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Russians Accuse Ukraine of Nazism—But Look at How Russian Propagandists Talk

The gruesome rhetoric of Putin’s talking heads.
October 27, 2022
Russians Accuse Ukraine of Nazism—But Look at How Russian Propagandists Talk
Top Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov (Screenshot)

Commenting on the controversy surrounding former RT director and host Anton Krasovsky, suspended for an overly vicious anti-Ukrainian tirade on a show last week, expatriate Russian satirist Viktor Shenderovich remarked that Krasovsky had “found himself in the position of the man who gets fired from the Gestapo for brutality.” Indeed, while Krasovsky’s musings on murdering Ukrainian children were unusually vile even for present-day Russian television, they differ only in degree from what currently passes for normal in the Kremlin-controlled media. What’s more, it’s fairly clear that the incendiary comments were not treated as out of line by Krasovsky’s colleagues or superiors until they were publicized in the West and caused an outcry.

Ultimately, this repulsive episode provides a rather dramatic “Where the Nazis are” moment amidst the frequent talk of “Ukrainian Nazis” coming from the Kremlin propaganda machine and from Kremlin-friendly Western pundits.

Krasovsky’s remarks came during an October 20 conversation he had with the Russian sci-fi/fantasy author Sergei Lukyanenko on Krasovsky’s RT show Antonyms. (In addition to hosting the show, Krasovsky was the director of RT’s Russian-language broadcasting.) Lukyanenko referred to disturbing claims—he calls them “lies”—going around about Russian troops raping Ukrainian women. Krasovsky’s reply: “Those grannies would gladly give the money they’ve saved up for their funeral to be raped by Russian soldiers.” Lukyanenko then launched into a story about how, on a trip to Ukraine back in Soviet times, in 1980, he had encountered Russian-speaking kids who griped about being occupied and oppressed by the moskali, a derogatory Ukrainian term for Russians. Krasovsky’s response: The right thing to do would have been to “just drown kids like that” in a river. When Lukyanenko countered with the more moderate proposal of “spanking with a switch,” Krasovsky gleefully insisted that drowning was the way to go: “He tells you they’re occupied by the moskali, and you just take him and toss him in a river with a strong current.” Or maybe “stuff them into huts and burn them.” For good measure, Krasovsky also opined that Ukrainians who weren’t fit to be part of a Russian state should be shot. His remarks were delivered with a swagger and a smirk that made them all the more repellent.

Three days later, in the early morning hours of October 23, this conversation was put on blast by Ukrainian-born American journalist Julia Davis, who does the thankless job of monitoring the Russian media and highlighting particularly notable bits.

The clip went viral on Twitter, and the reaction, from Ukrainian officials and others, was loud and swift. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba shared the video on his own Twitter feed with a call to “ban RT worldwide” for incitement of genocide. A few hours later, RT editor-in-chief and master propagandist Margarita Simonyan announced that the channel was suspending Krasovsky because she and her colleagues could not allow anyone to suspect even for a moment that they endorsed his “senseless and loathsome” statements.

A few hours later, Krasovsky apologized on his Telegram account, saying that he felt “genuinely embarrassed to have somehow crossed the line” and explained that sometimes when you’re on the air, you just get “carried away” and can’t stop. Then, he expanded on his repentance in a video in which he castigated himself as a fool, professed to feel horror at the death of any child, and addressed a plea for forgiveness not only to his RT colleagues but to “all mothers who heard my words and were horrified.” He even concluded with the declaration that, whether or not he could be forgiven by others, “I for one will never forgive myself.”

But the essential phoniness of both Krasovsky’s penitence and Simonyan’s outrage is easily exposed by a quick look at the facts and the timeline. Krasovsky did not “get carried away” during a live broadcast (as did, for example, the Ukrainian TV presenter last March who vowed to kill Russians, including children, in an on-air rant moments after learning about a close friend’s death in combat—an outburst for which both he and the network apologized the next day). Krasovsky’s conversation with Lukyanenko was prerecorded, and the recording vetted and edited before it aired. The segment also stayed online for three days, and Krasovsky happily promoted it on social media with no hint of embarrassment. Nor did anyone else notice anything amiss—not until the clip gained unwanted notoriety thanks to Davis and her English subtitles.

Shocking? Maybe not, when one considers that the line Krasovsky crossed is not that far away from ideas routinely articulated by Russian propagandists on TV and in other media since the start of the war—including Simonyan herself. In mid-September, after Vladimir Putin first started attacking Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure as retaliation against Ukrainian victories on the battlefield, Simonyan cheered, demanded more, and posted social-media taunts directed at Ukrainians left without power: “Hey, neighbors, lights not working?” Less than a month later, Simonyan and many of her colleagues readily moved on to cheerleading for Russian attacks on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities after the Crimea bridge bombing—a barrage of missile and drone strikes that not only left millions without power or water but rained terror on civilians, killed dozens and wounded many more. (Krasovsky’s reaction was to post a video of himself dancing on the balcony of his house, grinning broadly.)

On Rossiya-1 оn October 19, Duma members Andrei Gurulyov and Konstantin Dolgov—the latter, in a slightly surreal twist, is a former commissioner for something called human rights—defended the strategy of destroying Ukraine’s industry and civilian infrastructure, leaving people without power or food and drowning Kyiv in raw sewage. Host Olga Skabeyeva chimed in to call, with enviable candor, for a “ritual disclaimer” about peaceful civilians: “Of course we’re not gloating, we feel sorry for everyone and we love everyone, but we’ve been pushed to this point, they want to destroy us, and we are forced and will be forced to react to all this.”

Perhaps the biggest star of Vladimir Putin’s propaganda theater, TV-1 host Vladimir Solovyov, only semi-facetiously described himself as a “terrorist” on the air back in August as he argued that civilians in Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, and Odessa should be given three days to leave and, if they did not comply, the cities should be “razed block by block.”

To the normalized advocacy of slaughter, one can add normalized advocacy of cultural genocide, or forced destruction and erasure of national identity. Take a recent interview conducted by Sergei Mardan on Solovyov’s online channel with Donbas war blogger and separatist “militia member” known by the nom de guerre Vladlen Tatarsky, who claimed that Ukrainians are really just deluded Russians—akin, he mused, to transgender people who delude themselves into thinking they’re the opposite sex. After Russian victory, Tatarsky promised, these prodigal children will be cured of their “spiritual transvestitism” and regain their true identity as “southern Russians.” (Tatarsky is the same guy who delivered a viral and notoriously frank video comment on Putin’s September 30 speech on annexing four Ukrainian provinces: “We’ll beat them all, we’ll kill them all, we’ll rob everyone that needs robbing, and everything is going to be the way we like it.”)

This is, of course, just a small sample of homicidal and genocidal rhetoric from Putin’s “Russian world.” We haven’t even gotten to the apocalyptic nuclear talk—some of it from none other than Simonyan, who flatly declared on the air in May that Russian defeat in Ukraine is impossible and that “either this ends badly for all humanity or we win.” But to round out the collection, there’s a remarkable recent video posted by journalist and popular military blogger Yuri Kotyonok which combines the “Ukrainians are delusional Russians” theme with a frank call to physical genocide. The video features Pavel Gubarev, one of the founders of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” a Russian citizen and onetime member of an ultra-right, de facto neo-Nazi group called Russian National Unity. Here, he is seen calmly explaining that Ukrainians are really Russians afflicted by demonic possession, and those who don’t want to be cured will have to be killed, even if it means exterminating every one of them.

Amid this orgy of hate, Krasovsky’s swift defenestration probably had something to do with the fact that he not only said the quiet part out loud but went viral doing it. The tattered fig leaf of decency had to be put back in place. Simonyan made her “I’m not that kind of girl” gesture (as Shenderovich put it), and the head of the Russian investigative committee asked for a report analyzing Krasovsky’s “strident comments.” One Duma member even suggested that Krasovsky’s remarks were a “monstrous provocation” and that he was working for the West and/or for Ukraine. Political analyst Abbas Galyamov told Novaya Gazeta, the independent and now-expatriate Russian newspaper, that the authorities may have decided to make an example of Krasovsky in order to send the message that extreme rhetoric from the pro-war side is no longer tolerated. Galyamov conjectured that this could be linked to the Kremlin’s current weak position, which dictates an effort to be more presentable to the West while seeking negotiations.

Other Russian analysts have speculated that Krasovsky was particularly vulnerable to scapegoating because of his unusual history, at least for a Kremlin propagandist: Not only was he a Barack Obama-loving liberal as recently as 2018, he also came out as gay and HIV-positive in 2013 (which cost him his television job at the time). Whether his new incarnation as a militant Russian nationalist—one who, among other things, supports Russia’s new ban on “gay propaganda”—is a sincere conversion or an opportunistic career move is anyone’s guess; but it’s possible that his personal eccentricities made his colleagues more willing to throw him under the bus, especially in the midst of an intensive homophobic campaign around the “gay propaganda” law.

Yet it’s also entirely possible that Krasovsky will soon be forgiven and reinstated. Numerous war supporters, including RT pundit Yegor Kholmogorov, were quick to come to his defense. Some claimed—implausibly, and incoherently in light of Krasovsky’s apology—that when Krasovsky talked about drowning children, he was talking metaphorically about “drowning” any attempt to cultivate Ukrainian nationalism in the young generation. Others pointed out, not unreasonably, that Simonyan’s pronouncements about nuclear war being preferable to defeat were no less bloodthirsty than Krasovsky’s fantasies. Simonyan herself seems to be in a forgiving mood. As Davis reports in the Daily Beast, the RT editor-in-chief “has been peppering her Twitter feed with statements about her own experiences on the front lines, stating that war hardens people and it can be surprisingly easy to lose your humanity.” Appearing on Solovyov’s show, she also stressed forgiveness of the penitent as a key Christian value and noted that Krasovsky had repented repeatedly. So it looks like Krasovsky’s moment of accountability for “crossing the line” is likely to be short.

The reality is that right now, an enormous amount of essentially fascist and in some cases downright Nazi-like rhetoric is emanating from the Kremlin propaganda mill—and, in even more extreme form, from Russian nationalists and war hawks who think the current leadership is too soft. This rhetoric is mainstreamed and legitimized in Russia as ideological justification for a blatant war of aggression. And, as the Krasovsky apologias show, moves to curb even its most extreme and hateful manifestations and draw the line somewhere are likely to be halfhearted and empty. It’s noteworthy that while Russian journalists were discussing Krasovsky’s suspension, Chechnya’s autocratic president Ramzan Kadyrov—apparently angered by reported deaths of Chechen soldiers in Ukraine—posted an audio message which not only declared that “all Ukraine is our Russian territory”  but threatened horrific reprisals against Ukrainians: “We won’t take these shaitans [devils] prisoner. We’ll burn them.” How does one condemn homicidal tirades from a journalist when one of the country’s most influential politicians, the head of one of the constituent republics of the federation, has leeway to deliver such speeches?

If nothing else, the war has exposed the degree to which the Putin regime and its minions have crossed the line into fascism—both in the conventional sense of the word and in the unorthodox one proposed in a recent interview by expatriate Russian writer Dmitry Bykov. Fascism, Bykov said, is not just an ideology: it is a “physiological” phenomenon that refers to “the pleasure a person takes in allowing himself to break every moral law, divine or human.”

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.