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Українською читайте тут.

Intern Polina Baranivska collaborated on this text as a co-author.

DM launches a cycle of publications in which we will collect examples of how Russia, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Empire before, captured, following the physical occupation, the symbolic space of Ukrainian cities, declaring a specific settlement "originally Russian" or distorting the image of the city via propaganda tactics. Russia's capture of territories and placement of military garrisons was accompanied by cultural and symbolic expansion. The history, material heritage, and identity of people, communities, and settlements in a particular city were systematically belittled or erased from history. In Odesa’s example, one can trace Russian propaganda’s narrative stating that the city's best architecture is exclusively inherited from the Russian Empire, and the dominant language on the streets has always been Russian. At the same time, the importance of multiculturalism and the diversity of people who inhabited this city at different times remains constantly belittled.

The project "Novorossiya" [New Russia] and "Russian Spring"

The modern propagandist discourse about the "Russian city" about a particular town cannot be considered outside the "Russian Spring" (русская весна) concept. Russian Spring is an ideological framework for the Kremlin's aggressive plans, which the Russian military-political leadership planned to implement in the spring and summer of 2014, inspired by the example and "euphoric" effect among Russian society caused by the annexation of Crimea in March of 2014. The media in Russia and official Kremlin propagandists such as Vladimir Solovyov or Margarita Simonyan called the political actions held in various cities of the southern or eastern regions of Ukraine the Russian Spring.

Over time, it became clear that pro-Russian separatist movements were not only fueled but often directly organized from Russia and reinforced by the Russian military and Russian special services under the guise of "volunteers". Among the organizers and performers are the deputy head of the administration of the President of Russia, Vladislav Surkov, who is sometimes credited with the very "invention" of this term and who is called an ideologue, and the Russian war criminal and terrorist Igor Strelkov (Girkin). The term Russian Spring is used by [Russian] propaganda in the occupied territories [of Ukraine] even ten years after its conditional beginning. Moreover, now the so-called "special military operation" is "organically" tied into it. Accordingly, for Russians, its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is also presented as a continuation of the Russian Spring.

Moreover, in the spring of 2014, the propaganda term "the Southeast of Ukraine" (Юго-Восток Украины), which appeared during the Orange Revolution and the confrontation between Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych in the 2004 presidential elections, when propagandists divided Ukrainians into several "grades", began to be replaced by the synonymous word "Novorossiya". Vladimir Putin's "erroneous" use of the term in 2014 for most of Ukraine's southern and eastern regions has since been picked up by the Kremlin's propaganda machine. The word Novorossiya began to be used by Russian officials, pro-Russian separatists, and simply imperial chauvinists — all of them tried to give it a renewed meaning as if it were not about propaganda slogans but about a political movement that existed on the territory of Ukraine. However, the phrase "the Southeast of Ukraine" has not been forgotten and is still used by Vladimir Putin in public rhetoric to refer to "historically Russian" lands, as, for example, at the final press conference for 2023.

Novorossiya, a Russian political project, envisaged the annexation of 9 regions of Ukraine, preferably via the almost bloodless "Crimean scenario". Then, in addition to Crimea, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro, Mykolaiv, Kherson, and Odesa oblasts would also come under Moscow’s gunsight. However, the political actions of March-April had gradually "fizzled out"; local political and business elites tried to come to an understanding with the central authorities, as was the case before, when, for example, the convention in Severodonetsk, organized by Party of Regions functionaries in November 2004, did not result in actual separatist steps.

The events in Odesa on May 1-2, 2014, when pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian actions ended in violence in the city and a fire in the House of Trade Unions, were used by Russia and its propaganda machine to fuel protests in other cities, particularly in the east of Ukraine. The Kremlin brought activists from Russia to these protests. Moreover, these protests were also used to mobilize Russian society and demonize the Ukrainian government into its final transformation, according to the Russian propagandists, into the "Kyiv regime". In May 2014, the first mentions of the combat clashes between the regular units of the Russian military and the Ukrainian Armed Forces began to be recorded.

At first glance, the paradoxical existence of a "Russian city" (русский город) outside the territory of Russia is also explained not only by ambitious imperial plans to conquer new territories of neighboring countries but also by Vladimir Putin's ideas about international law and interstate borders. In his phrase that "the borders of Russia do not end anywhere", Putin showed the extraterritorial essence of the ideological concept of the Russian world (русский мир) and its global, or at least regional, claims to dominance. Therefore, in a certain sense, the concept of a Russian city can be considered a derivative of the idea of the Russian world. A city can be declared "Russian" before or without direct physical capture. Still, the longer Russia controls the city, the more material and cultural symbols it tries to embody in the urban and symbolic space to consolidate this status.

What makes the city a "Russian" one

At the already mentioned press conference "Results of the year" in December 2023, Vladimir Putin said that "the population of the entire southeast of Ukraine was pro-Russian because these are historically Russian territories, and Odesa is a Russian city."

Russian propaganda’s thirst to appropriate Ukrainian territories has been active for quite some time. For this purpose, Russian propagandists use various "arguments" and fabricated facts, which sometimes do not have any factual basis. Yet, it is clear that the Soviet authorities, and later Russian, have been turning Odesa into a completely pro-Russian city for years to fit their version of historical events into the city’s landscape: erecting monuments and naming streets after relevant cultural or military figures. Over time, this narrative took root in the urban space and people's minds. After all, the imperial, and later the Soviet and current Russian authorities have understood the importance of "symbolic power" and captured not only the physical Ukrainian space but also the symbolic space, carrying out "symbolic violence" according to the methodology of the French sociologist and researcher Pierre Bourdieu.

At the same time, Russia does not hesitate to destroy the architecture in Odesa, which, according to it, is the main achievement of the Ukrainian city. Even after a Russian rocket hit the altar of the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odesa, Russian propagandist Yulia Vityazeva convinced TV viewers that "the cathedral was built with the money of the Russian Empire and restored with private donations. Ukraine had nothing to do in regards to this site. The entire center of Odesa is an architectural monument in the crown of the Russian Empire. You are used to destroying things because you have nothing of your own; you have not created anything."

Vityazeva has tried to prove that Ukrainians have absolutely no right to shoot down Russian missiles because, firstly, they aim at the city port (the absurdity of such an argument is not in doubt), and secondly, because the city center is located nearby, which is a grand monument of imperial architecture, on which fragments of downed Russian missiles can fall. Therefore, the propagandist version of the fact that Ukraine is the one causing the primary damage to itself with the pieces of anti-aircraft missiles turned out to be insufficient, and the propagandists were convinced that allegedly Russia had every right to destroy what it had built.

The same narrative is discussed by the professor of Moscow University and a regular guest of propaganda shows on Russian television, Henry Sardanyan: "It is good that the UN wants to assign the city (Odesa — DM’s note) the status of world cultural heritage. Only this is the legacy of the Russian Empire, without which this land is a territory devoid of culture, identity, and history." Thus, Odesa and, in a broad sense, all of Ukraine are denied the very existence in isolation from Russia and its methods of imposing values by using ballistic missiles.

For years, the Russian government has broadcasted its achievements to both domestic and international audiences and created a "personality cult" not only from politicians and historical figures but also from its cultural figures. The most obvious examples are Pushkin, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Gorkyy, and Tchaikovsky, as well as people associated with the wars waged by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union: Vorontsov, Vatutin, and others. Russians have erected monuments in memory of them and named streets, avenues, and parks in their honor. Therefore, using cultural symbols and characters is part of the general strategy of military, political, and informational influence on Ukraine.

It clearly reflects the imperial ambitions of Russia, which is trying to subjugate Ukraine, seeking independence and self-determination. Planting Russian cultural heritage was and is a guarantee of Russia's destruction of Ukrainians as a nation with a "false" national identity without the possibility of being united and integral. Thus, with the replacement of surnames with Russian politicians or historical figures associated with Russia, the Ukrainian identity is replaced with a Russian one, and the traces of the history and culture of Ukraine are erased with the aim of its destruction. However, historical objectivity indicates otherwise. Many historical facts testify that there were Cossack settlements here long before Odesa's alleged "founding" in 1794. Attempts to rewrite history for political gain destroy the need for such objectivity.

For example, the monument to Catherine II has become a symbol of Russian propaganda. In October 2022, Vladimir Putin was convinced that "even extreme nationalists do not dare to demolish the monument to the city's founder, Catherine II." Despite this, Russian propagandists react to any attempt by Ukrainian society to eradicate Russian and imperial values from the territory of their state because it infringes on their "symbolic space."

An example is the reaction to dismantling the monument to the Russian empress in Odesa in December 2022. Margarita Simonyan reacted to it with the following repost in her Telegram channel: "The despicable barbarians terribly, obscenely seek to erase the memory of Russian history! Even the monument to Catherine the Great in Odesa was demolished. The poor [Ukrainians] do not know that the very name of Odesa, born on her lips by her breath, the name she named her city, is her monument." The quote from the Russian propagandist shows that Russia will not stop trying to manipulate history to support Russian influence. Simonyan continues in her following posts: "Odesa itself is a monument to Catherine the Great. Dismantle all of Odesa then, why be petty." It brings us back to the idea that the Russians do not feel sorry for the residents of Odesa, and not only "Ukrainians", and the shelling of peaceful cities will continue.

The myth around the "May 2 sacrifice"

Separately, Russian propagandists have tried to recreate the image of the "Odesa Khatyn." This year marks the tenth anniversary of the events of May 1-2, 2014, in Odesa, when more than 200 people were injured as a result of clashes between Euromaidan supporters and pro-Russian activists, and 48 died during a fire in the House of Trade Unions. Even though all these years, there was an independent initiative of journalists and investigators called the "May 2 group", which collected data, facts, and stories of the wounded and dead, Russian propaganda immediately mythologized the fire in the House of Trade Unions.

The myth was based on the story of the destruction of the Belarusian village of Khatyn during World War II when a group of German soldiers surrounded and destroyed a group of Soviet partisans along with the villagers. Accordingly, in the classic Soviet propaganda style, modern Russian agitational propaganda uses symbols of World War II (often not even related to the historical memory of Ukrainians or residents of Odesa) to mobilize the masses, primarily in Russia.

Moreover, Kremlin propaganda spread fakes about the dead on May 2 based on "eyewitness testimony": a strangled pregnant woman, raped and burned women, a mother who was burned alive with two children, etc. All this testifies to the informational promotion of the tragedy to incite hysteria. One of the most famous images shared on social networks shows the methods of dehumanization used by propaganda, the so-called St. George's tape, and even the connection of this tragedy to the process of Ukraine's European integration. According to it, Russia would not allow either a tragedy or [Ukraine’s] movement to Europe, and, generally, after May 2, 2014, "Ukraine ceased to exist".

Source: A propaganda blog on the LiveJournal platform

The reproduction of such myths happens even now, during the full-scale invasion of Russia. Coming up to the ninth anniversary of the tragic events, on the air of the TV channel "Solovyev.Live", the propagandist-columnist of "RIA Novosti" Vladimir Kornilov has modeled the historical context of the events of May 2014: " The events in Odesa and most importantly, Kyiv’s reaction, the reaction of the Ukrainian public, became the starting point for many other people. Then, others suddenly joined the people's militia in both the DPR and LPR. People started understanding that after Donetsk, Luhansk, and Donbas Odesa would follow. After May 2, 2014, no one had a choice." Even in regions distant from Odesa and Ukraine, Russian society also participates in the ritual of laying flowers, usually under the auspices of local managers and officials from the ruling party, United Russia. The regional authorities try to portray these efforts as a manifestation of national memory, using the same name of Odesa Khatyn. Russian agitational propaganda parasitizes and, in a certain sense, engages in necrophilia — the distortion and exploitation of historical memory of recent events, to persuade and mobilize the Russian audience.

However, the constant reminders and "wailing" of propagandists about the "Odesa May 2 tragedy" do not refute the fact that the city is now constantly being bombarded by Russian missiles. Russians bomb not only conventional port infrastructure or grain terminals but also residential areas. They do so to harm as many victims among the civilian population and city residents as possible. In April 2024, Russia began to use rockets with cluster-type striking elements [cluster munitions] on Odesa. Then and now, it does not divide the city and its residents into Ukrainians or sympathizers of the Russian world. Therefore, Russia and its aggressive actions leave Ukrainians with the only choice — to resist the occupation. In the meantime, Ukrainians must protect the "symbolic space" of our cities not only with air defense systems but also through the reconstruction and reorganization of meanings, continuing the process of decolonization.

Illustration and infographic credits: Natalia Lobach

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