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Fighting Putin's Propaganda on The Eastern Front: An Interview with Zarina Zabrisky
On the eve of the US Premiere of Byline TV’s powerful documentary film, ‘The Eastern Front', Heidi Sigmund Cuda interviews one of the film's stars Zarina Zabrisky
As an American political correspondent for Byline Times and Byline Supplement and the co-producer of an investigative podcast show about disinformation, RADICALIZED Truth Survives, I have read every Ukraine report from Zarina Zabrisky.
Her lived experience – born in the Soviet Union, living between St. Petersburg and Odesa, and forced to study combat propaganda at Leningrad State University – have made her uniquely qualified to report on this moment in time. Despite being an American citizen and living in my hometown of San Francisco for the last 25 years, she recognized that she had to move to Ukraine when the full-scale invasion began last year. So she left the US behind, and began filing daily dispatches from the point of view of an independent multi-lingual reporter.
Her independence is vital – her words which often appear on these pages are treasure – vital to our understanding of reality, free of the propaganda words that still interfere with the West’s perception of the truth. Among my favorite reports from her is this one - Ukrainian Dreams: The Dark Roots of Putin’s Nightmare War. If the Pulitzer Prize is still meaningful in the current global media meltdown, this report is worthy.
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As I read Zarina’s report, which so artfully relayed the brutality of both the kinetic and cyber warfare being waged, how a KGB officer came to power and how his propagandists “tube-fed the population brainwashing sludge” for the past two decades, financed by oil dollars – it struck me: The world is being harmed by an unholy alliance of ‘tech bros, soldiers, generals, and spies’ and we need to form a global alliance against them. We need to expose them as coordinating together to harm the world and have them stand for a tribunal at The Hague.
Zarina wrote: “The nightmare that haunted Russia has turned into mass insanity”.
As Zarina and I are on the eve of hosting the US premiere of Byline TV’s documentary film, ‘The Eastern Front - Terror and Torture in Ukraine’, I thought it was time we probe her personal stories and experiences even deeper. What follows is an interview with Zarina from California, where she is shutting down her old life in preparation for her permanent move to Ukraine.
‘An Inconvenient War’
Tell me what it’s like to be away from Ukraine during the past week’s events and explain to readers why it’s so important for you to go back?
Zabrisky: The world has split into war and peace for me. War became habitual. It is a job; my actions in Ukraine have purpose and meaning: we are all fighting for victory. Back here, in peace, the reality falls apart into a million pieces I can't fit together. Something is amiss in my daily life: I know that back there, my friends and people I have met are showered by burning debris falling from the skies and drowning in cold water. More than a few weeks may be needed to adjust after the war. Since the war is not just ongoing, but Russian attacks are getting heavier and heavier by the day, I cannot detach from this acute knowledge of what is happening there.
I feel driven to translate this experience I got there, to deliver the stories I have heard, and I feel a lot of resistance. People here, understandably, switch on their defenses.
The war is inconvenient. The knowledge of the war is inconvenient. I anger some people by reminding them of the war, and by disturbing their peace. I also experience anger, as I want to find interest and empathy and I rarely do.
“How do I keep my craft alive in a world that doesn't value it?" said Marie Colvin, a war journalist whose work inspires me and keeps me going in Ukraine. She was killed in Syria in 2012, while reporting.
The more I am here, the more I feel that my job is needed. War journalists witness and report. I can help fight the Kremlin narratives and keep the records of the crimes for the trial.
‘The Bloody Dictator’
You once said on RadPod that being back in Ukraine made you feel ‘safe’ because at least the people there know what’s happening. Explain what you meant and why disinformation is such an insidious part of this war?
Zabrisky: In the West, many people are still clueless when it comes to the Kremlin information warfare. It is understandable — until 2015, there was little exposure to it in the information space. The Kremlin propaganda machine, centralized and funded by Putin's government, has been brainwashing the Russian population for almost a quarter of a century. And that population was already well-prepped by Soviet propaganda. Putin has succeeded in brainwashing the Russians into literal zombies. Ukraine broke off from the USSR, and for the last thirty years, has been living in what may be an imperfect and chaotic, vulnerable and ever-changing but free information space. It is a democracy — despite oligarchs buying mass media outlets. Ukrainians are free people with critical thinking and plurality of opinions. They, like the residents of most former USSR republics, for the most part, recognize the Kremlin propaganda.
I don't have to explain every minute that listening to what the Kremlin says is useless. They know it. In Europe and America, people still think that negotiations with the bloody dictator are a possibility. It is dangerous for the world, not "safe." Also, the Russians cannot target me there for my journalism. The whole country is battling the common enemy — and I am an ally.
Explain combat propaganda and how we fight it.
Zabrisky: The main goal of combat propaganda is to demoralize the army and the population of the adversary by sowing confusion and discord, by the textbook definition. I have written hundreds of articles and taught lectures about it, so I will refer anyone who wants to know to those resources.
We fight it by understanding how it works, using critical thinking, and staying informed. So back to the articles. Yet, one most important piece of advice: slowing down the response to any information.
Combat propaganda manipulates emotions. It is designed to provoke a strong emotional reaction and stop critical thinking. After reading or watching a piece of news, stop and ask: who is the source? When was it made? Is it real news or fake news? Is it taken out of context? Who might benefit from my emotion (anger, rage, grief, hatred, laughter, etc).
Example: This week, in Egypt, a shark brutally killed a young man swimming in the sea. Because he was Russian, memes and jokes flooded the Internet. It coincided with another flood: as Russia blew up the dam, it flooded the Kherson region, killing many and destroying the environment. It also shelled and bombed many Ukrainian cities overnight, killing civilians. Insensitive and inhumane jokes about a human killed by a shark might be a matter of analysis for psychologists. The Russian propagandists immediately weaponize the outburst to manipulate international opinion: "Ukrainians are inhumane as they laugh at the death." Once you break it down, it is clear, but as you might be overwhelmed by feelings, you might not be able to realize it.
Reality is catching up in the US as Trump was indicted for espionage. Why is Ukraine so important to understanding what happened in America under Trump? Ukrainian people could see what was happening, but the US was naive.
Zabrisky: We all can see just one part of the picture. I am lucky to spend time in the US, Europe, the UK, and Ukraine and have some idea of how these worlds mismatch. Every country is focused on its life and often projects its own mentality or history on another.
As for Trump, I believe it when I see it. He's been indicted before. If you want to see the history of his involvement with the KGB/FSB, take a look here.
There are many illusions and misconceptions about the US in Ukraine, too. And many people were Trump supporters there, but now they know better.
Overall, Ukraine is pivotal to understanding the modern history and the dynamics of our internal politics, but it is a subject for a much longer discussion.
Yale Professor Timothy Snyder — who wrote ‘On Tyranny’ — said in a Frontline interview:
“In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and basically persuaded us that it didn’t actually happen. While Russia was invading Ukraine, the most important thing that was happening in the minds of the West, not just Americans, were discussions about whether there’d been a coup in Ukraine or whether the Ukrainians are all Nazis, or maybe they’re all gay, or maybe they’re all Jews, depending on what social media you were following, right?
“The Russians totally had our minds in a trap, and we were totally unprepared… they were paying attention to us, at least in the negative sense of knowing what our vulnerabilities were on social media.
“I wouldn’t want to underestimate how important Russian propaganda was at that time… we can’t learn a lesson if we don’t know the thing is actually happening… Once we’d been had in 2014… we should have been better prepared for being had in 2016… So one of the lessons he learned is that you can mess with the American political mind, which he then applies in 2016.”
So based on Snyder’s comments, how do you think disinformation is shaping opinion about the war?
Zabrisky: He is right, and it should be obvious by now. The most important thing to understand is that the word propaganda is not what it used to be — it’s not an old-fashioned poster on a wall anymore. It is now digitally boring its way inside the brain, digitally infecting the brain. It’s suggesting what you should think about and how you should think. It is way more sophisticated than anything that is perceived under the definition of propaganda.
‘A Totalitarian Mafia Empire’
Why do you think Putin invaded and what do you think will happen ultimately?
Zabrisky: Putin wants immortality: to be written in history as a great leader. For that, he wants to build an empire. Rebuild the USSR. He was always pretty clear about it. Ukraine is the first step. If he is not stopped, Russia will devour many smaller countries. If Republicans win, if Trump is president again, we will end up with a totalitarian mafia empire.
If we manage to stop this, Russia will not be able to sustain itself and will dissolve into smaller regions. This area will threaten the world for a long time, no matter what, due to its collective mentality. The rapid climate change is not playing in our favor and might be weaponized or accelerated by the Kremlin. Nuclear disaster is not out of the picture at all.
Why is The Eastern Front so important? You documented actual war crimes, for one.
Zabrisky: We document facts and show evidence of Russian war crimes. The film exposes the Kremlin's genocide of the Ukrainian people. We do it by giving voice to the Ukrainians and showing their struggle.
What is the most important message of the film?
Zabrisky: The Kremlin narratives of "there is no war" and "there are two sides" are nothing but propaganda targeting your brains, meddling in your brains to stop supporting Ukraine.
War is ugly but you find beautiful moments all the time - I see it in your reporting – from the fox of Chornobyl to the flowers blooming in war – what can you tell our audience about the people you have met and their fighting spirit and any last thoughts on what you would like to see happen and how people can be most helpful?
Zabrisky: Ukraine is beautiful. The land, people, and animals. It has a harmony that other places lack, even in the war. It is probably that proverbial connection with the Earth. I don't feel it anywhere else. It is a place of power and beauty that is being destroyed — but is indestructible.
Help Ukraine. Demand that your elected politicians provide more weapons. F-16s. Close the sky. More Patriots. More Western air defense systems. If the sky is closed and there are enough weapons and ammo, Ukraine will win. And it means we all will win.
What is the most important message to relay to the world from your experience in the war this past year?
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind, and therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne, Meditation XVII, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, 1623
Los Angeles readers: Please join Heidi and Zarina at the US/Hollywood premiere of ‘The Eastern Front: Terror and Torture in Ukraine’ on Wednesday, June 14, at the Skiptown Playhouse in Hollywood, California. Details here.