Propaganda newspapers show how Russia promoted annexation in Kharkiv

The June 25 issue of the Red Star, a Russian propaganda newspaper distributed in the occupied territories of Ukraine. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
The June 25 issue of the Red Star, a Russian propaganda newspaper distributed in the occupied territories of Ukraine. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

IZYUM, Ukraine — Over the months Russian troops occupied this northeastern Ukrainian city, puppet authorities regularly distributed propaganda newspapers to residents, pushing a narrative of normalcy and unity even as homes and infrastructure were demolished, stores were looted and civilians struggled to find basic provisions to survive.

A trove of the Russian-language newspapers, provided to The Washington Post by a resident who said he kept them “for history,” paints a surreal version of events on the ground running in near total contradiction to the narrative from the Ukrainian government in Kyiv, and to accounts from residents who survived the violent takeover of the city in March.

Ukrainian forces recaptured Izyum in a surprise counteroffensive earlier this month, sparing the city from a staged referendum in an attempt to justify Russian annexation, like those that began Friday in parts of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.

The propaganda newspapers show how Russian forces tried to take advantage of the city’s information vacuum during the occupation, when cellphone and internet service was mostly cut. The papers sought to evoke nostalgia among civilians for the Soviet era, to turn residents against Ukrainian forces and to promote deep historical and cultural ties with Russia, apparently in preparation for annexation.

The publications include two newspapers, the Izyum Telegraph and the Kharkiv Z, the first of which pushed narratives that Russian soldiers were helping to rebuild areas destroyed by Kyiv’s forces as the community worked toward a brighter future. The Kharkiv Z used more colloquial — and at times aggressive — language, similar to other current Russian propaganda outlets.

Kharkiv children went to summer camp in Russia. They never came back.

The rhetoric of both publications mirrored language from World War II, using the term “allied forces” to refer to Russian-backed troops from Luhansk and Donetsk, and words such as “Nazi” and “fascist” to describe the Ukrainians. The Red Star, a Russian propaganda newspaper that predates Russia’s invasion in February, was also distributed to locals.

An April issue of the Kharkiv Z compared the Russian battle for control of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine to the 1943 Battle of Kursk between the armies of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

“Local citizens are mainly disloyal to Kyiv,” the paper stated. “People here think Ukrainian forces are occupants and Nazis. And forces of the [Luhansk and Donetsk People’s] Republics and Russia are their liberators.”

The battle would be difficult, the paper warned, describing how “teachers” from London and Washington were helping Ukrainian forces.

“It seems that Donetsk battle will also be a competition between Russian and American strategists,” the paper stated.

Several Izyum residents said they barely acknowledged the papers when they were handed out, using them instead as kindling to cook outside or stay warm. “They burned really well,” one resident said.

On the front page of the first issue of the Izyum Telegraph, dated May 25, an article described how the new Russian-appointed mayor of the city, Vladislav Sokolov, had pledged to residents that despite recent difficulties, the situation would soon improve.

“We have huge plans and the Russian Federation will help us to make them true, as opposed to Ukraine, which wants to completely destroy our territories, ruin infrastructure and eliminate people,” the paper quoted Sokolov as saying.

An article in the same issue decried civilians for not participating in efforts to rebuild the area, where entire villages were bombed to the ground and the city center in Izyum was largely destroyed.

“We are doing everything to rebuild our towns and villages. But we feel a lack of working hands and experienced managers,” the article said. “I’m speaking to every one of you: STOP SITTING IN THE BASEMENTS.”

Residents described to The Post how they slept underground for months due to near-constant shelling during battles for control of the city. Houses, apartment blocks and government buildings were destroyed throughout the city, and some people were killed in their own homes.

Torture, killings, abductions: Russian retreat from Izyum reveals horrors

By the next issue of the Izyum Telegraph, dated June 1, the mayor had ordered that Russian would be the city’s official language and that those who wanted to sell alcohol needed to apply for a liquor license.

On the front page, an article headlined “New people, new era” announced the births of 10 children between Feb. 24 and May 30 — five boys and five girls. A doctor in the main hospital in Izyum said just four children were born in his hospital during the entirety of the Russian occupation.

Other details trying to suggest that the situation in occupied Izyum was entirely normal were interspersed throughout the newspaper alongside updates on the war. A music school would reopen by Sept. 1, the paper said, thanks to the help of Russian troops “who saved it from thievery.”

On one page, an article about signing children up for summer camp in Russia was juxtaposed next to a report that 47 bodies had been retrieved from a damaged apartment building and that Russian forces were investigating who on the Ukrainian side was allegedly responsible for the attack.

Some 200 children from the Kharkiv region left home on Aug. 27 for one of the camps advertised in Russian propaganda outlets and have still not returned; they have been stranded because of the sudden change in territorial control. Others went to camp and returned earlier in the summer.

The newspaper also encouraged graduates to pursue their diplomas and advertised free study in Russian universities.

In a May issue of the Kharkiv Z, an article reported that Russian forces were moving slowly in capturing territory because they were trying to protect civilian lives. The article described the amount of Ukrainian territory Russia had seized by comparing it to the equivalent of “five Crimeas, 20 percent of the whole of Ukraine.”

An illustration of Alexander Suvorov, a famed tsarist general who died in 1800, accompanied the article.

Kremlin proxies stage referendums as Russia aims to seize Ukrainian land

By the third issue of the Izyum Telegraph, released in June, the paper was announcing “cadet class,” where children could learn the history of the region, develop their Orthodox Christian religious beliefs and engage in physical training.

At another point, the paper published warnings for residents to remain vigilant about potential saboteurs loyal to Ukraine. “Pay attention, don’t say anything about destruction or the military by phone,” the paper stated.

Announcements went out that local authorities were compiling lists of harvestable fields.

“To demine a field, you should make a request,” the paper stated. Mines remain commonplace throughout Izyum and the surrounding area and at least 10 victims of them visited a hospital in Izyum in the days after Ukrainian forces retook the city this month.

Officials also published reminders to turn off lights at night and to inform officials about graves “made in inappropriate places.”

After Russian troops retreated earlier this month, Ukrainian officials discovered a mass burial site in the forest near an official cemetery in Izyum, including a mass grave holding the bodies of 17 Ukrainian soldiers.

Articles and poems published in the papers repeated in various ways that solutions to residents’ problems “can be found only by the Russian army.”

“The current Russian soldier is an honorable descendant of his father and grandfather,” one article stated.

Izyum Deputy Mayor Volodymyr Matsokyn laughed as he recalled seeing clips from the papers while away from the city during occupation.

“There was an announcement to join the medical college,” Matsokyn said. “But this college doesn’t have a roof.”

By Sept. 16, less than a week after Ukrainian forces retook Izyum, the city’s own newspaper, called Izyum’s Horizons, had resumed publication.

On the front page: an article about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky raising the blue-and-yellow national flag over the city, along with a photo collage of all the buildings in the city damaged during the war.

Izyum’s Horizons featured an analysis of the Russian propaganda newspapers, a photo of an alleged collaborator and accusations against the Russian-appointed mayor, who the paper said had revealed the identities of residents who were members of Ukraine’s territorial defense units.

But perhaps in a sign that Ukrainian officials believe the situation in the city is truly returning to normal, the bottom of the last page featured something far more routine: the weather forecast for the week ahead.

Anastacia Galouchka contributed to this report.

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