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In the eyes of contemporary Putin’s Russia, and extending back to its predecessors — the USSR and the Russian Empire — maintaining dominance over Ukraine has persistently been a pivotal step in asserting itself as a full-fledged empire and in the global contest for supremacy. This dominance is manifested not merely through territorial conquests but also via the deployment of “soft power” — the potential of a nation to realize its objectives through the appeal of its cultural and sociopolitical values, contrasting with the “hard power” rooted in military might and economic coercion. Historically, Russia has endeavored to instill its language, culture, traditions, and symbols into Ukrainian society. Symbolism extends beyond just official marks or auditory representations sanctioned by law to represent particular political concepts; it forms a crucial facet of national identity and serves as a lever for rallying forces in a “war of meanings” against the aggressor nation. In this article, we delve into the ways agitprop maligns Ukraine’s state symbols and the objectives it seeks to fulfill.
Ukraine had to face a terrible full-scale Russian aggression, which, among other outcomes, has sparked the most intense and definitive phase of decommunization and de-Russification, initiated in 2022. In retaliation, Russian agitprop endeavors to concoct countless arguments to undermine Ukraine’s entitlement to its own statehood, historical narrative, symbols, and overall identity. These propagandists hark back to the purportedly glorious shared Soviet past, invoking the notion of a “friendship of peoples,” which, according to them, flourished in the USSR. They contend that decommunization and de-Russification impose a hefty financial burden on Ukrainian taxpayers and are ill-timed. In the following sections, we will examine more closely the narratives that propagandists employ to disparage Ukrainian symbols. Their tactic remains largely unchanged: devaluation.
The tactic of devaluation involves belittling or tarnishing an individual, a group, an idea, or a phenomenon. The primary objective of this approach is to diminish the sway and trustworthiness of the subject in question. This tactic encompasses an exaggerated focus on the negative aspects or flaws of the subject, mockery, persecution, and efforts to portray the subject and its undertakings as ludicrous and incompetent. This maligning might involve circulating baseless or distorted facts to foster doubt and confusion, thereby undermining the reputation and legitimacy of the target.
“The Ukrainian Flag Was Invented by the Austrian Emperor and the Swedish King”
Russian propaganda insists that the Ukrainian blue and yellow flag is essentially a copied version of the flag belonging to the Austrian state of Lower Austria. Propagating this claim, the Russian agitprop devised a consistent story tied to the 1848-1849 revolution in the Austrian Empire, a period during which Galicia was a part of the empire. Indeed, Ukraine’s contemporary flag was first seen in Lviv during this period, albeit with inverted colors (yellow was at the top). These propagandists state: “The contemporary governor of Galicia, Count Franz Stadion von Warthausen, had ardently encouraged his subjects, the Carpathorosians (commonly referred to as Rusyns), to shed their innate Russian identity. He endeavored to substitute the prevalent symbols at that time — the blue and red flag — with a flag bearing different hues that would not so obviously indicate the historical connection of the Austrian province of Galicia with the heraldry of its ancestral mother Russia. In this endeavor, Count Stadion adopted the blue and yellow emblems of the Archduke of Lower Austria, which were a hereditary possession of the reigning Habsburg dynasty.” It’s pertinent to mention that the red and blue flag with different stripes was the formal flag of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria from 1800 to 1918, which encompassed modern Galicia and southeastern parts of Poland under the Austrian Empire, subsequently Austria-Hungary. However, this has no linkage with Russia. Contrarily, this flag was conceptualized and established in the kingdom by the Austrian Empire’s authorities. Furthermore, in Galicia, blue flags featuring a yellow lion — an emblem of the region — have been used since the 15th century, prominently witnessed when Galician regiments fought under this flag against the German crusaders near Grunwald in 1410. Although the flag of Lower Austria shares colors with the Ukrainian flag, numerous blue and yellow flags are found across Europe and globally. Hence, agitprop’s indictments against the Ukrainian flag equate to blaming Indonesia for appropriating the flag from the Principality of Monaco or Romania for stealing the flag from the African Republic of Chad.
Russian propaganda asserts that the Galician Ukrainians were bestowed the blue and yellow flag directly by Emperor Franz Joseph as a reward for their allegiance and loyalty to Austria during the revolution, a time when their Hungarian and Polish counterparts rebelled against the emperor. Reportedly, the Galicians were relentless and fierce executors for the emperor while quelling the revolts of neighboring nations, thereby gaining the moniker “Tyroleans of the Middle East” and having the motto “Loyalty leads to victory” embroidered on the flag by Franz Joseph’s mother, Archduchess Sophia. However, the propagandists overlook the fact that during this period, the Russian Empire aligned with the Austrian Empire, extending substantial assistance in crushing the Hungarian uprising in 1849.
An alternate, more ludicrous origin story of the Ukrainian flag, presented by the Russian propaganda machine, asserts that the colors of the flag were borrowed from Swedish colors during the 1709 Battle of Poltava. In this interpretation, Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s Cossacks adopted the Swedish flag colors as badges on the battlefield to distinguish themselves from the Cossacks siding with the Russian army, given the absence of uniform-specific colors that were characteristic of the regular Swedish or Russian forces. It’s vital to note the heavy negative undertone in this version, as Hetman Mazepa is vilified considerably in Russian historiography and propaganda, ranked alongside Stepan Bandera as a figure perceived as a “traitor” by Russians.
Contrarily, some propagandists assert that this rendition of the flag’s origins is a creation of Ukrainians themselves, alleging that the blue and yellow colors were non-existent in the Naddniprianshchyna region (referred to as “Malorossia” in their narrative) prior to 1914 and were introduced by Austro-Hungarian agents of the leader of the Sich Riflemen, Yevhen Konovalets, who were allegedly engaged in insurgent activities within Russian-controlled Ukraine. The propaganda purports that these colors were later adopted by Nazi sympathizers during the Second World War, displayed alongside swastika banners, and claims that during the late 1980s, the populace in the Naddniprianshchyna region was unfamiliar with them and that these were “re-imported from Galicia” for a second time, among other claims.
“The Trident Is an Ancient Jewish Brand for Cattle and a Nazi Symbol”
The Russian propaganda machine offers several “unique” interpretations regarding the origin of Ukraine’s small coat of arms, the Trident. Around 30 narratives circulate regarding the meaning of the trident, giving propagandists ample scope to speculate wildly about this symbol.
A notable narrative from the propaganda machine posits that this supposed Ukrainian symbol was originally a mark utilized in Kyivan Rus for branding cattle. To “substantiate” this claim, they resort to a series of historical distortions. Allegedly, the Kyivan Rus and the trident, recognized as the personal emblem of Prince Volodymyr the Great, have their roots in the Khazar Khaganate, where Judaism was the official religion. As per Russian manipulators, the trident is an archaic Khazar or possibly an ancient Mongol tamga [seal or stamp used by Eurasian nomads], representing the might of the Eastern khagans [title of imperial rank in the Turkic, Mongolic, and some other languages], one of whom was Prince Volodymyr the Great. In this narrative, certain propagandists concoct various anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that bear no connection to reality. They aim to depict Kyivan Rus as either a Jewish or an Asian-nomadic state, thereby exhibiting their own xenophobia and ethnic and religious intolerance.
Furthermore, the agitprop emphasizes that the trident seemingly varies significantly from the symbol associated with Prince Rurik, a ruler in Novgorod and deemed one of the progenitors of the Kyivan Rus. During 2008 excavations in Staraya Ladoga (located in Russia’s Novgorod region), an artifact presumed to be Prince Rurik’s seal was unearthed, depicting a falcon swooping on its prey, with detailed portrayals of the bird. Despite the two symbols essentially sharing the same design and cultural lineage, propagandists strive to exploit this minor variance as proof of the Ukrainian trident’s lack of ties to the symbols of Kyivan Rus’ princes.
It’s worth noting that since 2014, the falcon symbol has been adopted by the Donbas volunteer battalion, a group under the umbrella of the Ukrainian Armed Forces dedicated to safeguarding Ukraine. Russian propagandist Roman Golovanov alleged that the Ukrainian Defense Forces supposedly created a brand resembling a trident to “mark” Russian captives.
In another narrative spun by Putin’s propagandist Vladimir Kornilov, the trident is characterized as a “German family emblem.” To “verify” this, he referenced an image from a purported Nazi occupation paper circulated in 1942 in Donetsk, claiming that “80 years ago, the Nazi occupation media in Stalino (present-day Donetsk — DM) elucidated that the trident became the insignia of Nazi Ukraine since it represented a ‘German family emblem’, thereby Nazi Germany ‘restored the emblem to its noble essence. This is worth remembering.” This serves as yet another attempt to depict Ukrainians as Nazi sympathizers or accomplices. Regardless of the authenticity of this image, which remains highly dubious, one cannot overlook that Nazi propaganda was rife with deceit, fabrications, and manipulations, intending to transform Ukraine into a German satellite. Hence, their assertions hold no credibility whatsoever.
Another lesser-known propaganda narrative about the trident’s origin links it to the ancient Greek deity of the seas, Poseidon, traditionally portrayed with a trident. Comparisons are drawn with Barbados, a Caribbean nation that sports a blue and yellow flag adorned with a symbol bearing some resemblance to the Ukrainian trident. Nonetheless, this version doesn’t find much traction in Russian propaganda channels.
The agitprop further denigrates Ukraine for not having an officially sanctioned great coat of arms, comparing it to developing nations. In this instance, they draw parallels with African nations such as Ethiopia and Libya, which have a similar situation regarding their national coats of arms. Yet, it fails to mention that Russia itself possesses neither a large nor a small coat of arms but only a singular version. In truth, the existence or non-existence of a great coat of arms holds no bearing on a nation’s status. Numerous European nations only have a small coat of arms, including Hungary, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, Greece, Cyprus, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Finland, France, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Estonia, among others.
Further, the propaganda criticizes the trident for lacking an official meaning or interpretation and highlights the multiple theories regarding its origin, even within Ukraine, in a demeaning manner: “This resembles paranoid schizophrenia more than anything! It’s abnormal. Picture this — in the Czech Republic, residents heatedly debate about the precise interpretation of their state’s coat of arms, with individuals envisioning bizarre imagery such as ‘a reed cat’, ‘an arctic fox adorned with dual fox tails’, or perhaps ‘a malnourished stuffed bear’,” the propaganda proclaims.
Contrary to these assertions, the trident is a historic emblem dating back to the time of the princes of Kyivan Rus. The most ancient findings of the Kyivan Rus trident are seen on the bricks of the Church of the Tithes in Kyiv, constructed over a millennium ago between 986 and 996, as well as on the gold and silver currency of Volodymyr the Great and Yaroslav the Wise. Recognized as the “Rurikids’ mark,” the trident was prevalent across the various principalities of the Kyivan state for many centuries. Moreover, it saw use as a symbol during Ukraine’s War of Independence between 1917 and 1921, serving as the official emblem of both the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the Ukrainian State led by Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky. Over centuries, Ukraine’s coat of arms has been a symbol of the Ukrainian people and bears no association with Hitler’s Germany or Nazism.
“Ukraine and Poland Have Not Yet Perished”
The narrative of Russian propaganda extends to accusing Ukraine’s anthem of being a mere copy of Poland’s anthem. It’s true that Dąbrowski’s Mazurka predates the Ukrainian national anthem by 65 years and starts with the phrase “Poland is not yet lost.” However, this is where the resemblances cease. The Polish anthem serves as a battle hymn for the legions who served in Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces, presenting a distinctive musical theme and lyrical content that significantly diverges from the more “civilian” tone of the Ukrainian anthem. Another theory suggests that the poet Pavlo Chubynskyi, who penned Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished, might have drawn inspiration from a Serbian patriotic song venerating the medieval king Dušan, a tune often heard during gatherings attended by Serbian students studying in Kyiv.
Penned in 1862, a time characterized by the peak of the national freedom movements of Slavic peoples against the tyrannical reigns of Russian, Austrian, and Ottoman Empire, the lyrics of Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished could potentially mirror the inspirations and melodies stemming from other nations’ similar efforts. For instance, the melody of Hey, Slavs, once Yugoslavia’s national anthem, bears resemblance to Dąbrowski’s Mazurka, with lyrics crafted by Slovak poet Samo Tomášik and subsequently translated into nearly all Slavic languages. Even the Israeli anthem echoes a familiar resilience with the phrase “Our hope is not yet lost,” a sentiment reflected in the opening lines of both Ukrainian and Polish anthems. Meanwhile, the Russians opted to retain the USSR anthem’s original melody, merely adapting it with new lyrics.
“Trident Is an ‘Alien Element’ on the Motherland”
Russian propaganda has consistently shown heightened sensitivity towards the efforts to restore Ukrainian historical memory, reassessing our colonial, imperial, and communist history, denouncing the atrocities of those regimes, and resurrecting the true heroes of Ukraine from obscurity. Indeed, losing grip on identity presages the eventual loss of economic and political control over specific regions or territories. This article will not delve deeply into Russian propaganda’s critique of Ukraine’s decommunization and de-Russification initiatives in general but will concentrate on a specific instance: the swapping of the USSR emblem for the Ukrainian trident on the shield of the Motherland monument in Kyiv. This sculpture, the creation of Ukrainian artist Vasyl Borodai, stands as the fifth largest of its kind globally, towering at 102 meters and weighing 450 tons. Established in 1981, it commemorated the USSR’s victory over Nazism.
Worth mentioning is that Russian propaganda predominantly employs Soviet symbols, rather than Russian ones, to control identity in the nations of the former USSR. These symbols are less associated with Russian ethnicity and evoke a sense of unity among peoples, often stirring a sense of longing for the “shared Soviet past”. Following the onset of the full-scale invasion, Russian invaders went as far as reinstating monuments to Lenin in the temporarily occupied regions of Ukraine. Although, there were some regional variations of these narratives. In the southern parts of Ukraine, Soviet narratives meld with Russian imperial themes, reflecting the historical nuances of that area. Regardless, the alteration of the emblem on the Motherland shield represented a significant setback for propagandists, one they could not ignore.
The Ukrainian Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security documented a massive information attack on this subject, carried out en masse on platforms such as Telegram, VK.com, OK.ru, and even LiveJournal, which has long been an obsolete platform even in Russia.
Contrary to stoking uproar over the purported unethical removal of the Soviet symbol and fostering USSR nostalgia, pro-Russian anonymous Telegram channels adopted a more practical approach. They employed propaganda bearing resemblances to the rhetoric previously used to deceive Ukrainians for many years by the Party of Regions and its political successors. They claimed, for instance, that the switch from the Soviet emblem to a trident was reportedly funded through taxpayer money, utilized for non-critical needs amidst the war. However, it’s worth noting that the expenditure of 28 million hryvnias for this endeavor was actually facilitated by private investors. Additionally, they reinforced narratives forecasting a harsh winter bereft of electricity awaiting Ukrainians, implying governmental negligence focused on “changing emblems” instead. A notion underscored in statements like, “Since the spring, political Telegram channels have been citing an imminent threat to the heating season, with only a 2-3% restoration in power generation. Yet, the cries of experts on this matter seem to fall on deaf ears, with Shmyhal and Bankova preoccupied with changing the coat of arms or budget cuts, portraying a business-as-usual scenario.”
The narrative also included allegations that the government is purportedly planning to “expend additional funds” to substitute the sword that forms part of the sculpture, as it still bears Soviet stars: “A fresh round of embezzlement is anticipated in Kyiv. This drew the attention of Ukrainian journalists to the sword featured on the Motherland monument, adorned with a star. An architect was promptly identified who intends to replace it with something else, options being [the likeness of] Sviatoslav, Yaroslav, Mazepa... The financial implications of this project are expected to vastly exceed the costs incurred for the emblem switch, which has already been used to steal millions.” Contrary to this, the overseer of the installation project, architect Oleksiy Perhamenshchyk, stated that he was prepared to personally finance the removal of the stars from the monument’s sword and smooth out the areas where they were previously situated. Additional commentary on the matter remained rather tepid and bland as propagandists sought to belittle the emblem transition on the monument, derogatorily terming it “idiotic.” In a distinct effort to mock this, the Russians crafted a short film featuring a gigantic Russian matryoshka doll being catapulted from a bridge in Vladivostok, striking the trident off the Motherland monument’s shield, reinstating the Soviet emblem. Tetiana Montian, a notable traitor to Ukraine and a Russian propagandist, expressed jubilation over this video’s release, stating: “It’s evident that Zelenskyy’s fans have humiliated the Motherland. The specifics of how and with what — be it a matryoshka, a kokoshnik, or a balalaika — they will restore the USSR emblem to its rightful position remains unclear, yet I have no doubt that this will happen!”
Official Russian propaganda supplemented these “economic” narratives with ideological undertones, primarily catering to the domestic Russian audience. For instance, in a message on his Telegram channel, Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent Putin mouthpiece, labeled the monument as “a statue symbolizing the Russian will,” portraying the newly adorned trident as “an intrinsically alien element.” In another post, he lambasted the Ukrainian government, stating: “Since 2014, the narrow-minded Ukrainian drug addicts have been tearing down monuments dedicated to the heroes of the Great Patriotic War, assaulting veterans and family members of those who sacrificed their lives for Ukraine’s future. This year, their intent is to replace the USSR emblem on the Motherland’s shield with a ‘trident,’ under the guise of ‘decommunization.’”
In a bid to undermine the emblematic value of substituting the Soviet crest with a trident, other Russian Telegram channels launched a meme juxtaposing two images: one depicting the removal of the Soviet emblem and the other showcasing the launch of the Russian Luna 25 space station. This was accompanied by a caption inciting comparisons between the respective accomplishments of the two nations. However, following the Luna 25’s crash on the lunar surface, the meme’s traction witnessed a steep decline, practically disappearing altogether.