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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Protesters Spill Jar of 'Blood of Children of Donbass' on Photographs of War in Ukraine at Sakharov Center
5 years

A group of pro-government activists burst into the Sakharov Center today with a jar of what they said was "the blood of the children of Donbass," Gazeta and Lenta reported, citing TASS.

The Sakharov Center was showing an exhibit of the works of photographers Aleksandr Vasyukovich of Belarus and journalist Sergei Loiko of Russia depicting Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the Donbass.

Sergei Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharov Center, told TASS (translation by The Interpreter):

"A group of unknown persons tore signs we had posted in the place of the previously-damaged photographs and brought a jar containing an unknown liquid labelled 'Blood of the Children of Donbass.''

Lukashevsky added that he would not file a police report unless there were threats to the safety of the employees and visitors to the exhibit.

Even so, police later visited the scene to check reports of vandalism, Gazeta reported.

Lukashevsky said last night September 28, the Russian artist Anton Belikov came to the Sakharov Center and poured paint over the photographs, calling Vasyukovich a "shy fascist" and said he "despised" him. 

"What you are doing -- you are condoning all those murderers there. Those murderers, they kill women and children. And you come here and hang all this in Moscow."

Lukashevsky told the radio station Govorit Moskva that the photos were those of the winners of a competition called "Direct Look":

"We will not restore these photographs [to the exhibit] because we see that the public conversation about this war as a tragedy of our society, unfortunately, is impossible. People break out in hatred. And in that situation, I cannot guarantee the safety of either the employees or the visitors."

He said the works of other participants in the photography contest were displayed in the show.

TV Rain reported later that police had decided to shut down the exhibit due to protests by "Cossacks and people in camouflage."

Polina Filippova, press secretary of the Sakharov Center said the protesters had not identified themselves but indicated they were people who had "friends or grandfathers" who had fought in wars.

Ren-TV, a pro-Kremlin private channel, aired footage of the incident that it "happened to have in its possession."

A cameraman asked a man in military camouflage and a paratroopers telnyashka (blue-striped t-shirt), "what's your name, what's your call sign"? The man replied "Yury" and said his call sign was "Tavel". He said, "this isn't Kiev, this is Moscow," and objected to the exhibit. Another activist was quoted as saying in the text on Ren-TV's site:

"These executioners killed the children of Donbass. But they aren't showing the real situation that these are murderers. Today, in fact, is the anniversary of the massacre at Babi Yar, where the Banderovites murdered people. I want to hand the organizer of this exhibit this jar 'with the blood of the children of Donass.'

Interestingly, as can be heard in the video clip what the activist actually said was that Jews were the majority of 100,000 people massacred at Babi Yar. It was a hallmark of the Soviet era to call the victims merely "people" instead of admitting that they were mainly Jews, and Ren-TV has followed that Soviet tradition.

A belabored theme of Russian propaganda is that today's Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbass have supposedly deliberately killed children. While children have been killed in shelling by both Russia-backed fighters and Ukrainian forces, there is no evidence of deliberate targeting of children. A claim widely broadcast by state TV that Ukrainian soldiers supposedly "crucified a toddler" in Slavyansk was exposed as a hoax by journalists and ultimately state TV admitted that it was based on hearsay.

The state TV channel Rossiya 24 also broadcast the incident, describing the exhibit as "photos of Ukrainian executioners who have murdered the civilians of the Donbass."

The reporter on the scene reiterated that the Ukrainian soldiers "had killed civilians in the Donbass." 

Rossiya-24 then gave a minute of air time to the activists who said that every family had members who had fought the fascists in World War II, and "everyone had in their DNA the memory of the wound of fascists, but now they are advertised in the center of Moscow."

The reporter then acknowledged that the photos of the soldiers were those of the winners of a competition and only some of the diverse photos of the war in southeastern Ukraine. 

Then the reporter interviewed Lukashevsky, who pointed out that the photos were all lawful and had been previously published on the sites of Russian mass media. He said the exhibit was meant to inspire discussion about the war, and not glorify soldiers, but then his statement was cut off.

Novosti Donbassa described the actual background of the controversial photos in an interview with Vasyukovich -- they are of Ukrainian soldiers killed in battle taken by Vasyukovich and Loiko of the Donbass Battalion battling to save the Donetsk Airport in 2014:

"While I was working in eastern Ukraine, many of the guys from the Donbass battalion asked me to photograph them as a souvenir. I took their photographs and sent the photos to the people who were in them, and also to their children, wives, and friends. While I was in Ukraine, the heroes of this series began to be killed.  A year and a half later, I selected the photographs, came to Kiev and met with the survivors. We reviewed the films together and noted those who had died with a red cross. The numbers of losses -- for the majority, this is a statistic which doesn't concern you personally. When you see a face, and you know the circumstances and place of death, and also what happened to the family and friends after their deaths, it all is perceived completely differently."

A fighter with the call sign "Bokha" was killed and the author decided to cross out his photo; the photo with the "blood" spilled on it shows two soldiers with the call signs "Sych" and "Tankist" and the word "killed," and already had two crosses over them before the red liquid was splashed.

The Sakharov Center said the photo contest was organized with Foto Doc so that there could be "a conversation in the language of documentary photographs about the problems of a person's relations with society and the state, and the paths of resolving these problems." He said there were three categories of nominations: a problem, a conflict, and a compromise. An international jury selected the winners in each category.

The photos can be seen here as they appeared before they were vandalized.

Last year, the Sakharov Center was designated a "foreign agent" by the Ministry of Justice for allegedly engaging in "political activity" while receiving funds from abroad. The charges appeared to relate to seminars at which gay rights and the war in Ukraine were discussed, and a petition signed by the Sakharov Center expressing concern about the impact on civilians of the war in Ukraine. The Center had to pay multiple large fines for refusing to register as a "foreign agent" and was subjected to greater scrutiny and inspections.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick