“Pictures and words”: The manipulative uses of images and language in Ukraine

Oct 17, 2022
Bucha main street after Russian invasion of Ukraine.Burnt out tanks

12 OCTOBER—I have been reading for some days, mostly in independent publications whose credibility I am not in a position to assess, about what goes on in the territories Ukrainian troops have recently retaken. It seems that what ensues very quickly are violent campaigns of reprisals wherein those whose sympathies lie with Russia are called “collaborators” and subject to assassination or arrest.

At the same time, you read of the conditions when Russian forces retreat, as they have done in various places in the east and south lately. You read of wreckage, of desolation, of graffiti scrawled on walls by desperate Russian soldiers as they “flee in disarray.”

You read these things and you are careful not to draw immediate conclusions. Is this or that publication reliable? How independent is it? Who are its contributors?

At the same time, some of these accounts—those concerning the conduct of Ukrainians in towns and villages the Armed Forces of Ukraine have retaken—square with numerous others going back some months, in which details of car bombs, point-blank shootings, poisonings, stabbings, and the like are recounted. This week we read of “revenge killings” in areas most recently retaken in southern and northeastern Ukraine.

The victims in most or all of these cases are people who hold political or administrative positions at local or provincial level, or those who advocate a negotiated settlement between Moscow and Kiev, or those who indeed worked with the Russians when they were present, or simply those who speak Russian and share a history, traditions, religious or familial ties, and so a sort of “motherland” perspective.

You read, you are careful, and you wonder.

A few weeks ago The Washington Post weighed in on this matter. David Stern has been covering Ukraine since 2009, evidently as a stringer. His piece appeared 8 September under the headline, “Ukrainian hit squads target Russian occupiers and collaborators.”

Stern writes that this campaign of murders goes back to the start of hostilities in late February and had by that date claimed nearly 20 victims—killed or injured in attempted killings. He writes:

They have been gunned down, blown up, hanged and poisoned—an array of methods that reflects the determination of the Ukrainian hit squads and saboteurs often operating deep inside enemy-controlled territory. The unpredictability of the attacks is meant to terrify anyone who might agree to serve in the puppet governments Russia has been creating with an eye toward staging sham referendums and ultimately annexing the occupied lands.

I am in a better position to assess The Post’s credibility than I am of others, having spent some decades writing or editing at mainstream daily newspapers, and I do not rate it highly to put the point courteously.

Stern’s “nearly 20” seems a low number based on what I am reading elsewhere. He blurs the question of who these victims are, terming them “Kremlin-backed officials or their local collaborators,” and who knows what he means by this?

On the other hand, he acknowledges, if obliquely as if we are not to notice, that what he is describing is terrorism. He also writes, far down in the piece, that these victims, whatever they get up to, are civilians, which raises fundamental questions—moral as well as legal:

The assassination campaign, while cheered by many Ukrainians, nonetheless raises legal and ethical questions about extrajudicial killings and potential war crimes, particularly when the targets are political actors or civilians and not combatants on the battlefield or other military personnel. And those questions cannot simply be waved away by pointing to the illegality of Russia’s invasion.

I wondered again about all this after reading a piece RT published not long after Stern’s appeared. RT is Russia’s equivalent of the BBC by way of their government funding and because we cannot be sure of what influence their governments exert, directly or otherwise. At least some and indirectly in both cases, I have always assumed. In the past this description has upset many people, those who still entertain a 1950s notion of the BBC’s immaculate integrity. I cannot help this. One reads RT and listens to the Beeb with the same measure of caution when assessing the worth of the reportage.

The RT piece carried the headline, “Ukraine threatens teachers with jail.” It reports that immediately after the AFU took new territory in the northeast in September, these same forces began arresting “an unknown number of teachers.” These teachers are not “Kremlin-backed officials or their local collaborators,” as The Wash Post would put it. They are Russian-speakers instructing their Russian-speaking pupils in Russian. This is their transgression. From the RT report:

Those who taught local children under the Russian curriculum will now face criminal charges in Ukraine, Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk told the Ukrainian media outlet Strana.

“They have committed a crime against our nation,” Vereshchuk said, adding that “a court will determine their… punishment.” The deputy prime minister accused the detained teachers of engaging in “illegal activities” without elaborating which specific crime they had committed. According to Strana, a Ukrainian publication, Vereshchuk said they could be charged with “violating the laws of war”—a charge typically used against those engaged in torture, killings of civilians, and looting.

She also “warned” that “Russian citizens” who have arrived in what she called temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories “would certainly face punishment unless they immediately leave our territory.”

This piece is remarkable for a few reasons.

One, we no longer have to do so much wondering. RT now gives us confirmation of the campaign of persecution straight from a senior member of the Kiev regime. I have followed Irina Vereshchuk for some months now, remarking notably but not only on her conduct at the time of the massacres in Bucha last spring. She is a freakishly obsessed nationalist, an intemperate fanatic reeking of contempt for Russians.

And she is Ukraine’s deputy PM: Nice.

Two, this campaign is not limited to people who can be considered by the most mal-intended definition collaborators. These are people who speak Russian and so teach in it in a region of Ukraine where this is the language of the majority. They are now threatened with prison or what will amount to forced displacement. Whether we call the latter this, or arbitrary displacement, or forced migration, it is a crime in international law.

Three, what we witness in Ukraine is more than war as we commonly understand this term. Kiev wages not only a war for territory. It wages a Kulturkampf, and I use the term advisedly. From the regime’s perspective this conflict is about superior and inferior people and the right of the former to extinguish the latter. Wonder no more why so many Ukrainian officials refer so often and casually to the residents of the Russian-speaking east, as well as all Russians, as “animals.” A better translation would be “subhumans,” deriving from the Nazi Untermenschen.

I tumbled into a little lateral thinking as I read the RT piece. Strange as it may seem, what came to mind was that preposterous photo spread Vogue ran in its August editions under the headline, “Portrait of Bravery: Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska.” Therein we were treated to pages of pictures featuring the glamorous Olena with Volodymyr, her husband, not so glam in his soiled T–shirt but president of Ukraine nonetheless. Volodymyr, “a comedian turned politician whose presidency may yet determine the fate of the free world”—that Volodymyr, not the Volodymyr who criminalizes the Russian language, bans his opposition, silences the press, strips unions of their rights, and stocks his special services with assassins.

I never imagined anyone would try to make warmongers and warmongering fashionable, but this is Vogue in the autumn of our empire as the imperium hires proxies such as Zelensky to defend its fading hegemony. Let us lend it style.

I do not think my train of thought that morning was so eccentric as it may appear. We are flooded with images and certain freighted words, a calculated use of language intended to confer legitimacy on the condemnable, as the clerks of the governing class purport to tell us about the conflict in Ukraine. How much do most of us actually know about those waging war against Russian forces? This was the question my brain forced upon me.

They are freedom-loving democrats fighting for their independence and they are just like us: Isn’t this roughly the sum total of what you would get back were you to ask who Ukrainians were of someone waving a blue-and-yellow flag?

It is exactly the response the flag-wavers are conditioned to give. Its principal feature is its two-dimensionality. To hear this again and again, as anyone listening to our discourse is bound to do, is like looking at a canvas flat on a stage that depicts an imaginary landscape and listening to the scene painters tell you, No, it’s not an imaginary depiction. It is truly the landscape.

Some weeks ago, Ralph Nader published a piece in ScheerPost noting that The New York Times, which he seems to hold in far higher regard than I do, is using inordinate numbers of pictures in its news coverage. I then started noticing this as I read the daily foreign report. The Times used to be called “The Gray Lady” because it was all text with a few photographs. Now a foreign story commonly features pictures, pictures, and more pictures with an interspersed text. This is especially but not only so in the Ukraine coverage. Photographers often get bylines.

The Times is appealing to new generations that do not read, care little for history, and cannot manage complexity: This is how I first figured it. But it is more than a matter of the paper debasing itself in the name of the market. The Times is reproducing the simplistic view of the world that a declining empire requires when its decline must be hidden from view.

Pictures do not tell stories. They are two-dimensional images that purport to tell stories without, in themselves, telling those looking at them much of anything. Not long ago The Times ran a photograph of some empty ammunition crates strewn along a road. The caption told us this depicted the aftermath of the Russian retreat from the northeast. This was a story of fear, haste, desperation.

Was it? Whose crates were they? Who emptied them and why? How did they get there? Why would empty rifle crates lie in a road? What of “retreat” was there to see? As we witness the most propagandised war in history, and I think it is, were these crates where the caption told us they were, or somewhere else?
We find a variant of the same with the use of language. We are fed a lot of loaded vocabulary as events that reflect badly on Ukrainians can no longer be simply omitted and correspondents are required to write of them. David Stern’s piece described the Ukrainians’ “extrajudicial murders” and their intent to terrorise local populations—properly direct language. But his was the exception proving the rule. Ukrainian soldiers are always valorous. The Russian run penal colonies. As noted previously in this space, Ukrainian assassins are “partisans” justly killing “collaborators,” the subtext a shameful reference to the maquisards’ campaign against Vichy collaborators during the Nazi occupation of France. These are but a few examples among many.

If pictures purport to tell stories and do not, text used in this fashion purports to tell true stories that are not true. In neither case do people looking at images or those reading text have any access to the three-dimensionality that is a feature of all events.

My mind goes to Pierre Bourdieu and his Language and Symbolic Power when I think through these things. The original title, Ce que parler veut dire: l’économie des échanges linguistiques, “What speaking means: The economy of linguistic exchanges,” goes more directly to his point. Language is more than mere communication: “I am out of cigarettes.” “The museum is open today.” It is infused with hierarchies of power and is deployed to signify the social locations of subject and object. When Western press reports describe Ukrainian assassins and terrorists with an ennobling vocabulary that is in no wise appropriate, they are attempting to give these people power over our thoughts and imaginations.

Let us be wary of pictures and words used in this manner. This is “perception management” as it works. It is nothing new. But the manipulation of public perceptions is dangerous, plainly and simply, when it becomes as pervasive as we have it now. History tells us clearly enough where this can lead.

Diana Johnstone, the distinguished Europeanist, published a superb piece in Consortium News not long ago asserting, “A war that is apparently irrational—as many are—has deep emotional roots and claims ideological justification. Such wars are hard to end because they extend outside the range of rationality.” Johnstone went on to explore the profound historical forces playing out in Ukraine, high among them a subliminal Russophobia, abroad in parts of Europe as well as Ukraine, that is rooted in old, poisonous resentments of the Soviet victory over the Nazi regime in 1945.

This is the missing third dimension in mainstream media’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis, or an important part of it. It is essential to our understanding and our ability to judge this conflict and people such as Irina Vereshchuk—to know what the Ukrainian leadership and military are made of. It would take an exceptional photograph to convey any suggestion of this. And reporting that uses words far more honestly than what we read in these media, with no resort to submerged narratives that dress up savagery as heroism and Nazi-inflected nationalists as democrats.


Patrick Lawrence Longtime correspondent abroad, author and essayist, numerous books and awards. Foreign affairs commentator for 25 years. First to expose the Russiagate fraud.

First published in THE SCRUM Oct 13 2022

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