Since street protests over European integration first broke out in Kiev last November, the ideological battle lines dividing Russian Internet users haven’t changed much. Western-leaning liberals generally embrace the Ukrainian opposition, whereas conservatives and many of the self-proclaimed “geopolitical” thinkers fear “losing Ukraine” would deliver a strong blow to Russia’s national interests.
Regularly topping LiveJournal’s Russian-language traffic are two distinct kinds of reportage on Ukraine: first, there are the largely opposition-sympathetic photo blogs by photographers like Rustem Adagamov (and slightly more ambiguous work by Ilya Varlamov), and, second, there are the deeply anti-opposition posts by bloggers spreading conspiracy theories about terrorist plots and Western interventions designed to undermine the Ukrainian authorities.
Given the lack of eyewitnesses, the murder of Serhiy Nigoyan, Maidan’s first shooting fatality, has naturally attracted lots of speculation about who was responsible. Nigoyan died from bullet wounds on January 22, 2014, near Dynamo stadium on Grushevsky Street in Kiev, where skirmishes against police have been most intense. Nigoyan had been serving as an informal security guard for Maidan protestors. Twenty-years-old, handsome, and apparently quite friendly, Nigoyan had become a fixture of Kiev’s protest scenery, even starring in an unfinished film documentary. (A clip from his interview in this project is now available on YouTube, see below.)
Though police have not concluded their investigation, Nigoyan is thought to have died from sniper fire. The dominant narrative among protestors and Western journalists, it seems, is that Ukrainian Special Forces shot him dead [ru]. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, on the other hand, claims [ru] that its officers do not carry the type of ammunition that killed Nigoyan. Further thickening the plot, Ukrainian police say not a single eyewitness has come forward to deliver a statement explaining how Nigoyan died.
The day of the murder, after the popular Twitter account “EuroMaidan” posted a photo (later deleted) of unidentified snipers atop a building, Moscow-based blogger Denis Travin and others jumped [ru] at the opportunity to show that the photograph in the tweet was actually from Kyrgyzstan in April 2010.
Other Russian bloggers have been more willing to accept the role of snipers in Nigoyan’s murder, but some have also embraced extremely elaborate conspiracy theories about the gunmen’s identity. LiveJournal user ermalex76, for instance, argues in a blog post [ru] that the American military was behind the killing, citing the irregular ammo used, and the supposedly curious proximity of a (US-funded) Radio Liberty journalist to the site of the shooting. Blaming Gene Sharp, an American political scientist famous for his work on anti-government resistance movements, ermalex76 explains that “Sharp’s Plan” calls for the creation of “sacred martyrs,” in order to motivate protestors. (The blogger goes on to clarify that Yulia Timoshenko would make the perfect sacrifice, but her continued imprisonment makes it too difficult to kill her.)
Indeed, in an op-ed [ru] in the newspaper Izvestia, Russian opposition figure (and perennial gadfly of Russian liberals) Eduard Limonov also entertained the idea that someone was posing as police snipers, as a ploy to catalyze protest sentiment.
Other conspiracy theorists have turned their attention away from the killers and onto the victim, opening the door to character assassinations of Nigoyan. Following his death, it wasn’t long before bloggers discovered Nigoyan’s account [ru] on Russia’s largest social network, Vkontakte, where he posted methodically about Armenia. RuNet users did not fail to miss old photos of Nigoyan in army fatigues at a firing range. Presumably, this was during his mandatory military service in Ukraine (not Armenia, which Nigoyan never once visited), though another post raised suspicions [ru] of terrorist affiliations. On November 21, 2013, Nigoyan put up a picture celebrating ASALA, the redundantly titled “Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia,” a now extinct organization that spent the 1980s listed as a terrorist organization by the United States.
While no proof whatsoever has emerged linking Nigoyan to terrorism, it seems the rumor found a receptive audience even in Ukraine’s highest echelons of power. Sources close to the negotiations between the opposition and the government told [ru] journalist Tatiana Nikolaenko that President Yanukovich originally rebuffed accusations that the police were killing protesters. “Listen, guys, this was an Armenian terrorist,” the President allegedly said during talks, in the government’s defense.