Propaganda newspapers show how Russia promoted annexation in Kharkiv

"The Red Star
“The Red Star”, June 15 issue, a Russian propaganda newspaper distributed in the occupied territories of Ukraine. (Wojciech Grzedzinski/For The Washington Post)

IZYUM, Ukraine – As Russian troops occupied this northeastern Ukrainian town for months, puppet authorities regularly distributed propaganda newspapers to residents, pushing a narrative of normalcy and unity even as homes and infrastructure were demolished, shops looted, and civilians struggled to find basic provisions to survive.

A treasure trove of Russian-language newspapers, provided to The Washington Post by a resident who said he kept them “for the record”, portrays a surreal version of events on the ground in almost complete contradiction to the Ukrainian government’s narrative in Kyiv. and testimonies from residents who survived the city’s violent takeover in March.

Ukrainian forces recaptured Izyum in a surprise counteroffensive earlier this month, sparing the city from a referendum held to try to justify Russian annexation, like those that began Friday in parts of Luhansk regions, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.

But propaganda newspapers show how Russian forces tried to take advantage of the city’s information vacuum during the occupation, when cellphone and internet services were mostly cut off. The newspapers sought to evoke nostalgia for the Soviet era in civilians, pit residents against Ukrainian forces, and promote deep historical and cultural ties with Russia, ostensibly in preparation for annexation.

Publications include two newspapers, The Izyum Telegraph and Kharkiv Z, the former of which pushed stories that Russian soldiers were helping to rebuild areas destroyed by Kyiv forces as the community worked towards a better future. Kharkiv Z used more colloquial – and sometimes aggressive – language similar to other current Russian propaganda outlets.

Children from Kharkiv went to summer camp in Russia. They never came back.

The rhetoric in both publications reflected World War II language, using the term “Allied forces” to refer to Russian-backed troops from Lugansk and Donetsk, and words such as “Nazi” and “Fascist” to describe the Ukrainians. The Red Star, a Russian propaganda newspaper prior to the Russian invasion last February, was also distributed to residents.

In an April issue of Kharkiv Z, the newspaper compared the Russian battle for control of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine to the 1943 Battle of Kursk between the armies of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

“Local citizens are mostly disloyal to Kyiv,” the newspaper said. “People here think the Ukrainian forces are occupiers and Nazis. And the forces of [Luhansk and Donetsk People’s] The republics and Russia are their liberators.

The battle would be difficult, the newspaper warned, describing how “teachers” from London and Washington, DC were helping Ukrainian forces.

“It looks like the Battle of Donetsk will also be a competition between Russian and American strategists,” the newspaper said.

Several Izyum residents said they barely recognized the papers when they were distributed, instead using them as kindling for cooking outdoors or keeping warm. “They burned very well,” said one resident.

On the front page of the first issue of The Izyum Telegraph, dated May 25, an article described how the city’s new Russian-appointed mayor, Vladislav Sokoliv, had promised residents that despite recent difficulties, the situation would soon improve. .

“We have huge plans and the Russian Federation will help us realize them, unlike Ukraine, which wants to completely destroy our territories, ruin infrastructure and eliminate people,” Sokoliv was quoted by the newspaper as saying.

An article in the same issue denounced civilians for not participating in efforts to rebuild the region, where entire villages were bombed and the center of Izyum was largely destroyed.

“We are doing everything to rebuild our towns and villages. But we feel a shortage of manpower and experienced managers,” the article said. “I am speaking to all of you: STOP SITTING IN BASEMENTS.”

Residents described to the Washington Post how they slept underground for months under near-constant bombardment as they battled for control of the city. Homes, apartment buildings and government buildings were destroyed throughout the city and some people were killed in their own homes.

In the next issue of The Izyum Telegraph, dated June 1, the mayor ordered that Russian be the official language of the city and that those who want to sell alcohol must apply for a liquor license.

On the front page, an article titled “New people, new era” announced the birth of 10 children between February 24 and May 30 – five boys and five girls. A doctor at the main hospital in Izyum said only four children were born in his hospital during the entire Russian occupation.

Other details trying to suggest that the situation in occupied Izyum was quite normal were scattered throughout the newspaper alongside updates on the war. Music schools will reopen by September 1, according to the newspaper, thanks to the help of Russian troops “who saved her from theft”.

On one page, a story about the enrollment of children in a summer camp in Russia was juxtaposed alongside a report that 47 bodies had been recovered from a damaged building and that Russian forces were investigating the suspected culprit. of the attack from the Ukrainian side.

Some 200 children from the Kharkiv region left their homes on August 27 for one of the camps advertised in Russian propaganda media and have still not returned, stranded due to the sudden change in territorial control. Others went to camp and returned earlier in the summer.

The newspaper also encouraged graduates to continue their studies and announced free studies at Russian universities.

In a May issue of Kharkiv Z, an article reported that Russian forces were making slow progress in capturing territory because they were trying to protect civilian lives. The article described the amount of Ukrainian territory that Russia had seized by comparing it to the equivalent of “five Crimeas, 20% of all of Ukraine”.

An illustration of Alexander Suvorov, a famous Tsarist general who died in 1800, accompanied the article.

Kremlin holds proxy referendums as Russia aims to grab Ukrainian land

In the third issue of The Izyum Telegraph, published in June, the newspaper announced a “cadet class” where children could learn about the history of the region, develop their Orthodox Christian religious beliefs and engage in physical training.

At another time, the newspaper issued warnings for residents to remain alert to potential saboteurs loyal to Ukraine. “Be careful, don’t say anything about the destruction or the military over the phone,” the newspaper said.

Announcements were made that local authorities were compiling lists of exploitable fields.

“To clear a field, you must make a request,” the newspaper said. Landmines remain common throughout Izyum and its surroundings and at least 10 mine victims have reported to a hospital in Izyum in the days following the town’s recapture by Ukrainian forces this month.

Officials also issued reminders to turn off lights at night and to notify officials of graves “made in inappropriate locations.”

After Russian troops withdrew earlier this month, Ukrainian officials discovered a mass burial site in the forest near an official cemetery in Izyum, including a mass grave containing 17 Ukrainian soldiers.

Articles and poems published in the newspapers repeat in various ways that the solutions to the problems of the inhabitants “can only be found by the Russian army”.

“The current Russian soldier is an honorable ancestor of his father and grandfather,” one article said.

Izyum Deputy Mayor Volodymyr Matsokyn laughed as he recalled seeing newspaper snippets while away from town during the occupation.

“There was an announcement to join medical school,” Matsokyn said. “But this college has no roof.”

On September 16, less than a week after Ukrainian forces recaptured Izyum, the town’s own newspaper, called Izyum’s Horizons, resumed publication.

On the front page: an article about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky raising the blue and yellow national flag over the city as well as a collage of photos of all the buildings in the city damaged during the war.

Izyum’s Horizons featured an analysis of Russian propaganda newspapers, a photo of an alleged collaborator and accusations against the Russian-appointed mayor, who the newspaper said revealed the identities of residents who were members of Ukrainian territorial defense units .

But perhaps in a sign that Ukrainian officials believe the situation in the city is truly returning to normal, the bottom of the last page featured something much more routine: the weather forecast for the week ahead.

Anastacia Galouchka contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: what you need to know

The last: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on September 21, describing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to ” divide and destroy Russia”. .” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat into the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large quantities of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Organized referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place September 23-27 in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another organized referendum will be organized by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson from Friday.

Pictures: Washington Post photographers have been in the field since the start of the war. Here are some of their most powerful works.

How you can help: Here’s how those in the United States can help support the people of Ukraine as well as what people around the world have donated.

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