I unlearned a lifetime of Russian propaganda to know what information to believe

This column in the first person is written by Tatiana Lebedeva who moved from Russia to Canada in 2014. For more on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.

It was late February 23 when I read the first reports of bombings in Ukraine. A friend texted that her aunt in Kharkiv had heard explosions. I was shocked and horrified. I thought it was surely the end of the regime built by Russian President Vladimir Putin. So many Russians have relatives and friends in Ukraine; they would surely protest against this invasion, wouldn’t they?


As soon as I posted a message condemning the war against CV (a Russian social media platform similar to Facebook), my uncle responded by defending the actions of the Russian military.

“You are even more brainwashed by your media than I am by mine,” his comment began.

“You think I support the war, but you are deeply mistaken. I am against it. I also defend freedom in Ukraine but without the Nazis at the head of its government. exterminated the German occupiers, and you defend these same fascists in this moment. I’m ashamed of you. Too bad you don’t understand what’s going on.

My father was appalled to see what his brother had written. Me too.

I wanted to end the conversation there. After all, I only saw my uncle occasionally at family gatherings. The last time I saw him was at my wedding, which was also the last time I visited Russia.

This visit was in 2016. I remember how I turned on the TV for a Russian news program and wondered how I would feel. After two years of living in Winnipeg, I was sure all I would hear would be propaganda. My fears were realized when I saw a mundane news report about the state of the Russian economy and the declining quality of residential buildings that somehow blamed the United States.

Tatiana Lebedeva and Pavel Khabarov got married in Saint Petersburg in 2016. It was also the last time she saw her uncle in person and visited Russia. (Submitted by Tatiana Lebedeva)

I frowned and turned off the TV and thought, “And that’s how they got you, huh.”

It’s strange to me to think that in 2013 and 2014 people in Russia were able to access independent media like the Rain TV channel, Moscow Echo radio and the Newspaper Novaya Gazeta – all of which are now stuck in Russia. Widespread protests against the war in Ukraine have been authorized and social media was not as closely watched as it is today. Various views on events in Ukraine were available.

However, at that time, all this diversity of information did not concern me because I was poisoned by propaganda.

The truth is that before moving to Canada, news was the only thing I liked to watch on Russian TV. Every Sunday my parents and I sat down to watch Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week) with Dmitry Kiselev, who I now know is one of main faces of the russian propaganda machine.

When I moved to Canada in 2014, Russia had already annexed Crimea and began its military actions in the Donbass region of Ukraineand I didn’t know it was all criminal.

One day I typed “Metro News” into an internet search on my laptop. In St. Petersburg, I always had read this paper on long subway rides. Now I was wondering what the Canadian version would say about Ukraine. I felt like a Russian spy.

the first article that appeared contained a word that I did not know. Troops. I googled the translation and gasped, “Are Russian troops in Ukraine?”

This article has turned my world upside down.

What if everything I knew was wrong? Because if Russia was innocent and actually had no troops in Ukraine, then why was it sanctioned and condemned?

It took me years to start trusting any source of information.

As a newcomer to Canada, I knew very little about Winnipeg, and everything I read in the news about the city and national politics seemed distant and out of place. But over time, that changed; I started to trust local news.

Unsurprisingly, it took much longer to unlearn the propaganda I had learned about the Russian regime. This forced me to confront myself, to doubt my education. The worst part was acknowledging that I was wrong and accepting that it wasn’t my fault.

I started by researching online in English because the content in Russian sounded like a manipulative lie. I checked different sources and started to pay attention to how the information made me feel. Did it give me the tingling sensation of dizziness, as if I was hypnotized after watching Kiselev? Did it make me feel self-righteous? Or was it informative and neutral? I aimed for the latter.

In Canada, I learned and honed critical thinking skills that have served me well so far. For this reason, I protested against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

As a Russian-Canadian, Tatiana Lebedeva has organized several pro-Ukrainian rallies in Ottawa, including this demonstration on February 25. (Tatiana Lebedeva)

Unfortunately, the propaganda machine in Russia has stepped up its game since my last exposure. By blocking or discrediting all independent media sources, monitoring social media and criminalizing any writing that contradicts the official position of the Russian government, there is no room for doubts, critical thinking or ‘interpretation.

Many of my friends and relatives are in an information blockade, so I had to try to talk to my uncle again.

After a long conversation, my uncle said he was done talking to me about the subject.

My latest messages still remain unread.

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