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A Look Back at ‘Eastern Ukraine Unfiltered’

Putin signs Russia-Crimea treaty, March 13, 2014, by Gabriel Fortin-Harvey, Demotix.

Putin signs Russia-Crimea treaty, March 13, 2014, by Gabriel Fortin-Harvey, Demotix.

With hindsight, the title of this series is a bit of a misnomer. We called it “Eastern Ukraine Unfiltered” to reflect the fact that the bloggers, “streamers,” and online activists we profiled are reporting on-the-ground, in areas they've often lived their whole lives. The title stems from the popular idea that citizen journalists are divorced from vested interests, government pressure, and the institutional prejudices of traditional media, and can therefore present an image of reality that's more critical, unbiased, and true to life.

The truth, of course, is everyone has a filter.

This article concludes an extensive RuNet Echo study of Russian-language blogosphere in Eastern UkraineExplore the complete interview series on the Eastern Ukraine Unfiltered page.

All of the people interviewed for this project have strong opinions about what constitutes “truth” and “objectivity” in Ukraine's ongoing conflict. They've been inspired by the events around them to broadcast those ideas to others online, which sometimes meant blaming the violence on a NATO-backed coup, or Ukrainian fascism, or Russian intervention. 

If this interview series demonstrates anything, it's that people's biases filter any attempt to convey truth. This project is called “Eastern Ukraine Unfiltered,” but the interviews depict a Ukraine mediated through multiple filters. 

The closest anyone in these interviews comes to reporting strict facts is Maksim Osovskiy, who streams live footage from Luhansk. That said, Osovskiy still has to make decisions about where and what he films. This isn't a criticism, mind you, as many of the bloggers interviewed here produce good professional-quality journalism under extremely difficult circumstances, for little or no reward. It's important to remember that objectivity is ever elusive. In the end, whether we're citizen journalists or just writing about citizen journalists, we all face certain limitations.

Despite talk of an “information war” raging online, the bloggers who participated in this study have a wide variety of opinions and display a surprising level of nuance in their work. The dull cliches of propaganda are not what fuel this activity.

A blogger like Boris Rozhin (“Colonel Cassad”), who openly espouses neo-Stalinist leftism, is able to denounce Vladimir Putin as a “capitalist master,” and in the same breath support the Kremlin's cause against “fascists” in Kyiv. Though she enthusiastically supports Russia's annexation of Crimea, Polina Dubinina openly criticizes Moscow's actions in the Donbas. Daria Karpenko lives under an occupation she opposes, but she's far from impressed with the Ukrainian media and its efforts to “whitewash” the mistakes of the new government in Kyiv.

These bloggers typically say their opponents are “brainwashed,” but individuals on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine are highly critical consumers of information, with deep skepticism towards traditional media. They've certainly got strong opinions about what's happening, but it would be profoundly inaccurate to call them passive or uncritical pawns in the information war.

It's important to remember that the information war is not some digital abstraction or PR campaign, divorced from reality on the ground; it's a manifestation of a real and bloody conflict that has already claimed thousands of lives. Three of the bloggers interviewed in this project fled their homes, fearing for their safety. Another has since left Crimea for Poland. Some of them weren't able to escape being hurt. In May, Maksim Osovskiy was kidnapped and tortured for trying to film the referendum in Luhansk.

Citizen journalism has become extremely dangerous in the Donbas and Crimea. The courage it takes to publish online isn't so different from the courage men and women need on the battlefield. Consider the anonymous Slovyansk-based blogger interviewed here, who is utterly unimpressed with his own “success” on the Internet. Initially hesitant to consent to an interview, he explained that he does what he does out of a sense of duty to tell the world about what was happening in his small provincial city. He says he has no desire for online fame, and simply wants the war to end. For him, there is no difference between the information war and the real one.

For people in a country at war, expressing the wrong opinion can be dangerous. Over the course of this project, Ukraine seemed to become a more dangerous place. The bloggers interviewed here appear to be growing intolerant of dissent and desperate for uniformity. Voices on the Internet have become more radical as the war in the Donbas continues. No matter whom people blame for the destruction of Donetsk and Luhansk, you're unlikely to find much support in Ukraine for an open dialogue between adversaries. 

In the end, bloggers in Ukraine raise broadly similar complaints, despite a wide variety of political sympathies. They're sick of corruption, oligarchy, and the elites’ arbitrary lawlessness. Claims that a language barrier is what divides Kyiv and its opponents don't hold up well against the large number of pro-Ukrainian bloggers writing in Russian. Sadly, the reasons for the rift between the camps of eastern Ukraine's blogosphere now scarcely seem to matter, as bridging the gap has become nearly impossible.

Crimea's Tatars face increasing pressure from the Kremlin, and almost 20,000 have fled rather than live under Russian rule. The Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics are highly militarized states, where dissent invites violence. Many pro-Kyiv activists have already fled, as the rebels consolidate their territories, digging in for the long haul.

If both sides of this conflict are going to talk to each other, not in the sense of high-level political negotiations, but simply in terms of conversations between ordinary people, it's most likely going to be via the Internet. If there's a chance of any kind of reconciliation, both camps will have to start looking at the world though each others’ filters. 

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