How Russia Exploits Black Suffering on the Ukrainian Borders

Don’t forget the (dis)information war: Russia is using images of racism to further its own racist and violent ends.

Author’s note: I am particularly grateful to Karolis Vyšniauskas and Elena Reimerytė, whose insights and discoveries helped strengthen and shape this article.

Her exhaustion was palpable, despite the jerky camera documenting her struggle to feed her baby while kneeling on the ground. Confusion, chaos, trampled dirt, crowds of people surrounding her and the child – all frustrated, all tired, all in search of safety.

I watched the clip over and over, astonished. I’d seen countless images from Ukraine over the past week: burning apartment buildings, destroyed military equipment, people sleeping in metro stations and basements. I’d watched footage from the borders, lines of people stretching for miles, fleeing war.

Yet I must confess, I didn’t think that a young Black woman would be there. Yes, I did think of mothers and babies, some born in bomb shelters, others left without life-saving medication. I cried over mothers burying their children.

But these mothers were white.

A Black mother on the Ukrainian border, struggling to find shelter and safety for her child, looked at the camera, and through it, at me, demanding that I reckon with my own implicit racism, with my own internalised images of eastern Europe as a white space.

I’d never really considered that Ukraine was home to thousands of people of colour, who had come to study, live, love and work there. I knew that people from various non-European countries lived in Ukraine – and Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Poland. I knew that, I‘d met some of them – heck, I’d even taught some of them at LCC International University in Klaipėda, Lithuania.

But this knowledge never deeply challenged the way I saw the part of the world I call home. It did little to expand my awareness of the people affected by this terrible war. Africans, Indians, Caribbeans, East Asians – they all completely escaped my vision, and thus my concern.

And this Black mother remained anonymous to me, even in her pain; her name was obscured in the countless shares of the clip. The image went viral precisely because she captured the vulnerability of so many people of color stuck in the clutches of war, outside their home countries, exposed to discrimination and racism. She was an icon for the way the global racial order plays out. Anti-Blackness is all-encompassing, and knows no borders.

Borders, which are violent in their own right, become places where racial violence gets heightened and often concentrated

These global inequalities have rendered many embassies and governments from the Southern hemisphere incapable of protecting and caring for their citizens abroad. If European powers could order chartered flights and organise mass evacuations for their citizens, many of the people from the majority world would have had to fend for themselves. Borders, which are violent in their own right, dividing ‘us’ from ‘them’, become places where racial violence gets heightened and often concentrated, with barbed wires and guns separating life and death, safety and peril, White and Black.

Ukrainos-Lenkijos pasienis. Po Rusijos invazijos į Ukrainą iš šalies išvyko ir prieglobsčio ieško virš milijono žmonių.
Ukrainos-Lenkijos pasienis. Po Rusijos invazijos į Ukrainą iš šalies išvyko ir prieglobsčio ieško virš milijono žmonių.

When everyone’s life is in danger, and border guards make decisions about whose safety and right to life get prioritised, Sub-Saharan Africans (and other racialised minorities) often find themselves placed – or held – on the wrong side of these dividing lines. The wartime and crisis-management motto of ‘women and children first’ easily becomes ‘white women and white children first’. My ignorance and complicity, my own imagination of who is in danger and who is affected by this war, is the first example of that.

Using Black pain for propaganda

As I followed Twitter threads, another pattern started to emerge. My colleague, a fellow Lithuanian (who is much more experienced in journalistic investigation than I am), noted the large proportion of fake profiles retweeting these images.

I started to notice vacuous accounts, with profile pictures of flowers or cartoon characters, whose previous content included occasional memes or jokes, or nothing at all. All of a sudden, these accounts were tweeting and retweeting content hashtagged as #BlackinUkraine or #AfricansinUkraine. Sometimes this content was broadcast by itself; newer accounts tended to combine it with anti-Biden or pro-Putin messaging.

Things started to click. The pattern seemed eerily familiar. Last year, Relevant magazine revealed that almost all the top pages with inspirational messages and memes for US Christians on Facebook are run by Russian troll farms. These pages used the amassed followers to spread anti-Hillary Clinton and pro-Trump messages. In addition, a journalistic investigation by BBC revealed that Black Americans were the single most targeted group of these Russian operations.

The purpose of such troll and bot generated content was to exploit racial tensions and violence against Black people to deepen the distrust and political divisions in the US. In 2018, the RAND Corporation published an extensive study of how the Russian regime uses social media for its propaganda purposes. In addition to official channels, conspiracy websites and fodder for the extreme Left/Right, Russian propagandists employ social media accounts with no traceable ownership that rarely create content of their own but utilise “exploitable content”.

Bots and trolls, rather than protecting people of colour impacted by war, exploit their suffering

Such content may or may not be factual, but it will always work to undermine those deemed opponents of the Kremlin. In this case, when Russia is waging a war of its own making against Ukraine, (dis)information warfare is critical. Images of racist, nationalist Ukrainians causing unjust suffering to a Black mother makes for an excellent campaign of discreditation.

Complexities of wartime

I need to pause here. I believe that the woman and her baby, as well as countless other people of colour on Ukraine’s borders, experienced real pain and, in many cases, discrimination. We eastern Europeans, who often have to fight to be seen as fully European and fully people ourselves, despite our white skin and blue eyes, can be just as racist as the West. And I also understand that wartime realities are complex. Many people tweeting content with those hashtags were quick to acknowledge the kindness and hospitality they experienced from civilians, and to distinguish between them and border guards enforcing rules.

However, when Twitter trolls go to work, these nuances get lost in the mass amplification of Black suffering. With no accompanying stories, no context, no follow-up tweets, the narrative that is woven is that of racist Ukraine. This, of course, works to further alienate people from the majority world and turn them against the country ravaged by war. Putin’s regime seems more justifiable in its actions, and the lines between right and wrong get blurred.

Yet, there is another, deeper layer. These Russian bots and trolls, rather than defending or protecting people of colour impacted by war, exploit their suffering even further. The Russian regime tries to win the sympathy of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America by propping itself up on flattened accounts of real instances of racial discrimination. By drawing attention away from the injustices of the Russian invasion – which forced the Black mother and her baby to flee Ukraine in the first place – it uses the pain it generated to whitewash itself.

And that is racist.

Additional reading: Millions of Leftists Are Reposting Kremlin Misinformation by Mistake by VICE.

Links to support marginalised people in Ukraine.

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Gražina Bielousova is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at Duke university, North Carolina. Follow her writing on Facebook.