Wednesday 6 August 2014


Something unprecedented is happening in Ukraine.

For decades the US and its proxies have committed war crimes with total impunity. They’ve trampled on just about every humanitarian convention there’s ever been, and the most they’ve had to fear is a Wikileaks-type exposé in a safely distant future.

Still from Wikileaks' 'Collateral Murder' video
Not in Ukraine. For the first time ever the world is seeing these crimes first hand and immediately – sometimes while they’re still happening. Poor villagers of Afghanistan and Iraq were unlikely to possess either mobile phone or camera, but Ukraine is a modern country with the advantages of Android and iPhones, video cameras and livestreaming. The US and Kiev can lie all they like, but it’s never going to work if there’s already a video online to show the truth.

Video is the liars’ worst enemy, and they fear it beyond anything else. That’s why they’re kidnapping, torturing, deporting and even murdering journalists. It’s why they’re kidnapping and intimidating citizens who dare to upload amateur footage of their crimes. It’s why the first thing they did in occupied Krasny Liman was confiscate laptops and mobile phones. They’ll stop at nothing to hide the truth.

Sometimes they fail. Sometimes a video makes it through to youtube, which is when the second line of defence springs hurriedly into action. We’re all familiar with the excuses employed for ‘yanking’ a video (especially the ‘disgusting content’ used to pull evidence of atrocities) but if something’s really dangerous we’re likely to win the jackpot with this little number:

'Newsmedia', of course, does not exist, but those of us who’ve been tracking US atrocities since Wikileaks will be very familiar with this Orwellian-sounding organization and have our own ideas who it really represents.

There’s a higher level still, which produces the weirdest and most surreal result of all.

I can’t verify this personally, but have been told by someone ‘in the business’ that this means the video removal was so urgent that youtube’s own procedure was bypassed in favour of deleting the offending item from the server itself. Probably paranoia, but look at the kind of material that receives this treatment, and see what you think for yourself.

But the system isn’t infallible, and material still slips through for long enough to impinge on public consciousness. When this happens Kiev has to fall back on Plan C, which is simply to discredit the material in any way it knows how.

And it certainly knows how. Their first and best weapon is similar to the one they use with pictures which is a fraudulent attempt to label genuine videos as ‘fake’. We saw this first with the utterly damning video from Kramatorsk in May, which showed Ukraine using helicopters with UN markings in order to pursue punitive assaults on so-called ‘pro-Russian’ rebels. This was shot by LifeNews reporters Oleg Sidyakin and Marat Saichenko, but RT also picked it up, adding the information that Ukraine had acquired UN markings on its helicopters during its tour of duty in the Congo in 2012.

Solid, you’d think – but not for the Disinformation Experts of US Kiev, who immediately used this comparison to ‘prove’ Russia was trying to pass off Congo footage as video from Ukraine.

It’s utterly ridiculous. There’s not a scrap of evidence to support the allegation, not a second of genuine Congo footage offered for comparison, nothing but the word of Kiev’s Minister of Defence. The best attempt to discredit the original was this hopeful tweet from the supposedly neutral Maxim Tucker of Amnesty International:

I’m no ornithologist, but this sounds like a perfectly normal European Dawn Chorus to me – complete with the unmissable call of the cuckoo (at 0.45 in the original). I’d also humbly suggest that climate, terrain, vegetation and architecture all look rather more like Ukraine than the Congo, but there’s another difference more important than any of these.



There’s plenty of footage out there of the UN mission to the Congo, and in every case the peacekeeping forces wear the regulation blue helmets, or at least the standard blue caps. In the Kramatorsk video the armed men wear only the camouflage uniform of the Ukrainian army – which is hardly surprising, since that’s exactly what they are.

A lie, and a stupid one – but dangerous all the same. The UN initially agreed that Ukraine would be guilty of a serious breach of regulations if the complaint were to be verified, but the ‘Congo lie’ changed everything. When Inner City Press next pushed for an answer the UN told them point-blank that the footage was not from Ukraine.

They seem quite sure. They even repeated it as flat fact in a statement from their own UN Human Rights Organization. Far be it from me to suggest an august body like the United Nations would act in slavish obedience to a directive from Washington, but they certainly seem to be placing an awful lot of faith in the unsupported word of Ukraine’s Minister of Defence.

Especially when the said Minister is lying through his teeth. Here’s Ukraine’s debunking video, and from 0.58 you’ll hear his statement in full.

He claims all ‘symbols of the United Nations were removed immediately after the helicopters returned from their tour of duty in Africa’. Really. Definitely. Back in 2012.

All right then – so what’s this?

Sorry, but this is NOT the Congo. This is Khersun on March 14th while the Crimean crisis was at its height, and those look very, very like the markings of a UN helicopter.

Ukraine (of course) would say this was a Russian helicopter. 14th March, if you remember, was the day Kiev claimed Russia invaded Ukraine over the Crimean border and seized a gas plant at Khersun - before being repelled by the gallant Ukrainian army.

Well. I wouldn't want to suggest the Kiev government are lying every time they open their mouths, but I rather think that if Russia had indeed invaded Ukraine back in March then we'd know about it by now and I would probably be typing this from a nuclear bunker. I'd also humbly point out that it isn't best practice for an invading force to park its helicopter in a field for local inhabitants to gawp at while the crew stroll away for a look at the scenery.

Not to mention the little fact that is is actually a Ukrainian helicopter. It’s a Mil Mi-24 Hind, to be precise, and exactly the model Ukraine used in the Congo.

In fairness to him, Turchynov has since admitted that many of these early invasion scares were exaggerations and even outright lies, and I'd guess that's what happened at Khersun in March. Kiev was told Russia was invading, scrambled their helicopters in a hurry, realized nothing was happening, then sheepishly flew home.

None of which excuses the story told by the Defence Minister in May. The UN markings were not removed, Kiev did go on using them, the Kramatorsk video is genuine, and once again the ‘government’ of Ukraine is caught in a direct lie. 

And I think the UN know it. When composing this blog I was surprised by the number of 404 Error Messages I received from old links to Kiev's debunking (you'll find one if you click 'read more' in the Kyiv Post story above, for instance) and it really does seem as if someone somewhere has put the brakes on. More than that, an inforesist report from 27th May actually quotes RIA Novosti's claim that Ukraine has already admitted to the Kramatorsk offence on the grounds that it didn't have time to change the markings before having to deploy:

Maybe it's another 'Russian lie' - but you'll notice Kiev does not deny it. There's been some dealing behind the scenes and we may never know the truth, but I would guess that the possible repeat offence at Donetsk airport may have compelled the UN to demand an explanation and a promise not to do it again.

Maybe that's all there is to it, and mere case of incompetence really doesn't seem too important. But what it does show is just how far Kiev are prepared to go to cover their tracks - and the extent to which they can rely on the protection of powerful friends.

And the next time it was important. On the night of 11th June Slavyansk residents were woken by a new horror raining down in their midst – incendiary bombs that looked very like illegal white phosphorus.

Several locals took photographs, but it’s the pattern of fall that’s most characteristic, and it was the videos that were most damaging.

There were two of them. This was the first, and as it was taken from a distance the evidence seemed far from conclusive.

Minutes later this was uploaded, but if you follow the link I’m afraid you’ll only find something we’ve had cause to mention before. Still it didn’t matter, because LifeNews had already incorporated it into a full report, and NEF Acura had restored a copy of the original to Youtube.

Damning. You can see exactly how damning if you look at Twitter over this time period, where the usual Ukraine shills stop even attempting to debunk the evidence but fall back instead on the defensive line of ‘So what?

Kiev weren’t so sanguine. Possibly they even had a lawyer sufficiently familiar with Article III of the CCWC to inform them that the use of incendiaries can never be justified against civilians in residential areas. Possibly they even realized that Ukraine is a ratified signatory to the treaty, and that a breach of this kind could cost them the international support of those countries in the EU who still have at least an outward pretence to morality.

Something had to be done, and the Fake Picture Scam had already laid the ground. Within minutes a commentator on LiveLeak’s release of the original footage was claiming it was from the 2004 US attack on Fallujah.

It isn’t. It clearly visually isn’t, but the lie is out there and in less than an hour the Twitter shills are changing tack.

Fallujah. It’s all about Fallujah, and if the Ukraine video is different then it’s easy enough to plant a Fallujah version which will fool people looking for the genuine footage. The two earliest 'plants' I had for this have both curiously vanished into the maw of youtube’s ‘This video is unavailable’, but by early on the morning of the 12th the job was done and a Fallujah video had been published by a recognized ‘pro-Russian’ source on Ukraine.

In come the scambusters. It didn’t matter that RT showed footage from both sources for the purposes of comparison, and was careful enough to keep the captions running all the way through the Iraq footage – the myth of the ‘Russian lie’ is so firmly implanted that people will take ‘Ukrainian lies’ all the way to the bank.

If you’re inclined to believe that lie yourself, I’d just ask this. If you wanted to fake video of an atrocity, would you do it just two hours after you were finally given genuine video of the real thing? Would you? Would anyone?

Kiev would, and for obvious reasons. By the afternoon of the 12th StopFake had picked up the story and the damage was done. No-one believed there was real footage of a war crime in Ukraine, and no-one even clicked on the links. Seen that, know that. Fake.

Nearly two months have passed since then, and the delay has blunted the impact for ever. We’re used to Grads now, don’t even blink at flechettes, cluster bombs or ballistic missiles, and the fact of incendiaries has simply seeped into public consciousness as something we vaguely remember hearing about. Russia's Ministry of Defence has just officially confirmed their use today, but even to those who didn't believe it the first time it feels like 'old news'.

It would have been very different in June. There was no MH17 to act as a smokescreen, Europe still pretended to some kind of morality and fairness, and if phosphorus use had been publicly exposed the UN would have been forced to condemn it. There would have been talks, maybe resolutions, and who knows how many lives might have been saved.

Which is why we need to keep fighting to get video material out there. Here are some of the most obvious things we can do, and I’d be very grateful to hear if anyone knows of any more:

  • Upload material when most of North America is in bed – ie between 09.00 and 15.00 GMT. There are still caretakers, of course, but they’re fewer and slower and can let things slide for hours.
  • Consider uploading also to Ru-tube and/or LiveLeak.
  • When you’re uploaded, tweet the link immediately to RT and LiveNews. They’ll download quickly and the material is then largely untouchable.
  • When we find a video of obvious importance, then download it immediately – BEFORE posting the link to Twitter or anywhere else Kiev will see it. Also be sure to take screenshots of key material, including the title and time of uploading.
  • When we’re editing, be sure to smack huge captions over every frame of ‘comparison material’ so that no-one can mistake it for fakery. Forget subtlety – go for clarity every time.
  • Don’t fall victim to fakes ourselves. Check the channel owner and the videos they’ve uploaded in the past. Search ‘Videos’ for whatever the subject is, eg ‘cluster bombs’, ‘UN helicopters’. A search for ‘white phosphorus’ would have brought up Fallujah at the top.

If it seems like too much trouble, we should remind ourselves what people have been through to bring us the material in the first place. Much of this footage could only have been taken at enormous risk to the cameraman, and many have already paid the price for it. We can only pray for the safety of local amateurs like ‘Streamer Vlad’, but we already know Oleg Sidyakin and Marat Saichenko were tortured for their role in the UN helicopter revelation, while Evgeny Davydov and Nikita Konashenkov of Zvedzda were tortured into ‘confessing’ they’d faked the coverage of white phosphorus.

Sometimes we’ll wonder if it’s all worth it. The UN doesn’t want to know, Amnesty doesn’t care, and no-one’s listening to the OSCE, so what on earth’s the point?

There are two. The first is that we’ll never know which could be the breakthrough image that will smash through the silence with the power of revelation. Official bodies may not care, but if we reach enough ordinary people with consciences then we can change the world.

And if we don’t? Then we keep on hoarding this stuff anyway. We save every picture, every scrap of footage, and keep it safely hidden until the day some kind of justice returns to the world, and we can put these people in the dock where they belong.

Friday 1 August 2014


In Part 1 we’ve looked at the basic facts of the so-called Slavyansk Crucifixion and the helpful investigations by Anatoly Shariy and Evgeny Feldman, but now it’s time to consider the work of the real debunkers.

We’ve already met Julia Davis through her role in the Fake Picture Scam, but since she’s likely to be a recurrent figure in any discussion of media distortion she merits a few words of introduction of her own.

Julia Davis calls herself a ‘whistleblower’, and so indeed she is - but where others have championed ordinary people against the oppression of the US government, Ms Davis’ contribution was to blame the US government for not being oppressive enough. Brave she may have been, victimized she certainly was – but Daniel Elsberg or Chelsea Manning she ain’t.

What she is is a matter of public record. She’s employed by the US Dept of Homeland Security, and since she spends most working days tweeting and blogging in support of Kiev it’s not hard to guess what that job really entails. In fairness we should also say that this is clearly a labour of love. Ukrainian by birth, she evidently shares the nationalist ideals of Svoboda and the Right Sector, and when she’s not gloating over the bodies of dead Russians she enjoys little jokes about Moskals and Colorado beetles.

But being an unpleasant person doesn’t necessarily mean she’s a liar, so we should give her ‘debunk’ of the Slavyansk Crucifixion the courtesy of proper analysis. Here's how she kicks off:

Strong stuff! Take that, Colorados!! But let's look a little closer.

First claim – ‘out of the entire town of Slavyansk, not a single witness’. Seriously? She seems by her link to be referring to the Feldman video, but can she really be saying that the ‘entire town of Slavyansk’ comprises just these dozen people? Even if we forget the fact that no-one under occupation is likely to confirm this atrocity on camera, no-one can be expected to take this sweeping statement seriously.

And in fact there are already rumours of a second witness. The source is biased - the Novorossiya PR page that posts under the generic name of Colonel Strelkov - but on 11th July a post claimed that a girl from Slavyansk had already written to say a militiaman's child had been killed and a video of the murder sent to the father:

It may be a different murder. The girl who wrote in may have been lying. The girl may not have existed at all, and it's 'Strelkov' who's lying. But it's at least a possible second witness, and it seems rather disingenuous not to mention it. At the very least...

Second claim – ‘inspired by the 4th season of The Game of Thrones’. Hmm. I don’t personally share Ms Davis’ confidence that people undergoing massive bombardment have nothing better to do than watch American pulp television, but it’s at least true that Season 4 of this gore-for-entertainment show did indeed air in Europe in April and Galina Pyshnyak might have seen it. But so might other people. If there really is a link between television violence and serious crime, the studies so far suggest that it inspires not fantasists but perpetrators. Did it inspire some Right Sector elements who were bored with burning people alive and wanted to try something new? I have no idea whether it did or not, but the ‘Game of Thrones’ connection actually makes the crucifixion more likely rather than less.

Let's move swiftly on to the facts.

Third claim - 'There is no Lenin Square in Slavyansk'. Really, Ms Davis? Then what’s this from veeoz?

And this from America’s own Getty Images?

Or this, also from Getty Images?

The square is bordered by Lenin Street and has a huge great statue of Lenin in the middle - what else would the predominantly Russian-speaking population of Slavyansk call it? The Ukrainian government mark their maps with the less politically odious ‘Oktober Revolution Square’, the cautiously neutral call it ‘the central square’, but most genuine locals call it ‘Lenin Square’ and so does pretty well everyone else. Look at this, for instance, from Canada’s StarPhoenix:

Or this from America’s Business Insider:

I'm sorry, but there is a Lenin Square in Slavyansk, and Ms Davis’ statement is palpably false. All she's proved here is that she doesn’t know much about Slavyansk – but Galina Pyshnyak does.

Fourth claim - ‘There are no bulletin boards on the main square in Slavyansk.’ Well, I’ve never been to Slavyansk and can’t vouch for the accuracy of this, but I couldn’t help noticing the caption on this image from a now inactive Slavyansk webcam:

Yes, the ‘central square’ is indeed the same as Lenin Square (see here, for instance, and here) and if we take a closer look at that object on the right I’m bound to say it looks awfully like a bulletin board.

But let's be fair about this, and consider other options. The second crucifixion anecdote pointed out by Anatoly Shariy in Part 1 refers instead to an ‘ad board’, a ‘sign for advertisements’, which doesn’t fit so well with this image. The only ‘ad signs’ in Feldman’s video are so high as to be impractical for the purpose, and I think we should be looking for something more like the object in background here.

Or here.

You’ll recognize the benches and bins here, but the pictures are actually stills from that same episode of ‘Russian Roulette’ we discussed in Part 1, which shows these women collecting food and humanitarian aid – in Lenin Square, Slavyansk.

So much for Ms Davis’ facts.

Fifth claim - 'The depravity of the story, allegedly witnessed by the entire town of Sloviansk, is enough to discount it as pure fiction.’ Sorry, but – no. Of course it’s hard to believe, any decent person would struggle with it, but we’ve already established in Part 1 that history is full of such depravity and it would be wilful to pretend it doesn’t exist. Perhaps Ms Davis thinks with the Right Sector that the Holocaust is fiction too?

Sixth and last claim - Ms Davis’ pièce de resistance from which she derives her headline: ‘Russia’s madman ideologue Dugin scripted fake baby crucifixion in Ukraine’. Her argument is that it was Dugin who first created the idea of a child crucifixion on his Facebook page, and that Galina is merely following his ‘script’.

An interesting idea. Aleksandr Dugin is a nasty piece of work whose exhortations to ‘Kill, Kill, Kill!’ put him in the same murderous league as Yulia Tymoshenko, so if Ms Davis can indeed mark him as the instigator of the crucifixion story then that would certainly be very damaging.

Unfortunately she can’t.

For a start, Dugin isn’t the first to break this story, and Ms Davis isn’t the first to spot the similarities. The version on Dugin’s Facebook page is the same already quoted by Anatoly Shariy, and it’s time we looked at it in detail.

The story purports to be an eyewitness account given in a garbled manner over the telephone. Here's the key section, with thanks to Marcel Sardo for translating the tricky bit in the middle:

‘The Ukrainian forces entered the city, they had information about who is in the militia, they captured a woman, and tied a man by the legs to an armoured transport vehicle and dragged him alive around the square, then threw him all bloodied into the vehicle and took him away somewhere. Then people came to an apartment, took a six year-old boy, brought him to the square and nailed him to an advertisement info board and he was hanging there until the father, who was a militant, was brought there too. When the father came they shot the boy before his eyes. Igor and his daughter watched them do it, the girl had a stress so deep she started stammering, still can't speak properly, and she's twelve…’

This version appears three whole days before Galina’s, yet both the main elements are there: someone being dragged behind a military vehicle, and a child being crucified in front of its parent. What does this mean, and what are the implications?

Whatever they are, this is most clearly NOT a ‘script’ as Ms Davis claims. Here the boy is six, where Galina’s is three. Here the witness is the father, where Galina’s is the mother. Here the child is shot, where Galina’s takes an hour and a half to die. If this Facebook version was intended as a propaganda script, then why on earth did Galina tell such a wildly different story?

There has to be another explanation, and there are at least three to consider:

That neither story is true. Wild rumours circulated among the frightened inhabitants of Slavyansk, and some (including Galina and the source for the Facebook version) pretended to have witnessed them first hand. They might have done this for attention, or in a bid for Russia’s sympathy and help.
That both stories arise from the same source, which might have been a real atrocity or perhaps only the threat of one. In that case Galina either decided independently to make it even more heart-rending, or didn’t know the details and had to make up her own when she claimed to have witnessed it herself.
That there were two separate incidents. It’s actually very rare to find an isolated atrocity of this type, and war crime investigators would typically expect to find others. If it seems strange Galina doesn’t mention the first incident in her interview, we should note that her first interview makes a clear distinction between things she knows (the shootings) and the incident she saw herself (the crucifixion).

It would still help to find where the Facebook version originated – but it wasn’t with Dugin. Ms Davis is again being economical with the truth when she says he posted on 8th July, since the timestamp on his Facebook page shows 9th July at 14.20 - and other people had already shared the story before that. Like this Yuri Golubev, for instance.

But the biggest irony is that if Ms Davis had actually bothered with real research instead of throwing random mud, she'd have found something quite as damaging as Dugin. I did, and since I’m more interested in truth than partisanship I’m happy to make her a present of it.

Golubev may have been the first individual to ‘share’ that Facebook story, but the source he linked back to was this, posted 8 minutes earlier:

It’s a Russian organization for benefiting the State, and its home page defines their mission as ‘to promote a positive image of Russia’. It's a private charity rather than a government body, but its purpose is still essentially propaganda.

That’s about as damaging as it gets – but if we actually think about it, it still doesn’t prove either story is false. Russian propagandists certainly made enormous play with Kiev’s airstrike on Lugansk – but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Such organizations highlight, exaggerate, distort and exploit genuine material all the time, and any story of this kind would have made it into their hands within minutes. They may have invented the Facebook story, they may have simply been told about it, but we can’t yet be sure either way.

What we can be fairly sure about is that Galina’s story didn’t originate from here. If they’d wanted to invent a witness, surely they’d have coached one to say the story already broadcast – not to give a version so different it laid the entire concept open to suspicion. Surely they’d have planned the timing – but Galina’s story so obviously took them by surprise that they didn’t even have a Channel 1 team on the spot. That whole ‘first interview, second interview’ business smacks of amateur reality, and not the kind of streamlined affair we’d expect of professional propagandists.

So the jury’s still out on Galina’s story – but not, I’m afraid, on Julia Davis’ attempt to debunk it. She may not be deliberately lying, it may simply be an unbelievably shoddy piece of research, but not a single statement stands up to scrutiny, and the effect of the whole piece is smug, hateful, and pervasively dishonest. She deserves credit for at least posting her opinions under her own name, but her work is consistently unreliable and she can't be recommended as a trustworthy source on Ukraine.

But I’m afraid she’s not the worst.

Enter, hatchet in hand, Owen Matthews of the UK’s The Spectator, who wants the Slavyansk Crucifixion to flesh out an article with the open-minded title of ‘Vladimir Putin’s Empire of Lies’. Here’s what he makes of it.

Oh dear, oh dear. Let’s pass swiftly over his repetition of the ‘no Lenin Square’ lie and regurgitation of the ‘Game of Thrones’ link (which at least he has the decency to admit is only rumour) and look at his terrible new accusations.

Most aren’t actually accusations at all – merely repetition of known facts distorted to sound like crimes. Galina admitted openly in interview that her husband was fighting in the militia, so this is hardly an astonishing discovery. The fact he was also a former member of Berkut comes directly from the statement of the Kiev Interior Ministry, and the unpleasant slant given by the words ‘notorious’ and ‘disbanded by Kiev’ is a travesty of honest reporting. It’s true the Berkut were accused of the Maidan sniper killings and disbanded in disgrace – but also true that subsequent investigations revealed the snipers were from the protestors rather than the police, and even the Kiev government has finally admitted the Berkut were innocent all along.  

But what's really unfair is the central plank of this extraordinary attack – the revelation that Galina Pyshnyak from Skavyansk is really an actress from Obukhov called Galina Astapenko, which naturally implies her entire story is a fabrication. What’s clever about this accusation is that there’s really only one lie in it, but the whole thing is utterly, provably false.

Mr Matthews didn’t bother to cite any sources for his revelations, but after completely failing to find any references, images, or IMdb listing for ‘actress’ Galina Astapenko, I did manage to retrieve an article which might have prompted his misleading statements:

Run this through Google Translate, and you’ll see it doesn’t actually make any of the claims reported. Galina did indeed used to be called ‘Astapenko’ – because that was the name of her first husband. Someone should tell Mr Matthews that quite a lot of women change their names when they marry or remarry, and it doesn’t actually mean they’re pretending to be somebody else.

Quite a lot of women move house too. The Kiev Interior Ministry has already confirmed Galina lived at Nikolayevka outside Slavyansk before she fled to Russia, and Galina already said in her interview that she originally came from the west. All this article does is confirm where she was living at the time of Maidan – and I really don’t see anything wrong, criminal, or misleading in that.  

But the killer blow would be if Galina were indeed an actress, since the story's strongest point is the power of her performance. But she wasn’t. There’s no trace of such an actress, and it would take a very eagle-eyed viewer indeed to recognize one who’s never appeared in any film or television at all. Literally the only combination of the words ‘Galina Astapenko’ and ‘actress’ I could find are in this article, and the translated sentence looks like this:

She ‘became’ an actress for the story of Yulia Chumakova – the woman suspected of inventing the crucifixion story. In other words, the article only says that Galina is acting in the witness interview, not that she was one by trade or had ever done such a thing before. It is simply another way of saying ‘she is a liar’.

The established facts then are these: Galina was married before to a man called ‘Astrapenko’ and she used to live near Kiev before she moved near Slavyansk. I try to be charitable, but can somebody please explain how an honest journalist could distort those facts into ‘But sharp-eyed viewers recognized the ‘refugee’ as actress Galina Astapenko from Obukhov, near Kiev’?

But there's still one remaining claim – that ‘according to recent posts on her social networking page’ Galina is enjoying summer with her children.  Well, how awful. How shocking to take away traumatized children who’ve been bombed by their own government for months and try to give them a nice time. But is it even true?

Galina’s Vkontakte page is now inactive, but I managed to track down a screenshot of the final entries:

She last logged in on 11th July, the day of her interview. The only legible entry before that was on June 25th and merely shows activity from some online game. Dreadful, of course, for a woman in wartime to try and do anything so normal, but I don’t myself see anything about ‘enjoying summer’ – and certainly nothing from the time she fled to Russia.

But Owen Matthews isn't the only one to exploit Galina's social media as if its mere existence is somehow wrong. Both the podrobnosti article and Julia Davis’ piece have plundered it for past photographs, fostering the illusion that Galina Pyshnyak can’t be the half-starved refugee she appears to be because the real woman actually looks like this.

It’s ludicrous, of course – like trying to discredit a concentration camp survivor by showing happy pictures of them before the war – but there’s no doubt the subliminal effect is somehow damaging, and ‘damage’ is what it’s all about.

And that's shocking from The Spectator. Ms Davis has a clear political agenda, but The Spectator used to be one of Britain’s most highly respected publications, and Owen Matthews is an excellent writer whose ‘Stalin’s Children’ I’d have previously recommended. What is going on here? What possible pressures could reduce them to publish something so deliberately and blatantly misleading?

Maybe they just didn’t bother to research. They know there’s a market for material demonizing Putin and Russia, and any old garbage will do. No-one’s going to care enough to check what’s written, and a poor refugee is in no position to sue anyway. Why waste time on a ludicrous allegation everyone already knows is a lie?

But they don’t know, and that’s why it simply has to be investigated. Substantial online debunking has failed to discredit even one single point of this story, and if anything it now looks more credible than before.

Here’s what we’ve now established in the two parts of this mammoth post:
  • That Galina Pyshnyak is who she claims to be, did live where she claimed to live, and knows Slavyansk well enough to be familiar with Lenin Square – and its bulletin board.
  • That her husband was indeed fighting with the militia, which would have put her in danger exactly as she claims.
  • That she spoke the truth about only ‘women and the elderly’ being left in Slavyansk. That this was not the case when the soldiers first came (as we saw in the Russian Roulette episode) but does appear to be so now.
  • That the people of Slavyansk are clearly frightened, and very reluctant to say anything about their occupiers.
  • That other people have also talked (apparently independently) about a child crucifixion in Slavyansk. They may be lying, but they’ve talked about it – and before they could have seen Galina’s interview.
  • That she has never been an actress, yet has turned in the kind of performance that wins Oscars.

None of this proves anything – except that there’s surely enough to warrant investigation. I suspect the only obstacle is the inherent ‘unlikeliness’ of the story, but as I argued in Part 1 we know there are people in Ukraine more than capable of doing such a thing. In fact we know more than that – we know that they were there.

It’s been kept very quiet, and I only stumbled over this one by accident when I was researching Lenin Square. On 8th July the BBC published a report by Steve Rosenberg on the liberation of Slavyansk, and near the end you’ll find this one telling paragraph.

That chilled me. It was always hard to believe the ordinary Ukrainian army (many of them reluctant conscripts) would even contemplate such an atrocity – but the Right Sector were there on exactly the right day, and this is just the kind of thing I’d expect them to do.

You don’t believe me? Have a look at this video they published way back in April, where they cut the throat of a former Donetsk police chief in his own bedroom – and in front of his own wife. But be warned – it’s very graphic.

Maybe it’s faked. Maybe. But Odessa wasn’t faked, and they did that too. They even filmed themselves throwing molotov cocktails, smashing the doors down, kicking and mocking the bodies afterwards – they did it all without fear because they knew no-one would bother to investigate. The fact that they were right means they must be even more confident now.

If we ignore the Slavyansk Crucifixion then we're emboldening them even further. We’re sending a message to Ukrainian forces that they can do whatever they like to the people they ‘liberate’, and no-one will ever punish them for it. We are giving them carte blanche to commit rape, torture and murder.

We MUST investigate this allegation properly, even if it proves to be false. If we don't - then the next one will be true.

Thursday 31 July 2014


I can't possibly know if the ‘Slavyansk crucifixion’ story is true or not, and neither can anyone else. Until there's a proper investigation, the only people claiming confidence of the truth must be either witnesses – or liars. 

But there's no sign that there'll ever be an investigation, and that should worry us. Yes, it's a lurid allegation - but since when did we refuse to investigate crimes because they sounded too awful? Yes, it's the word of a single uncorroborated witness - but that's perfectly acceptable testimony in a court of law. The Slavyansk Crucifixion may be a war atrocity or a shameless libel - but either way it's a crime and mustn't be ignored.

The only argument against this is that the story has already been debunked online and no further investigation is necessary. But is that really true? That's what this two-part blog post will try to find out.

Quick recap of the story: A 'separatist' called Galina Pyshnyak supposedly fled from ‘liberated’ Slavyansk, and was taken in at one of the refugee camps in Russia. On July 11th she was interviewed about her experiences, and claimed to have seen Ukrainian forces crucify the infant son of a militiaman in front of its mother.

If this woman is lying, then she's one hell of an actress.

It’s also one hell of a story for propaganda purposes, and journalists from Russia's Channel One immediately hotfooted it to the refugee camp for a second, more detailed interview.

The story's substantially the same, but I’ve underlined the important facts in Pyshnyak’s account below:

In the centre of the city there is the Lenin square. There is the mayoralty on the one side. This is the only square where all the people can be corralled.
On the square, women had gathered – this is because there are no more men left. There are only women and the elderly left. And this is what you call a public execution.
They took a child, 3 years old, a little boy. He was wearing little briefs and a t-shirt. They nailed him, like Jesus, to the announcement board. One of them was nailing him, while two others held him fast. And this was all in front of his mother’s eyes.
(starting to cry) They were holding the mother, and the mother watched all this happen – how the child was shedding blood, screaming, crying. And then they made cuts [on his body], like this [showing with her hands] – so the child would suffer. It was impossible [to be] there. People were losing consciousness.
And then, the mother – after the child suffered an hour and half and died after all of this – they took the mother, tied her, unconscious, to a tank and dragged her around the square three times. And to go around the square once is one kilometre.
(English transcript by Gleb Bazov, which can be read in full here)

It’s a devastating story, and it’s natural for the mind to recoil in disbelief. True, Pyshnyak is a compelling witness, and in court I think most jurors would believe her, but that combination of ‘crucifixion’ and ‘child’ smacks of a tailor-made atrocity for purposes of propaganda.
'Nurse Nariyah' on the stand
It's been done before. Who can forget the powerfully emotional testimony of 15 year-old nurse ‘Nariyah’ as she whipped up support for the first Gulf War by claiming Iraqi soldiers had thrown sick babies out of their incubators – or that she was subsequently revealed to be the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the US? The ‘Slavyansk Crucifixion’ could be the same kind of thing, and we're right to regard it with suspicion.

But we'd be wrong to dismiss it out of hand. Propaganda's happened before, but so have real atrocities, and if we think this one's 'too unlikely' we need to remember two things:

There is a war on. Western media may like to play down this fact in favour of a 'crackdown on terrorists' narrative, but even Human Rights Watch now calls it an 'internal armed conflict', and we all know the other word for that.
And war changes things. What's inconceivable in peacetime is terribly common in war, and the atrocities committed by ordinary Americans in both Vietnam and Korea include crimes that make the Slavyansk Crucifixion look almost civilized. Before we say confidently that they couldn't happen now, I'd suggest we ask the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

This is Ukraine. Evil has nothing to do with race, and there are millions of kind, decent Ukrainians to give the lie to the stereotype of 'Slavic cruelty', but there is certainly something in the culture of the Galician area of West Ukraine that puts it apart. 
Many countries were forced to co-operate with the Nazis in WWII, but only in Ukraine was this participation so enthusiastic and gleeful. Holocaust survivors have repeatedly testified that the Ukrainian camp guards were even worse than the SS, and as for what Bandera supporters did to Jewish children in Ukraine, I'm afraid it's too graphic for me to show here. I'm limiting myself to this relatively tame one of an adult in the Lviv massacre, just to give the general idea.

Of course this is history, and it would be as wrong to blame modern Ukrainians for it as it is to blame modern Russians for the crimes of Stalin, but there's a small minority faction in today's Ukraine who still consider Bandera, Karpenko and Shukshevich to be heroes, and whose actions at Odessa prove them to be worthy successors. Most Ukrainians would be as horrified as we are at the idea of crucifying a child, but those who've followed the events of the last few months know the Right Sector are more than capable of it.

It's possible then, and we have to accept that. If we're going to reject the story of the Slavyansk Crucifixion we need to do it on other grounds.

First into the fray is the highly respected Ukrainian journalist and blogger Anatoly Shariy. His short video commentary is in Russian, I'm afraid, but I'll try to outline the main points below.

Shariy is one of the best and most impartial commentators on Ukraine, and this analysis is typical of his common sense approach. It's clear that as a humane man he finds the crucifixion hard to believe, but he also offers two very specific reasons for doubt:

The strangeness that Pyshnyak knows the child is 3 years old – but seems not to know his name. I'd agree that's odd, but don't think it's fatal. If the story is true then Pyshnyak might well have made a conscious decision to suppress the child's name, since the father is still fighting in Donetsk and this interview would be the most appalling way for him to learn the fate of his family.

The fact that a similar story had already been circulating on Facebook some days before the interview. Shariy summarizes this as follows: ‘Yesterday, the National Guard nailed a little child to an ad board and he hung there until his father, a militiaman, came out, then they shot him dead' and suggests the story has now been slightly 'modernized' for TV.

This is an extremely valid point, with several possible explanations. The similarity between the two stories suggests a propaganda creation which it was later decided to support by a real live 'witness'. The differences suggest it's a wild rumour, a garbled anecdote passing from mouth to mouth as a kind of 'urban myth'. A third (and horrible) possibility is that there were actually two separate incidents. It certainly merits further investigation, and we'll be looking at it in more detail in Part 2 when the full text turns up.

But meanwhile the next 'debunker' steps forward, which is of course the Kiev Government. As a westerner I was expecting a statement along the traditional lines of 'We've looked into this ridiculous story and can confirm it's entirely without foundation',  but Kiev doesn't quite work like other governments, and here's all I could find:

The spokeswoman for Ukraine’s interior ministry, Natalya Stativko, on Monday slammed the report as ‘following in the footsteps of Goebbels,’ Nazi Germany’s minister of propaganda.

‘The cruder and the more monstrous the lie, the better it will look for the Russian propaganda machine,’ Stativko said.

No facts, no official repudiation, no claim of investigation, just a flat accusation of a Russian lie. It gets us no further at all.

I doubt it was meant to. Kiev's only concern seems to be with the PR damage, and their next action would be illegal in most EU countries. According to their own InterpreterMagthe Interior Ministry actually made Pyshnyak's police records available to the public:

Why a domestic violence victim with family problems can't have also witnessed a war atrocity rather escapes me, but Kiev is less interested in logic than in slinging mud. This is really no more than a 'smear campaign', as we can see from the latest manipulated image from Ukraine's regular propaganda selection:

The approach may perhaps seem a little immature, but it's probably the best we can expect from a government whose concept of foreign policy is to jump up and down singing 'Putin Huilo! La la la la la.' Kiev obviously knows its own people best, and for many West Ukrainians the argument is now definitively settled - Galina Pyshnyak is a liar.

Well, maybe she is, but hidden behind the mud-screen there still emerged one single clear and relevant fact: Galina Pyshnyak is exactly who she says she is, and was indeed living in the Slavyansk area before she fled to Russia. She is in fact a genuine refugee.

It's not much, but it's a start, and the next analyst to come along gave us a great deal more. This is the very talented Russian photo-journalist Evgeny Feldman, who had his own doubts about the story and visited the square in Slavyansk to see for himself.
In this video he pans round the square (thus showing the absence of a ‘bulletin board') then asks the locals if any of them saw or have heard of the incident Galina described. None have.

It seems cut-and-dried, but when we watch this from the comfort of western homes we need to remember this is no ordinary European town. This is Slavyansk.

Think about it. The people here have seen their houses destroyed and their friends and neighbours killed in front of them, and now they’ve been left to the mercies of the same Ukrainian army who's been bombing them. The new authorities have already taken away the young men for questioning, and are (by their own admission) conducting sweeping investigations to find anyone who might in any way have supported the separatist movement. Government leaflets warn of the penalties for assisting 'terrorists', and special boxes have even been set up to enable people to inform anonymously against their neighbours.

Young men being taken for questioning in Slavyansk

Informant box and government leaflet in Slavyansk

These people are heavily traumatized, and living in a situation of extraordinary tension. Simon Ostrovsky has managed to capture a feel of it in Dispatch 54 of Vice News’ excellent series ‘Russian Roulette’, especially when he asks the soldiers how the locals react to their presence. The reply (from about 06.10) is chilling. They thank us. They cry and thank us. (Soldiers look at each other and laugh) What else can they do?

What else indeed?

Look again at Feldman’s video in the light of all this, and it’s impossible not to get a sense of something very wrong. For one thing – where are the men? All these elderly women, but there seem to be only two men on the whole square. Then we remember Galina saying ‘There are only women and the elderly left’ and feel the first chill down the spine.

Then the interviews. Many of these women are quite desperate not to be filmed, covering their faces with hands, bags, anything, as they try to shoo the reporter away. Those who do co-operate act as spokesperson for entire groups, saying firmly (without the slightest consultation) that ‘we’ were not there, ‘we’ know nothing, ‘we’ have seen and heard nothing. Look at the body language of the women sitting next to the speakers – the averted faces or hostile stares.

Look how many wrap their arms round their bodies in the universal reaction to danger.

The sense of fear is palpable. The voluble woman in the blue top is particularly aware of the dangers of saying anything against the authorities – the 'Russian Roulette' episode shows her in the square when Simon Ostrovsky witnessed the denouncing of ‘separatists and terrorists’. There were also a lot of men around back then, and it's hard not to wonder where they all are now.

It's not Feldman's fault - he's a normal young man with a normal life and can't be expected to know the kind of atmosphere into which he's blundering so cheerfully. But we do know, and can also have a pretty good idea what would happen to these women if they made public accusations against the very soldiers who are occupying their town. Honestly - what do we expect them to say? What would we say in their place? The footage shown here is exactly what we’d expect to see if the story were true.

It still proves nothing, of course, but it was when watching this video that I began to feel the first real stirrings of uneasiness. Looking at those faces even made me wonder if there mightn't be something in this story after all. Maybe I wasn't the only one, since the tale of the Slavyansk Crucifixion continued to build up steam on social media, and someone somewhere clearly decided it needed serious debunking.

Enter America's tireless Crusader for Truth, Julia Davis. We'll be looking at what she has to say in Part 2...