A Good Enough Lie: The Rhetoric of Misinformation
in Ukraine’s EuroMaidan and the War with Russia
by Jennifer Carroll Brown University
Draft: Not to be Cited Without Permission
Optics were a central concern of the EuroMaidan revolution from the very beginning. Spent shells and weapons canisters collected from police assaults on the protesters were put on display in the middle of the encampment. Professionally printed photographs of the most violent conflicts were hung on the Maidan and along Hrushevsky Street. Images of the revolution were captured by participants and spread outward on social media through personal networks and informal news groups. Independent news agencies streamed live footage from the protests online 24 hours per day. Scripted English-language videos, such as Yulia Marushevska’s I Am a Ukrainian, went viral, offering carefully constructed imaged of the revolution to the rest of world.
Undeniably, protestors wanted the revolution to be seen; however, they were not the only ones who fought for the attention of the local and global publics. Many counter protests and provocations made use of the imagery that EuroMaidan protesters were deploying as well as the specific iconography with which EuroMaidan was branded. This tactic, which appeared in countless forms from Anti-Maidan ‘stickering’ campaigns in Kyiv’s Mariinsky Park to Russian soldiers posing as local ‘self defense brigades’ in Crimea, amounted to blatant mimicry.
While this visual mimicry may appear to be facile or transparent, I argue that sophisticated semiotic techniques were (and still are) being used to disrupt the public’s interpretation of particular images for the benefit of those deploying counter narratives. Specifically, the ostensibly straightforward iconic representation of photographic images or films (i.e. the myth that photographs show unadulterated, objective evidence of reality) is exaggerated. Viewers are coached to believe that they see, for example, self-defense brigades in Crimea, because they can look at an image and see what are clearly military brigades. This technique exploits the fluidity of what Roland Barthes calls ‘the third meaning’ of images (Barthes 1978) for the purpose of granting the appearance of legitimacy to politically motivated counter narratives. Though these counter narratives cannot be fully evidenced (because they are not true), they accomplish their goals by generating faith in a false objectivity of the image (a false significance, to borrow Barthes’ term). They dislodge the viewer’s faith in the myth of photographic truth, even while encouraging the viewer to believe in that truth. Put another way, I argue that, through the use of the techniques discussed in this paper, counter narratives don’t need to be complete or even very good. The rhetorical tools used in their design allow them to succeed by simply being ‘good enough.’
To articulate how these techniques accomplish their meaningful ends, it is necessary to understand how images and text convey meaning differently. Anthropologist and professional photo-journalist Danny Hoffman articulated this well in his 2012 photo essay entitled Corpus: Mining the Border. In this project, Hoffman offered short essay about the socio-political and military contexts that cause young men to find themselves engaged in grueling labor in alluvial diamond minds on the Sierra Leonean border. He paired segments of this essay with hypnotic and devastating photographic images of young, strong, male bodies engaged in manual labor. These images present what he calls “an ethnographic portrait of the shape and texture of work” (Hoffman 2012).
Hoffman argued that text and image are both necessary to successfully present his argument that military conflict and manual labor bear on these men’s bodies in indistinguishable ways. He writes:
There is an excessiveness to the images that terms like work and labor, when rendered as text on the page, simply cannot register. The work, like the miners who do it, has a militant masculinity about it. Text can chart the larger political economy in which the mines and miners are situated (something the images alone cannot adequately do). But only the momentary alienation sparked by the visual image of this mode of work conveys the materiality of West African diamond mining as labor…I have argued elsewhere for understanding the labors of these young men on the battlefield and on the mines as qualitatively identical, but bound by terms like ‘war’ and ‘work,’ the text alone invariable re-inscribes a qualitative difference between the two. The image collapses that distinction and allows it to register as an affront. (Hoffman 2012).
What Hoffman points to, and what is key for the analysis presented here, is that both text and image convey meaning; both can be used in argument either as evidence or as a tool of persuasion; both are culturally inflected and open to interpretation by the viewer; however, they are incapable of doing the same kind of symbolic work. It is a very different act to explain with words the similarities between war and work than it is to capture the taught and rigid physique of exploited men on film, just as it is thing very different act to print a headline reading “Protests in Kyiv turn Violent” and to circulate an image of an activist in the act of throwing a Molotov cocktail.
As I will argue here, it is this very difference that those creating counter-narratives in Ukraine sought to exploit. With the help of foundational theories of semiotics and cognition put forward by Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles S. Pierce, my aim is to put into words the strategies employed by the authors of counter narratives in the ongoing political and military conflicts in Ukraine—to pull back a veil that is thick only insofar as the average media consumer lacks a standardized vocabulary for talking about these phenomena. This exercise will not only be profitable for responding to these counter narratives but also for gaining a deeper understanding of the culture and ideology out of which they are formed.
The anatomy of an image
The language that cultural anthropologists—among others—use to discuss the mechanisms by which both text and image convey meaning has been shaped in large part by the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure was interested not only in language but in how language gave rise to meaningful human thought. He criticized the characterization of language as a simple, “name-giving system” (2011:16) which rested on the assumption that humans possessed a priori sets of categories or “ready-made ideas” (2011:65). Instead, he proposed that all signs were composed of two parts, a signifier—a representation in some form—and a signified object, which had to be paired with one another in order for the object to be comprehensible or ‘thinkable’ (2011:66–67). In spoken or written language, the area of Saussure’s primary focus, the signifier and the signified would consist, respectively, of a sound-image, or perhaps even a written word like ‘tree’ on the one hand and, on the other, a single, whole concept or object, such as the large oak growing in my backyard. Each of these elements, the signifier and the signified, cannot be meaningful in any way without its connection to the other. A meaningless, gobbledygook word (a signifier without a signified) or an unnamed object or concept (a potential signified with no signifier) would be equally incomprehensible in the realm of spoken language and, Saussure argued, in human cognition. Only together do the signifier and the signified form what Saussure defined as a ‘sign’ – a fundamental unit of thinkable, expressible knowledge that can be used to transmit meaning from one interlocutor to another.
Charles S. Peirce, a nineteenth-century mathematician and logician from New England, built on Saussure’s ideas to theorize the relationship between the signifier and the signified. He articulated three different means by which a signifier and signified can be linked. He defined, therefore, three different kinds of signs that convey meaning in three distinct ways: ‘icon,’ in which the signifier and the signified are connected through a resemblance, ‘index,’ in which the signifier has an existential relationship with the signified (for example, a weather vein points in the direction of the wind, but us also physically turned by the wind; an index finger can indicate by pointing, but the finger must be pointing at the thing it is indicating to be meaningful), and ‘symbol,’ in which the connection between the signifier and the signified object is arbitrary, linked only by the culturally accepted association between the two.
Contrary to Saussure, Pierce considered meaningful signs to be composed not of two distinct parts (the signifier and the signified) but of three parts: the representamen, the interpretant, and the object (1985). Pierce defined the representamen as “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.” It is the material or actual perception of a sign divorced from its meaning, analogous to Saussure’s concept of the signifier. The object is the thing being represented, analogous to Saussure’s signified. The interpretant, however, is a new element. It is the notion of the signified that exists to a particular individual only in the mind (1985:5). Above all, Peirce’s interpretant is key to the understanding of how humans interact with culturally inflected images, because the interpretant does not exist in culture; it exists in the conscious mind of a person who exists in culture. As Galina Lindquist described it, the interpretant is “the embodied consciousness on which signs work” (2006:13), and the mechanism behind those signs depends on context, since “culture dictates…how signs signify” (2006:16).
Like Saussure, Peirce also argued that these sign categories are central to human understanding and “indispensable in all reasoning,” (1991:181). Indeed, Peirce’s theories strengthen the argument that signs are necessary to think with. Without discrete signs to refer to culturally discrete ideas and concepts, those concepts would be doomed for “annihilation…It [would] become absolutely undiscoverable that there ever was such an idea,” (1991:239). In this way, Pierce’s theory offers a fully formulated idea of how language (the representamen) and cognition (the interpretant) are connected through culture (the mode of being-in-the-world that creates the object and determines how the meaning of an object is transmitted through semiosis).
According to these theories, the act of extracting meaning from an image can be broken down as follows. A viewer looks at an image—say, a photograph of a protestor in Kyiv preparing to launch a Molotov cocktail at an unknown target. The viewer interprets that image by considering what the visual signified or representamen being seen may represent. The viewer asks questions like “What does this image look like? Where I have I seen similar images before? How does this image make me feel? How is the text surrounding this image telling me to interpret what I see?” The viewer taps into her repertoire of cultural and experiential knowledge in order to create a comprehensible, articulable concept in her mind of what it is that is being looked at. Different sets of cultural knowledge, different experiences, and different levels of fluency in the semiotic systems used by professional image-makers (illustrators, photographers, etc.) can dramatically alter the meaning of any image. Meaning is always constructed by the viewer.
The idea that photographs constitute an objective reflection of reality is a common myth. Even without the theories of Saussure and Pierce to aid us, it is easy to see that this is untrue. All images are crafted in some way or another: the size of the frame limits what gets captured; the chosen depth of field forces the viewer’s focus onto particular elements in the frame; exposure, lighting, shutter speed, even the context in which the image is displayed can influence the meanings that the viewer extracts from the image. Something as simple as a caption can dramatically alter the interpretation of visual media. Under a headline like “Protestors Fight to Keep Violent Police Away from Crowds,” our Molotov cocktail throwing activist becomes an underdog, an everyman, a local hero using simple means to achieve incredible end under extraordinary circumstances. If that headline were changed to “Protestors Turn Violent in Kyiv, Many Injured,” that same activist is an evildoer, a criminal, someone for whom the viewer is likely to have very little empathy.
In sum, a photograph is a powerful signifier. The viewer, upon looking at a photograph, is actively decoding the content, context, and style of the image in order to determine the appropriate signified and construct and interpretant—a culturally meaningful understanding of what is ‘going on’ in the picture. Whether or not they were able to articulate their tactics in the theoretical terms presented here, the authors of counter narratives designed to discredit the EuroMaidan movement skillfully exploited this interpretive process. They reproduced familiar images—known signifieds and representamens—in order to evoke politically desirable interpretations of the events, to guide the viewer to think and feel about EuroMaidan (or about separatism, about the Kyiv government, about Russia, about Crimea, about the cultural history of the Donbas region) in specific, profitable ways.
Images and Immitation
A significant amount of human, material, and financial resources were expended to discredit the activities of anti-Yanukovych, pro-Western protesters of EuroMaidan through the use of counter narratives. Above all, the efforts of those who supported the Yanukovych regime and, later, the separatist forces in Donbas, attempted to legitimize their misinformation campaigns be imitating the behaviors of activists on the Maidan, though other efforts sought to attack the legitimacy of EuroMaidan, itself. The modes of imitation engaged by the authors of these counter narratives also changed over time as the image of EuroMaidan and, later, of separatist tendencies and civic organization in Crimea and Donbas, evolved in popular media.
The first and most obvious effort to reproduce the optics of EuroMaidan was the production of of a semi-permanent pro-government rally in Mariinsky Park, located near major national government buildings within walking distance of the Maidan. The Party of Regions, the political party that put Yanokovych into office, sponsored the transportation of hundreds, if not thousands, of persons from eastern and southern Ukraine into Kyiv to participate in this on-going counter protest, which soon came to be called AntiMaidan. The organization of these AntiMaidan rallies produced deliberate forgeries of the public face of EuroMaidan. Flags and banners were carried by participants throughout the park. Stickering campaigns were undertaken, if unenthusiastically, around the park, similar in style and content to the varieties of stickers printed and tagged around Maidan by EuroMaidan supporters. Organized efforts to provide AntiMaidan protestors with hot meals mimicked the output EuroMaidan’s kitchens, though they provided simple, lackluster foods like boiled buckwheat, which appeared dry and dull next to the rich soups and stews that were prepared for activists on the Maidan.
At the end of January 2014, two events occurred which sparked a fundamental shift in the EuroMaidan protests: the passage of repressive laws clearly designed to quell public protest and four civilian deaths in a single day from police violence or kidnapping. As a direct response to the escalation of police violence against civilian protesters that occurred in January 2014, EuroMaidan activists began organizing themselves into highly organized self-defense brigades. Male volunteers formed units and established clear command leaders. Those leaders were organized into a communication structure that was founded upon the existing hierarchical structure of the nationalist group Pravy Sektor. Though they were able to act independently, clearly defined chains of command across groups allowed the brigades to act in a coordinated fashion, covering different barricades on different shifts and combining forces to protect the camp when the street turned violent. Each of these units was responsible for outfitting themselves. This meant that most brigades worked together to collect uniforms, purchase helmets and limb protection, and construct large shields meant to be used in phalanx form to push back walls of oncoming police officers. Though these brigades were composed of ordinary men, many of whom lived in the Kyiv area, I never once saw a brigade in uniform or travelling together outside of the barricades, despite living less than 2km from the camp and visiting it regularly.
This was considered dangerous, as there were people beyond EuroMaidan’s barricades who could not be trusted and who might want to cause harm to anyone involved in the protests.
In the wake of these events, the counter measures that sought to imitate the public image of EuroMaidan evolved as well. On the night of February 6, 2014, a group of five or six men were photographed by journalists from the newspaper Segodya as they vandalized several prominent Kyiv businesses in the middle of the night. These photographs were published with a short report on the vandalism. These men were dressed in dark colors or in camouflage. They wore balaclavas on their faces and simple helmets on their heads. They carried baseball bats or other homemade truncheons in one hand and shields made of plywood in the other. Some had sewn patches to their clothing to display the trident from the coat of arms of Ukraine in the red and black colors often associated with Western Ukrainian nationalist organizations, such as Pravy Sektor. This group of men targeted two restaurants, smashing windows and spray-painting slogans like “Revolution!” and “Glory to the Nation!” on the walls of the buildings. According to the reports published, these men allowed themselves to be photographed while committing these crimes.
Taken at first blush, this seemed like a EuroMaidan self-defense brigade gone rogue; however, a closer look at these images reveals this explanation to be false. For several reasons, it is impossible that these men could have been self-defense volunteers from EuroMaidan. First, all of their clothes were too clean. At the height of the violence in January and February, Maidan was coated in dirty ice, mud, oil, grease from burnt rubber, and all kinds of soot. Even while volunteers worked diligently to keep the interiors of the Ukrainian House and Trade Union building sparkling, the Maidan, itself, was filthy. It is too unlikely that an entire self-defense brigade would be caught together, all of them all at once fresh from the laundry. Second, their clothing was inadequate for the task of serving as a self-defense volunteer on the Maidan. Some of the vandals pictured wore hoodies under their camouflage jackets, but, overall, they were poorly dressed to be out in the cold, snowy winter for weeks at a time. No less than two of them men seen vandalizing buildings are wearing canvas sneakers—clean, white canvas sneakers—when the standard footwear for self-defense brigades was leather boots, preferably steel toe, as the risk of foot injury from the construction and barricades was high. Third, their equipment was cheap and constructed with too little attention to detail. EuroMaidan self-defense brigades put a great deal of effort into their gear. Some clearly benefitted from a member who had access to a metal shop, all sporting immaculate replicas of the body shields used by the Berkut, clearly homemade but of extremely high quality nonetheless. However, even brigades with more modest means—including those who made shields from wood—took great care with these items. They were shaped, sanded, decorated, strengthened where strength was needed, padded at points of bodily contact; they were thoroughly and thoughtfully designed. In contrast, the shields carried by these men were filmsy, consisting of nothing but an unfinished sheet of particle board with a strap stapled to the back.
Given these inconsistencies—as well as the fact that it was highly unusual to see a self-defense brigade away from the Maidan—the most reasonable explanation is that these young men were imitators. Since they were out very late at night, with almost no one to observe their destructive activities, the circulation of photographs of the event was the likely goal of this vandalism, presumably an attempt to reduce trust in these groups and stoke public fear that Maidan self-defense brigades. This theory is supported by the captions with which the photographs were published. A reprint in the paper Ukrainska Pravda, for example, captioned these images with the phrase “the suspects again allow themselves to be photographed.” It was a poor attempt to mimic a EuroMaidan self-defense brigade, because the embodiment of the characters being played was poor; nevertheless, it kept the visual image of self-defense volunteers at the forefront of the public imagination, even as it sought to circulate counter narratives to portray them as dangerous, radical young men who sought to bring harm to the city.
Later on, as the conflict shifted from Kyiv to Crimea and the Donbas region, the imitation of paramilitary tactics used at Maidan contrived counter narratives continued. In late February, large numbers of well-outfitted yet unmarked soldiers, later identified by Vladimir Putin’s own statements as Russian military (Russia Today 2014b), appeared in Crimea, setting the stage for the eventual annexation of the peninsula. In the first few weeks of their presence, while the rest of the world was left to speculate about their origins, Putin declared that the so-called Little Green Men keeping Crimea under military control were not Russian troops, but “local self-defense forces” (Chappell and Memmott 2014). In the subsequent month, these so-called self-defense forces expanded to include what appeared to be local men as well. Russian owned news channel RT covered these developments regularly. They described the recruits as “ordinary civilians wanting to protect their families. All are volunteers. All are from Crimea” (Russia Today 2014a).
The imitation of EuroMaidan self-defense brigades in Crimea was not limited simply to the name and paramilitary nature of these groups; imitative props and scenery were produced as well. Men in street clothes were photographed standing in front of local administration buildings holding homemade riot shields resembling those used by volunteers at EuroMaidan—a clear attempt to redeploy the iconic images of EuroMaidan self-defense brigades in a new setting for new purposes. Video taken by RT show these new recruits standing at makeshift barricades and block posts. These constructions were far cries from those built at the Maidan in Kyiv, most of them obviously flimsy or ineffective in their structure, but they were attempts to evoke the image of defensive barricades nonetheless.
This same strategy of crafting facsimile self-defense brigades, modeled after those that formed in Kyiv several months prior, was also utilized in Donbas. These optics ramped up quickly as agitators began destabilizing the area and many visual elements of these new imitations mirrored those employed in Crimea. Local men dressed in a variety of fatigues and balaclavas were recruited to stand guard at hastily constructed block posts along the highways. These same men lined up to ‘protect’ local administration buildings, and/or occupy them as the appointed staff from regional governments were forced out.
It is worth noting here that the political narrative being spun in Donbas was slightly different from that in Crimea. Though it had a separatist flavor to it, the annexation of Crimea was presented by its Russian manufacturers as the return to Russian control of an independent state that had always been Russian (Englund 2014). The conflict in Donbas, however, was consistently presented as a deliberate attempt on the part of a legitimately Ukrainian region to break away from the Ukrainian state. The ruse contended that this was a fundamentally grass-roots movement which sought to establish a new national jurisdiction. It follows logically, then, that the optics developed within the break-away regions in Donbas made heavy use of barricades and block-posts. Sandbags were piled up, barbed wire erected, and piles of debris were collected into shoddy, improvisational barriers. With the aid of these piles of debris, the new international border that separatists sought to erect between Donbas and the rest of Ukraine were symbolically erected, and political autonomy symbolically enacted, throughout the region.
It is of particular interest to this analysis, as will be discussed below, that separatists in Donbas made heavy use of tires in their construction of these road blocks and barricades. This was an important and incredibly visible tactic during the EuroMaidan revolution. Self-defense brigades strategically stationed and ignited car tires to serve as both barricades and as smoke screens in areas where police aggression was the most forceful. The use of smoke screens is a known tactic commonly used by Soviet military forces (cf. http://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm100-2-1.pdf), and their use on the Maidan has commonly been attributed to the influence of veterans from the Afghan War, who visibly offered their support to protesters following the first violent police attacks in late November 2013. Protesters have used tires for these purposes in other protests in places as far reaching as Bangkok and Syria. However, the use of tires for this purpose in Ukraine was largely emergent at EuroMaidan. This was a strategic innovation that made use of a familiar tactic in a novel situation.
In Donbas, tires were again incorporated into the construction of barricades. In some cases, blockades were constructed out of nothing but piles of tires draped in barbed wire, to prevent anyone from climbing over them. Sometimes, tires and sandbags were used together to construct walls in highly visible areas in city centers. Often, these constructions became impromptu canvases for the posting of slogans and images in support of the separatist narrative—as EuroMaidan activists did in their time on the Maidan. In other instances, tires made appearances that were largely symbolic, appearing one or two at a time along roadblocks, punctuating the domain of armed, masked men in homemade paramilitary uniform. Whatever their ultimate utility for anti-Ukrainian fighters in Donbas, tires were treated as a necessary element of blockades. They were elements in the construction of barricades and walls, to be sure, but they were also symbolic of those barricades as well. They were deployed a sign of a serious grassroots movement that sought to resist government control, just as they came to be know on the Maidan.
Same signifiers, new signifieds
Stated in the language of Saussure’s theory of signs, the counter narratives constructed against the EuroMaidan revolution and, later, against the Poroshenko government in Kyiv, reproduced visual signifiers that emerged from the revolution and had already solidified into meaningful signs in the public imagination. However, the purpose of this mimicry was not to reproduce the meanings, the signifieds, which accompanied these visual images on the Maidan. The goal, instead, was to re-frame these meanings, to translate them into a different context, to modify them slightly, just enough to push back on the social ad political narrative of what was happening in Kyiv.
Consider, first, the AntiMaidan protests in Mariinsky Park. The EuroMaidan protests they imitated were framed by participating activists as an organic, truly grassroots movement. The politics of the revolution were, broadly speaking, Anti-Yanukovych and pro-EU (or at least pro- the prioritization of developing EU relations through Ukrainian foreign and domestic policy), but, at their core, the rallies, the flags, the performances, the broad participation of citizens across social classes, even the volunteer self-defense efforts—all of these striking visuals connected back to a single object, a single signified: the imagined community of the ‘Ukrainian People’ as a whole. Yulia Marushevska’s video, I Am a Ukrainian, is a perfect example of this discourse in action. By opposing itself to the presidential regime of Viktor Yanukovych, and by enacting (or, in the case of the barricades, literally constructing) its defenses against the Berkut army that Yanukovych controlled, the protesters effectively crafted a narrative of binary opposition, of Us vs. Them, wherein ‘they’ are the government and ‘we’ are The People, the driving force of the nation, which the government is morally obligated to serve and protect.
When the AntiMaidan protests were held, many of the same visual codes were produced in an attempt to signify an authentic grass-roots movement: the crowds in the field, the flags and banners they flew, even the modest meals and other forms of sustenance on which the protesters dined. AntiMaidan was a clumsy imitation of a grassroots movement; it was apparent that the Party of Regions had orchestrated the gatherings in an entirely top down fashion, managing every element from the transportation to and from the park to the brigade of soup cookers to the custom printed pro-government ribbons and arm bands that participants wore on their sleeves. Nevertheless, the outward appearance of a grassroots effort was sought for the purpose of displacing the core object, the core signified, represented by the EuroMaidan protests: the imagined community of the Ukrainian people. AntiMaidan reproduced the symbolism of the revolution to communicate that, yes, these activities are, indeed, the product of a true “people’s movement.” However, the message went, The People are not represented by EuroMaidan; the true movement of the Ukrainian people can be found down the street at Mariinsky Park.
Similar displacements of signified objects guided the mimicry of self-defense brigades as well. On the Maidan, self-defense brigades came to represent the living manifestation of contemporary Ukrainian nationalism. Much of the symbolism engaged by self-defense brigades and their supporters made reference to historically significant forms of nationalism associated with the Ukrainian activist and militant Stepan Bandera, which continues to proliferate in the western region of Halychyna. This is a form of nationalism that evokes, for many, historical memory of violent politics and racially motivated killings. However, as I have argued elsewhere (Carroll 2014), the reproduction of these symbols on the Maidan was, more often than not, undertaken not to promote an ethnically charged form of nationalism, but to narrativize the sacrifices made by the self-defense volunteers, who were depicted as the heroes of an internal conflict that had drawn the Ukrainian people together in mutual service. The brigades, and the iconic imagery of fatigues, helmets, and shields that visually defined them, came to represent self-actualization, defiance in the face of oppression, and honorable yet dangerous service to the nation. These volunteers were offering themselves for the protection of the people (protecting ‘us’) from a violent government—from a clear and present danger.
When imposter self-defense members undertook public, highly visible displays of vandalism outside of the EuroMaidan encampments in Kyiv, the intent, again, was to produce an honest (or, at least, an honest enough) depiction of a EuroMaidan self-defense brigade, colored in the signs and symbols of a historically recognizable Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary outfit. However, these men did not play the role of protectors; they played the role of violent perpetrators, of young hooligans excited by wanton violence and destruction. Rather than an organized force working to protect the people, they portrayed themselves as a radical unit that sought to disrupt and even attack The People—to attack ‘us.’ The intended message was that EuroMaidan self-defense brigades were, indeed, collections of young men inspired by Banderist nationalism; yet, they tapped into the historical narratives that remember those Banderist philosophies as violent and dangerous. This mimicry sought to ensure the viewer that self-defense volunteers were who they said they were, and that is why they should be feared, not trusted or revered. In fact, a popular counter narrative to EuroMaidan held that those who sought to remove Yanukovych from office were, in fact, militant neo Nazis who sought to incite ethnic violence in Ukraine (Weiss 2015), and the physical appearance of the self-defense brigades served as excellent fodder for advancing this theory.
In contrast, when self-defense brigades were mimicked in Crimea and Donbas, the symbolic meanings that these volunteers visually communicated were shifted to apply to a different subject altogether. In both of these locations, and especially in Crimea, self-defense units were portrayed as dedicated, honorable locals who sought to defy oppressive forces, who were committed to defending their homeland against an outside aggressors who would forcibly control or oppress them. The difference, this time, was that the outside aggressor was the post-EuroMaidan Ukrainian government, and The People, the ‘us’ deserving of protection was again shifted from the crowds in Kyiv to the local residents of these other regions.
Finally, the use of tires in Donbas mimicked this specific signifier in order to draw on the emotional indices of EuroMaidan. On the Maidan, the use of tires in barricades symbolized many of the most positive and celebrated elements of the revolution; they represented the contribution of Ukrainians from all social and financial backgrounds. They represented a successful, self-made mobilization against violence. They represented the ability to protect oneself and one’s community. In Donbas, these abstract objects were also invoked by the strategic display of tires, even where they were not strategically appropriate or helpful.
Yet, this was not the only meaning the tires carried for the activists who participated in the revolution. For those who were present, the image of a tire also became an icon of the struggle, an indicator of the shared, lived experience of having been on Maidan, of having fought for the same goals—for the right to self-actualize and release from political oppression. They also represented the lives that were saved and the lives that were lost. These meanings were reproduced in places other than Donbas. Following the massacres in Kyiv that took place between February 18 and 20, 2014, memorials were erected to those who died, and, often, mourners placed a single tire alongside these memorials, as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the dead. I personally observed this practice throughout Kyiv and in western Ukraine. In Donbas among those who opposed the Kyiv government and the revolution that government represents, these specific emotional messages, the grief and solidarity at EuroMaidan that the tires were used to represent, would most certainly ring hollow; yet, they are able to index a similar degree of emotional intensity. Even though these heightened feelings about EuroMaidan would not be invoked by a viewer seeing an image of a tire-filled barricade in Donbas, the emotional intensity generated by the revolution certainly would be.
These deliberate imitations would not have been effective in countering the narratives of EuroMaidan if the visual imagery they copied were not already quite familiar to the public. Pierce’s theory of the tripartite anatomy of signs is helpful in explaining why this is the case. When visual images of EuroMaidan began circulating, these visual codes, these signifiers, took on meaning not only in public discourse but in the imaginations of the individual members of the public as well. In other words, when the visual representamen depicting different elements of the EuroMaidan protests circulated, an associated interpretant of that object, of the protests or of the protesters themselves, was evoked in the minds of the viewers. This allowed the public to ‘think’ EuroMaidan, to move new categories of human action, political narrative, and social distinction into their systems of cognition.
In parallel fashion, the recycling of the same visual representamen by the authors of counter narratives assured that viewers would have a pre-existing interpretant to which they could anchor their understanding of this new visual material. This is why counter narratives did not need to be complete narratives. They did not even need to make sense from a logical point of view. They simply needed to successfully evoke pre-conceived, comprehensible interpretants in their viewers’ minds and then plug imagined gaps in that mental image, tweaking small elements of that understanding to serve their own purposes. In this way, authors of counter narratives can be assured that their counter narratives are comprehensible to their audiences. They can even be confident that these narratives will feel somewhat ‘natural’ by virtue of the fact that they are engaging pre-existing cognitive categories that have already been integrated into viewers’ worldview. By avoiding the need to unseat the original narrative entirely, this can all be accomplished without trying very hard.
This mechanism, by which counter narratives against EuroMaidan and the current Ukrainian government function, amounts to a semiotic slight of hand. The iconic similarities between the original and the imitative visual images are exploited in order to evoke previously associated objects and meanings, to blur the division between the new and old signifiers and, by extension, between the meanings (the signifieds) conveyed by each. Yet, by placing that new signifier into a different context, depicting rallies with a different political orientation, showing self-defense volunteers doing things they are not supposed to do or in different places dealing with different conflicts, these counter narratives shift the indexical meaning of these signifiers. By this, I am referring to the signified meanings that have existential relationships with their signifiers: they influence one another; they shape one another; they co-occur; they are tied to our emotional responses; they are tied to a specific time and place.
Thus, new meanings are attached to old signifiers, so to speak. Elements of truth are cherry picked from the signs being imitated and transplanted into new iterations that look like the same thing. “Yes, this is what it looks like when The People rise up, but these are The True People over here in Mariinsky Park; those protesters in Maidan are fascists.” “Yes, self-defense brigades in Kyiv are Ukrainian nationalists. That is why you should be afraid of them.” “Of course, self-defense brigades will form when a dignified people are threatened by an intolerable aggressor. That’s exactly what happened in Crimea, and what is happening still in Donbas.” These twists are simple, but they are clever. In part, this fact explains why such propaganda is so divisive. Either the intended new meaning is successfully transmitted and the original meaning framed as fraudulent, or the mimicry is seen for what it is, the original signifieds are not displace and the counter narrative is seen as a farce. In other words, this strategy is either going to work very well, or it is not going to work at all. There is no middle ground, because, as Pierce has argued, there is no such thing as a half-formed interpretant or a hybrid form of semiotic cognition. We simply know what we know. It is either one thing or the other, never both.
The pattern continues…
This particular method of semiotic slight-of-hand is a key tool in Russia’s international propaganda experiment. It can be seen even today in both official and unofficial Russian media channels. Officially, the dominant foreign mouth piece of the Russian government, RT, has been making a general practice of exploiting iconic similarities between visual images in order to drag the larger emotional and political meaning—the indexical meanings—of those images into their preferred narrative. Journalist Christopher Miller, who has covered the Crimean annexation and the war in Donbas extensively for the Kyiv Post and Mashable, has reported on what he calls the “whataboutisms” in the Russian television media’s reporting of the recent civil unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore (Miller 2015a). In so doing, he has published a collection of screenshots from RT’s video program “In the Now” depicting iconically similar photographic images from Kyiv’s EuroMaidan and from Baltimore’s 2015 riots side by side. The goal of the broadcast was to highlight the alleged hypocrisy of the US government in responding differently to the two events, which RT suggests are equivalent. Here, the intent to invoke familiar interpretants in the viewers’ minds for the sake of generating new, politically motivated meaning is quite overt. As Miller reported , the host of RT’s “In the Now,” Anissa Naouai, said the following over the images as they aired: “Maidan versus Maryland. Don’t let the media decide. Not even us. You can see for yourselves. The similarities—well, they speak for themselves” (Miller 2015a).
Through unofficial channels, this semiotic slight of hand has been taken up with creative abandon. For example, twitter user @Afromaydan, a play on words that joins the name EuroMaidan with a reference to people of black African ancestry, has been a prolific generator of memes, critical of the US government, which alter indexical meanings by exploiting iconic
similarities. Two good examples of these stylized memes can be found in this user’s posts dating from April 28 and 29, 2015, during the height of the civil unrest in Baltimore. One shows two edited images (each with a seemingly violent protestor crudely photoshopped in to appear as though they are attacking riot police) side by side. The photo on the left is labeled “Maidan, 2014.” It is accompanied by a quote from Barack Obama, which reads, “We strongly advise everyone to respect the right to peaceful protest in Ukraine.” The photo on the right is labeled “Baltimore, 2015.” Under this title, a different quote from Barack Obama appears: “The marauders in Baltimore must be considered criminals. The violence had nothing to do with peaceful protests.” The implication of the meme is that President Obama has responded differently, and therefore hypocritically, to each of these events despite the allegedly obvious fact (signaled by the iconic similarities between the two images) that these events are, for all intents and purposes, equivalent. This technique has also been engaged for apparently humorous (though racist) purposes, as can be seen in the April 28 meme that shows the face of a black man superimposed onto a portrait of a well-known separatist fighter in Donetsk who went by the code name “Babay” or “Boogeyman.” The caption reads “Boogeyman 2.0 – Baltimore, rebooted somewhere in the Baltimore People’s Republic,” indicating that the legitimate demands for civil rights being made by African-American residents in Baltimore are equivalent to those made by separatist forces in Donetsk.
In recent days, many have observed that Russian television channels have switched from constant coverage of Ukraine to exclusive reporting from the conflict in Syria (Weiss 2015; Miller 2015b). Policy analyst Edward Lucas offered the following interpretation of this change:
The first target in all this is Russian public opinion. The soap opera in Ukraine is over. The heroic separatists, their evil fascist foes, and the cynical Western meddlers have been retired. The new entertainment is a thrilling and exotic epic set in Syria, with the Assad regime as the heroic defenders of civilized values, Russian [sic] their valiant allies and the West as the defenders of jihadist barbarians. (Politico Magazine 2015)
In short, the careful crafting of narrative is again underway, and with so much of the Russian government’s media resources directed towards online video and television publications, we can be confident that visual imagery will be central to these narrative campaigns. We can be confident that this method of semiotic slight of hand will continue to be in the Russian propaganda playbook.
Though this requires further analysis, my contention is that these semiotic techniques for producing counter narratives and, by extension, misinformation, are fundamentally Russian and Ukrainian things to do. Though I am in no way implying that agents in only Russia and Ukraine make use of this practice, it is a clearly a practice that is often engaged in this region. What is more, since this counter narrative technique relies on the ability of images to invoke pre-existing concepts and narratives in the minds of the viewer, these counter narratives necessarily tap into widely shared elements of Eastern European culture and the lived experience of Russian and Ukrainian people today. These counter narratives both create locally relevant cultural artifacts and are locally relevant culturally artifacts, themselves. It is therefore important for cultural and political scholars of Russia and the post-Soviet sphere more broadly to watch closely as these counter narratives proliferate. The more propagandistic images are produced, the more the authors of these images reveal about the ideology that shapes the rhetoric of these images and, by extension, the worldview from which they are conjured.
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A screen shot from Danny Hoffman’s photo essay Corpus: Mining the Border.
A meme published by the propagandistic twitter user @Afromaydan on November 29, 2014, which turns this argument on its head by criticizing the American government for interpreting two examples of the “same thing” differently. This critique is false, however; this is how all people interact with all images.
Left: Food preparation and distribution at Anti-Maidan in Mariinsky Park. Photo taken Dec 18, 2013, by Anatolii Stepanov.
Center and Right: Food preparation and distribution for EuroMaidan activists in Kyiv City Hall (center, taken December 5, 2013) and Independence Square (right, taken December 4, 2013). Photos by author.
Self-defense brigades at EuroMaidan, February 16, 2014. Photos by author.
Left: Local recruits stand with shields in front of an administrative building in Crimea.
Elizabeth Arrott / Voice of America / Creative Commons.
Right: Still image from RT video coverage of a Crimean self-defense swearing in ceremony. March 4, 2014.
Left: Tires used along the front line of defensive barricades on Hrushevsky Street in Kyiv. January 22, 2014.
Right: Tires ablaze in Maidan Nezalezhnosti to keep police at bay. February 19, 2014.
A memorial to those killed at EuroMaidan with a single tire placed alongside. L’viv, Ukraine. February 28, 2014. Photo by author.
Screenshots from RT’s video production “In the Now.” Published by Christopher Miller (2015).
A photoshopped meme posted by twitter user @Afromaydan on April 29, 2015. On the left, Barack Obama is quoted saying, “We strongly advise everyone to respect the right to peaceful protest in Ukraine.” On the right, the quote reads, “Marauders in Baltimore must be considered criminals. The violence had nothing to do with peaceful protests.”
Separatist barricades in Donetsk.
Left: https://libcom.org/news/eastern-ukraine-conflict-against-regime-kiev-junta-east-autonomous-workers-union-17052014 May 27, 2014.
Right: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/fierce-gun-battle-eastern-ukraines-slavyansk-kills-five-1445419. April 20, 2014.
A photoshopped meme posted by twitter user @Afromaydan on April 28, 2015. It depicts the face of a young black man superimposed onto a recognizable portrait of well-known Donetsk separatist and self-proclaimed Cossack Alexander Mozhaev, who went by the code name “Babay,” which means “Boogeyman.” The caption reads, “Boogeyman 2.0. Baltimore, rebooted somewhere in the Baltimore People’s Republic.”