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...

Sunday 27 July 2014


Faking pictures can backfire badly if you’re caught. A government will only risk it when the stakes are high, the risks are low, and there’s no other evidence it can use.

The best example is the notorious ‘Russian Soldier’ image, which the Kiev government proudly presented to John Kerry as the long-sought evidence of Russian’s military involvement in Ukraine. It inspired massive headlines in all the western media, and was only exposed as a fake when the central picture turned out to be stolen from the Instagram account of photographer Maxim Dondyuk – where it was clearly labelled ‘Slavyansk’ and not ‘Georgia’.

We may laugh now, but the hoax isn’t quite as stupid as it seems. Precautions had been taken against exposure, and those amateurish red and yellow rings served as cunning camouflage in any image search, where Google naturally interpreted them as an integral part of the picture. If it hadn’t been for a sophisticated image-identifier from Tineye, Kiev would probably have got away with it and NATO might have been in Ukraine before May.

Even exposure didn't cost Kiev much. The western media protected them, the NYT’s ambiguous retraction was buried deep on page 9, and many people still believe the ‘little green men’ were definitely identified as Russian soldiers. Kiev lost little, gained much, and proved how effective such fakes could really be.

But there’s a different kind of fake washing round the internet at the moment – one where the stakes are low, the risks astronomically high, and where the effects on the supposed creator can only be damaging. You know the things – those simple unmarked pictures of Ukrainian atrocities which circulate for a couple of days before being triumphantly exposed by Kiev’s INFORESIST as ‘retreads’ from Syria, Bosnia or Palestine. Indeed, there are now so many that US government employee Julia Davis is show-casing them all in a long-running series entitled Russia’s Top 40/60/80 Lies on Ukraine.

Because obviously they must be Russia’s lies. Who else? Only Russia wants to highlight the civilian cost of Kiev’s ATO, so only Russia would bother faking pictures to prove it.

Except that it doesn't need to. Graphic material like this from Lugansk and Slavyansk contain countless powerful images to illustrate the horror of Kiev's ATO, so why would they fake something they can already prove? I don't want to be brutal about it, but why on earth would anyone illustrate street violence with a fake photograph like this:
when they could link to a video of a man having his leg cut off on the streets of Odessa?

Why would they bother to fake this picture of a distressed child
when they could share the story of five year old Arseny Danchenko, who died in Slavyansk with more than 309 shrapnel wounds in his head? 

or show the funeral of 10-month old Igor Aleksandrov who was killed in the shelling of Lugansk?

Indeed, I'd ask why we'd need to 'steal' ANY other images of bombing victims, when nothing can match the heart-wrenching eloquence of this image of Inna Kudurudza, taken in the very last minutes of her life?

Inna, one of  8 civilians killed on June 2 in Kiev's bombardment of Lugansk.
The truth is that those of us who care about Donbass people already have enough images of horror to keep us from sleep for the rest of our lives. WE DO NOT NEED TO FAKE ANY MORE.

Nor does it make any sense to do so, when Russia has everything to lose by circulating these fakes, and absolutely nothing to gain. If we stand back and look at this objectively, it's obvious that the only winners in this fake game are those who wish to discredit Russia and the people of East Ukraine.

There's nothing new in that idea. Plant a lie, wait for your opponent to repeat it in good faith - then call him out for being a liar. Doing it with pictures is an old game, and an example from the UK shows its benefits are very real. In September 2003 the country was shaken by revelations that British soldiers had been abusing Iraqi prisoners, and the public mood began to swing dangerously against both government and war. Outrage rose to a climax in January 2004 when the Daily Mirror published disgusting pictures to prove even more abuses – only to collapse a few days later when the anonymously-supplied pictures were revealed to be fake. The backlash was fierce, and in the subsequent publicity the public’s original concerns faded and died. No-one knows who planted those fake photographs at the Mirror, but there’s no doubt at all who benefited.

There’s no doubt in Ukraine either. The public are now so used to fake pictures that they ignore even the real ones – except to question their authenticity. I recently posted this picture to someone on Twitter who seemed to think the only people dying were ‘terrorists’, but her immediate response was simply ‘That picture is not in Ukraine’.

Well it is, actually. That’s the last picture of tragic six-year old Pollina Sladkaya, who was shelled in Slavyansk by the Ukrainian army and died in her father’s arms. It’s not a fake, it doesn’t appear on any debunking sites, but my correspondent didn’t even bother to check before trashing it. Somewhere in her head is the equation ‘Picture of Human Suffering in East Ukraine = Fake’, and until that’s dispelled she’ll never understand that the people being killed out there are not terrorists.

Which is, of course, precisely the desired result. There are even people on Twitter whose job is to encourage it, such as the ironically named @grasswirefacts who posts ridiculous lies like this one:

I can understand why he’d want to discredit this photo. It’s not only a heartbreaking image in its own right, but also has the added poignancy of being one of the last pictures taken by Italian photographer Andrea Rocchelli before he was killed by the Ukrainian army on May 25th. It’s also extremely easy to authenticate from his published portfolio, but @grasswirefacts wasn’t interested in truth so much as propaganda, and no fewer than 20 people retweeted the lie before he was forced to delete it.

Damaging enough, but the effects can be even wider than that. Fake pictures are like rotten apples, and just one in a collection is enough to damn the whole lot. Probably the most popular (and therefore most dangerous) fakes in circulation are these beautiful pictures of children, of which the first is a still from the Russian film 'The Brest Fortress', and the second is a 2010 photograph of a grieving father in Crimea.

They've been around so long it would take months to trace them back to the first lethal 'fakery', but they're both beautiful pictures and it's hardly surprising so many people have used them in good faith since. The tragedy is that organizations like 'Save Donbass People' have now used them in videos and posters, with the terrible effect of contaminating their whole campaign. I was at a rally a few weeks ago where a woman had created a really wonderful photo-collage for a banner - but smack in the middle was that Brest Fortress child, and it rendered the whole lot useless. She was devastated when I told her, as most of us would be. What Kiev propagandists pretend not to realize is that the liars are the people who create the fakes in the first place - not those who subsequently employ them in all innocence.

But there's another danger too, and these ‘plants’ are now being used to discredit more than casualties. On July 11th the ARES confirmed that Kiev was using cluster bombs against civilians, and published the photographs to prove it.

Genuine evidence of cluster-bomb use in Ukraine
Devastating stuff, but the news was ignored in the media and met little response even on Twitter.
Because of this:

It’s an AP file photo of a cluster bomb in Lebanon taken back in 2006, which began to appear on Twitter as a Ukraine fake as early as May. It was ‘picked up’ immediately by the debunkers, and by the time the real photographs came along the public hardly even bothered to click on the links. ‘Cluster bombs? Seen that, it’s fake.’ That one planted picture is responsible for smothering direct, independent evidence of Ukraine’s breach of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions – which is a war crime.

But can we really be sure it was a plant? The ‘cui bono?’ principle may make it the likeliest explanation, but isn’t it at least possible that these are genuine fakes, produced by a ‘pro-Russian’ activist so subhumanly unintelligent that he didn’t realize his chances of getting away with it were approximately nil?

The honest answer is that anything’s possible, but there are three other good indications that these are the work of someone hostile to the anti-Kiev cause. These are:

1. The content

As the examples above show, most of these plants are so much milder than the real thing that it wouldn’t be worth anyone’s time to fake them. I don't want to post too many disturbing pictures on this blog, but you can find a very grim selection of real images here from Odessa, for instance, or here on the July 2nd massacre at Stanichno and KondraĆĄevka.

2. The obviousness 

There’s no attempt to hide the origins of these pictures, no ‘marking’ like the rings on the ‘Fake Russian Soldier’. They aren’t even obscure images, but pictures so well known they’re likely to come up first on a Google search. Some even verge on the ridiculous, and seem almost to be screaming ‘FAKE’ in the viewer’s ear.
Er... this one's a fake, from the set of a Russian movie
It's hard to avoid the conclusion that whoever's planting these images actually WANTS them to be exposed.

3. The mysteriousness of the source.

The ‘Fake Russian Soldier’ was presented openly by the Kiev government, but the origins of these are as murky as the hoax photos in the Daily Mirror. Some may be posted in good faith by recognized ‘pro-Russians’ on Twitter, but I’ve never known one actually start there, and they're as hard to trace as rumours. The people 'seeding' these pictures may want them exposed as fakes - but they don't want anyone to know who's doing the faking.

And we don't know - not for sure. We can only be certain that whoever's planting these things is supportive of the US/Ukraine cause and doing all they can to discredit genuine evidence of Kiev's crimes.

Those of us who care about truth will want to do all we can to prevent the spread of this disinformation, and there are a few precautions we can take. The first is to avoid 'picking up' these plants in the first place, which means watching out for where these things start and learning what to avoid. Most seem to start life on Instagram before being posted anonymously to veooz, LiveLeak, 'breaking news' sites or ‘pro-Russian’ discussion forums - anywhere anti-Kiev activists are most likely to visit.

Here’s one example:

The anonymous poster is so anxious to reach a wider audience that he offers his story in both English and Italian, and begs everyone who reads it to ‘share’ - but the image is from Syria, and the text contains a few clues that should give us pause.

This sentence: This child was severely injured by a superdemocratic and supereuropean maidanite bomb. This is incredibly sophisticated word-play for a non-native English speaker, and quite incompatible with the poor spelling and awkward phrasing of ‘I reproduce here his words’. That combined with the double use of ‘kid’ makes me suspect the writer of actually being American.

But it isn't always this easy, and one fake turned out to have its origins in the place we'd probably be least likely to suspect. It's this little gem from the eagle-eyed Julia Davis, who denounces Russia for supporting its ‘lies’ with a picture of refugees from Kosovo.

Ms Davis’ source is clearly the debunk given here, but when I looked at the Russian article in the link I found there was no actual lie at all – the picture is simply captioned ‘Refugees’, in the same way editors include a generic picture of a gun above a story about a shooting.

To be fair, it's still misleading, and it’s possible another version (since deleted) had been even more direct. I suspected RIA Novosti had fallen victim to a ‘plant’, and looked for anything published earlier than 5th June that might give us the source.

And found it. This one's a lie all right, but what Julia Davis unaccountably failed to mention is that it’s not a ‘Russian lie’ but a Ukrainian lie. It’s linked to an INFORESIST story about refugees fleeing the dreadful Russian terrorists of Donbass, and is posted by the Queen Bee at the very heart of Kiev’s own propaganda machine – Euromaidan PR.

No-one would have suspected that. The source is Kiev itself, and in picking it up to use elsewhere RIA Novosti's only crime lies in its assumption that Kiev was telling the truth.

That's how wide the rot has spread on this, and it would be a full-time job to try and trace every picture to its original source. All I can suggest is that we take care before we share anything, and follow these three very basic rules:

Check every picture before we use itStopFake has published an excellent guide right here.

Ask for sources. We mustn’t be afraid to do this even with people we trust and respect, since any one of us could have innocently ‘picked up something nasty’.

Delete any fake we’ve unwittingly posted ourselves – and POST A RETRACTION to warn off anyone else. Yes, it’s embarrassing to admit we made a mistake, but it’s the honest, decent thing to do, and makes clear to everyone that such things are not done deliberately.

I know it’s tedious and wastes time we could be using for other things, but it really couldn't be more important. Kiev's 'fake picture scam' may seem a harmless game to make the ‘Russians’ look foolish, but what it’s really doing is trivializing the suffering of innocent people and burying the evidence of crimes against humanity.

If you care about truth, then please - let's make it STOP.