Carrying plastic bags stuffed with cuddly toys, the rebel leader enters an apartment to greet its new occupants — a young family whose former home had supposedly fallen into disrepair. Alexander Zakharchenko, who governs the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine, hands over the gifts, plus keys and deeds to the simple apartment. He walks around, nodding in approval at the pristine appliances and furnishings.
While a news crew films the choreographed event, mother of four Elena Korkunova says she had written a letter to Zakharchenko requesting help. Her husband, Alexei, hastily adds: “We’re very thankful to receive the apartment so quickly. . . . Now it’ll be our family nest.”
Ending the piece, a correspondent for the local Pervy Respublikansky channel describes how Zakharchenko “personally assessed the apartment’s layout and quality of renovation . . . and wished them health and happiness.”
This unsubtle report is not a one-time thing. Ukrainian separatists are taking the media back to a Soviet-era standard as their breakaway statelets recycle old propaganda, resort to stereotypes and resuscitate the cult of Joseph Stalin.
Such broadcasts hold clues about Moscow’s strategy in Donbas, a volatile region where Ukrainian government troops have been fighting Russian-backed separatists since 2014. State-sanctioned portrayals of militant rebel rulers as responsible civilian officials suggest the Kremlin wants these hard-line proxies to be in charge for some time.
As the conflict enters its fourth year, this does not bode well for peace.
“Russia wants to look as if it’s a constructive player in negotiations but has not decisively shown which option it wants to take,” said Donald Jensen, an expert on Russia and resident fellow at Johns Hopkins University. “Messaging is key, and changes depending on circumstances.”
By the 1980s, television had become a key component of Soviet mass-media culture, and today it remains the main news source for Russians and Ukrainians. In 2014, when Moscow began installing new governing structures in Ukraine’s rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, local media operations were also overhauled.
Eastern Ukraine’s war-racked landscape of coal mines, factories and steel mills is a Soviet time warp in which communist nostalgia and heavy industry have a bearing on the identity of many. The legacy of the former Soviet Union looms large in the collective subconscious.
So news is staged to highlight the state’s wisdom and generosity — as it was under Soviet control. Core political messages, reinforcing a narrative favorable to ruling elites, are worked out ahead of transmission.
Novorossiya TV, another separatist outlet, recently aired a documentary about the origins of the war. Replete with Soviet imagery and dogma, it pits the united, hard-working Slavic citizens of Russkiy Mir (Russian World) against degenerate individualism and the imperialist West.
“Today, Donbas has become the flash point of the geopolitical dispute between the West and the East,” the presenter says. “Our city is practically on the front line. We are being murdered so that Russian people . . . remain in the chains of consumer society.”
Lambasting Western influences, the film splices McDonald’s ads with Soviet military parades; footage of Wall Street with productive factory lines — hackneyed, perhaps, but aimed at harnessing disenchantment in a region once held high by Soviet authorities, now war-damaged and economically stagnant. Although it refers to recent Hollywood movies and is promoted through social media, the message of the film is as old as the hammer and sickle.
Low-budget history programs are a mainstay of these separatist outlets. One presenter, Yakov Dzhugashvili, is Stalin’s great-grandson. He venerates the late dictator and espouses his “duty to expose anti-Stalinist, anti-Soviet lies.” Dzhugashvili mentions neither the Great Terror nor the gulags, instead hailing Stalin as “an example of those who serve others.”
A local history buff hosts another slow-paced show, using model tanks and soldiers to demonstrate the World War II heroics of a unit known as Panfilov’s 28 Guardsmen, whose story became a cherished Soviet legend — though one that was debunked by the publication of a secret memo in 2015.
These productions are lo-fi and indulge in questionable readings of history. But their message is potent: Your ancestors fought the fascists; you must continue that struggle today. They are, in a sense, weaponizing the past.
“Propaganda about fascists is a very effective trope and has had an effect on Russian public opinion,” said Kristin Roth-Ey, a lecturer in Russian history at University College London who specializes in Soviet culture and media. “This is not mindless atavism — they know it works.”
Likewise, limited content and frequent reruns echo the Soviet Union’s restricted TV schedules. Such repetition creates “dominant symbols” that help construct — or exploit — a population’s “cultural memory,” said Kateryna Khinkulova, a specialist on the region’s media.
The presentation of Ukraine’s separatist leaders is far more “Soviet” than that of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Luhansk’s ruler, Igor Plotnitsky, is regularly filmed presiding over his ministerial council, publicly berating them while flanked by his People’s Republic flag, with its sun rays, wheat sheaves and red star.
Russian television has its share of Putin scolding his aides, but he also projects a personality Russians can more easily associate with.
“Putin himself is a form of entertainment, a consumable product,” Roth-Ey said. “Think of pictures showing Putin bare-chested. Making [Leonid] Brezhnev or [Nikita] Khrushchev sex symbols would have been unthinkable in a Soviet context.”
The Soviet Union was renowned for its sports parades and elaborate gymnastic displays. Socialist realism promoted heroic images of the human body — from the vitality of the Komsomol youth movement to the team spirit of athletes. Though their presentations are smaller in scale, Donetsk separatists are drawn to similar ideals.
A news report in March featured a gathering of youngsters jogging through the city, urging sobriety and waving separatist and communist flags — a time-honored tactic of reinforcing patriotism with physical purity.
Back in vogue, too, is the shock worker — an uber-productive laborer of the Soviet Union. War has ravaged the economy in eastern Ukraine, but separatist-controlled farms and industrial plants regularly trumpet their efficiency and ability to surpass quotas. If local news outlets are to be believed, rebel authorities are providing pensioners with thousands of tons of free coal and farming vast quantities of food — even to the extent of producing Donetsk mozzarella.
These stories are designed to boost morale by creating the illusions of self-sufficiency and resurgent industry. In reality, the breakaway east could not function without Moscow’s support. (Russia has even pledged to supply this region with electricity after Kiev cut off power because of unpaid bills).
Nostalgia for Russia’s lost era borders on self-caricature. In Donbas, it has become a “weird pastiche of historical memory,” said Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer in European studies at King’s College London. “The Putin media machine picks out bits of Soviet or czarist memory that it finds useful to its agenda at any one moment, then amplifies it using modern media techniques to overwhelm the audience.”