The Infodemic: as Covid-19 cases skyrocket in Russia, the Red Army victory over Nazi Germany remains the one thing that matters.
- Text by Natalia Antelava
A very warm welcome to those of you who’ve joined us over the weekend. We are here to make sense of the Infodemic — the global spread of coronavirus disinformation and the way it is shaping the pandemic response.
Over the weekend:
- The UK issued pretty confusing instructions on easing lockdown restrictions
- The Trump administration struggled to juggle news of the White House outbreak with plans to open up the U.S. economy
- And, just for a brief moment, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II competed with coronavirus news for our attention
In Russia, however, the anniversary dominated the headlines.
Right now, Russia has one of the fastest-growing infection rates in the world. But as cases surged to more than 200k in the latest record one-day spike, Covid-19 did not overshadow one of the Kremlin’s most important narratives. Read on to understand why.
THE VICTORY THAT ALWAYS HAPPENS YESTERDAY
Everyone commemorates the Allied victory over the Nazis.
But, if you live in Russia and watch state television — as tens of millions of people do — you’ll be forgiven for thinking that World War II ended yesterday.
From endless documentaries, to dramas and countless news bulletins, the Soviet victory over the Nazis is always on the agenda. In fact, it’s the prism through which the Kremlin explains the world to its people:
A revolution in Ukraine? It’s the descendants of Ukrainians who supported Hitler in the 1940s who are now causing trouble in Russia’s backyard.
The removal of Soviet occupation monuments in Eastern Europe? It’s a NATO plot to undermine Russia’s sacrifices in World War II.
Even as Covid-19 cases rose in Russia, the focus was entirely on Victory Day — celebrated there on May 9th, the day the Soviets took Berlin — and on making sure that Moscow’s version of history is respected.
A Diplomatic Slap
Last Friday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an angry statement aimed at Donald Trump’s White House:
“On the eve of this sacred day, American bureaucrats can’t find the courage and desire to at least hint at the indisputable role and the colossal sacrifices undertaken by the Red Army and the Soviet people in the name of common humanity. We plan to have a serious talk to American officials,” it read.
The outrage was caused by a White House Instagram post in which a video, voiced by Trump, refers to March 8th as the day “America and Britain declared victory over the Nazis.”
The following day, Russian TV also dedicated a 13-minute piece to “the lies” propagated by American schools.
1st Channel’s correspondent in Washington DC read aloud from a history textbook that, he said, “talks about millions of Jews but says nothing about those who freed them.”
He also interviewed U.S. high school students, who complained that they learned nothing about the Soviet Union’s role in the war.
Background: This is the first year — since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 — that Russia has not held a parade on May 9th. TV channels broadcast last year’s event instead.
Extraordinary, considering that the Soviet Union held a May 9th parade only three times, in 1965, 1985 and 1990.
That changed when Putin turned the Soviet victory into a cornerstone of modern Russian identity. He also used it to reassert the nation’s place on the global stage.
But to weaponize history, Putin has had to edit it. Along with celebrating the genuine sacrifice made by the people of the Soviet Union, over the years the Kremlin has ramped up:
- The accusation that the West undervalues the Soviet Union’s contribution to the war
- Mockery of European countries who protest the occupation and repression imposed upon them by the victorious Soviet Union
- The denial of crimes committed by the Soviet Army and secret police during the war, and the rehabilitation of Stalin’s image
And the Kremlin’s tactics have worked. The number of Russians who believe that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is a “fabrication” has nearly doubled in recent years, according to a survey by one leading pollster, while close to 40% said they had never even heard of it. Those trying to present more balanced narratives have been progressively silenced:
- In modern-day Russia, you can be fined for comparing Stalin to Hitler or asserting the historical fact of the Soviet invasion of Poland
- Memorial, an NGO dedicated to documenting Soviet repression, was declared a foreign agent
- Putin has brought the Federal Archive Agency directly under his control
Why this matters: While Russia emerges as one of the global epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic, the authorities continue to fight for this version of history, which the Kremlin has worked so hard to establish.
Ahead of the May 9th celebrations, authorities in the city of Tver, two hours outside of Moscow, made time to dismantle commemorative plaques to the victims of the Soviet Great Terror and to the 6,300 Polish officers killed by the NKVD — Stalin’s secret police — in 1939.
And while state media focused on the role of the Red Army in a victory that is still presented as recent, here are things that were never mentioned:
- Reports that 300 Russian soldiers were infected with Covid-19 during the rehearsals for the parade, which was — eventually — cancelled.
- There is no official data on how many healthcare professionals have died from the coronavirus in Russia, so doctors have anonymously created an online “memory list” to keep a count of their fallen colleagues. It now has 160 names.
- The story of three Russian doctors who mysteriously fell out of windows in the past two weeks. Two of them spoke up about the lack of PPE in Russian hospitals.
Hungry for More?
- For our Generation Gulag project we spent a year finding and recording stories that the Russian government doesn’t want people to hear
- And here is one story that has flown under the radar: The coup that wasn’t. Coda’s Burhan Wazir looks at the latest conspiracy against Qatar.
See you on Wednesday!
P.S. It takes a team to bring you this newsletter. I couldn’t have done today’s without Coda Story’s Katia Patin.