Russia’s hybrid aggression against Ukraine is becoming increasingly fierce in the information sphere, and the Ukrainian diaspora is becoming increasingly active in defending its Homeland. Recently, former President of Ukrainian World Congress Yevhen Czolij initiated an international project to combat Russian disinformation around the world. In this context, today we decided to talk to the Ukrainian director, screenwriter, and author of the script of the film project “Konotop” Taras Kaljandruk on how Moscow spreads false and misleading information about Ukraine using the cinema industry. Mr. Kaljandruk, we are increasingly witnessing the growing activity of the Moscow media spreading myths about Ukraine around the world. How does Russian propaganda work in the cinematography?
In fact, this is a very interesting topic and it’s sad that the majority doesn’t even give a thought about it. Moscow places a great importance on cinema in the information war. Kremlin uses such cinematography tools not only within its own country, where with the help of movies and TV series (similar to the notorious “Brother”) hatred of Ukrainians is formed, but also widely applies them to shape the stereotype of Ukrainians in the West as bandits, criminals and thugs who shouldn’t belong to the democratic world.
Do you imply the recent scandal with the streaming service Netflix and its popular TV series “Emily in Paris” which portrays a caricature of a Ukrainian woman from Kyiv as a silly thief?
And not only this example. As I recall, when the Orange Revolution took place in Ukraine and Viktor Yushchenko became the president, in order to tarnish the name of our president in front of the world, Russians, among other things, sponsored the production of an American movie named “Trade” about trafficking in women. The main negative protagonist in this movie is a slave trader and rapist with a degenerative face Vadim Yushchenko. In the movie, a bandit Yushchenko kidnaps and rapes Polish women and opposes government structures in the United States. Note that the active support of government and public circles in Poland and the United States led to the success of Maidan and the victory of President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko.
Another great example of the Kremlin’s special information operations in the global film industry is the story of Russian Vitaly Kaloev. It is known that in 2002 there was a tragic accident above Lake Constance: a passenger plane crashed due to a mistake of the air traffic controller. Two years later, Kaloev, whose family died in the plane crash, arrived in Switzerland and stabbed Swiss air traffic controller Peter Nielsen with twelve stab wounds.
The Kremlin treated him as a hero who exemplified the «brazen Europeans” in their true place. Therefore, the Moscow authorities used every opportunity to reduce his sentence (they tried to declare him insane), and as a result, three years later (!) he was released early and returned to Russia.
There, the Putin regime awarded him a medal and appointed him Deputy Minister of Construction of the Republic of North Ossetia. In addition, murderer Kaloyev was made a deputy of the ruling Putin’s party ‘United Russia’. Russians decided to use Kaloyev’s story in a special information operation against Ukraine and funded the feature movie ‘Aftermath’ in 2017, starring famous Hollywood actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. But strangely, the protagonist from the Russian Kaloev turned into a Ukrainian Roman Melnik. After all, according to Kremlin propagandists, it is necessary to convince Western viewers with the help of artistic images that Ukrainians, not Russians, are prone to atrocities and banditry, and they cannot be allowed into civilized society in any way.
Recently, Russians funded a joint Bulgarian-American project named Search and Destroy, in which Russians, along with the US military, are boldly fighting against a Ukrainian armory baron who is killing Americans and threatening to destroy the democratic world. It is interesting to note that in reality, the US government has been fighting for many years against Russian armory barons (remember at least the notorious Russian agent Viktor Bout, who is serving a term in a US federal prison for illegal arms trafficking). Viktor Bout, by the way, became the prototype of Nicholas Cage’s character in another movie ‘Lord of War’, and, according to the script, he is also from Ukraine (although Bout was actually born in Tajikistan). And there are many similar examples.
In addition, the Russian secret services are contributing enormous efforts in world cinematography, exposing Ukrainians as the world’s largest anti-Semites. A recent example is the release of the four-part feature film ‘The Devil Next Door’ about Ukrainian Ivan Demyanyuk, who allegedly guarded the Treblinka concentration camp (in fact, many years of trials, including the Israeli Supreme Court, have not confirmed this). And in this case, obviously, the position of the Ukrainian diaspora, which has actively supported the Jewish movement since the creation of the State of Israel, does not allow Moscow to convince the world of the cave anti-Semitism of Ukrainians, but such attempts are constantly made.
Pavlo Grod, the President of Ukrainian World Congress, noted in his recent speech that Russians, following Putin’s instructions about ‘one nation’, are investing crazy amounts of money trying to assimilate and occupy even Ukrainians abroad. How is this reflected in the cinematograph?
In the above-mentioned movie ‘Trade’, Yushchenko’s bandit is portrayed as a Russian mafia, meaning that viewers are subtly hinted that Ukrainians do not exist as a separate nation. This substitution is widely used by Russian consultants and producers in other Hollywood movies, where Russian bandits bear Ukrainian surnames or call Ukrainian cities their place of origin. For example, the Russian prison fighter from the action series called ‘Undisputed’, played by Scott Adkins, is named Yuri Boyko. Although as far as we know, ‘Boyko’ is a purely Ukrainian surname from a Western Ukrainian ethnic group. In the cult movie ‘John Wick’, the main Russian bandit’s surname ‘Tarasov’ emphasizes that he comes from Kyiv. And there are many such examples. Therefore, it would be appropriate for the board of the Ukrainian World Congress to initiate an open letter to Hollywood and European screenwriters, directors and producers with a request to begin to respect Ukrainian cultural identity and stop giving Russian bandits Ukrainian names or making Ukraine their origin. In Putin’s Russia itself, a huge number of movies and series, including international projects, have been dedicated to the concept of “one nation”. From the most recent ones, I can recall how Russians together with the Chinese recently made a feature movie ‘The Secret of the Dragon’s Seal’, in which the Ukrainian Cossacks are faithful servants and defenders of the infamous Moscow Tsar Peter I. Moreover, to promote this film around the world, Russians spared no expense and invited the world’s biggest movie stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan, Jason Fleming, Rutger Hauer, Charles Dance, Martin Klebba, and many other celebrities. Because of this, the film became the most expensive in the history of Russian cinema (the film’s budget was 2.8 billion rubles (about $ 50 million)). But Russians are ready to invest any money to further spread their imperial myth of a ‘one nation’.
And how does modern Ukrainian cinema resist these Russian discreditation attempts?
Almost in no way, and this is the main danger. On the contrary, anti-Ukrainian efforts are often supported. For example, the aforementioned film about a trafficker and rapist Yushchenko was simply broadcasted on Ukrainian television, on K1 channel, in parallel with its world premiere, and no one (including President Viktor Yushchenko himself) was outraged. Even if some attempts are made to counter it by patriotic cinematography, with the help of the fifth column, Moscow immediately blocks them. Let’s remember the story with Taras Bulba. When the President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko manifested the idea of making a feature film ‘Taras Bulba’ starring Gerard Depardieu, Russia immediately repurchased the famous French actor, gifted him an estate in Mordovia and granted him citizenship. And at the same time Russia invested huge amounts of money in its own movie ‘Taras Bulba’, which glorifies the ideas of the ‘Russian world’. In fact, Mykola Hohol, at his times, was forced by Russians to write a second version of the novel ‘Taras Bulba’ with appropriate pro-imperial accents.
Here is another great example. As soon as Ukraine tried to interest Ukrainian children in their own history, initiating the creation of a movie fairy tale about the Ancient Rus theme ‘The Stronghold’, directors in Moscowia rushed to shoot the film ‘The Last Knight’ with a similar plot. It is also worth mentioning the shameful story of how during the Russian occupation of Crimea, the Ukrainian state film agency co-financed with Russia ‘Battle of Sevastopol’, a movie with vivid Stalinism propaganda. This example shows how firmly the fifth column is rooted in Ukrainian cinema.
I know that there were attempts from Moscow to promote through the Ukrainian state film agency a project of a movie about the Battle of Konotop with completely distorted historical facts, where Ivan Vyhovsky is portrayed as a loser traitor, and the victory in the Battle of Konotop was attributed not to the Cossacks but to Tatar Khan Muhammad Giray.
Yes, that’s right. A few years ago, an artist on tour from Moscow wrote such a script, and to legalize such a version, he even engaged a director of Tatar origin, saying that it was just such a Tatar view of history. Fortunately, this attempt to make an anti-Ukrainian film at the expense of Ukrainian taxpayers was blocked.
By the way, it was supposed to be a remake of the old Bolshevik film ‘Flame of Wrath’, which was released in 1955. Based on the play ‘Forever Together’ by the ardent stalinist Lubomyr Dmyterko, this film turned the whole Ukrainian history upside down. Let me quote the plot of the film: ‘In the second half of the 17th century, after the death of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, a conspiracy was being prepared in Chyhyryn, led by a clerk Ivan Vyhovsky, supported by weaponry and money of Poles and Lithuanians. The people do not support Vyhovsky’s claims to the hetman’s mace. Poltava Colonel Martyn Pushkar, a faithful friend of Khmelnytsky, gathered an army of Cossacks for the war with Vyhovsky and his Polish allies, and raised a rebellion. Russian detachments of the tsar’s mayor Apukhtin came to the aid of the Cossacks crushing the traitor’s troops.’
So, as we can see, the current descendants of the Stalinists are not creative in distorting Ukrainian history. And what is the situation in the Ukrainian state film agency today?
The situation is outrageous! On the 30th anniversary of our Independence, the Ukrainian state film agency did not let allocate funding for any movie that would reveal the historical past of Ukraine, glorify the deeds of our ancestors or demonstrate the current Russian aggression against Ukraine. The Agency cynically stated that ‘films about war will soon be boring for the festival audience and average viewer’.
Instead, the winner of the competition was ‘My Young Prince’, with the following plot: ’Paul is a 17-year-old teenager with mental issues who lives in a luxurious house, leads a profligate lifestyle and has an unhealthy attachment to his own mother, Sophia, who lives with him. Soon they meet young man Antoine and his father Mark. Paul is in a relationship with Antoine, and Sofia with Mark. But no matter how good everything is, the arrival of Antoine and Mark leads to tragedy.’ At the same time, the experts were not embarrassed by the fact that in the teaser they praised, the future creators of the movie mocked the main Christian Lord’s Prayer, cynically distorting it and turning it into a satanic perversion.
I wonder what the creators of this project wanted to achieve: to discredit the Christianity of Ukraine in the eyes of the world community or to provoke religious enmity?
Both. I think that there is a multilevel combination aimed at undermining confidence in the Ukrainian government and discrediting Ukraine in the world. A marker for me was the fact that the infamous Yelena Shevchenko, who in 2016 was one of the organizers of the Kremlin’s information provocation against Ukraine in the Netherlands, rushed to publicly defend this ‘masterpiece’. I will remind you that then there was a referendum on granting Ukraine a visa-free regime. And I remember very well how this person brought some young people to Lviv and then caused a mad hysteria in the media that there was a ‘safari’ for LGBT activists in Lviv. The public was especially surprised by her interview with Moscow’s ‘Novoye Vremya’, eloquently titled ‘How we managed to escape alive’ with the following pearls: ‘Locals were hiding us as they hid Jews during World War II’. Such an obvious delusion clearly shows that the organizers of this information provocation did not expect Ukrainians to perceive it, as the action was aimed primarily at foreign citizens, namely EU citizens. What, for example, could an average Dutchman think when he hears on television that ‘LGBT people are being killed in Ukraine’ and ‘they are forced to hide like Jews during the war’? Please note that the Netherlands is the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. As a result, this misinformation, widely spread by the Moscow media in the Netherlands, had an extremely strong impact on negative for Ukraine voting results. Now Elena is again thrown into a wave of hysteria about the persecution of sexual minorities in Ukrainian cinema.
Is this state of affairs the reason why you didn’t submit your project of the feature film “Konotop” to the Ukrainian state film agency this year?
Exactly. As for my movie project ‘Konotop’, the support of it by communities of Ukrainians around the world seems to me more realistic and effective than the support of Ukrainian authorities. We shouldn’t forget that Moscow’s policy has remained unchanged: to paralyze the creation of Ukrainian patriotic movies by any means, and instead promote its imperial vision of Ukrainian history. In addition, in Ukraine, descendants of the occupants continue to create movies and TV series. That is why whole volumes can be written about how various series such as ‘Velyki Vuiky’ and ‘Vitalka’, which cynically mock everything Ukrainian, are being filmed here at the expense of the state. This policy has been going on since the days of the Soviet Union, when Moscow pursued a racist policy in cinematography, where Ukrainians were portrayed as people of a lower race and Russians as people of a higher race.
At those times the work of the Ukrainian diaspora in the field of cinema was the key to Moscow being forced to implement certain movie projects in occupied territories of Ukraine in order to, as they put it, ‘rub the eyes of overseas nationalists’. If, for example, we pay attention to the colonial movies of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, we will see that many of them were shot as an alternative to movies created by communities of Ukrainians around the world. When Ukrainians in the diaspora managed to make a movie, Moscow immediately produced an alternative product.
Thus, in the United States for Christmas 1936, the movie ‘Natalka Poltavka’ by Vasyl Avramenko and Mykola Novak was to be released. But Moscow couldn’t allow Ukrainian cinema to develop outside its borders. Under the command of the Kremlin, director Kavaleridze managed only in three months (!) to shoot ‘Soviet’ ‘Natalka Poltavka’ in Kyiv. Both movies were released in the US at the same time. Such a competition had a negative effect on the box office of the movie directed by Avramenko and Novak. There are also the following examples. When Kremlin found out that Vasyl Avramenko was making the film ‘Zaporozhets on the Danube’ in Canada (released in 1937), it immediately ordered the filming of its own ‘Zaporozhets’ and, by getting ahead of Avramenko, hindered the business success of his movie. Hearing that ‘Taras Bulba’ was being shot in France, Kavaleridze immediately began preparing a script for the Soviet ‘Taras Bulba’. The Soviet ‘Oleksa Dovbush’ was also shot in response to attempts to make a movie about the legendary Carpathian opryshko in the West. Thus, the activity of the diaspora in the field of cinema forced Moscow to allow the production of at least some Ukrainian cinema in Ukraine.
The history of Ukrainian film production at that time is somewhat reminiscent of the Cold War arms race. How has the situation changed after Ukraine’s proclamation of independence? How do you see further developments of the Ukrainian film industry?
Moscow’s aggressive policy will continue, because Moscow will never accept the loss of Ukraine, and will continue to carry out a large-scale information invasion against our people. Therefore, the only effective mechanism is an active role of communities of Ukrainians around the world in this area. The promotive role of Ukrainian spirit has remained within diasporas, who zealously nurture the national idea. And modern movies created with the support of communities of Ukrainians around the world, such as ‘Assassination. An Autumn Murder in Munich’, ‘The Undefeated’, ‘The Company of Heroes’, ‘Bitter Harvest’, ‘Garrett Jones’ and many others, are a worthy alternative to Moscow’s information aggression in Ukraine.
Documentaries created with the support of diaspora, beginning with the famous ‘Harvest of Despair’, have also led Ukrainians to understanding and comprehending true history. Recently, with the participation of Ukrainian diaspora in Brazil, the feature series ‘Unsoul’ were released, which rubbed the eyes of all pseudo-Ukrainian TV series.
In your performances you constantly focus on the educational moment of cinema.
For new generations of Ukrainians, the educational role of cinema is extremely important. Its influence on upbringing is especially striking today. Representatives of the younger generation have little to say about Ivan Vyhovsky, Severin Nalyvayko or Ivan Pidkova, but they know who Batman or Superman is, how Transformers differs from Spider-Man, etc. And that’s why we need our heroic movies. First of all, about our victories, the main of which is Konotop.
Thank you very much for the conversation!
The conversation was led by Jaroszlava Hartyanyi.