"Maybe it’s all a matrix and we’re all like programs written by somebody else. . . . And none of us really exists, just the matrix. The program works, you live your life and think everything’s fine. Here you are drinking coffee right now. But there is no coffee—it doesn’t exist.” So mused Fyodor Berezin, the middle-aged sci-fi writer turned “deputy defense minister” of the Donetsk People’s Republic—the self-proclaimed state of the Russian-speaking insurgents in eastern Ukraine—in an August interview with a reporter for the still-surviving independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
“The matrix,” the concept from the 1999 cult film of the same name in which reality turns out to be an illusion generated by human-enslaving computers, was a recurring theme in Berezin’s conversation with Novaya Gazeta’s Pavel Kanygin. Berezin even deflected queries on the whereabouts of suddenly elusive rebel commander Igor Strelkov-Girkin with the deadpan suggestion that Strelkov-Girkin might not actually exist—though he grew testy when Kanygin countered by asking whether the Donetsk Republic might not exist, either.
This bizarre exchange encapsulates the surreal quality of the war in eastern Ukraine, where Russia’s undeclared involvement is the world’s biggest open secret. Russian soldiers are already getting killed in what official reports describe as accidents during military training. But the local separatist insurgents have been led mostly by Russian citizens—notably a battle-reenactment hobbyist (Strelkov-Girkin) and a political spin doctor (former Donetsk Republic prime minister Alexander Borodai). The theater of the absurd has even spread to Russia itself, where “the matrix” is a rather apt metaphor for the virtual reality propounded by the official media and uncritically absorbed by much of the population.
The Russian media landscape in the last six months has been dominated by nearly wall-to-wall coverage of Ukraine—or, rather, lurid propaganda masquerading as coverage. Writing in the independent online journal EJ.ru, Moscow journalist Anton Orekh noted with amazement that a major subway accident in Moscow in mid-July—a train derailment that killed 24 people and injured dozens more—did not rate a single mention in the weekly news wrap-up on Rossiya, the country’s leading news television channel, just days later: Once again, it was all Ukraine.
The grotesque pseudo-journalism that has become the norm in the official Russian media was starkly illustrated by the sensational story of the crucified boy. On July 12, a week after the previously rebel-controlled city of Slavyansk was taken by Ukrainian troops, Russia’s TV-1 aired an interview with a refugee named Galina Pyshnyak, who told a bloodcurdling tale about the execution of an insurgent’s child before a crowd of Luhansk residents in the city’s main square. “They took a little boy, 3 years old . . . and nailed him to a billboard like Jesus,” Pyshnyak told the reporter; the child’s mother, she said, was forced to watch and listen to his screams until she fainted, then was herself tied to a tank and dragged unconscious around the square. The story was widely ridiculed by Russian bloggers and debunked by Novaya Gazeta reporter Evgeny Feldman, who interviewed Slavyansk locals and found that no one had heard of this horrific deed. Pyshnyak was later identified as the wife of an ex-member of Berkut, the special security squad of the deposed pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. TV-1 never retracted the story.
Even token dissenters are now gone from Russian TV, where the spectrum of opinion ranges from patriotic fervor to patriotic derangement. The latter is reliably represented by member of parliament Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who, in a recent appearance on the popular TV-1 talk show Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov, capped a rant about the world’s eternal war on Russia with the declaration that “Hitler only killed Russians.” On another Sunday Evening, Solovyov himself not only lobbed the standard charge of “genocide” at the Ukrainian government but claimed that Ukrain-ian president Petro Poroshenko had “frankly declared that he is under the direct control of the USA.” One of
the guests, political analyst Semyon Bagdasarov, stressed that helping the separatists in Ukraine was a life-and-death priority for Russia: “After all, [Kiev’s] goal is very specific—it’s not just to crush Donbass [the Donetsk region], it’s to destroy the Russian Federation by bringing down its government and dragging us into civil war. That’s what’s at stake!” The other panelists nodded approval, while the studio audience burst into applause.