Barely a week after Russia invaded Ukraine, Catarina Buchatskiy packed up in her Stanford dorm to go help. While planning her trip, she wondered how to best prepare for life in a war zone: Would her red backpack make her a target? What shoes would be better for running, in case she needs to run for cover?
Since March 5, 2022, Buchatskiy, who has taken time off from his studies, has been traveling from Poland to Lviv in western Ukraine to mobilize supplies that would help museums and other cultural institutions protect Ukrainian heritage. of destruction.
Unless protected, Buchatskiy said, Ukrainian identity risks being destroyed. Preserving these historical artifacts is particularly important because Russian President Vladimir Putin is pushing a revisionist narrative of the country that sees Ukraine, including its people and culture, not as a separate state with its own unique identity, but as part of Russia. (As Stanford historian Norman Naimark said, “There is no Russian empire, which Putin aspires to, without Ukraine.”)
“I think it really comes down to a struggle for historical narrative,” said Buchatskiy, a sophomore majoring in international relations and international security studies. “Ukraine has this narrative that it is an independent nation trying to forge its own path, while Russia thinks Ukraine is an inseparable part of its own history.”
This fight has extended to the Internet, where Buchatskiy and his colleagues have worked to correct and prevent the constant attacks on the digital archive of Ukrainian culture, whether to identify web pages that intentionally use spelling capital of the country (“kyiv” instead of “kyiv”) or referring to Ukraine as part of Imperial or Soviet Russia – things that may seem like small slights, but are common tactics that the Russians are using to confuse Ukraine’s history and independence.
Russia’s Information War and the Struggle for History, Truth
In 2021, Buchatskiy co-founded The Shadows Project with Agatha Gorski, a history and political philosophy student at Sciences Po in Paris, and Kvitka Perehinets, a history and politics student at the University of Edinburgh, to help protect and promote aspects of Ukrainian culture. with whom Buchatskiy identifies strongly – her father is Ukrainian and she lived in Kyiv between the ages of 6 and 14. Thanks to the network Buchatskiy built through this project, she was ready to help museums and other cultural institutions protect pieces of Ukraine’s past when the Russian invasion began.
Since arriving in Europe, Buchatskiy has helped organize the purchase of safes and fireproof blankets, generators and other basic supplies, to help museums, including the Kyiv History Museum, and d other cultural institutions to protect Ukrainian art and artifacts. “I am very grateful to have the chance to preserve the stories of the city that I love so much and that has given me so much,” she said. “I want to give him back just a fraction.”
She realized, however, that damage to physical representations of Ukrainian culture was not the only risk. Coinciding with the invasion, misinformation about Ukraine, its people, and its history has become widespread online — an issue Buchatskiy helped track in a report for Stanford’s Internet Observatory.
For example, Buchatskiy monitored disinformation on Ukrainian artist Kazimir Malevich’s Wikipedia page. Malevich is also a source of national pride for Russia, Buchatskiy said – Russia’s logo for the 2023 Ice Hockey World Championship is inspired by Malevich’s style.
Due to Wikipedia’s open source collaboration model, anyone can edit an entry on the platform. Buchatskiy said Malevich’s entry has been repeatedly changed to claim him as part of the Russian avant-garde art movement, when in fact he identifies as Ukrainian. Although the Wikipedia entry currently confirms Ukraine as his birthplace, it does not use the preferred standard English spelling of Ukrainians from the city where Malevich was born – Kyiv – but rather the Russian version, Kyiv.
In recent years, Ukraine has urged the world to use Ukraine’s preferred English version to distinguish its national identity from Russia. This runs counter to Putin’s efforts to revise the country’s past so that it becomes part of Russia’s.
“They want to erase any mention of Ukraine and they want to erase the Ukraine narrative. In their twisted minds, they’re going to win the war, they’re going to be able to erase this. And then, in a few generations, they’ll be able to wipe out Ukraine,” said Buchatskiy, who also participates in the National Security Affairs Scholars Mentorship Program at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. “If Ukraine does not exist on the Internet, has Ukraine ever existed? It’s that kind of philosophy. And that’s what they’re trying to do.
Buchatskiy wonders how many other Wikipedia entries related to Ukrainian cultural heritage have been changed and gone unnoticed. Over the past decade, Russia has set up vast digital operations to sow discord online and has resources that Buchatskiy, who lived for more than six weeks out of a suitcase in an Airbnb rental or hotel, is unable to match.
“It’s such a frustrating thing, information warfare, but that’s exactly why they use it because it places the burden on all of us to counter it when it shouldn’t be.” , Buchatskiy said. “The burden should be on them. We have the truth on our side, but that is not enough.
Life in a war zone
Life changed forever for Buchatskiy – she said she could no longer look at images of black plastic bags without thinking of the countless body bags seen in footage of the Bucha massacre.
Even in the middle of Buchatskiy’s interview for this story, she stopped when she saw what she said sounded like a “very disturbing” text message from her Shadow’s Project co-founder, which simply read ” Have you seen that.”
It turned out to be an email the couple had received, but Buchatskiy’s mind immediately turned to the worst-case scenario: was there a nuclear attack? ?
“Even a very innocent text these days can have a whole other meaning,” Buchatskiy said.
When Buchatskiy traveled to Ukraine – mostly alone by train, or occasionally hitchhiking with a truck driver delivering the supplies – she was struck by how the country rallied in its fight against Russia. No aspect of Ukrainian society is spared from the conflict, she said.
Buchatskiy described how Ukrainian colors – royal blue and bright yellow – line the streets. Advertisements on billboards are replaced with provocative messages such as ‘We are going to win’, ‘Hold on’ and ‘You are strong’. On store windows there are posters proudly stating that percentages of the store’s proceeds go to the Ukrainian army. At a hotel where she stayed, the TV in her room was on constantly as the government had to constantly broadcast updates on the conflict to its people.
“You really feel like you’re in this community that has a purpose, that you exist for something,” Buchatskiy said. She acknowledges that while some may find these everyday scenes strange, for her they are uplifting. “Wherever you walk, you are reminded of what is happening, and wherever you walk, you are inspired and motivated.”
As the war progressed, crossing the border into Ukraine became difficult for Buchatskiy – the train station she used to travel to Lviv was bombed, making travel difficult. With her travel options increasingly limited, she is reassessing her next steps. Stanford News plans to follow up with Buchatskiy to learn more about what she does next.