In late November 2011, Ukrainians learned that their president is not “the first among equals” but a higher being, in a way. The Bukvoid literary portal published a piece on the book Natsionalna ideya (The National Idea) penned by Volodymyr Cherednychenko, a Dnipropetrovsk native, in which he focuses on (surprise!) the aristocratic pedigree of President Viktor Yanukovych. The author claims that the president’s ancestors were representatives of the Belarusian nobility who were persecuted by the Bolsheviks and fled to the Donbas. (This contradicts Yanukovych’s official biography.) The book was published back in 2010, but it has come to wide public attention only now. This is not surprising: the glorification of the head of state has reached an unheard-of level in Ukraine.
“HERO” OF OUR TIME
In early October 2011, scans of Zhyttia pid znakom faktoriala (A Life under the Sign of Factorial) by Vitaliy Spazhuk, a Donetsk native, were published online. Excerpts from this “masterpiece” require no comment: “Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych is the name of a creator!”; “‘How beautiful life is!’ Viktor Yanukovych said, but not simply said or shouted but exhaled the words in subdued, cold whisper.”; “Viktor Yanukovych’s deeds are pleasing to God and revealed by God.”
On October 27, Donetsk hosted a launch of a 500-page Russian-language tome entitled Partiya Regionov: Proshloye… Nastoyashchee… Budushchee…(The Party of Regions: Past… Present … and Future). It was dedicated not so much to the party as to its leader, Yanukovych. Halyna Frolova, the manager of the project, assured that the book was not written to order – it was allegedly a result of efforts by a “small team that worked on this volume about their Party of Regions.” The local mass media reported that this “small team” included Mariupol Mayor Yuriy Khotlubei.
In fact, this trend is turning into a tradition before our very eyes. In 2006, Hanna Herman, Yanukovych’s press secretary at the time, published a notorious eulogy to the future president entitled Zaliznyi hospodar (Iron Master). During the 2004 election campaign, the press had a great time poking fun at a book penned by a Vira Nikolayeva. (Her identity remains unknown.) Written, again, in Russian, Prikosnis k sudbe (Touch Your Destiny), it offers a teary account of Yanukovych’s childhood years.
The personality cult is not limited to thick and richly designed hardcover editions. Yanukovych has already been portrayed in icons, on women’s fingernails and cut-out watermelons. A year and a half ago, Kyiv-based artist Yulia Panasiuk immortalized the “unifier of the country” in a weird portrait which shows Yanukovych dressed in a business suit and wearing the semi-mythical crown of Danylo Romanovych. Luhansk-based sculptor Mykola Shmatko transfigured Yanukovych into Caligula, which is actually a rather lame compliment.
SERVILITY AS A CALLING
Last year, the Polish newspaper Rzeczрospolіtavoiced bewilderment over a Yanukovych portrait on the first page of the Tax Code handed out to Ukrainian ministers. That same year, the Crimea’s Ministry of Education recommended teaching a thematic class on September 1 about the president’s election program. The entire country was agape when it was revealed that a children’s choir in Luhansk Region, made up of six-year-old girls, sang a song written by educator Oleksandr Miroshnyshenko, 68 which read: “Uncle Vitya – there is no man better than him. / Uncle Vitya Yanukovych is a smart president. / He likes to play with children, of course. / We’ll have a good life and prosper with him.” At a rally that welcomed Yanukovych in his native Yenakiieve, his former classmate Volodymyr Dovtsov recited a poem he himself crafted in which he called Yanukovych “effulgent” and was recorded live by the First National TV channel. “Viktor, you are our light and banner. / With you we’ll attack our enemies. / You brought faith to the people. / Your brought happiness, freedom and shelter,” the poetically inclined pensioner solemnly proclaimed.
The mass media, particularly TV channels, that are loyal to the government shun grotesque eulogizing. They take a different tack at shaping a positive image of the president. Work often starts long before TV cameras are turned on. For example, the recent protests over social benefits have been largely focused on the parliament and the government. What catches the observer’s eye is that Yanukovych, who appointed this government in the first place and has control over the parliamentary majority, is kept out of the picture. In this way, the media keep his image from becoming stained.
Conversely, his positive sides are being magnified and promoted. One of the most creative products along this line is the film Prezydent. Pochatok shliakhu (The President. The Beginning of the Journey) in which Yanukovych comes across as little short of a saint. In the best of Asian traditions, it was broadcast in July 2010 to mark Yanukovych’s 60th birthday.
On Independence Day and then on October 18, the state-run television broadcast two interviews with Yanunovych. The interviewer was Vitaliy Korotych, poet and political writer, who chose the format of “maximum facilitation” if not brown-nosing. Curiously, several days after the first interview was broadcast, the State Television and Radio Broadcasting Committee added a book by Korotych to the list of government-sponsored publications – Tsilkom osobysto. Pryvatni lysty do D. Kremenia (Strictly Confidential. Private Letters to Dmytro Kremin). The state will pay UAH 174,600 to have the book published.
In late August, an “open letter of the Ukrainian intelligentsia” made headlines in Ukraine. It said, among other things, that Yanukovych was “firmly on the side of the people” in fighting corruption and equally firmly in favor of “protecting universal human values and defending the state.” The president’s press service quickly published his response which has a touching opener: “I feel the faithful and reliable shoulder of my companions-in-arms.” However, a short while later a number of signees declared that they had never seen the text their names were appended to. In particular, Les Taniuk, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy Rector Serhiy Kvit and doctor Olha Bohomolets withdrew their signatures. Curiously, the first signature was that of Korotych, as far as we can tell.
NO CHANCES FOR A “CULT”
Common sense suggests that a full-fledged “personality cult” is impossible in Ukraine. Therefore, laudatory odes to Yanukovych & Co. fall short of their propagandagoals in present realities. First, Yanukovych simply does not have the prerequisites for this kind of cult: a mere third of voters supported him for president. Second, now Ukrainians simply do not trust politicians, and the president is no exception – his popularity rating has dropped to 20-25%. Finally, apart from flattering books that no one even cares to leaf through, there are online sources read by the most active citizens.
“The problem is also the people entrusted with the task do everything in an amateurish and outright ridiculous way,” Serhiy Rudenko, Bukvoid’s editor-in-chief, says. In his opinion, the authors of most of these toadyish books did not expect their production to have propaganda effect on the populace. “In the case of Spazhuk, the author seems to have sincere love for the president. To Herman, her Iron Master was a way to get closer to Yanukovych. Korotych seems to want to get some recognition from this government.”
Iryna Bekeshkina, sociologist and academic leader of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, says that in current realities the head of state can only “play the good tsar” who is forced to periodically appease the discontent nation by firing “the bad boyars” – ministers and other officials. “This cannot continue for too long,” she says. “If you are playing the role of the tsar, you must assume responsibility. Failing this, people will figure out, according to a well-known Soviet comedy film, that ‘the tsar is actually fake.’”
“Now is a time of uncertainty. At times like this a person who is associated with fairness becomes a cult leader,” Viktor Nebozhenko, chief of the Ukrainian Barometer service, says as he dissects the technology of fashioning a “good tsar.” “Another thing is stability. If a leader is associated with stability, he may be supported on the premise that things could be worse otherwise.’” These propaganda approaches are traditional in authoritarian regimes. Nebozhenko points to other methods that can help Yanukovych extend his presidential rule – control over television and apparent fight against corrupt officials and oligarchs. “But this will require serious criminal cases rather than the farce we have seen in the Tymoshenko case. Unfortunately, Yanukovych has already shown, even in this case, that he can hardly be expected to bring either stability or fairness.”
Therefore, panegyrics addressed to the president benefit only those who voice them. But then, the examples of Herman, ex-Governor Mykhailo Tsymbaliu, Academician Volodymyr Semynozhenko and others shows that the favors thus obtained are unreliable and short-lived. And the object of their eulogizing eventually turns into a laughing stock.
The Ukrainian Week talked with French cybersecurity expert Christine Dugoin-Clément about mechanisms for fighting fake news, the prospects for certifying true information, and the likelihood of separating propaganda from journalism once and for all.