- By Steve Rosenberg
- BBC Russia
In the Stavropol cemetery there is a new line of graves.
The mountains of the cold land are covered with a sea of flowers. Military banners with the symbols of elite Russian units decorate the graves and flutter in the wind.
On the wooden crosses are fixed pictures of soldiers, their names and the date of their death.
The soldiers buried here lost their lives after February 24, when President Putin’s “special military operation” began in Ukraine.
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At the cemetery, I meet Dmitry. He places a red carnation on the grave of his former paratrooper friend, an officer named Sergei Tysyachny.
“He was like a second father to me and the boys,” Dmitry tells me. “We love him, we respect him and we mourn him.”
Such praise from Russian troops is at odds with events on the ground in Ukraine. The Kremlin can insist that its military strikes are necessary and effective. But the Secretary-General of the United Nations describes it as “a total invasion … contrary to the Charter of the United Nations”.
Reports of Russian military atrocities and alleged war crimes are also sparking international outrage.
“I don’t believe in this fabrication,” Dmitry says of the war crimes allegations leveled against some Russian soldiers. “I will never believe them.
“I know how my commander, Sergei, taught us to act. I trust my comrades and my army. They would never do such things.”
“But the investigation continues,” I continue. “What if you were shown irrefutable evidence that a crime was committed? Would you believe it?”
“I’m sure there won’t be any evidence,” he replies. “I’m sure.”
This conviction that Russia is right (and the West is wrong) is based on years of such messages by the state media.
The Kremlin uses its control of television to convince Russians that they live in a battered fortress, surrounded by enemies – NATO, the US, the UK, the EU, to name just a few. in their country.
President Putin’s media monopoly has also helped him convince many here that Russians in Ukraine are fighting “Nazis”, “neo-Nazis”, “High Nationalists” and “liberating Ukraine from fascism” – thus creating a parallel reality around events that occur. that place.
With all independent Russian news sources blocked or closed, it is increasingly difficult to access alternative perspectives in Russia.
Sergei Tysyachny’s widow, Lada, agrees to meet me in the center of Stavropol.
“I didn’t want to believe it. I still don’t believe it,” Lada says about the moment she learned that her husband had been killed.
He also refuses to believe that Russian soldiers committed atrocities.
“I know the whole world is against us now,” Lada says. “They are ready to accuse Russia of anything.”
And it turns out that Russia is ready to sue the West – and Western journalists – for anything.
At the end of the day, in Stavropol, we find ourselves making news, not just covering it.
A popular local website ran an article about the BBC visit, with a photo of my photographer and myself interviewing Lada on a park bench.
Here is an excerpt: “It is easy to guess how this recent widow resident of Stavropol must have felt talking to journalists from the country involved in the death of her husband.”
This attempt to link Britain to the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine shows how Western journalists in Russia are increasingly seen as the enemy.
And how the authorities here are looking for a scapegoat for the terrible things happening in Ukraine.