Reporting real life or romanticizing war? Or both? The Ukrainian wartime marriage of Yaryna Arieva und Sviatoslav Fursin
The Vienna weekly Falter just carried a story by Barbara Tóth, one of Austria’s best investigative reporters, dealing with a Ukrainian couple that appeared in a famous photo that was widely publicized by Western news media, including CNN, FOX News, USA Today, and the Sydney Morning Herald. (Flitterwochen im Krieg Falter 20-2022 17.05.2022)
It's about two young Ukrainians, 21-year-old Yaryna Arieva und 24-year-old Sviatoslav Fursin, who married on the day of the Russian invasion and committed to join the Ukraine civil defense forces to support the resistance to the Russian invasion. It’s an all-too-rare follow-up on a story from early in a war that helped win sympathy for the Ukrainian cause. And a reminder that war stories, including those that favor whoever is Our Side at a given moment, need to be read critically.
It's not that the widely-reported story was wrong. On the contrary, Tóth confirms that the basic story was true. But there is more to it. Falter itself used the photo on its cover in March. She relates that the decision to use it then was “intensively debated” by the editorial board. “The subject stands for the outrage of the population of Kiev in defending their city against the Russians, some say. The photo romanticizes war and was too close to the Ukrainian staging of events, say the others. As is so often the case, both are true.”
This is the original cover on which Falter featured the photo (10/2022 09.03.2022):
Yaryna is an elected member of the state parliament (city council) of Kiev. Her father has been a member of the Ukrainian national parliament since 2007, currently representing the European Solidarity Party. He was a supporter of the pro-Western Petro Poroshenko, President from 2014-2010, who was defeated for re-election by the current (also pro-Western) President Volodymyr Zelensky. Her mother is a filmmaker and a moderator on television.
Tóth gives credit to “CNN and some other media” in their earlier stories for having pointed out explicitly that she was a “young politician” who was not just “some random young woman” but also a “member of a privileged class with very good media contacts.” But she also notes, “Other reports raised only the touching love story and their will to fight and omitted the biographical information.”
In fact, both Yaryna and Sviatoslav did sign up for military training in the “People’s Front,” the civil defense organization (presumably similar to the US National Guard), However, they were both rejected for military training in favor of older recruits who had more experience with weapons. This seems credible from what I‘ve seen in other news about well-meaning but less-qualified recruits volunteering.
Both have been working in support functions, Yarnya in distributing emergency supplies, Sviatoslav using his skills as an software engineer to raise funds online to buy supplies for the army. They both come off in Falter’s report as serious-minded, patriotic young people genuinely interested in supporting the Ukrainian war effort. This is the recent photo of them that accompanies Barbara Tóth's article:
Having followed the news of so many wars over the decades, way too many of them directly or indirectly involving the US, I’m more than familiar with the fact that all countries engage in systematic war propaganda, more politely and blandly called “information operations.” It has sometimes been noted that true stories make the best propaganda. But even true stories appear in particular contexts.
So it’s interesting to see Tóth’s description of how the story of Yarnya and Sviatoslav became something that people all over the world have heard about. After noting that some news outlets provided more substantive background on the story than others, she writes:
Therein lies the strength of Ukrainian government communications, which have now also been standardized [gleichgeschaltet, a word with at least mildly negative implications] inside the country itself. Volodymyr Zelensky calls it a "unified information policy." For the people in the country, this means that since the beginning of the war there has only been one news show called "United News" on all channels. Sources cited are either the state news agency Ukrinform or ministers, army personnel or local officials directly. Between reports of rocket attacks or counterattacks, there are always heroic stories of children who donate to the army, or cats who give comfort to residents of bombed-out cities. The images that Ukraine transmits to the world also matched with its political intentions and the world's expectations of the proud, courageous nation. And photos of young women telling of the fate of their husbands in the war, rescued pets, destroyed civilian targets, mass graves, and always more wartime weddings instead of just scenes battle and horror: With a few exceptions, the Ukrainian war has remained suitable for the main evening program on its visual communication level.
There is scarcely any criticism, dissidence, neither in the country nor outside [in the domestic news]. Journalist Olga Rudenko of the Kyiv Independent recently complained in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung that there are "very few editorial offices left here that can work without the influence of the government or oligarchs, who in turn are linked to the government." Zelensky has not changed any of that. Yaryna's party is also in opposition to President Zelensky. "But in times of war, there is no room for political intrigue. We have to stick together," she says, and here the second-generation politician speaks. "We have a common enemy. So we put the conflicts on hold. Even if I miss these debates.” [my emphasis, my translation]