Teaching Resources to Help Students Make Sense of the War in Ukraine

sabrina tavernise

From The New York Times, I’m Sabrina Tavernise. This is The Daily.

As Russia steps up its bombing campaign against Ukrainian cities, it’s also waging another battle— over the truth about the war. My colleague, Valerie Hopkins, on why so many people in Russia are in denial about what is happening, even as it wrecks the lives of their own family members in Ukraine.

It’s Monday, March 14.

Valerie, you’ve been reporting on the war in Ukraine since the beginning. And you’ve been hearing stories, again and again, of this pretty shocking misinformation campaign coming from Russia. Can you describe what you’ve been hearing and seeing?

valerie hopkins

You know, I’ve been talking to a lot of people here in Ukraine, first when I was in Kyiv, and then on the road. And a lot of them have pretty shocking stories about their relatives in Russia. You know, Ukraine and Russia are really well connected. Millions of Ukrainians have relatives in Russia. Some of them used to live there.

But now, as some of Ukraine’s cities are being bombed, as millions of people are being forced to flee, people are trying to tell their relatives in Russia what’s going on, and they’re being met with denial, resistance, and kind of a refusal to believe what their family members, their blood relatives are telling them. And one person whose story really stuck out to me was this guy, Misha Katsurin.

misha katsurin

Hey, Valerie.

valerie hopkins

Oh, hi, yes. Thank you.

misha katsurin

Can you hear me?

valerie hopkins

Misha is 33 years old. He lives with his wife and kids in Kyiv, and actually owns a really trendy chain of Asian restaurants.

misha katsurin

Right now, of course, all my restaurants are closed.

valerie hopkins

And he said, the fourth morning of the war—

misha katsurin

I realized that father still didn’t call me, like any time.

valerie hopkins

He woke up and realized that he hadn’t heard from his dad at all since the war started.

misha katsurin

And I thought maybe he doesn’t know what’s going on here.

valerie hopkins

His father lives in Russia in a city called Nizhny Novgorod.

misha katsurin

So I called him, because that was strange. There is a war, I’m his son, and he doesn’t call me.

valerie hopkins

So he gave his dad a call and told them what was going on.

misha katsurin

I tried to tell him how it is going here in Kyiv with my family, that Russia started bombing us, that Russia started their invasion, and that I am trying to evacuate my children, my wife, my family. Everything is extremely scary, and that’s a real war.

valerie hopkins

But he said his father had a really different version of events and didn’t really believe him.

misha katsurin

And he started to interrupt me. He said, no, no, no, no, stop. Everything is like this. And he started to tell me how the things in my country are going on.

valerie hopkins

He said his father basically said, no, no, no, and that he denied what Misha was telling him that he sees with his own eyes.

misha katsurin

So he told me that, look, everything is going like this. So they’re Nazis. They took the government— the Nazis, the Ukrainian Nazis. And they now control your country, and—

valerie hopkins

And anyways, he said, the government there, they’re all Nazis.

sabrina tavernise

So Valerie, I’m going to stop for a second on this Nazi reference, because it keeps coming up. This is an idea that Russian President Vladimir Putin has often repeated, right? But why is he doing that?

valerie hopkins

I mean, it doesn’t really make sense. But for Putin, it’s this weird multi-layered argument. He is trying to piggyback on the proud legacy of the Soviet defeat of the Nazis in World War II, and he also cannot really deal with the fact that Ukraine wants to have a separate country and a separate identity from Russia 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

sabrina tavernise

Right.

valerie hopkins

And Putin sort of sees this Ukrainian rejection of Russia, which has only gotten stronger since Russia invaded Crimea, and now gotten even stronger— he sees all of this as nationalism. And that nationalism, he kind of immediately starts to equate with Nazism, in order to get support for this invasion.

sabrina tavernise

So essentially, when he says this, he’s trying to paint Ukrainians as crazy nationalists.

valerie hopkins

Yeah. And I mean, he’s actually used those words to refer to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who’s actually Jewish and also a native Russian speaker. And President Putin has referred to him and the people around him as, quote, “drug-addled Nazis,” on Russian TV, even though this is just a completely outlandish, intentional distortion of the truth.

sabrina tavernise

So Misha’s dad is getting this idea from Putin’s messaging, which is carried by Russian television. What else did Misha’s dad say that he believes about the war in Ukraine?

valerie hopkins

Well, he certainly doesn’t think a full-scale war is actually happening.

misha katsurin

He told me that there are some soldiers. They’re helping people. They give them warm clothes and food.

valerie hopkins

Misha’s dad thinks it’s essentially a rescue operation conducted by the Russian military.

misha katsurin

And now, they’ll try to save you. They will not hit civilian people. They will hit some military objects and try to save you.

valerie hopkins

And not only that. He believes that Russian soldiers are liberating Ukrainians from this repressive Nazi government, and that the majority of the people want them there.

misha katsurin

I told him, Father, look, I am here right now, and I see it with my eyes. So look how it’s going on in reality.

sabrina tavernise

So it’s pretty unbelievable that a father is denying his own son’s reality. But how pervasive is this? Is this most Russians’ view of the war right now?

valerie hopkins

So we actually have seen some pretty significant street protests in Russia, mostly in large cities, since the invasion started— actually, more than in Russia’s recent history. These people are out in the streets chanting, no to war, even though they know that they’ll likely be taken away by the police and detained.

But we’ve also seen reports from Russian cities, including one done by this independent media outlet, Nastoyashcheye Vremya, or Current Time, which went out and spoke to Russian citizens and showed them pictures of the war in Ukraine.

speaker

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

valerie hopkins

And their responses were—

speaker

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

valerie hopkins

“No, that’s not happening. These photos are fake.”

speaker

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

valerie hopkins

“Ukraine was preparing for an attack on Russia. I’m absolutely convinced of that.” And—

speaker

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

valerie hopkins

And “I’m for Putin.” They’re essentially repeating what they’ve been hearing from Putin and from talk show hosts on state TV. So you know, it’s really hard to get an accurate picture of public sentiment in Russia.

For a pollster now, just asking that question could land them in jail or shut their organization down. But what this video and what my reporting suggests is that this essential, complete denial of what’s happening in Ukraine is actually pretty common in Russia.

sabrina tavernise

Valerie, what did you think as you were watching these man-on-the-street interviews? What was going through your mind?

valerie hopkins

I was really sad, but I guess I wasn’t so surprised. I mean, this is the product of years and years of clamping down on free press and increasingly escalating rhetoric in media, demonizing the other, and slowly building the case for something exactly like this.

I think I was most shocked, actually, when there was a guy who literally looked into the camera, looked at the photos, and said, Russia’s not bombing Kyiv. It’s like this alternate reality for so many people. And it’s fascinating for me to try and understand why and how that can be.

sabrina tavernise

We’ll be right back.

So Valerie, we’re talking about Russians who don’t believe what’s happening to their own relatives, who don’t believe and don’t want to look at these photographs of bombings in Ukrainian cities. And I think that this leads us to the question of why. What do you think it has to do with?

valerie hopkins

Well, I think it has a lot to do with Vladimir Putin and Russians’ relationship to him. Putin came to power at this really critical time for Russia— in 2000, a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And in the intervening period, there was just this total economic upheaval.

You know, people knew what to expect in the Soviet period, even if they didn’t love it. And now, there was just this period of total uncertainty.

archived recording

Anger is building in Russia among people with nothing else to lose. They face a winter of empty bellies, infrequent heating, and nothing to hope for but spring.

valerie hopkins

Prices skyrocketed, and people just couldn’t afford basic necessities.

archived recording

For the fifth day in a row, panicky Russians tried to withdraw their savings from banks while the country’s financial system appeared to teeter on the brink of collapse.

valerie hopkins

Half of the economy disappeared.

archived recording

These Arctic coal miners took the mine director hostage after enduring more than six months without pay.

valerie hopkins

People were living in lawlessness.

archived recording

One local leader accusing Moscow politicians of behaving in a way that humiliates the Russian people.

valerie hopkins

There was a lack of trust in the government.

archived recording

And many people, they don’t believe in the ideals which existed in the former Soviet Union, and the new ideals hadn’t been invented for them.

valerie hopkins

And there was also this really major loss of national pride that I think a lot of people discount.

archived recording

They don’t believe in their future. They don’t—

valerie hopkins

So I think that many people, especially in the West, saw this moment as Russia’s chance to create democratic institutions.

archived recording

To live in Moscow today is to watch the soul of a city die.

valerie hopkins

But many Russians associated this period in the ‘90s with instability, economic fear, and this rampant capitalism that didn’t really help them.

sabrina tavernise

Right. I remember that time, because I was there then. I started in 1994 in Russia, and I remember we saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as a chance to be free, a wonderful thing. And I think that by the end of the 1990s, many Russians had experienced it as a tragedy.

valerie hopkins

Yeah, I think we have to recognize that that wasn’t people’s priority back then. It was putting food on the table, and not getting mugged by hooligans in the street, and being able to trust the police and the law enforcement and the institutions again. And through all of this, the personal and national shame and difficulty—

archived recording

In Russia today, the clear winner of the Russian presidential election, Vladimir Putin, began to establish the Putin era.

valerie hopkins

Into that situation walks Vladimir V. Putin.

archived recording (vladimir putin)

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

archived recording

Vladimir Putin, the career spy, talks about establishing what he calls a dictatorship of the law. Fight corrupt bureaucrats and strengthen the central government.

valerie hopkins

Promising to take control and just promising stability, which is what people craved the most.

archived recording

15 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow is now a 24-hour town.

valerie hopkins

The economy started to stabilize and a middle class actually emerged that was substantially better off in the years after Putin came to power.

archived recording

The streets pulse with the big money that was once considered a capitalist abomination. It’s largely opportunistic wealth that Russia has enjoyed since the country’s oil started selling on global markets for $45 a barrel.

valerie hopkins

He got massively lucky with oil prices, and that sort of allowed the standard of living to rise and cemented the trust that many ordinary Russians were living better under Putin than they ever had before.

archived recording

President Putin today criticized the way many private businessmen, known as oligarchs, had bought state properties at bargain prices after the breakup of the Soviet Union—

valerie hopkins

And sent inequality soaring.

archived recording (vladimir putin)

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

archived recording (interpreter)

You know very well what privatization was like in the early 1990s. At that time, some market participants got multibillion-dollar state assets using different tricks—

valerie hopkins

And Putin continues to exert ever more control over Russian society.

archived recording

—deny that the Kremlin controls the most powerful news broadcasts on the three main television networks.

valerie hopkins

He starts to bring the national media to heel, to make sure that things that he doesn’t like or criticism of him don’t appear in the media.

archived recording

Russia’s only independent media owner was formally charged today with embezzling state funds. His media outlets are known for criticizing the government.

valerie hopkins

And while some people were concerned, more or less, from the beginning of his rise, the majority of the people really accepted it.

archived recording

Vladimir Putin is popular at home because of the economy based on energy.

—Vladimir Putin remains easily the most popular politician across this vast country.

sabrina tavernise

Right. I mean, this is the social contract that Putin made. He said to the Russian people, I’m going to bring you order. I’m going to crack down on the oligarchs. I’m going to make it so that your life is stable, your salary is reliable. But at the same time, you’re not going to mess with politics, and you’re going to be OK with a media that is not free.

valerie hopkins

Exactly. And while Putin largely consolidated his power over the last two decades, he did leave some pockets— mostly online media, some radio— spaces where people who didn’t support the government, who were free-thinking and independent-minded could air their views and hear people who mostly thought like them. You know, it wasn’t mainstream national news on the airwaves, but you could find it if you looked for it.

sabrina tavernise

So bring us up to the war, Valerie. I mean, if Putin has been doing this for years, chipping away at independent media, what’s different now?

valerie hopkins

Well, now, it’s not chipping anymore. It’s a sledgehammer.

He’s been trying very hard to control the narrative around the war—

archived recording (vladimir putin)

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

valerie hopkins

—which he refers to only as a, quote, “special military operation.”

archived recording

That’s why most Russians don’t know what’s really happening in Ukraine. The Kremlin today—

valerie hopkins

And most of the official communications about it don’t even mention the Russian military.

archived recording

The state censorship office has now blocked the BBC Russian language service. That is a huge source of independent news here.

valerie hopkins

The state orders some of the few remaining independent media in Russia to stop broadcasting, including the BBC’s Russian service, and the German broadcaster, Deutsche Welle. And then, it bans Facebook, and on the same day—

archived recording

[SPEAKING RUSSIAN]

valerie hopkins

—the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, approves a law forbidding the invasion from being referred to as anything besides a special military operation.

archived recording

Simply calling it a war or an invasion, instead of a special military operation, can lead to up to 15 years behind bars.

valerie hopkins

And it essentially criminalizes independent reporting on the war.

archived recording

Staff at one of Russia’s most prominent independent television stations have resigned, live on air.

valerie hopkins

And because of this law, the few remaining media outlets left in Russia are being forced to make really hard decisions.

speaker

Vladimir Putin and the authorities, they just don’t want free media. This voice of truth must be destroyed.

valerie hopkins

Which means that right now, there’s only one version of events that Russians are seeing in their country— Putin’s.

sabrina tavernise

This is a fundamentally different level of censorship. It’s something we haven’t seen since Soviet times.

valerie hopkins

That’s right, Sabrina. And while it’s not clear just how long Putin can sustain his attempts to seal off Russians’ access to information about the war, for now, he’s been able to dramatically shape their beliefs.

misha katsurin

I’m not angry about my father. I’m angry about Kremlin. I’m angry about the Russian propaganda. I’m not angry about these people. I understand that I cannot blame them in this situation.

valerie hopkins

And that’s forced people like Misha to try to convince his dad of the brutal truth of what’s happening in Ukraine.

valerie hopkins

What do you think it is psychologically that prevents him from— I mean, of course there’s this media, but you’re also his son, and you’re telling him the truth, and he doesn’t want to believe it? It’s too painful? It’s too sad?

misha katsurin

I think he won’t. I think he won’t. He cannot.

That’s the power of this propaganda. He won’t. He loves me, and he’s really scared, and he told that his heart is bleeding. And that’s very painful.

And that’s why we need to be more wise, and we need to be calm and explain and explain and explain, three times or five times, or 20 times, as more as we need.

sabrina tavernise

Valerie, thank you.

valerie hopkins

Thank you, Sabrina.

sabrina tavernise

On Monday, the Associated Press reported that one of the pregnant women photographed in last week’s attack by Russia on a maternity hospital in the city of Mariupol has died. Her baby was delivered but died, too. The attack and Russia’s response to it is an example of Russia presenting an alternate reality in the face of facts about the war.

After the bombing, Russia’s defense ministry denied having done it, accusing Ukraine of a, quote, “staged provocation.” Then Russia began to criticize the reaction with its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, calling the international response to the bombing, quote, “pathetic,” and that global public opinion had been, quote, “manipulated.”

archived recording (lavrov through interpreter)

It’s not the first time we see pathetic outcries concerning the so-called atrocities. You could draw your own conclusions as to how the public opinion is manipulated worldwide.

sabrina tavernise

Finally, Russia’s embassy in London tweeted photographs of one of the women and claimed that she was a crisis actor who had played several of the women photographed in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Twitter eventually removed the post.

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today.

On Sunday, Russia attacked a Ukrainian military base 12 miles from Ukraine’s border with Poland, bringing the war dangerously close to NATO’s doorstep. The target was a base used to train foreign fighters who flocked to Ukraine to help defend the country against Russia.

The missile attack killed at least 35 people and wounded at least 134. Meanwhile, the death count has risen sharply in the city of Mariupol, which has been encircled and bombed by Russian troops and has been without power, water, or phone connection for more than 10 days.

So far, city officials said, the Russian attacks have killed 2,187 residents. Finally, Russian forces have kidnapped a second Ukrainian mayor in what appears to be a strategy of removing local officials and replacing them with Russian puppets. The abduction of the mayor from the town of Dniprorudne follows the dramatic capture of the mayor of Melitopol, who was reportedly taken from a government building with a bag over his head.

archived recording

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

sabrina tavernise

In a video message, the mayor’s replacement, a Russian appointee, instructed the residents of Melitopol, to adjust to, quote, “the new reality,” and to end their resistance to Russian occupation.

archived recording

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

sabrina tavernise

Today’s episode was produced by Asthaa Chaturvedi, Diana Nguyen and Kaitlin Roberts, with help from Rob Szypko and Michael Simon Johnson. It was edited by Marc Georges and Lisa Chow, contains original music by Marion Lozano and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Sabrina Tavernise. See you tomorrow.