On 21 August 2014, a charity exhibition of photographs by RIA Novosti journalists depicting the victims of the crisis in the East of Ukraine opened in central London. London-based Ukrainian activists attended the event and organised a peaceful demonstration in order to counter the one-sided and manipulative portrayal of the crisis at the Russian-backed event.
The exhibition opened at the Coningsby Gallery which is a small place close to Goodge Street tube station. It was supported by the foundation ‘Kultura’. For a superficial observer, it may have initially looked like a politically neutral fundraising event to support the conflict victims – a laudable aim, no doubt.
However, the devil is in the detail. The event’s title ‘Humanitarian crisis in the [sic] Ukraine’ immediately causes concern: using the article ‘the’ in front of this country’s name goes back to the times before Ukraine’s independence and implies perception of it as ‘the borderland’ of Russia, thus denying its sovereignty as a state. There is an important political symbolism in this linguistic issue. So, when someone puts ‘the’ in front of ‘Ukraine’ as an independent country, it may mean two things: either they are unaware of the political intricacies of the use of language and/or make a slip of tongue; or they are deliberately denigrating Ukraine, considering it subordinate to Russia.
In this case, evidently, it was hardly a mistake. A look at the ‘Partners’ section of the foundation ‘Kultura’’s website demonstrates that the organisers of the exhibition cooperate, among others, with Rossotrudnichestvo which is a Russian federal government agency under the jurisdiction of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs aiming to maintain Russia’s influence in the CIS and promote a positive image of Russia abroad. Another partner is RIA Novosti, a Russian state-run news agency which is scheduled to be liquidated in 2014 to be revamped into an organization named Rossia Segodnya in a move signifying the increasing state control over media and concentrating more and more on propaganda.
But it is more interesting to see who the two other ‘partners’ of the foundation are: ‘Novorossiya Humanitarian Battalion’ and ‘Foundation for Support of Novorossiya and Donbass’. These groups are not innocent fundraising supporters of the children of Donbass, though. Both of these organisations support the so-called Donbass People’s Militia – armed militant group of pro-Russian separatists waging war in the east of Ukraine in support of self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic which is officially recognised as a terrorist organisation. They collect, among other donations, body armour and combat gear for the separatist fighters. They also recruit volunteers to join the ranks of the ‘militia’: contact details for recruiters are in Moscow and Rostov. Money transfers in support of their ‘charitable’ aims go to accounts in Russian banks and electronic payment systems. Needless to say that siding with these organisations invokes suspicion about supporting terrorism.
So, this is the background of the exhibition that opened on Thursday evening. Two small rooms of the gallery were quickly filled with visitors. Many of these were Russian; some were from Eastern Ukraine. A few representatives of the British Left attended the event. There were also other curious non-Russian-speaking Londoners. And of course, there was a whole bunch of journalists from all sorts of Russian media outlets – from the notorious ‘Russia Today’ to ‘ITAR-TASS’, the official Kremlin mouthpiece that published an article prior to the exhibition opening which very straightforwardly accused the Ukrainian army and government of all possible crimes against the humanity.
The exhibition was represented by a few dozen of photographs hanging from the walls, mixed with posters with excerpts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in English and in Russian (surprisingly not in Ukrainian, despite the event being supposedly devoted to this country). The puzzling bit about the exhibition was the lack of any kind of information about the images. There were no names of the photographers, no dates, no titles. The explanation from one of the organisers was that the box with the signs to be attached to the photographs which was posted to them ‘was lost on its way’. However, she assured that all the photographs were taken by RIA Novosti journalists. Interesting enough, one of the walls was covered with black-and-white photographs that appeared to be dating back to the WWII period – perhaps as a deliberate move from the organisers to increase the overall emotional tension by drawing upon a certain ignorance of some visitors (who actually had to be convinced that the refugees of the 21st century do not look quite like those of the mid-20th century, not to mention that the quality of photography has changed since then).
One of the real ‘gems’ of the exhibition was the promotional leaflet. It featured a small text consisting of a few paragraphs that presumably was supposed to provide the background to the event. While the exhibition itself, at first, did not immediately present itself as a politicised event, the leaflet was a piece of blatant Russian propaganda. Of course, Euromaidan and the Ukrainian Revolution were described in it as ‘carried out by ultranationalist organisations of Banderovites and the “Right Sector”’, and countered by ‘peaceful anti-fascist movements’ in the East and South. The Odessa tragedy which is still undergoing investigation was straightforwardly pinned on the Right Sector. The Russian-backed intervention in Donetsk and Luhansk was presented as local people’s assemblies ‘which constantly asked Kiev for dialogue’, but allegedly brutally suppressed by the ‘Kiev regime’. This ‘regime’ was eventually accused of engaging in ‘genocide of its own people’ and being the one and only reason of the ‘humanitarian catastrophe’. Naturally, not a single word about the marginal role of the far right in the Ukrainian politics as demonstrated by the results of the presidential elections, or about the Russian mercenaries and weapons crossing the border and waging war in the area.
Up to 20 Ukrainian and Russian activists gathered outside the gallery, holding flags and banners with images from StopFake.org, a fact-checking website aiming to refute distorted information and propaganda about events in Ukraine covered in the media. At first, the visitors who were enjoying endless free wine inside the gallery did not notice the protesters. Gradually, though, the group attracted their attention. The reactions of the visitors were quite diverse. Some were actually curious about the alternative arguments of the Ukrainian activists and engaged in long dialogues. Others – mostly Russian-speaking women – were quite aggressively shouting anti-Ukrainian propagandist ideas at the protesters. The Russian organiser was already in a condition that allowed her trying to hug and kiss the protesters while laughing, swearing and claiming that ‘we don’t want war’ and ‘we are all Slavic brothers’.
A couple of British individuals from the Left emerged from the gallery, clutching their wine glasses and reaching for cigarettes. They stared at the protesters with hostility. ‘This is all the middle classes’ fault!’, the woman suddenly uttered. Her companion was more straightforward: ‘You fuckers!’, he said, loudly enough to be heard by the police officers who were guarding the event. He was immediately asked to apologise, which he reluctantly did. For the rest of the evening, though, the inebriated ‘comrade’ was seen either bringing more wine from inside to console himself and his companion, or trying to talk the police officers into making the protesters leave on the grounds that they were blocking the entrance – which they were not, the officers rightly replied. After all, trying to make other people walk in line seems to be what some of the Left quite enjoy doing (as well as free alcohol).
A couple of journalists from the Ukrainian channel ‘Inter’ arrived, greeting the protesters. They went inside and interviewed some of the visitors. A Russian woman who was smoking outside, spitted out: ‘Ukrainian journalists? I’m not talking to them. What I could have said to these people cannot be possibly repeated on camera!’
As I was about to leave, I overheard a discussion in the corner. One of the visitors was passionately convincing the other that Ukraine was not a country; rather, according to him, it was “okraina”, the borderland of Russia; it did not exist as an independent state, he said. This goes perfectly in line with the idea about the use of article ‘the’ in front of the country’s name, mentioned in the beginning of this article. This also makes one think about the actual background of the ostentatiously noble charity exhibition aiming to support the victims of the military conflict. The idea that the Ukrainian protesters were trying to push through – and they managed to open the eyes of a few people – was that the laudable aim of the exhibition had a rotten propagandist and manipulative subtext. The argument the ‘both sides are guilty’ and ‘there is propaganda on both sides’ in this context are opportunistic attempts to escape the responsibility by the Russian side. The claims like ‘we, like you, want this conflict to end’ by the opponents of the Ukrainian protesters should not be taken at face value: there is a difference between ‘ending’ a conflict and resolving it. Supporting terrorism is not a way to resolve it, though; it is, rather, a way of producing more victims. Hence, one shouldn’t trust the tears of the organisers over the poignant photos: these are crocodile tears shed by the supporters of the Russian propaganda machine and military aggression.
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