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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The Baltic countries, Ukraine, Russia, and… “elder-brother syndrome”

Jukka RISLAKKI: “Putin is successfully using propaganda to carry out his information policy”
21 May, 2014 - 17:54

Real intellectual “landing troops” from the Baltic countries have visited Kyiv. Finnish journalist Jukka Rislakki and Latvian writer Anna Zigure have delivered lectures on one and the same day. They are a married couple. Ms. ZIGURE is a writer, translator, and first Latvian ambassador to Finland (1991-98), chairperson of the Council of the Foundation of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia in 2004-12. Mr. RISLAKKI is a journalist, a qualified political scientist. He has worked for 30 years as a reporter to the largest Finnish newspaper Helsigin Sanomat, in 1998-2000 he worked as a journalist of this newspaper in the Baltic countries. His articles have been published in Finland, Latvia, and the US. He writes about history, espionage, the Baltic countries, and pop culture. He has received awards for best sci-fi books. The couple came to Ukraine within the framework of the communication campaign “Riga 2014 – the Culture Capital of Europe” with the assistance of the Latvian Embassy to Ukraine, the Center for Research on the Liberation Movement and the Center of History of State-Building in Ukraine in the 20th century at the NaUKMA. It is symbolical that the meeting with Anna Zigure took place at the National Museum of Art of Ukraine, where the exhibit of Riga photos “Our Way to Independence” is on display. The guests talked about Russia’s becoming a common problem for the Baltic countries and Ukraine and tried to outline the methods of resisting the same-type Kremlin propaganda and define the ways to real independence.

Recently a meeting with Finnish journalist, writer, and author of the book The Case for Latvia: Disinformation Campaigns against a Small Nation, Jukka Rislakki, took place in the Ye bookstore. During the lecture “Disinformation and propaganda against the Baltic countries and Ukraine” Mr. Rislakki told how Putin is using the instrument of propaganda for carrying out his information policy, how labels which were used back in the GULAG camps were taken out for present-day propaganda, how Latvia is facing the same attacks of Russian humanitarian policy as Ukraine, and why the Kremlin is irritated by the Baltic countries.

But at first Jukka Rislakki asked the organizers to switch on a song in Finnish language. Those who do not speak Finnish understood only the word “Natalia” and a powerful motif. As it turned out, the song was written to the poem by Finnish poetess Elvi Sinervo. She was imprisoned in a female prison in the same cell with a Ukrainian named Natalia. Natalia was accused of espionage. The song says “your Fatherland Ukraine is under German occupation now, only stray dogs can run there freely, but time will come when Ukraine will be free again.” It was not without a reason that Rislakki asked to switch on this song. A political scientist by education, the Finnish journalist, among other things, has worked with the topic of USSR political prisons, and soon his book dedicated to the history of the Vorkuta uprising will be published in Ukrainian translation.

“I learned new information for me – before the death of Stalin Ukrainians made 23 percent out of all GULAG prisoners. Ukrainians were more radical than prisoners of other nationalities. They always were the most active, followed in this by Poles. When the uprising in Rechlag (Rechnoi Lager – River Camp, Vorkuta) was being suppressed, two Ukrainian priests were killed. On the whole, the number of killed Ukrainians was the highest. Witnesses told that those were young men, patriots, who hated informants and the Soviet power. They were called Banderites by Russians who took certain senior positions in these camps. Apart from men, in Vokruta camps there were thousands of women. After they served their terms, they were sent to faraway exile. Currently when there is an opportunity to study the archives and talk to witnesses, we can assert that Ukrainians made 60 percent of passionate nationalists in the Vorkuta camp,” the Finnish journalist tells about his exploration of Ukrainian history.

Jukka Rislakki assures that all deceitful labels used by Russians concerning nationally aware Ukrainians, have Soviet ground and have been used many times in the ideological struggle against other nations as well: “Fascists, anti-Semites, neon-Nazi – the same words were used about Latvia. They said that Russians are thought to be second-rated people, they are deprived of their rights, and are forbidden to speak their native language. The only new word is ‘Banderites,’ which was borrowed from the past. Besides, I don’t think most of Russians know what it means.”


According to Jukka Rislakki, the propaganda does not come only from Russian mass media. Some Western journalists have been repeating this disinformation about Latvia and the Baltic countries for many years. The Russian propaganda against the Baltic countries especially increased in 2005, after these countries applied for NATO and EU membership. Nothing has changed since that time. Even on international grounds the questions are raised regarding the alleged suppressions of Russians and human rights violations.

“Hopefully, it will be much harder for Russia to lie about Ukraine, because the whole international community is turned to Ukraine,” the Finnish journalist says, “You must have heard that Russians accuse Ukrainians who were standing in Maidan of being trained in military camps of Lithuania and Latvia. It reminds me of the situation when the USSR insisted that Latvians were fighting on the side of the terrorists in Afghanistan. The way Russian media tell about the revolution in Georgia, Ukraine, the events in the Crimea, indicates how Putin uses the instrument of propaganda for carrying out his information policy. And the recent awarding of 300 Russian journalists is a shameful incident.”

Apart from the financed Western mass media, Russia often uses its own channels targeted at foreign audience. Mr. Rislakki says that the television network of the most of Western hotels includes the channel Russia Today. Most of foreigners do not understand who stands behind this English-language medium. “In Latvia we can feel this propaganda very acutely. The former president of Latvia has recently said that the war is going on now for the mind and thoughts of people. Last autumn Latvia and Lithuania stopped the broadcasting of the First Baltic Channel for a while, because it was spreading false information about the history of Baltic countries. Most of the information broadcasted by this channel comes from Russia, but this is a very popular channel in Baltic countries, especially among the Russian-language citizens. The RTR was switched off as well for three months because of propaganda and ‘the language of hatred’ when it was highlighting the events in Ukraine. Ninety percent of Russians get information from television, and they have been brainwashed so much that when they hear the word ‘Ukraine,’ they cannot think of anything else but fascism,” the writer notes.


Jukka Rislakki currently resides in the Latvian city of Yurmala. He says that Latvia has the same problems with “Russian minorities,” like Ukraine. One-fourth of Latvian population is ethnic Russians and 40 percent are people who speak Russian. There are also 300,000 people who don’t have Latvian citizenship, but many of them have Russian passports. Besides, the Russian embassy actively offers passports to Latvians. Russian language can be used in Latvia everywhere, whereas the Latvian language not everywhere. Recently a referendum has been held in Latvia with an aim to make Russian a second state language, but this decision was not made. “Immediately after the annexation of the Crimea a survey was held in Latvia concerning the assessment of Putin’s policy. Among non-Latvians 66 percent of respondents supported Russian occupation of the territory of Ukraine. In spring another survey was held – the part of ethnic Russians in Latvia who supported the invasion of Russian military forces to the territory of the Crimea and eastern Ukraine was 68 percent. “I was not surprised to hear this, because I have already seen how Russian citizens vote in Latvia. They are even more ‘Putinists’ than Russians in Russia,” the writer shares his observations.

Jukka Rislakki is sure that for Russia it is advantageous to have people they call their compatriots in the neighboring countries, to have permanent spheres of influence there. The international diplomats were ordered to pay more attention to people who want to help the “mother Russia.” “Putin often uses the policy of ‘soft power’ – attraction of people to his side with the help of humanitarian policy, educational program, and culture events. Like Dmitry Medvedev said once, ‘Let’s show to the world the smiling face of Russia’ [this incredible irony made the audience burst into laughter. – Author]. However, Western authors consider that Russia has always been trying to combine soft and hard influence. At the moment we realize that we can forget about the soft power. The aim of this influence in the Baltic countries is to show that Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are unsuccessful state-building processes. The same approach is being applied to Ukraine,” the journalist draws parallels.

British commentator Edward Lucas writes that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are the post-Soviet satellites losing which irritates the Kremlin the most. Their successful economy and open society are an impressive contrast to the situation in Russia. “And I am sure that very soon we will be able to add Ukraine to this list,” Jukka Rislakki summarizes.

Before Jukka Rislakki left Ukraine The Day had an exclusive interview with the journalist.


Does the West understand the real situation in Ukraine, taking into account the distorted picture provided not only by Russian mass media, but also foreign media, subsidized by the Kremlin oligarchs?

“Western journalists sponsored by Russia are not the main problem. The problem is that foreign mass media workers come for a very short time. They don’t know the historical context, they don’t understand the social sentiments. I even think that they invite wrong people for interviews. Some journalists are inclined to speak only with radically minded people. It means they have not done their homework: they haven’t learned the history of the country where they go, they don’t know what was going on here during the occupation.”

What made you, as a Finnish journalist, take interest in the history of Ukraine?

“Several years ago former prisoners from different countries appealed to me, because they knew I took interest in history. Before that my book on how the Finnish minority in the Soviet Union was destroyed had been published. Therefore it was quite natural that these people turned to me. Later I started to look for former prisoners, in particular, Ukrainians, and take interviews. All the more so, the year 2013 marked the 60th anniversary of the Vorkuta uprising, and this made the topic even more important.”

The way some journalists highlighted the situation in the Crimea showed as well that people abroad scarcely know Ukrainian history. However, the annexation of a Ukrainian territory is an unprecedented incident in the 21st century. To what extent was the information war an important part of real military actions?

“Experts say this is a new type of war in Europe. It begins slowly, secretly, and quite calmly. At first the aggressor ‘probes the ground,’ studies the situation, using the so-called soft force, after that military force is used. After that, if people are intimidated by this pressure and propaganda, there will be no need for active military intervention. The same thing happened in 1939-40 in Baltic countries, when people were so afraid of the Soviet army that they did not resist.”

One of approaches of information war is distorted naming. Whereas people over the world mark the Day of Commemorating the Victims of the Second World War, in the countries of the former socialistic camp people celebrate the Victory Day. Why are these Soviet-Russian myths dangerous?

“Soviet-Russian myths are very enduring in the Baltic countries. Latvia has tried to fight this. May 8 was announced the commemoration date, according to the European traditions. But a part of people still celebrates the ‘Victory Day.’ This is a revived phenomenon. The USSR did not propagate this data so much, but now Russia is developing the former myth with a new power.”

If democracy and humanistic values are implemented in post-Soviet space, will these processes be able to help the thinking part of Russia?

“Yes, not all Russians are alike. There is a part of real democrats who are hard to be discerned. In fact, we can become a good example for them. Many Russians like the system of the Baltic countries, especially Finland. I am content with the Finnish democracy. There is no corruption in this society, freedom is on the highest level, and the elections are very honest. Unfortunately, in terms of this Latvians will have to overcome a long path, but they are working hard. In Latvia people are efficiently fighting corruption, therefore they are changing bit by bit. Russian ruling elite is worried about the emergency of such countries, therefore it does not want Ukraine to become a democratic state. I think none of the EU countries will be against your membership in this Union.”

By Anna SVENTAKH, The Day