Okay, please indulge me and listen to my introductory rant for just a minute. One of my pet peeves in life is when people recite established “memes” or “proverbs” that are technically inaccurate, just because they are too lazy to create new ones. I am not referring to harmless literary inaccuracies, like saying “Frankenstein” when you really mean “Frankenstein’s Monster”. I am referring to examples which turn real people into stereotypes. For example, when somebody is searching for a comparison to “the best person they ever thought of”, they will say something like, “Even if he was as kind as Mother Theresa…” WRONG! Mother Theresa was a villain who abused her patients in unspeakable ways. I don’t have time to go into that right now, so please just take my word for it. Or at least, do some research before invoking that brutal and conniving Albanian nun as the epitome of saintliness.
Other example: To this day, I still hear some people snickering about the “crazy woman” who claimed that her baby was eaten by dingoes. They use that as the very epitome of a ridiculous and over-the-top excuse. Everybody knows that the woman killed her own baby….. WRONG! In fact, she didn’t. And in fact, that woman, Lindy Chamberlain, became a laughing stock and a villain — UNFAIRLY! It was learned many years later that her baby actually had been eaten by dingoes. The truth came out eventually. But not before Lindy had suffered years of unjust incarceration and social ostracism.
Now I get to the topic of today’s post: In the Russian and Ukrainian blogospheres, for the past year and a half, the role of “dingoes” has been played by the meme of the “crucified child“. Any blogger who wants to eke out a cynical chuckle by alluding to something that is the epitome of “outlandish” uses this phrase to denote a ridiculously unbelievable accusation of an alleged atrocity committed by Ukrainians.
This post, which, due to the volume of material, I plan to do in 3 parts, is an offshoot of a debate with a “pro-Ukrainian” fellow (or maybe gal) over on Professor Paul Robinson’s blog. My opponent goes under the nik “cortes” — not to be confused with our own, beloved “Russophile” cortes who sometimes comments on my blog. The pro-Ukie person sometimes switches niks and comments as “kortezza“,but under either nik he or she really boiled my grits by invoking the standard meme about the ludicrosity of the so-called “crucified child”. When s/he wrote (using the word “imaginative” but probably intending “imaginary“):
“Hundreds of volunteers rushing to Donbass to fight with imaginative fascists crucifying imaginative 3-years old boys and organising imaginative pogroms of Russian-speaking population, all existing purely in Russian TV narratives, can be called anything but democracy.”
Breaking down this rant directed against Russian television, the resulting assertions are:
- Fascists do not exist in Ukraine/Donbass
- There was no attack against ethnic Russians in post-Maidan Ukraine
- A three-year-old boy was NOT crucified by Ukrainian army in Slavyansk
- All of the above are myths and lies are promulgated by the Russian TV propaganda machine
An Exercise in Epistemology
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
The main reason I want to put a stop to this “crucified child – ha ha – ridiculous” meme is because
- It is pervasive in the anti-Russian and kreakl blogophere, and
- People think they know something that they don’t actually know.
- And that is always a dangerous thing.
For those not in the loop:
When you hear or read the meme about a “crucified child“, or “crucified baby” or “crucified boy“, the writer is referring (usually mockingly) to an allegation made by a Ukrainian woman named Galina Pyshnyak. And they are mocking her testimony and implying that it is so ridiculous, such a “tin-foil hat” conspiracy theory, such a brazen lie, that it can only be placed side by side with stories of alien abductions, the Underwater City of Atlantis, and Illuminati plots. Hence the giggling and sarcastic tone.
Cards on the table: My sole purpose in writing this blogpost is to make people stop and think, just for one second, the next time the words “crucified child” crosses their lips with a sarcastic intent. Fact is: I do not know whether a 3-year-old boy was nailed to a poster board in Slavyansk, Ukraine on the date 5 July 2014. Most of you (readers) do not know either. Galina Pyshnyak said that she saw it happen, with her own eyes. Is she lying? Possibly. Or maybe not. WE DON’T KNOW.
Galina Pyshnyak first came to public attention a few days after the Ukrainian army and National Guard, under the leadership of Colonel Valery Heletei, re-took the strategic city of Slavyansk (also called Sloviansk) from pro-Russian rebels under Igor Vsevolodovich Girkin aka Strelkov. Colonel Heletei phoned Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko directly from Slavyansk to report the victory within minutes after it happened — that’s how important it was:
Colonel Heletei at the time was the Minister of Defense in the Ukrainian government. He personally commanded the Ukrainian army and National Guard units which retook Slavyansk. Corollary to that: IF (and I say “if”) Galina was telling the truth about the ensuing atrocity, THEN this alleged atrocity would have been conducted under Colonel Heletei’s orders or at least approval. Since he was in charge at the time. And this would make him a war criminal. IF it actually happened the way Galina said it did.
This other youtube video shows in more detail the Ukrainian army “liberating” Slavyansk. Separatist leader Girkin-Strelkov had abandoned the town, leading all his troops out in a convoy, in the middle of the night. Strelkov had made a strategic decision (whether rightly or wrongly — still hotly debated in Russian blogosphere) to withdraw from Slavyansk and reconsolidate his forces in the city of Donetsk. His withdrawal left the city of Slavyansk completely open to the Ukrainian army; left the citizens of Slavyansk completely vulnerable to whatever Colonel Heletei and his men chose to do to them. Be it acts of random kindness, or acts of random cruelty. By all accounts, the people of Slavyansk were fairly evenly divided in their sympathies between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian elements. Although Girkin-Strelkov’s warlord antics had, for sure, soured even some of the pro-Rebel types by now.
Among the people left behind by the retreating Strelkov, was a woman named Galina Pyshnyak, mother of four young children. As her biography later became known, Galina is an ethnic Ukrainian from the Transcarpathian region, in Western Ukraine. She had married an ethnic Russian man. Her own kinfolk did not approve of the marriage. The marriage was apparently not a happy one, there were rumors of domestic conflict and spousal abuse. Nonethess, the couple raised four children. The family lived in the town of Slavyansk. Galina’s husband had joined the Separatist militia. He was either off fighting somewhere, or had retreated from Slavyansk with Strelkov’s convoy; we cannot be sure. Galina was left alone with the children when the Ukrainian army retook the town. Later she was to claim that her home had been destroyed; and that she and her children had been placed on an “Execution List” of the Ukrainian National Guard. Within a few days, Galina and her children had escaped from Slavyansk. Like a million other Ukrainian refugees (literally), this family ended up in Russia. We do not know what became of her husband.
Galina’s First Interview
[Note: Blogger Gleb Bazov collected much of the information about Galina Pyshnyak’s accusation. You can find both of her interviews with Russian television here.]
When she first came to the attention of Russian Channel 1 reporters, Galina was just an ordinary refugee from Donbass, living in a tent camp in Rostov. Her first interview, which was just a 1-minute soundbite, has the markings of a “random interview” – in other words, it appears the TV crew were just scouring around the camp looking for some interesting quotes. What initially attracted them to Galina was her unusual background from the Transcarpathian region of West Ukraine. Galina, who speaks in Russian, describes to them how her political views upset her family; then she puts on a Western Ukrainian accent for effect: She is imitating her mother and the latter’s disapproving attitude about her (Galina’s) pro-Russian views. “You’re a terrorist, I will kill you!” Galina quotes her mom. “My own mother told me that!” This is most likely the soundbite that the TV crew were after. But then, abruptly, Galina changes course. Utilizing her 15 seconds of fame, she suddenly blurts out her story of the murder of a child and his mother in the town square of Slavyansk. The reporters were clearly not expecting something this explosive. Watch the interview for yourselves:
Galina tells her story mostly in a calm voice, devoid of affect. At exactly :40 seconds in, however, her voice catches slightly, as she mentions the atrocity that she claims to have witnessed: the murder of a 3-year-old toddler and his mother, at the hands of the Ukrainian army. “I personally saw this, with my own eyes,” Galina asserts, wiping a tear from her eye as her young daughter stands beside her, listening in on this very adult conversation.
Galina’s interview literally exploded the internet. Within seconds, it seemed, the Ukrainian blogosphere was rushing in “experts” to debunk Galina and everything about her. Bloggers scavenged around, found her old social media accounts, showing family photos from a happier time before the war. Trying, and failing, to prove that she wasn’t really from Transcarpathia. “Linguistic experts” “debunked” her “attempt” at Ukrainian dialect. Arguing that she didn’t get it right, that she was a fake, etc. etc. Later, as more facts came into play, it became clear that Galina is exactly who she says she was: She gave her correct name, her correct biography, her correct family info, she even gave an accurate imitation of her mom’s Transcarpathian accent. Any police detective that I know of would have called that at least a “half-reliable witness”. At least in terms of her own ID and background, if not her story itself.
Galina’s Second Interview
Having become a sensation on Russian tabloid television, Galina’s second interview was longer, and went into more detail about the alleged atrocity. In this interview, which was taken exactly a week after Ukrainian army retook Slavyansk, Galina speaks with Yulia Chumakova, the Channel 1 Bureau Chief. Note that Chumakova is absolutely hated by Russian liberals, with the same fervent level of hatred as, say, Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, by American liberals! Russian liberals consider Chumakova to be a walking talking mouthpiece of the Putin regime, and if you mention her name in their presence, they will spit at you. Chumakova is also banned from entering the Ukraine. For similar reasons.
This interview is more organized than the first one, and Galina herself shows more emotion in the telling of her story.
Moments to note:
0:41 seconds in: “They gathered people in Lenin Square….” This phrase sent pro-Ukrainian bloggers on the warpath, as they frenetically sought to pick holes in Galina’s story. “There is no Lenin Square in Slavyansk“. Actually, there is. Galina was referring to the main square, with the big statue of Lenin, which the locals call “Lenin Square”.
0:45 seconds in: “Only women and the elderly were gathered in the square. No young men left.” Galina describes how the Ukrainian army collected their audience and organized a “show execution”.
0:60 seconds in: “They took a child, a 3-year-old boy. They nailed him to the announcement board.” Galina even describes exactly what the toddler was wearing. Ukrainian bloggers were all over this one: How could she know how old the child was?
1:15 minutes in: Galina shows real emotion as she describes how the mother was forced to watch her baby being tortured in this manner.
1:33 minutes in: The baby takes an hour and a half to die. After which the Ukrainian soldiers tie the mom to a tank and drag her around the square three times. Until she dies as well. Galina is very specific that the circumference of the square is 1 kilometer. Again, Ukrainian bloggers were all over this one. Some even calculated the circumference of the square and disputed Galina’s number. Or wondered how a woman can be so cold as to retain numbers and calculations in her head, while recounting such a story.
2:40 minutes in: Galina mentions the war, the fascists, the SS Galychyna, the stories her grandma told her about SS Galychyna atrocities. According to grandma, Bandera’s UPA was worse than the German fascists. Again, Ukrainian bloggers were in disbelief: How can a simple housewife prate on about historical events? [Hint: Galina and her husband were committed to the Separatist cause. These were very politically-minded people, even though they may not have history degrees or enjoyed a higher education.]
4:03 minutes in: Galina says, “I have turned into a stone.” She explains her own coldness, her lack of fear, her lack of affect. Again, Ukrainian bloggers insist that, if she be telling the truth, then she should be a screaming, hysterical wreck. But she is not. She is a stone.
Reaction of Russian Opposition
The Russian liberal press reacted to Galina every bit as frothily as their Ukrainian counterparts.
The Hive Mind sprang into action: Immediately every Russian Oppositionist blogger and political figure worth his salt, following closely the lead of the Ukrainian government and media, condemned Galina and Channel 1. For example:
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny denounced the channel as “nutty” for airing the report.
“Are they completely sick to be concocting this?” he wrote on his blog. “The people behind this are a danger to society and what they are doing is a true crime.”
Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov called the report an attempt to rally “naive people behind a war with Ukraine”.
Channel One declined to comment.
And Channel 1 did actually remain an outlier for this story. More respectable outlets such as “RT” would not pick up Galina’s story. Naturally, without fact-checking and at least some corroboration, they simply could not touch this story with a ten-foot pole.
At a certain point, however, the Russian Opp and pro-Ukrainian blogosphere realized that it wasn’t enough to attack Galina and Chumakova on trivial factual points, or just by ranting and raving against Russian TV and the “Putin regime”. That only buys you so much. Every attempt to “debunk” Galina’s identify and biography had failed. At a certain point they had to address the actual details of the actual accusation of the alleged crime.
Namely, did the murder of a toddler and his mother actually take place in the city of Slavyansk on the date of July 5, 2014?
In the next installment of my post:
Oppositionist photo-journalist Evgeny Feldman travels to Slavyansk, hoping to debunk Galina’s story.
[to be continued]