“Donbas. Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” – a Documentary in the Tradition of Kremlin’s Best Propaganda

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The Russian Embassy in North Macedonia recently shared the documentary Donbas. Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (2021) on Facebook. The documentary uses a common manipulation technique –  presenting the historical sequence of events in a way that confuses the audience as to who “started” the conflict. The film highlights the fire in Odessa in which pro-Russian activists died on the 2nd of May 2014which the film describes as a genocide. However, the film says nothing about the events in February-March 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea and incited dissent throughout Ukraine by sending agents in the region like Igor Girkin-Strelkov. Consequently, the so-called DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic) was established on 7 April 2014Not only did Ukraine not commit genocide, but it initially did not even resist at all 


Author: Vangel Bashevski-Barmi 

Russia banned Facebook and other services Meta back in March 2022. However, the Russian Embassy in North Macedonia still uses Facebook, especially for spreading fabrications about Ukraine, as illustrated by the following three posts. 

The first post dates to the 1st of April 2024, which was the 215th anniversary of the birth of Nikolai Vasiljevic Gogol, “a classic author in Russia’s literary canon” – as described by the Embassy. The Embassy, however, fails to mention that Gogol was born in Ukraine and that many of his works were inspired by Ukrainian history and culture. 

Such is the case with his famous novella Taras Bulba. The novella is not mentioned by the embassy, nor is the fact that it had two versions, one from 1835 and another from 1842, both published while Ukraine was a part of the Russian Empire. The first version was deemed too Ukrainian, even nationalistic, so Gogol wrote a second version, a Russified one. Whether Gogol had a reason for writing the second version, be it censorship or a change of heart, his life’s story is more complex than what the Embassy revealed. 

The Embassy posted something similar on the 6th of April 2024. The post commemorated the 370th anniversary of the Pereyaslav Agreement, which is often used as an argument to demonstrate Ukraine’s “voluntary unification with Russia.” However, according to many Ukrainians, the agreement was a fatal error. 

The Ukrainians had a state – the Hetmanate – led by the Cossack Hetman Khmelnytskyi. He signed a treaty with Russia, which was abused by Russia to subjugate Ukrainians. In 1775, the Russians flattened Zaporozhian Sich, the political center of the Cossacks. Then, they prosecuted the Ukrainian language through bans, such as the Valuev Circular (1863) and the Ems Ukaz (1876). Ukrainian revivalists like Taras Shevchenko, who often spoke ill of Khmelnytskyi in his poems as a result. 

Ukraine left the union as soon as it had the chance, during the empire’s collapse in 1917. Afterwards, the Ukrainian People’s Republic was formed, which was then attacked by the Soviet Union under the leadership of Lenin, who forcibly made Ukraine part of the USSR. Ukrainians were left to die in Stalin’s purgesthe Holodomor, and the Chernobyl disaster, leading many Ukrainians to flee the Soviet Union. 

Despite this historical context, the narrative that Russian-Ukn-Ukrainian relations were idyllic up until the “rotten West” ruined them still prevails. That is how Russian-Ukrainian relations are presented in the documentary Donbas. Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, shared by the Russian Embassy on the 8th of April 2024. The film has been gaining traction recently due to screenings in Italy, as part of the Kremlin’s media campaign commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Donbas War. The documentary claims to express the views of the entirety of Donbas, but it only amplifies the voices of the so-called DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and LPR (Lugansk People’s Republic), which initially encompassed only around 30 percent of the Donetsk or Lugansk Region of Ukraine. DPR and LPR spread only after the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022, but to this day do not encompass the entirety of Donbas. 

Donbas. Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow uses a common manipulation technique – presenting the historical sequence of events in a way that confuses the audience as to who “started it” the conflict. The film highlights the setting on fire of pro-Russian activists in Odessa on the 2nd of May 2014, which the film describes as genocide. However, the film provides no information on what happened in February and March 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea and incited dissent uprising throughout Ukraine, by sending agents in the region like Igor Girkin-Strelkov. Consequently, on the 7th of April 2014, the so-called DPR was established. Not only did Ukraine not commit genocide, but it initially did not even resist at all. 

Ukraine started resisting with the formation of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) on the 14th of April 2014. This stirred up emotions, leading to the events on the 2nd of May, which resulted in clashes in the streets of Odessa. The pro-Russian “Odessa Gang” fired at the pro-Ukrainian activists, culminating in the famous arson. It was an ugly event, but one must understand why it occurred. Odessa is not even in Donbas, so it is not quite clear why the film stresses the events which occurred in it. 

Except for leaders of the DPR and LPR, the film does not feature any notable names. Igor Girkin-Strelkov, who has admitted that he was the “trigger” of that war, does not appear in the film. Instead, the movie features little-known figures such as Roman Omelchenko-Plastun, who, ironically, is from Russia. 

Then come the foreign “correspondents.” Russell Bentley (USA), Alexis Castillo (Columbia) and Victor Lenta (France) are presented as anti-fascists and internationalists, likened to the fighters in the Spanish Civil War). Jewish veterans from the Soviet Union are also featured in the film. Ukrainians are accused of Nazism, but Ukraine banning Nazi ideology by law on the 9th of April 2015 is not mentioned. Also missing from the documentary is the fact that Russian neo-Nazis such as Anton Raevsky and Aleksey Milchakov, from the “Rusich” unit, are fighting against Ukraine. 

Foreign journalists such as George Eliason (USA), Janus Putkonen (Finland), and Ronald van Amerongen (Netherlands) also speak in the film. None of them are notable by any means and are conspirators and disseminators of fake news. Putkonen even reiterates the myth that Ukrainian fighters were “even promised slaves and land in Donbas.” For the sake of balance, prof. Charles Kupchan, former assistant to Barack Obama, is also featured. Unsurprisingly, Kupchan states nothing of significance and appears only very briefly. 

The film compares Ukrainians to the IS (Islamic State), accusing them of beheadings and murder of pregnant women. The film also shows mass graves, usually without sufficient context or data. Russia once claimed that Ukrainians crucified a child, but then admitted that this claim was not supported by evidence. Therefore, all of these claims should be taken with a pinch of salt. Certainly, there were excesses on the Ukrainian side, as was the case with the battalion “Tornado” (which is covered in the film), but Ukraine has condemned that event. 

With no evidence whatsoever, the film mentions Canadian and British special forces allegedly in Donbas. NATO is then accused of trying to install bases in Ukraine to attack Russia. NATO, however, has been present on Russia’s border since its inception in 1949, through Norway. Later, other neighboring countries of Russia became members: Poland in 1999 and the Baltic States in 2004, which means that NATO could have attacked Russia earlier if it wanted to. Moreover, Ukraine is not even a NATO member state. 

Additionally, the film’s title suggests that it will explore Donbas’s past, which it does not. 

Historically, the region was a sparsely populated steppe, known as the Wild Fields. Some form of civilization emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries when the region became part of the Russian Empire. Before that, there had been no Russian tradition in the region, which is why it was called New Russia. 

Aside from Russians, Donbas was also populated by Serbs, Greeks, and others. Lugansk and Donetsk were built by British entrepreneurs, to exploit its abundance of coal. That said, much of the population was Ukrainian, as the 1897 census proves. Ukrainians still make up the majority of the population in Donbas, according to the last census in Ukraine, which dates to 2001 (and was not disputed by Russia). 

Russians did not make up the majority then, nor are they the majority Donbas today. In order to artificially increase the number of Russians in Donbas, Russian President Vladimir Putin also counts Russian-speaking ethnic Ukrainians, who speak the language as a consequence of their assimilation in the Russian Empire and USSR. Much like Putin, Donbas. Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow also counts Russian-speaking Ukrainians as Russians. But someone being a Russian-speaking Ukrainian does not necessarily mean that they are pro-Russian. 

According to the film, Ukraine’s population of 40 million is an amorphous mass with no backbone that sold itself for the sandwiches handed out by American diplomat Victoria Nuland during the Kyiv Maidan protests against President Viktor Yanukovich. The fact that Yanukovich was corrupt and practically a Russian slave is of no interest to the film, nor does the film care about Yanukovich’s government beating and shooting protesters. 

The film gives the viewer the impression that some gang toppled Yanukovich. In reality, he was dismissed by means of a parliamentary procedure (not an ideal one, but still a procedure) that was voted on by the legitimately elected Members of Parliament, including 36 members of his own party on the 22nd of February 2014. 

The film asserts that the Parliament then adopted a legislature that was detrimental to the Russian language. However, to be clear, there exists no ban on the Russian language in Ukraine. Moreover, the Russian language is protected by Article 10 of the Constitution. The issue at hand was a law from Yanukovich’s term that made Russian an official language in regions where at least 10 percent of the population spoke the language. Although Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, Russian influence has continued, either through the dominant presence of the Russian language or through the media and pro-Russian politicians. Yanukovich’s law only further propped up the Russian language. 

On the 23rd of February 2014, the Parliament voted to repeal the law, but the then-acting president Turchynov did not sign the law off. He deemed the new law discriminatory, claiming that a better law should be devised. Therefore, the law was not repealed, but the events in Crimea and Donbas still took place. The law was then repealed in 2018, because of a decision by the Constitutional Court. 

In addition, the film claims that Ukraine does not respect the Minsk Agreements (2014 – 2015), omitting the fact that Russia violated the 1994 Budapest Agreement, which Ukraine upheld by handing over its Soviet nuclear weaponry to Russia. Russia committed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty but then broke this promise in 2014.