As southeast Ukraine descends further into violence and anarchy, Donetsk Oblast is swirling with frightening rumours apparently intended to keep the population in a state of panic and rage.
Among them: the water supply has been poisoned; the Kyiv government and the European Union are building concentration camps for their opponents; the woods are full of far-right killers and provocateurs, and the May 9 Victory Day holiday has been cancelled.
Workers from Donbas Water company found out about the apparently poisoned water in the Northern Donets-Donbas canal on May 2, after terrified locals began to phone the office. The rumor seemed deliberately reminiscent of incidents in World War II, such as in Sevastopol where people still remember how the attacking German army poisoned the town’s water supply in 1942.
“It’s a provocation, someone just wants us all to panic,” said Donetsk hotel owner Marina, who refused to give her last name, before assuring guests that her water did not come from the main supply so there was nothing to worry about. “It’s exactly like what they did in the war, putting out false information to scare everyone.”
The rumor began to appear on social networks on May 2. A statement on Donbas water’s website says “today, May 2, no chemical or bacterial abnormalities were observed. Water quality is in line with Ukrainian legislation.”
This is not the first rumor of poisoning; many people also believe that leaflets dropped by the Ukrainian army on Slavyansk and Kramatorsk two weeks ago encouraging local people not to support separatists were poisoned. “They were treated with dioxin,” said Alexander Filipov, a militant supporter of Donetsk independence, from Horlivka. “People took them to a laboratory and they were analysed,
It’s all on camera.” He could not say where the resulting film could be seen, only that Russian prosecutors were allegedly looking into the incident.
In another persistent rumour taken directly from World War II, many inhabitants of small towns around Donetsk believe the surrounding countryside is full of west Ukrainian "nationalists," "fascists," Banderists (followers of Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who lived from 1909-1959 and is reviled by the Kremlin for allegedly collaborating with Nazi Germany) and "Pravoseks: (members of the far-right group Pravy Sektor), dressed as civilians so as to infiltrate their midst to kill, rape and pillage. The rumor, which is very hard to completely prove or disprove, was powerful enough for many locals to take up arms and form militias to defend themselves.
Two men from Artemivka on April 29 said they spent their nights patrolling the woods for "homoseks," the local joke name for Pravy Sektor members, However, they said they had not managed to catch one yet. At a road block in Slavyansk earlier the same day, the two men had calmly watched other militants produce guns and chase into the trees after a "homosek" - a man in his 50s who was bundled into the back of a commandeered police car by masked men with automatic rifles.
No one could explain how they knew the captured man was from Pravy Sektor, or exactly what they thought he had been doing there. The wartime-inspired fear of fascist infiltrators is enough to justify for locals the recent kidnappings of journalists, OSCE representatives and others in Sloviansk and surroundings.
“You mean ‘so-called journalists’ and ‘so-called OSCE’,” said Boris, a militant from Slavyansk, when asked about the kidnappings. “This is war, and in war there are spies and agents.”
Russian media is behind or actively endorses many of these rumours that are plunging Donbas residents into a wartime mentality. One of the most blatant pieces of disinformation concerns a detention centre for illegal migrants being constructed in Donetsk Oblast, which a program shown on TV channel Russia 1 implies is in fact a concentration camp “probably for those who oppose Pravy Sektor and those the existing Kyiv authorities call separatists.”
The Ukrainian government issued a statement explaining the purpose of the centre, which began construction with EU funding in 2012 while Viktor Yanukovych was still president. Serhiy Hunko, press spokesman for Ukraine's state migration service, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Ukrainian Service that the centre was intended for foreigners and stateless people illegally in Ukraine and that no Ukrainian could be put there.
But in the unlikely event that people in Donbas who oppose the Ukrainian government have seen the refutation, they are even less likely to believe it. The "concentration camps" crop up regularly in the list of grievances people in Donetsk hold against Kyiv. At a May Day march in central Donetsk on May 1, one middle-aged woman who didn’t want to give her name engaged in a furious argument with a frail pensioner who suggested that the concentration camp story was not true.
“They are fascists, and they want to put us in death camps!” the woman shouted at bewildered Nina Boyarchenko, who was almost in tears. “Why are you defending them – are you one too?”
Russian TV so constantly repeats that people of Donbas are ‘second class’, that many people now really believe this is the opinion of the government in Kyiv and the rest of the country. Ukrainian media and social media, taking an increasingly strident line against Donbas ‘terrorists’ and ‘colorado beetles’ (wearers of the St George ribbon), is exacerbating the situation; as are some Ukrainian politicians making unmeasured public statements. But perhaps the most destructive rumour of all is about May 9, celebrated in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet countries as Victory Day ending what is called here the Great Patriotic War.
The rumor that the government in Kyiv has cancelled this holiday has outraged even the most reasonable of Donbas residents. Marina, the Donetsk hotel owner who was sure the poisoned water rumour was a provocation, was just as sure the cancellation of May 9 was true, and felt it was a direct insult to her grandfather who fought and was wounded in the Soviet army.
The source of the rumour seems to be an interview on Russian TV channel Life News with war veteran Vasily Kuzmenko, who complains that the decision to cancel May 9 parades is yet more evidence of the fascist character of the Ukrainian government and efforts by the West to destroy Russia.
Ukrainian Culture Minister Yevgeny Nischuk told the BBC that the ministry had no intention of cancelling any holidays. He said he had heard about the supposed cancellation from the media and had no idea of its source. Ukrainian TV channel Inter is planning to show extended coverage of May 9 parades in Kyiv this year, while veterans of west Ukrainian military forces like Bandera’s or the UPA, who fought against Soviet forces, have been encouraged not to hold marches.
But this is far too little and too late to influence many Donbas residents who prefer to watch Russian news.
“They cancelled the May 9 holiday– how could they? It’s our heroes, our grandfathers,” said Oksana Vlasenko, a Russian teacher from Artemivska, near Donetsk.
A former journalist, Vlasenko is more aware than most of the manipulative power of rumors and disinformation spread by the media. In yet another wartime analogy, she pointed out that “At the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, the first thing Hitler’s Germans did in Poland was to seize the post office and communications, for political and ideological propaganda.”
Vlasenko added of the work of the media in east Ukraine; “What’s true? The comma and the full-stop. That’s the truth. The rest you can just cross out.”
But she was talking about the Ukrainian media, not the Russian.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media