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This Is Not Propaganda with Ukrainian Authors in the Bloodlands

By Manoel Chavanne

Another three heterogeneous books for all sorts of readers plus a sly video suggestion today. An academic historical essay by an elite professor at first-class universities, a collection of short stories by Ukrainian authors and an entertaining yet accurate look at the Russian propaganda machine by a Kyiv born British author.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Timothy Snyder is a historian specializing in the history of Central and Eastern Europe and professor at Yale University, London School of Economics and Political Science as well as Vienna's Institute for Human Sciences. For those of you not familiar with him and who might be more into watching videos than reading books I highly recommend watching his Yale course on the history of Ukraine and available for free here.

In this long and extremely well researched factual essay. Timothy Snyder reviews the history of mostly Ukraine, Poland and Belarus in excruciating detail, sometimes maybe even a bit too many as he could have gotten the same points across in a slightly more concise manner. Nevertheless, in this publication, Snyder covers the important, albeit often depressing, history of the poor countries stuck in between Nazi Germany and the USSR and all the suffering endured by the populations caught in the middle of these two powerful neighbors. He does talk a bit about the Baltic countries, but they aren't discussed as much as the other three aforementioned states.

The book begins during World War I as what Snyder calls the “land empires” (namely the German Empire, the Habsburg monarchy and the Ottoman Empire) collapsed eventually leading to both Hitler and Stalin gaining power and then causing immense suffering in the Bloodlands. It takes it up a notch in the 1930s, which for Ukraine means the Holodomor and millions of people starving to death, not because of lack of food but because of Stalin's policy to systematically export food out of Ukraine with the explicit goal of starving Ukrainians. This dreadful historical event, its causes and consequences are meticulously described by Snyder who subsequently explains what happened in the Bloodlands for a few decades. This book was published in 2010, or just before the real beginning of the ludicrous war we currently find ourselves in and which led to my next recommendation, State of War.

State of War – In Ukrainian Воєнний стан

I'll begin by thanking my Canadian friend Deena for finding and gifting me this provocative Ukrainian account of the full-scale invasion. This is a collection of short stories published in 2023 and written by a dozen of Ukrainian authors, including some of the most famous ones, such as Serhiy Zhadan whom I talked about in this piece.

One short story and a stylishly coined term from these texts have stuck with me. Let's start with the coined phrase “gentle power.” Unfortunately, I left the physical book at my sister's apartment last time I traveled out of Ukraine so I can't give credit to the author who thought of it, my apologies. I imagine most of you are familiar with the phrase “soft power” but I'll quickly explain it just in case. It's the concept of gaining political influence through culture, diplomacy, international relationships etc... as opposed to using strength and/or military power. “Gentle power” therefore is a nation being seen as the gentle, nice, friendly one in a conflict. In the book, it's used to explain why Ukraine is supported by Western democracies, because it is the victim, genuinely trying to respect the rule of law and more generally being nice and gentle as opposed to the Russian army bombing schools, shelling maternity wards and destroying museums which, it goes without saying, clearly aren't military targets.

The story I remember was written by Oksana Zabuzhko (Оксана Забужко) who just before the war, during the summer of 2013, was visiting Crete and who witnessed an appalling conversation take place at the table next to hers. Two parents, their teenage son and a younger daughter were having dinner when Zabuzhko's husband told his wife to pay attention to the conversation happening there. Zabuzhko did not want to listen as the family was from Moscow, speaking Russian and she was determined to not hear that language but, in the end, she not only did pay attention but wrote a short story about it. The teenage son used a racial slur to describe an Armenian kid he and his friends had beaten up at school. The father corrected him for using the slur making the point that just as the boy was proud of being Russian other people can also be proud of being Georgian, American or anything else. The boy then basically explained that being Russian is better than anything else to which the dad replied using Godwin's Law reminding his son that such argument was used by the Nazis. A few minutes later the mother chimed in to try and help her husband convince their son, but she failed as well. I'll spare you more details of this conversation, but a quote summarizing Zabuzhko's view of the conversation stayed with me, she told her husband “I just witnessed a fascist society rob decent people of their own child.” You might agree or disagree with some details of the quote, but this is beside the point. What's shocking is the strength of Russian propaganda to convince kids against the will of their own parents which leads me to the last book I'll discuss today.

This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality by Peter Pomorantsev

This is Pomorantsev's second essay, this one published in 2019 after Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible which I've already recommended in a previous article. If you've not read the first one, published in 2014, I would say start by reading it and then get to this one. The order isn't that important if you really prefer reading them the other way around you obviously can but reading in chronological order makes more sense.

Pomerantsev's second book is quite similar to the first one, it is an excellent quick read full of stories each more fascinating than the next and it gives its readers a greater understanding of how Russian propaganda works and why, sadly, it is so effective. That being said, the book, as well as the author and his family, are living proof that it isn't infallible as Pomerantsev, despite working with the Krelim's propaganda machine in Moscow for years hasn't fallen for it; and his parents, despite growing up and living in the USSR were able to read banned books and to maintain a critical view of what the Krelim claimed. So don't despair, books are a fantastic antidote to propaganda, especially if you read the ones I keep recommending in these columns (wink wink) and as Pomerantsev expertly stated, "When information is a weapon, every opinion is an act of war." So spread the word and never give up.


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