speech.
Yet last month’s events draw a clear line under even this, not exactly democratic but not yet totalitarian, state of affairs in Russia.
Consider this: for the past 10 days, the world has been swamped by skillfully spun Russian propaganda.
The Russian invasion into Ukrainian territory was portrayed as a measure to protect the discriminated- against Russian-speaking minority. The Crimean legislative assembly – in a rigged vote, and from a building under the control of Russian forces – voted for Russian military presence on the peninsula. The truth is that Russian-speakers are not discriminated against in Ukraine. Most people who happen to live in Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine, which Russia is eyeing hungrily from beyond the border, do not want the Russian army there, and do not want to secede from Ukraine. But who cares what they think? The wheels of the propaganda machine are working full-steam. Russian government officials on all levels, and Russian media, both print and online, are spreading lies about every aspect of the conflict. The lies get picked up by reputable news agencies in the rest of the world and are reprinted till it is all but impossible to distinguish propaganda from fact.
I have read reports in respectable US and British publications rationalizing Putin’s behavior. Rationalization translates into justification. There is no need to justify the incursion into Ukrainian territory, and I will tell you why. Intellectualizing Russia’s reasons does not matter, because Putin does not care either way. He is a skillful political operator, and is creating reality on the ground.
This reality spells doom for everyone, not only for Ukraine that happened to fall victim to Russia’s imperial ambitions last week. All countries with sizeable Russian-speaking populations are in danger. All democratic countries that do not know how to deal with propaganda, or are too cowardly to take a firm stand, can be bullied into submission.
Russian-speaking Israelis on Facebook are joking about what is going to happen when Russian special forces disembark in Israel under the pretense of defending the rights of Israel’s Russian-speaking minority. Obviously a joke, but consider the message the joke is sending. Those of us who grew up in the sinister shadow of the Kremlin, as well as those who were lucky not to have had direct experience with power-hungry dictatorial regimes, are living in a changed world. This world is a scary place. It is a place where the bad guys are calling the shots again.
The author has extensively traveled in Ukraine on business since 1999. She served on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s staff. She holds a BA in political science from Moscow State University and a MA in Law from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.