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War propaganda: “Father, I’m not making this up”

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What to do if the father in Russia believes the propaganda more than his own son who is experiencing the war in Ukraine? That is exactly what happened to Misha Katsurin.

A man pushes his bicycle through kyiv on March 21, 2022. The district around the former Retroville shopping center was largely destroyed after Russian attacks on the Ukrainian capital. © Aris Messinis/​AFP/​Getty Images

Until the war in Ukraine began, 33-year-old Misha Katsurin was a successful businesswoman in kyiv, co-founder of the Katsurina fashion brand, owner of four trendy restaurants. Now her restaurants cook food for the needy and for the Ukrainian army. Her wife, her eight-month-old son and her six-year-old daughter fled to Hungary. Katsurin himself is currently in Ternopil, western Ukraine, working with a team of volunteers to bypass Russian information control. His idea is that Ukrainians contact their Russian relatives – as trusted ambassadors in an unleashed propaganda battle – to report on the horrors of war.

ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Katsurin, on your website dad believes you will find a lot of sophisticated advice for Ukrainians in terms of the psychology of communication, how to convince your relatives in Russia that Vladimir Putin is lying, that there is a war in Ukraine, and that civilians are being bombed. How did you come to this conclusion?

Misha Kasurin: I have to take a moment to tell my story. My mother divorced my father when I was three years old, my father went to Russia, we stayed in Ukraine. He lives in a small town near Nizhny Novgorod in the forest, works in a monastery, loves music and nature, is deeply religious. A Christian who would never tolerate senseless slaughter. I called him three or four days after the start of the war because I was surprised that he hadn’t contacted me to find out how my family and I were doing.

ZEIT ONLINE: How was the conversation?

Katsurin: I told him that I am trying to get my family out of kyiv, that kyiv is being bombed. And he started arguing with me, explaining that the Russians would carry out a peaceful military operation, bring warm clothes and food to the Ukrainians and protect us from a Nazi regime. In a word: that the Russians are heroes. I told him: “Father, I am not making this up. I see it with my own eyes. I have friends in kyiv who are being bombed right now.” But it was like talking to someone who is deaf and lives in a very different reality.

ZEIT ONLINE: The American publicist Julián Sánchez has this phenomenon of ignorance at the time of the confrontation epistemic closure called. The revealing information, really shocking, is there, is there. But it doesn’t, because the opposite person has long had dominant frames – “all propaganda”, “western media lies” – to protect themselves and ignore what they don’t like.

Katsurin: That’s it. My father had been told for over 20 years that the tree behind him was red. And then I call him and say after all this time, “The tree is right in front of me. It’s green.” It was all, of course, deeply sad and frustrating, all I wanted to do was scream, “Father, can you hear me? It’s your son speaking! Why don’t you believe me?” I posted on Instagram, shaken by this miscommunication experience, and my post went viral in no time. 135,000 people shared it, countless Ukrainians wrote that they had very similar experiences with their nephews and uncles, their mothers and sisters. They are also not believed in a perverted world of information saturated with lies.

ZEIT ONLINE: You have experienced very directly the power of propaganda, disinformation as conversation blocking.

Katsurin: Absolutely. And three things became clear to me. First of all, there is a problem of mass communication here, because about eleven million Russians have relatives in Ukraine. On the other hand, that the questions about the supposed Nazi regime that rules Ukraine and other myths of the justification of the war have to be addressed directly and that this requires serious information and the help of professional arguments. Finally, I understood that the fact that so many of us are now talking to our relatives in Russia is a starting point to do something useful, especially in times of such aggressive censorship. Because if we manage to communicate with our relatives and friends in Russia by phone or through the messaging services that still work, if we see ourselves as the last free channel of information in Putin’s propaganda empire and if our relatives in Russia subsequently only have two three friends count it, then at some point there will be 20, 30, 40 million people, enormous power. And if he knows the truth, I think it is impossible for him to support the Putin regime.

ZEIT ONLINE: You yourself managed to speak differently from your father.

Katsurin: Let’s put it this way: I celebrate small successes. But the dismantling of such professionally deployed propaganda is very, very long. A few calls are not enough, it takes time. And yet progress is being made, step by step. My father no longer tells me that it was a peaceful military operation. He now tells me phrases like: “Misha, the war is terrible and people are dying.”

ZEIT ONLINE: Would you like to share how you experienced turning points big or small in your conversations? His story is also about the art of talking to each other in a situation blocked by propaganda images. What makes the difference?

Katsurin: I think the only way to open the door to a successful conversation in a situation like this is to show your love. When I immediately start preaching and insist on lecturing the other about his erroneous beliefs, when I explain to him where he is wrong and what the facts are, and then I use Ukrainian television, our news reports and the speeches of our politicians as sources. refer – then the dispute begins. We then stayed in the trenches of opposing positions, accusing each other of being victims of propaganda. That is useless. So I start in another way, like this: “Father, I am your son. And I love you in every conceivable way that a son loves his father. I will try to answer all your questions. And I know you have so many questions for me! Let me try!” to explain everything to you!

ZEIT ONLINE: On his website there is an audio recording of a phone conversation with his father. And there’s a key scene where he notices that the defense is collapsing and the seemingly clear propaganda image is suddenly cracking. They tell him about a family friend who has been living in a bunker for days. Once this family sends an SMS, a call for help. You need a child therapist because the girl couldn’t stop crying for five hours. It is this story that creates commotion and allows communication bridges to be built, it seems to me.

Katsurin: It is right. But sometimes detailed evidence is helpful. For example, I sent my father screenshots of a Telegram chat from my mother, his ex-wife. She says that she knows people who tried to get to safety through one of the escape corridors and are now dead, shot by the Russian army. It’s hard to argue there. It’s a screenshot with messages from my mom! That means: it takes love, a lot of patience, factual evidence to refute war propaganda, which we offer on our website in the simplest possible terms. But you are right: the best thing is the personal story, authenticated by the own experience.

ZEIT ONLINE: How do you rate the chances of success for persuasion and penetration? In fact, a terrible human and media experiment is currently taking place in Russia. Their goal is to enforce the most aggressive information control in the digital age for a good 144 million Russians, with media laws, censorship, the banning of individual social networks, intimidation, threats. For a long time there has been a digital iron curtain. Can the clarification still succeed?

Katsurin: Hard to say. You can be sure that the various initiatives are trying absolutely everything. We ourselves have IT experts on the team who duplicate our website a hundred times – it was already blocked in Russia for the second day. We have web designers, public relations specialists, people who communicate directly with those who seek advice. We draw on the experience of psychologists and deal with the ever new wartime lies and see ourselves as a kind of Wikipedia page for dismantling propaganda. And remember: we are just a single tiny element in this gigantic information war, supported by donations and volunteers. But, of course, I also see the photos of those who encourage the war in Russia. Of course, I also hear that Russian influencers, musicians and bloggers are personally called by the Kremlin people and threatened with imprisonment if they stray even a little from the official line. And one more thing: the real drama is that many well-educated people who think liberally and not nationalistically are about to leave the country. Because they just don’t see any chance to continue working in Russia. So Putin doesn’t need a Stalinist gulag, he just forces dissidents to emigrate.

ZEIT ONLINE: Actually, we’ve come to the end of our conversation, but I can tell you have something else you want to say.

Katsurin: Yeah, I just can’t think of the right word. I’m sorry for my English! (looks at his smartphone) So now I have the floor: “indifferent“, indifferent. You see, when the war started in Donbass in 2014, I was indifferent. I donated a little money, I sent some messages of solidarity, like: this war is quite far away and it’s actually not really my problem But when I lost my business and everything that constituted my old life, that’s when I realized that that wasn’t true. And how stupid and naive I was. So I want to say one more thing to those who read our conversation now: “I know, for Please don’t be indifferent!”

ZEIT ONLINE: What are you going to do now?

Katsurin: Giving more interviews to draw attention to our work. Otherwise, I am trying to bring my mother and grandmother from Berdyansk to Hungary to join the rest of my family. The problem: you can’t drive a car. And although I’ve found a driver, I can’t find gas right now.

Misha Katsurin’s initiative is funded by donations: https://papapover.com/en/.

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