I grew up hating America. I lived in the Soviet Union and
was a child of the cold war. That hate went away in 1989,
though, when the Berlin Wall fell and the cold war ended. By
the time I left Russia in 1991, the year the Soviet Union
collapsed, America was a country that Russians looked up to and
wanted to emulate.
Twenty-three years later, a new version of cold war is back,
though we Americans haven’t realized it yet. But I
am getting ahead of myself.
Russia invaded Crimea and staged its referendum, I thought
Vladimir Putin’s foreign excursions were over.
Taking back Crimea violated plenty of international laws, but
let’s be honest. Though major powers like the U.S.
and Russia write the international laws, they are not really
expected to abide by those laws if they find them not to be in
their best interests. Those laws are for everyone else. I am
not condoning such behavior, but I can clearly see how Russians
could justify taking Crimea back — after all, it used
to belong to Russia.
I was perplexed by how the Russian people could possibly
support and not be outraged by Russia’s invasion
of Ukraine. But I live in Denver, and I read mostly U.S. and
European newspapers. I wanted to see what was going on in
Russia and Ukraine from the Russian perspective, so I went on a
seven-day news diet: I watched only Russian TV —
Channel One Russia, the state-owned broadcaster, which I
hadn’t seen in more than 20 years — and
read Pravda, the Russian newspaper whose name means
"Truth." Here is what I learned:
- If Russia did not reclaim Crimea, once the new,
illegitimate government came to power in Ukraine, the Russian
navy would have been kicked out and the U.S. navy would have
started using Crimean ports as navy bases.
- There are no Russian troops in Ukraine, nor were there
ever any there. If any Russian soldiers were found there (and
there were), those soldiers were on leave. They went to
Ukraine to support their Russian brothers and sisters who are
being abused by Ukrainian nationalists. (They may have
borrowed a tank or two, or a highly specialized Russian-made
missile system that is capable of shooting down planes, but
for some reason those details are not mentioned much in the
Russian media.) On November 12, NATO reported that Russian
tanks had entered Ukraine. The Russian government vehemently
denied it, blaming NATO for being anti-Russian.
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was not downed by Russia or
separatists. It was shot down by an air-to-air missile fired
by Ukraine or a NATO plane engaged in military exercises in
Ukraine at the time. The U.S. has the satellite imagery but
is afraid of the truth and chooses not to share it with the
- Ukraine was destabilized by the U.S., which spent $5
billion on this project. As proof, TV news showed a video of
Senator John McCain giving a speech to antigovernment
protesters in Kiev’s Maidan Square. It was
followed by a video of Vice President Joe Biden visiting
Ukraine during the tumult. I wasn’t sure what
his role was, but it was implied that he had something to do
with the unrest.
- Speaking of Joe Biden, I learned that his son just joined
the board of Ukraine’s largest natural gas
company, which will benefit significantly from a destabilized
- Ukraine is a zoo of a country, deeply corrupt and overrun
by Russian-haters and neo-Nazis (Banderovtsi —
Ukrainian nationalists who were responsible for killing
Russians and Jews during World War II).
- Candidates for the recent parliamentary election in
Ukraine included Darth Vader (not kidding), as well as a gay
ex-prostitute who claims to be a working man’s
man but lives in a multimillion-dollar mansion.
I have to confess, it is hard not to develop a lot of
self-doubt about your previously held views when you watch
Russian TV for a week. But then you have to remind yourself
that Putin’s Russia doesn’t have a
free press. The free press that briefly existed after the
Soviet Union collapsed is gone — Putin killed it. The
government controls most TV channels, radio and newspapers.
What Russians see on TV, read in print and listen to on the
radio is direct propaganda from the Kremlin.
Before I go further, let’s visit the definition
of propaganda with the help of the Oxford English
Dictionary: "The systematic dissemination of information,
especially in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a
political cause or point of view."
I always thought of the Internet as an unstoppable
democratic force that would always let the truth slip out
through the cracks in even the most determined wall of
propaganda. I was wrong. After watching Russian TV, you would
not want to read the Western press, because you’d
be convinced it was lying. More important, Russian TV is so
potent that you would not even want to watch anything else,
because you would be convinced that you were in possession of
Russian’s propaganda works by forcing your
right brain (the emotional one) to overpower your left brain
(the logical one), while clogging all your logical filters.
Here is an example: Russian TV shows footage of schools in
eastern Ukraine bombed by the Ukrainian army.
Anyone’s heart would bleed, seeing these gruesome
images. It is impossible not to feel hatred toward people who
would perpetrate such an atrocity on their own population. It
was explained to viewers that the Ukrainian army continued its
offensive despite a cease-fire agreement.
Of course if you watched Ukrainian TV, you would have seen
similar images of death and despair on the other side. In fact,
if you read Ukrainian newspapers, you will learn that the
Ukrainian army is fighting a well-armed army, not rebels with
Molotovs and handguns, but an organized force fully armed by
the Russian army.
What viewers were not shown was that the cease-fire had been
broken before the fighting resumed. The fact that Putin helped
to instigate this war was never mentioned. Facts are not
something Russian TV is concerned about. As emotional images
and a lot of disinformation pump up your right brain, it
overpowers the left, which capitulates and stops questioning
the information presented.
What I also learned is that you don’t have to
lie to lie. Let me give you an example. I could not figure out
how the Russian media came up with the $5 billion that "America
spent destabilizing Ukraine." But then I found a
video of a U.S. undersecretary of State giving an
8.5-minute speech; at the 7.5-minute mark, she said, "Since
Ukrainian independence in 1991 … [the U.S. has] invested
more than $5 billion to help Ukraine." The $5 billion figure
was correct. However, it was not given to Ukraine in three
months to destabilize a democratically elected, corrupt
pro-Russian government but over the course of 23 years. Yes,
you don’t have to lie to lie; you just have to
omit important facts — something Russian TV is very
Another example of a right-brain attack on the left brain is
"the rise of neo-Nazism in Ukraine." Most lies are built around
kernels of truth, and this one is no different. Ukraine was
home to the Banderovtsi, Ukrainian nationalists who were
responsible for killing tens of thousands of Jews and Russians
during World War II.
Putin justified the invasion of Crimea by claiming that he
was protecting the Russian population from neo-Nazis. Russian
TV creates the impression that the whole of Ukraine is overrun
by Nazis. As my father puts it, "Ukrainians who lived side by
side with Russians did not just become Nazis overnight."
Though there may be some neo-Nazis in Ukraine, the current
government is liberal and pro-Western. Svoboda — the
party whose members are known for their neo-Nazi and
anti-Semitic rhetoric — did not get even 5 percent of
the votes in the October election, the minimum needed to gain a
significant presence in parliament. Meanwhile the TV goes on
showing images of Nazis killing Russians and Jews during World
War II and drawing parallels between Nazi Germany and Ukraine
What also makes things more difficult in Russia is that,
unlike Americans, who by default don’t trust their
politicians — yes, even their presidents —
Russians still have the czarist mentality that idolizes its
leaders. Stalin was able to cultivate this to an enormous
degree — most Russians thought of him as a father
figure. My father was 20 when Stalin died in 1953, and he told
me that he, like everyone around him, cried.
I keep thinking about what Lord Acton said: "Power corrupts,
and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The Putin we scorn
today was not always like this; he did a lot of good things
during his first term. The two that stand out the most are
getting rid of the organized crime that was killing Russia and
instituting a pro-business flat tax system. The amount of power
Russians give their presidents, however, will, with time,
change the blood flow to anyone’s head. Come to
think of it, even Mother Teresa would not have stood a chance
A few weeks ago Putin turned 62, and thousands of people
took to the streets to celebrate his birthday. (Most
Americans, including this one, don’t even know the
month of Barack Obama’s birthday.)
In my misspent youth, I took a marketing class at the
University of Colorado. I remember very little from that class
except this: For your message to be remembered, a consumer has
to hear it at least six times. Putin’s propaganda
folks must have taken the same class, because Russian citizens
get to hear how great their president is at least six times a