The War in Donbass continues to affect life in Ukraine five years after pro-Russian separatists declared the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic independent in 2014. Estimated to have claimed the lives of approximately 12,800 to 13,000 people, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine has also displaced nearly two million people. Amid the fighting, larger-than-life individuals have arisen to strengthen “the cause”. Every good myth needs its heroes and villains. The case of the new heroes of “Novorossiya” (New Russia) is no exception to this rule. OPINION piece by Dr. Kiril Avramov and Cody Wood.
People often need a cause to rally around. Such causes often need a personification, an icon. Only then can a cause become functionally cohesive, and accomplish what it sets out to do. Political tacticians, as well as intelligence and military professionals, have been well aware of this for centuries.
Such people are often tasked by their masters, be it Washington or Kremlin, with creating favorable conditions in an “area of interest”. This often means engaging in what is referred to as state-building efforts, or possibly state-rebuilding efforts. To accomplish such a task, it helps to establish a rallying point. This is often the creation of a national myth around which the public can mobilize.
Heroes – figures larger than life – can inspire, unite and ultimately personify the spirit of the endeavor. These heroic characters can become instrumental to the varied purposes of the national propaganda apparatus. Once deified and elevated to their respective pedestals, a new myth centered around a hero can embark upon a life of its own – even after the cessation of the hero’s earthly existence.
The case of the new heroes of the so-called “Novorossiya” in occupied Eastern Ukraine are no exception to this rule. In our multi-year research dedicated to analyzing pro-Russian propaganda in war-torn Eastern Ukraine, we have encountered multiple cases of such heroic martyrs among the so-called “people’s commanders”.
These heroes represent an archetype within Novorossiya’s national pantheon. They also play an indispensable role in propagating the discourse and meta-narratives of the pro-Russian forces and their grassroots supporters in Eastern Ukraine.
So-called “heroes”, such as the late Arsen Pavlov and Mikhail Tolstykh, were a perfect fit for the crafting of Novorossiya’s national proto-epos. Their personal traits and carefully crafted public personas easily served the needs of the pro-Russian propagandists in the early stages of the conflict.
They Loved the Cameras, and the Cameras Flattered Them
Among the cast of characters that make up Russia’s propaganda effort and national myth establishment in Eastern Ukraine, two stand out – Arsen Pavlov and Mikhail Tolstykh, known colloquially by their combat call signs, or nom de guerre, Motorola (Моторо́ла)(Pavlov) and Givi (Ги́ви)(Tolstykh).
These men have been propped up by Russian propagandists as the archetype of volunteer fighters in the Donbass; an archetype intended to draw new volunteers and mobilize popular local and foreign support. The deaths of these Russian backed separatists are now being utilized as tools in Russia’s propaganda campaign against Ukraine and the West, despite the very suspicious circumstances around their demise and their less than savory character.
Their lives and deaths were and are used to communicate and offer, for internal and foreign consumption, the ideals of the modern Kremlin.
These ideals are tightly connected to what could be best described as orderism, i.e. an amalgamation of ultra-nationalism, the promotion of Orthodox conservative values, and the blatant display of hyper-masculinity. Essentially, these poster boys of the so-called “People’s Republics” (the self proclaimed proto states Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic formed after Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014), were the ideal early prototypes for casting the massively orchestrated pro-Russian disinformation deluge.
As in every effective national meta-narrative, the main protagonists have to possess certain traits which make them appeal to the masses. Every good myth needs its heroes and villains. The more the heroes can flirt with modern technology, the better the result.
In this case, Givi and Motorola loved the cameras and the cameras flattered them in order to elevate them to the status of local celebrities. That celebrity status could be later exploited and exported to the needs of the “Russkiy Mir” or Russian World. Through fake news articles and staged documentaries, a celebrity image status of these men, as the new “heroes of Novorossiya” has been very carefully cultivated.
Casting the Roles
Following the classic tenets of effective propaganda, both of the characters were cast to fit and be molded into predetermined roles.
Thus, Givi, a native of Ukraine, is portrayed as a homegrown defender heroically standing up for his homeland. For his part, Motorola, a native Russian, is portrayed as having sacrificed the comfort of his life in Russia to stand up for what he saw to be a noble cause in Eastern Ukraine. Their ‘heroic’ sacrifice is played against the backdrop of their family and personal lives.
Both protagonists are portrayed as going through the process of the evolution of “patriotic consciousness”, coming from very different backgrounds and regions to ultimately forge the coveted unity of the so-called People’s Republics.
In order to cast these essential rebel protagonists as patriotic celebrities with their own on and offline following, wherever there was action happening in occupied Eastern Ukraine, these two were central. They have been seen performing a variety of celebrity feats, such as capturing and emasculating Ukrainian soldiers during a great, heroic battle or gracing the troops of the “People’s Republics” with their presence and a wad of cash. Despite hearing the call of the battlefield, they still make time to care for their families, as their mothers and brides have become celebrities in their own right.
The aim of this post-mortem, person-centered propaganda is to create a new national myth for Novorossiya compatible with the Kremlin’s new state quasi-ideology. Thus, the evolving pantheon of heroes needs to be populated by a specific type of what we refer to as “patriarchal warriors” – those that have made the ultimate sacrifice to defend their homeland against the “fascist” aggressors. As such they are elevated to almost “Great Patriotic War” (i.e. WW2) heroes status, and are thus in line with an already established pattern. They make up a new pantheon of conservative tradition based on rigid social hierarchy, inspired by religious Orthodoxy, while resting on solid family values with well-defined gender roles.
The bitter irony of this narrative is that both men had ties to factional infighting, and they ultimately died under suspicious circumstances away from the battlefield.
Motorola was assassinated by a remote-controlled bomb in his apartment elevator. Givi was hit while in his office by a rocket that Ukrainian authorities claim was the result of factional rebel infighting. For its part, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) claims the rocket was fired by Ukrainian forces. Yet, the narrative falls short when it comes to the culmination of a “heroic death on the battlefield” and the carefully curated images of both commanders.
It also adversely affects the larger image projection of the DNR’s leadership, which seeks to create a close symbolic association (and thus directly tie its “foundational myth”) with that of the short-lived, self-declared Donetsk-Krivoy-Rog People’s Soviet Republic of 1918. The carefully curated image projection of the Donetsk “People’s Republic” is one of a “safe haven” for the Russian-speaking, Slavic and Orthodox majority of people in Southeast Ukraine; a community specifically designed as a sort of “shelter” from internal strife, factional division, corrosive corruption and rampant crime in Ukraine. A stark contrast to the Russian propagated narrative of an “oppressive Kiev” rule.
However, following the violent deaths of Motorola and Givi, Russian state propagandists have been able to spin the media attention to pin the blame on sinister Ukrainian forces, diverting attention from the malfunctioning, criminal and corrupt republics. The Kremlin invested considerable amounts of disinformation in advancing multiple theories regarding their deaths, a move consistent with the well-established Soviet art of military and intelligence deception known as “maskirovka”, whose modern updates are an integral part of the arsenal of Russia’s modern “gray zone” modus operandi.
All was a diversion away from the fact that both men had become a nuisance for Kremlin strategists once they outlived their tactical utility. Thus, to no surprise, if it was not Ukrainian secret services and not Latvian hitmen, then perhaps it was Ukrainian Neo-Nazis who perpetrated the killing of these men.
Martyrdom as Cultural Exploit
Beyond diverting attention away from the infighting within the malfunctioning DNR, Russian propaganda surrounding the deaths of Motorola and Givi served to glorify these men as martyrs and thereby produce elements of “Novorossiya’s” perceived legitimacy. These men can, even beyond the grave, serve as potent information warfare implements in the Kremlin’s arsenal.
It certainly was no coincidence that when the Immortal Regiment March was held in May 2017, the then-leader of the DNR, Alexander Zakharchenko marched holding a portrait of Motorola. Zakharchenko was accompanied by the leader of Putin’s favorite biker gang, “The Night Wolves” — symbolism intended.
Beyond the Kremlin’s desire to show support for the DNR there is an extra layer of manipulation added to the showmanship. The annual Immortal Regiment is a march billed as an event to honor the fallen of the Second World War. By holding up the portrait of Motorola, Zakharchenko is equating his death with the sacrifices made by those who fought against the fascists, i.e. Nazi Germany. Just as the Soviet Union fought against fascist invaders in WW2, the audience is intended to equate Russia’s current enemies, Ukraine, with fascist aggressors.
For targeted foreign audiences, such as the ones in the “near abroad”, these characters are portrayed as the prototypes of the proverbial everyman who have elevated themselves to offer the ultimate sacrifice in the face of the imminent perennial Western-plotted invasion and dismemberment of Mother Russia. In essence, they are the human faces of the “besieged fortress” heroic defenders.
Today, the faces of Motorola and Givi adorn billboards across the occupied territories of the Donbass, young children sing songs about their sacrifices, and stories that both glorify their deeds and drum up conspiracies about their deaths are proliferated online by Kremlin information handlers.
All of this is intended to personify and deify the martyrs of “Novorossiya”, to brand its enemies as contemporary fascists, and to recruit new volunteers for the cause, all whilst diverting from the not-so-glorious battlefront reality of the lives and deaths of the Russian backed separatists in the Donbass.
[Main image: mural of Arsen ‘Motorola’ Pavlov unveiled in Belgrade by two Serbian organisations, the Serbian League and Serbian National Movement 1389: Photo: Pierre Crom]
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Kiril Avramov and Cody Wood, for LIMA CHARLIE WORLD
Dr. Kiril Avramov is a post-doctoral research fellow of the Intelligence Studies Project (ISP) at the University of Texas at Austin. He is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science and former Vice-Rector of the New Bulgarian University in Sofia and a former Senior Fulbright Visiting Researcher at CREEES, UT Austin, Texas. His main research interests are information and irregular warfare, psychological operations and mass cognitive hacking, as well as the “weaponization of information” and their respective application and effects on individual and group decision-making processes in the Central and Eastern Europe and MENA regions. He carried out his military national service in the Bulgarian army.
Cody Wood is completing his undergraduate degree in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and is a member of Dr. Avramov’s disinformation research project at the ISP. He has experience as a policy researcher and has worked for the Texas Legislature.
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