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...


  1. "... In the centre of the city there is the Lenin square..." - There's in NO Lenin square in Slaviansk. FAIL.

    I presume you committed the following fallacies deliberately:

    1) Appeal to emotion
    2) Appeal to probability
    3) Shifting the burden of proof

    FYI, residents of Slavyansk are very likely reluctant to speak with Evgeny Feldman because he speaks "chistyy" Russian, not the local version of it.

  2. As it happens, there IS a Lenin Square in Slavyansk, as you'd know if you'd troubled to read Part 2. The #FAIL, I'm afraid, is all yours.

    To take your other 'points' in order:
    1. Yes, I think many people find human suffering an emotional subject. Perhaps you don't?
    2. An 'appeal to probability' is not a fallacy, but a central plank in most justice systems. Have you heard of the concept of 'reasonable doubt'?
    3. The question being raised here isn't of guilt or innocence, but whether or not there should be an investigation. In a state that recognizes the rule of law, there is no burden of proof laid on the victim, and the police need to have VERY good reasons to lay aside a complaint without action. I have yet to see those reasons here.

    As for Mr Feldman's Russian, it doesn't seem to stop people either understanding or speaking to him. Do you suggest that the sound is so horrific to sensitive ears that these people are hiding their faces rather than see someone speaking it? I'm afraid I find that rather unlikely.

  3. Brilliant work, as always.

    Given that in Part Two you establish that there was indeed an announcement board in Lenin Square before the city fell, doesn't the fact that it was gone by the time of Feldman's visit constitute further circumstantial evidence in favour of Galina Pyshnyak's account? It is hard to see any plausible motive for removing it other than to destroy evidence.