I unlearned a lifetime of Russian propaganda to figure out what information to believe
The truth was out there but it wasn’t easy to learn how to identify it
This First Person column is written by Tatiana Lebedeva who moved from Russia to Canada in 2014. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
It was late on Feb. 23 when I read the first reports of bombing in Ukraine. A friend texted that her aunt in Kharkiv had heard explosions. I was shocked and horrified. I thought it was surely the end of the regime built by Russian President Vladimir Putin. So many Russians have relatives and friends in Ukraine; they would surely protest this invasion, right?
As soon as I posted a message condemning the war on VK (a Russian social media platform similar to Facebook), my uncle replied by defending the actions of the Russian military.
"You are even more brainwashed by your media than I am by mine," his comment began.
"You think I support the war, but you are deeply mistaken. I'm against it. I also stand for freedom in Ukraine but without Nazis in its government head. Your great-grandmother, my grandmother, fought in the Great Patriotic War and exterminated the German occupiers, and you are defending these same fascists right now. I am ashamed of you. Too bad you don't understand what's going on."
My dad was dismayed to see what his brother had written. I was, too.
I wanted to end the conversation there. After all, I only saw my uncle occasionally during family gatherings. The last time I saw him was at my wedding, which was also the last time I visited Russia.
That visit was in 2016. I remember how I turned on the TV to a Russian news broadcast and wondered how I would feel. After two years of living in Winnipeg, I was certain that all I would hear would be propaganda. My fears were realized when I saw a mundane news story about the state of the Russian economy and declining quality of residential buildings that somehow blamed the United States for it.
I frowned and turned the TV off and thought to myself, "And this is how they get you, huh."
It's strange for me to think that back in 2013 and 2014, people in Russia were able to access independent media sources like the TV Rain channel, Echo of Moscow radio and the Novaya Gazeta newspaper — all of which are now blocked in Russia. Widespread protests against the war in Ukraine were allowed and social media were not as heavily monitored as they are today. Varying views about events in Ukraine were available.
However, at that time, all this diversity of information was irrelevant to me because I was poisoned by propaganda.
Truth is, before I moved to Canada, the news was the only thing I enjoyed watching on Russian television. Every Sunday, my parents and I would sit down to watch Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week) with Dmitry Kiselev, who I now know is one of the main faces of the Russian propaganda machine.
When I moved to Canada in 2014, Russia had already annexed Crimea and started its military actions in the Donbas region of Ukraine, and I was oblivious that any of it was criminal.
One day, I typed "Metro News" into an internet search on my laptop. In St. Petersburg, I had always read this paper on long subway rides. Now I wondered what the Canadian version would say about Ukraine. I felt like a Russian spy.
The first article that popped up had a word in it that I didn't know. Troops. I Googled the translation and I gasped, "Russian troops are in Ukraine?"
That article turned my world upside down.
What if everything I knew was wrong? Because if Russia was innocent and indeed did not have any troops in Ukraine, then why was it being sanctioned and condemned?
It took me years to start trusting any information sources whatsoever.
As a newcomer to Canada, I knew very little about Winnipeg and everything I read in the news about the city and national politics felt distant and irrelevant. But with time, that changed; I began to trust local news.
Unsurprisingly, it took much longer to unlearn the propaganda I had learned about the Russian regime. That required me to confront myself, to doubt my upbringing. The worst part of it was acknowledging that I was wrong and accepting that it wasn't my fault.
I started out by doing online searches in English because content in Russian felt like a manipulative lie. I checked different sources, and I began to pay attention to how the information made me feel. Did it give me the tingling sensation of lightheadedness, as if I was hypnotized when I had watched Kiselev? Did it make me feel self-righteous? Or was it informative and neutral? I aimed for the latter.
In Canada, I have been acquiring and honing critical thinking skills that have served me well so far. Because of this, I have been protesting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Unfortunately, the propaganda machine in Russia has stepped up its game since my last exposure to it. By blocking or discrediting all independent media sources, monitoring social media and making it a criminal offence to write anything contradicting the Russian government's official position, there is no room left for doubts, critical thinking or interpretation.
Many of my friends and relatives are in an information blockade, so I had to try to talk to my uncle again.
After a long conversation, my uncle stated that he was done talking to me about the subject.
My last messages still remain unread.
Do you have a compelling personal story that can bring understanding or help others? We want to hear from you. Here's more info on how to pitch to us.