On Feb. 24 seven Russians were sentenced to two to four years for participating in protests in Moscow against President Vladimir Putin in 2012. More than 600 people protesting the sentences were detained the same day.
In case anyone in Russia didn’t see the connection between the sentences and recent events in Ukraine, Russia’s pro-government media provided the link. The message: harsh sentences are justifiable to avoid mass violence—since Ukraine’s turmoil began with a small group of protestors gathering in the central square of the capital.
Indeed coverage of Ukraine’s revolution in much of Russia’s media was as one-sided as the coverage of the sentencing of Russia’s own protesters. On the main pro-Kremlin television channel Vesti, anchor Dmitry Kiselev gave a distorted account of events, emphasizing the role of neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists in the protests and omitting the fact that many more protesters were killed than security forces.
For his part ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has tried to embrace Russia. At a press conference Feb. 28 in the Russian city of Rostov on Don, he said that he is the only legitimate president of Ukraine, and that power in Ukraine was taken over by “nationalistic pro-fascist thugs” according to Gazeta.RU. Yanukovich said he would meet with President Putin whenever there is a chance, and that he wants to preserve territorial unity of Ukraine - a reference to recent tensions in the Crimea peninsula, a Ukrainian province with a large Russian population.
The loyalty of the pro-Kremlin media to Yanukovych only extended so far, however. After Yanukovych fled the capital Feb. 22, Vesti and other Russian media blamed him for leaving the country in anarchy. They argue that if Yanukovych had handled Ukraine’s economy better since his 2010 election, instead of doing things like pumping money into a private zoo at his presidential residence, the crisis might never have come to pass.
Yet Westerners would be wrong to conclude that all of Russia’s media was singing to the Kremlin’s tune about Ukraine. The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta provided great reporting about the bravery of those who came to Kiev’s central square, including in the field hospitals where people donated blood, medicine and money to help wounded from both sides.
There were reports of people shooting at journalists, doctors and preventing ambulances from getting to the injured. There was coverage of those who took advantage of the events—by trying to divert money and drugs meant for the injured. Novaya Gazeta’s coverage, in short, provided multiple shades of gray of a revolution widely reported as a black or white choice between Russia and the West.
In contrast, much reporting in the West has focused less on the aspirations of Ukrainians than on what is viewed as a great power struggle over a client state. An Economist cover labeled Ukraine’s upheaval "Putin’s Inferno" and the New York Times has often focused coverage on the diplomatic chess game between powers and whether the West will lose Ukraine. The Western media largely made the same mistake reporting on Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution—only to find that the many leaders of the pro-Western people’s movement that ousted Yanukovych a decade ago were themselves corrupt or inept.
The Western media has also largely ignored events that are disturbing for ordinary Russians—even if their significance has been exaggerated in Russian media. Russian and Soviet war monuments have been vandalized. Members of Ukraine’s parliament did propose ending the official use of the Russian language. A small but significant part of Ukraine’s protest movement has publicly venerated a Ukrainian Nazi collaborator.
Even as the Western media has mocked Putin and Russian media has castigated U.S. and European politicians, outlets on both sides of the divide have ignored the fact that the protests in Kiev were not really about joining the EU or moving closer into Russia’s orbit. People came to Maidan in the first place because they were tired of corruption, economic hopelessness and a self-indulgent political elite.
Unfortunately corruption and economic stagnation are largely associated with Russia given its recent history, while the EU is associated with a breath of fresh air and hopes for justice and transparency (though its hardly corruption-free). But Ukrainians weren’t protesting to change the puppeteer, rather to establish a new system of governance—one entirely their own.
Perhaps its human nature for us to divide the world into us and them, heroes and villains. The media in the U.S. is eager to simplify the story as one of Putin’s evil grasping for the remnants of the Soviet Union and the Russian media casts it as a case of U.S. imperialism run amok. I’ve followed the Ukraine story on dozens of news outlets in both English and Russian—and yet I still feel I’m missing what’s happening the black or white agenda of the various outlets are obscuring the story.
As a Russian living in the U.S., I can relate to this phenomenon—some of my acquaintances in Russia view me as being “brainwashed” by American views while others in the U.S. suspect me of a sinister pro-Kremlin bias. As is the case with Ukraine, the truth is somewhere in between.
By Olga Khrustaleva.
Olga Khrustaleva is a Fulbright fellow at the University of Missouri and a former reporter for the Moscow News.