New York’s anti-Ukrainian art gallery, and the far-right Russian network behind it

Two weeks ago a number of buses and subways engaged in an advertising blitz for an art exhibit opening in New York City titled “Material Evidence.” The gallery claimed to tour the reality of the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. Recently, this exhibit was allegedly vandalized and its curator attacked – so let’s get to the bottom of this.

“Material Evidence”?

Material Evidence is a photojournalism art gallery documenting various aspects of the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, claiming to give “the whole reality about the countries involved in civil war” and posing the question: “who’s next?”

Prior to arriving in New York, the exhibit toured in Berlin and was promoted by Russian network RT, where organizers lashed out against the perils of democracy:

“In the last decades the international community has been observing, once again, a distortion of what is considered the ‘rules of democracy’, which are constantly broken by political dictatorships,” organizers of the exposition say. Democracy, they argue, should result in minimizing conflicts and confrontations. Instead, the drive for democracy is tainted in blood.

The messages on their official site do little to help viewers understand more. Below is an excerpt (errors preserved, emphasis added):

The evens of the last months in Ukraine have almost led to the dissolution of Ukraine as a sovereign country.
Bloody collisions on the «Maidan Independence Square» in Kiev resulted in an upsurge of nationalists-banderovtsy groups on the ground who where the main force behind the overthrow of the last president. This uprising could not be ignored by the Eastern parts of Ukraine, which are mostly populated with Russian-speaking people. The residents of the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine strongly oppose «benserovtsy» and «Westerner Oligarchs» who had come to power. Accordingly the Autonomous Republic of Crimea held a referendum on the separation from the Ukraine and its reunification with Russia.

Much less than the advertised ‘whole reality’, this message clearly tows strongly typical Russian propaganda and/or trolling rhetoric seen online: The debunked fiction of far-right nationalists taking over Kyiv, the east ‘opposing‘ the revolution, ‘Western(er)’ conspiracies, and pretending the widely condemned occupation of Crimea has a semblance of legitimacy. Simple enough.

Bus advertisement in New York
Bus advertisement in New York

Who is behind this?

While the curator of the NYC gallery states that the Material Evidence event was “backed by crowdfunding and private fundraising efforts,” RT’s coverage admits that Material Evidence is organized by Zhurnalistskaya Pravda (Journalistic Truth, JT), a Moscow-based newspaper with a heavy anti-Ukrainian slant (a recent article mockingly asks readers how many Kharkiv residents will survive until the spring).

Journalistic Truth is also advertising a number of cash prizes for journalism via the Material Evidence site totaling over $93,000. In other words, they are not on a shoestring ‘crowdsourced’ budget.

The current JT page is devoid of any information on the publication’s founders, but WHOIS info and a cache of the page from January shows it is owned by Fregat Publishing LLC. So, who runs the paper? Its Editor-in-Chief is Vladislav Shurigin, and Deputy Editor is Denis Tukmakov – both of whom work for Russia’s extremist / ultra-nationalist-communist newspaper Zavtra. In the case of Shurigin, he is also a member of the National-Bolshevik party (a Nazi-Communist hybrid), and a member of the notorious Izborsky Club, a group which advocates forming a “Eurasian Empire.”

Vladislav Shurigin at a Material Evidence exhibit in Moscow
Vladislav Shurigin at a Material Evidence exhibit in Moscow

Shurigin promotes his involvement in the Material Evidence on his blog and is referred to as its Project Manager in the Russian media.

For those unaware, Zavtra and his club are run by Alexander Prokhanov, a notorious anti-Semitic conspiracist who is now a regular at Russian government events.

An attack

Anti-Russia photo vandalized in the gallery

On October 3 the website Hyperallergic ran a report that the gallery had been sacked by three vandals, and Material Evidence’s curator, Benjamin Hiller, had been pepper sprayed. The article doesn’t state that the individuals were Ukrainians, but does say that “Pamphlets containing anti-Putin and neo-Nazi slogans were also distributed throughout the Ukraine-focused section.”

The story itself raises many questions. For one, the lead photo that was vandalized (as seen in the article and to the right) was actually one denouncing Russia, with a swastika emblazoned over top the Russian flag. This causes one to wonder why (presumably) pro-Ukrainian neo-Nazis would deface a swastika and an anti-Russian symbol.

Second, the victim, Hiller, alleges that two of the vandals approached him and asked if he spoke Russian – why? Were they Russian speaking New Yorkers themselves? Hiller’s account becomes less credible when his statement on crowdfunding and fundraising is taken into consideration.

Third, the “pamphlets.” In the photo provided by Hiller below neither has neo-Nazi slogans nor anti-Putin anything. These are also not pamphlets, but an assortment of graphics printed on standard 8×11 printer paper, possibly at random.

The graphic on the left does indeed contain neo-Nazi and neo-Pagan symbology, including the Wolfsangl used by the Azov Battalion, and a Nazi Totenkopf – below reads “freedom or death.” However, the print-out on the right commemorates the ‘Heavenly Hundred‘ who were killed in Kyiv, showing them with angel wings. An unusual combination.

Was the attack staged? When factoring in the the shady financial backers, vandalism of an anti-Russian photo exhibit, and unrelated printed pictures reported as neo-Nazi propaganda, there certainly leaves much to be questioned.

Is there any evidence that this group is shadier than the extremist backers already named? Well, let’s take a look.

Who else is involved in this?

Minoborony.com
Minoborony.com

Weeks ago, when ads for the gallery first started blasting New Yorkers, celebrity singer-activist Ruslana published a blog pointing out that the gallery’s site, Material-Evidence.com, was registered to Svetlana Zaharova – a famous ballerina who is also a Russian MP and member of Putin’s ruling party, United Russia. Although we cannot verify that the Svetlana Zaharova who is the listed owner of the website is the same Svetlana Zaharova who is a member of the Russian Presidential Council for Culture and Art, we felt this needed a bit more digging.

Doing just a quick search found that Ms. Zaharova is the administrative contact for a number of Russian websites, many of which are ostensibly anti-American. All of these blogs appear to be part of a content-farming, propaganda network, each consisting of hundreds of original (poorly written) articles with little traffic or comments.

GoodbyeUSA.com
GoodbyeUSA.com

For instance we have minoborony.com (“Ministry of Defense”), where America is the “No. 1 Terrorist.” The site claims to be owned and copyrighted by the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Defense, but is clearly a fan site.

GoodbyeUSA.com follows the same rhetoric, and RonovoRossia.com is your typical Russian nationalist blog.

But it’s Trueman-lab.com that is the most shocking, dealing mostly in anti-American propaganda with racist anti-Mexican cartoons and articles thrown in the mix (as in this piece: “But I can hardly respect those who never worked or even planned to, by whom I mean about 40% of immigrants”). This is the only site of the network which is in English, however, it’s clear the content was not made by a native English-speaker, made obvious by the Russian-language use of «brackets» instead of quotation marks. One particularly cringeworthy video (with a computer generated voice over poorly written text) even alludes that the U.S. infected the Congo with Ebola as a biological weapon.

Finally, if we look up the registrant’s email address, it ends up there are a number of unfinished websites in the works, including: Anti-Liberal.com, AntiLiberalism.com, and TerraUSA.net.

Question to readers

The exhibit is already being exposed to students, with a group from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice visiting on October 1. Given the connections of the exhibit’s owners, their other anti-American projects, and those involved in their funding, should this be in New York?

RT goes beyond the pale

Russia’s English-language propaganda network, RT (formerly Russia Today), known for its outlandish and over-the-top coverage of world events from a typically anti-Western perspective has reached new depths in the ongoing crusade to demonize Ukraine as it fuels and backs a proxy war in a pocket of the country’s east. While recent coverage of debunked and entirely fabricated claims has been gaining circulation in Russian-language media designed for internal consumption (including the now widely talked about ‘crucification’ hoax), RT’s latest foray is the first with such bloodied verve and disregard for competent journalism to reach an equivalent level for western audiences.

How does it reach this level? In the following 14 minute segment by RT, Ukraine is accused of the following: Murder, torture, crucifixions, beheadings, rape, ethnic cleansing, systematic genocide, instituting man-made famine, using Weapons of Mass Destruction and banned weapons, international conspiracies, and being both literally Hitler, and worse than Hitler. It’s the kitchen sink.

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The episode of the program called “The Truthseeker” aired with the title: “Genocide in Eastern Ukraine.” The purpose being to do everything it could to depict Ukraine’s war against well armed Russian militias as nothing more than unprovoked ethnic genocide against an entirely civilian, Russian population. It even led in with a short description of Rwanda – for context.

Quoting “investigative historian” Eric Zuesse, the channel calls Petro Poroshenko’s reformist government “the most far-right wing government on the face of the Earth” on a “one way killing spree.” As elections recently showed, less than 2% of Ukraine’s far-right garnered votes nationwide, significantly less than recent results in even the European Parliament.

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The host speaks liberally of “Kyiv’s mass daily bombing of unarmed civilians”, claiming a “Kyiv junta” uses “banned cluster bombs” designed to kill everyone in the surrounding area. He describes a child dying almost immediately in front of his mother’s eyes, a direct contradiction to the statement of the massive blast radius he led in with. He was only getting started.

The Ukie army, being a direct successor to Hitlerite Wehrmacht, terribly hates Saur-Mogila, as it is a symbol of Russian valor in the Great Patriotic War. All the time their artillery and mortars lob shells directly at the memorial. But they cannot get any closer.

One day, the pravoseki [Right Sector militants] came there. NazGuard [National Guard], Azov-2 and Dnepr-2. And then they instilled European values in the village. They cut out [murdered] all the men. They would cut them alive. They would cut the arms, then the legs. Then the head.

They did not cut the women – they raped them. And now they continue [to rape them], during the pauses between battles. Doubtlessly, the various fanboys of Europe and the Maidanites will say that these are made-up fairy tales.

Take note, chocolate baron, truth is on our side, and, one day, we will come for you. Yes, you, personally!

If the above sounds like it was pulled directly from a troll’s rant from the comment margins, or some obscure hate-speech blog, that’s because it was. What was presented on air was a slightly doctored version of the above, published on June 25, with adjusted grammar and evocative narration. The source for the RT centerpiece was “Slavyangrad,” a blog dedicated to such fringe musings. (The name being a Russified portmanteau of Sloviansk & Stalingrad). The rest of the entry deals with the fight against “Ukie-stan,” and the threat of female Polish snipers.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdV-iBWm78k

3RT’s “Truthseeker” continues his disconnected rant with uncited reports of civilians being “systematically massacred” under “mainstream media silence.” The channel typically positions itself as ‘alternative’ news to the “mainstream,” and regular quotes on the ticker featured lines from Russian tabloid LifeNews, known for generating comical hoaxes.

This talk of systematic genocide was sure to mention the serial ‘murder’ of journalists to endure this silence, bringing up the recent controversial case of a Russian journalist who was, as it turns out, sent to be shot by Russia, sacrificed for media exposure and propaganda material. Footage of his death has now predictably been exploited.

8RT, as it is known, regularly parades Holocaust deniers, extreme fringe theorists, conspiracy nuts, and other unknown ‘specialists’ to provide bombastic statements on the air under the misleading guise of being accredited experts. In a shining example of just how unhinged the network could possibly be, an American “living in Eastern Ukraine” was brought on screen to give his testimony: “walking up to someone and disemboweling them, a child, that’s an act of heroism for Bandera [Ukraine Nazi followers].” The unknown man went on to talk of man-made famine, a particularly seditious remark to make given the Soviet Union’s man-made genocide of Ukrainians under Stalin. He claimed the Ukrainian government was “burning wheat fields,” bombing farms, and shooting ambulances. He estimated “several hundred thousand people will starve to death.” Who is this sickly man making these statements? RT doesn’t care.

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RT captions a video of children and quotes them as Nazis
RT captions a video of children and quotes them as Nazis

A good part of the segment was devoted to intentionally mistranslating the word “inhuman” when used by government officials (namely, PM Yatseniuk and President Poroshenko) to rather read as “subhumans,” and deliberately echo Mein Kampf. The Hitler-inspired connections did not end there, as literally every single Hitler-related trope was covered, from death squads, to concentration camps, to even the concept of “Lebensraum,”  living space. The wordsmith “Truthseeker” even connected every dot in succession: Ukrainian death squads will ethnically cleanse Russian ‘subhumans’ into concentration camps, and be given Lebensraum from the pro-Nazi government. There simply isn’t a way to fathom how something as inflammatory, egregious, and outright fabricated could be disseminated to audiences under the auspice of being legitimate news.

When the opponent of mainstream media is the extremist fringe – but given the funding, presentation, and exposure of any regular mainstream media outlet – it can only lead to journalistic gongshows such as this. RT has literally reached the point where the inmates are figuratively running the asylum. RT has gone beyond the pale.

The Hunt for Viktor Yanukovych

Viktor Yanukovych is a wanted man. Today Ukraine’s acting Interior Ministry announced the deposed president, along with roughly 50 other top officials of the collapsed regime, were being placed under criminal investigation with Yanukovych placed on the nation’s Most Wanted list. While he still seems to have symbolic, if not fading backing from Russia, Yanukovych’s support base has fallen through the floor among all but his closest associates. Even his own Party of Regions has denounced him as a criminal and murderer. But where did he go? Where is the sultan turned vagabond?

Known locations
Known locations

Shortly after it was announced that impeachment proceedings would be taken against him, Yanukovych fled the capital along with cohort Andriy Klyuyev. Rumors swirled over whether he had gone to Kharkiv, to attend the separatist Ukrainian Front conference, or Dubai. The latter, we now know, was a decoy; those following on the Twittersphere were quick to track his alleged flight information in an attempt to pin down. Yanukovych instead flew by helicopter to Kharkiv to avoid detection.

Tenant Prime Minister Turchynov claimed Yanukovych had agreed to resign as president, but after consulting with advisers, he disavowed the decision and submitted a pre-recorded tape claiming his right to rule. Yanukovych said he would not resign or leave the country, and called decisions by parliament “illegal” and that “The events witnessed by our country and the whole world are an example of a coup d’etat,” comparing it to the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany in the 1930s – a common line of rhetoric among Russian officials to shore up post-war sensitivities in the post-Soviet republic. 

Following the parliamentary procedures to transfer power to the new provisional government, Attorney General Pshonka and Taxation Minister Klymenko were stopped at the Russian border while trying to flee the country. Yanukovych then flew from Kharkiv to Donetsk aboard his helicopter, where he then, according to the State Border Service, tried to flee via a charter flight on one of two Dassault Falcon jets in Donetsk, but was stopped by border guards. The border agents were “met by a group of armed men who offered money for flying without the proper clearance”. Yanukovych then left by armored car, and spent a few hours at a state residence in the city – sources indicate he was abetted by Rinat Akhmetov. Former Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko (who we now know gave the official order to fire on protesters) also attempted to fly out of Donetsk and was denied access for similar reasons.

Yanukovych and Klyuyev
Yanukovych and Klyuyev

Yanukovych’s motorcade then left for Crimea, leaving state traffic police who protected him behind. The next day, February 23rd, he visited a private resort while intentionally avoiding state or known residences to avoid detection. Rada reputy  Oleh Lyashko claimed Yanukovych was seen at the Russian Naval base in Sevastopol where he was preparing to flee via Russian military vessel (this was reciprocated in media reports on the 24th). Ukrainian MiG fighter jets were scrambled during the search and it’s said at this time he was abetted by deposed defense minister Pavlo Lebedev.

Authorities attempted to intercept Yanukovych’s motorcade at the international airport in Sevastopol, but one step ahead, he never arrived. Authorities then lost his trail finally on February 24th near his family’s Crimean residence in the the former city of Balaklava, where he released those in his presidential secret service from duty who wished to stand down. The released guards then collected the weapons that officially belong to the government so they could be handed over to the authorities.

Oleksandr Yanukovych restored a series of historical waterfront homes and leased land for a private yacht club in this very area, which remains a possible site of hiding. Journalist Tetyana Chornovol meanwhile speculated that instead he was likely to flee by sea aboard his son’s private yacht, suitably christened “Bandit,” but local reports indicated the yacht hasn’t been seen in some time and GPS data confirms it’s last known location to be far away.

Following parting ways with a portion of his security staff, he, along with  his most loyal guards, narrowed the motorcade down to 3 vehicles and left, turning off all communication devices. Reports conflicted as to the whereabouts of Klyuyev: according to acting Interior Minister Avakov, he remained with the president; according to Klyuev’s spokesman Artyom Petrenko, he tendered his resignation to the president in Crimea on the 23rd, saying he “couldn’t stop Yanukovych.” He was then allegedly shot and wounded, with media stating the shootout occurred on his trip back to Kyiv. Petrenko claims Klyuyev is currently in an unspecified Kyiv hospital. 

On Wednesday, Klyuyev issued a statement through his press office, distancing himself from Yanukovych, denying his involvement in the Kyiv killings, and stating his intent to cooperate with authorities.

The trail in Crimea had appeared to run officially cold on the 26th, with Interior Minister Avakov admitting that the search was pulled back in Sevastopol to avoid possible armed conflicts in the troubled city. “I think we must not allow any military standoff or conflict to happen. I shall be extremely candid with you: it was one of the reasons why on the night when Valentyn Nalyvaichenko (the head of the Ukrainian Security Council) and I were in Sevastopol, in Crimea, we chose not to continue tough actions with respect of Viktor Yanukovych… Because at that moment we knew it was essentially an affront for armed conflict with grounds for [Russian] forces to interfere in this conflict… We made the decision that the future of Crimea is more important for us than the situation with Yanukovych,” he told a press conference on Wednesday.

radisson

Map of the Moscow area and his last known location
Map of the Moscow area and his last known location

The manhunt was escalated to an international search as reports surfaced that Yanu had successfully made he was through the Kerch Strait along with his son Viktor Jr. and into Russian protectionMultiple sources, stated to be confirmed by high-placed Russian officials and law enforcement, alleged that the night prior he had arrived in Moscow, and was seen at the Radisson Royal (confirmed by hotel management). There, he apparently spent all night until Wednesday morning on the 11th floor at a private club restaurant under heightened private security; fugitive former General Prosecutor Pshonka is believed to be with him and his other son, Oleksandr, is reported to have reunited the family.

He is now presumed to be in the Moscow suburb of Barvikha. An RBC report indicated that a house in Barvikha was purchased by a group of Ukrainian citizens for $52 million, and that the house is now under guard. “Yesterday Ukrainian citizens came with passports and without bargaining, bought it, said Russian politician Oleg Mitvol. Previous sources to RBC had indicated Yanukovych was stationed at a local resort.

Head of the Russian Foreign Affairs Committee Mikhail Margelov denied the rumors, saying that Russia wouldn’t risk giving him asylum. Later, the official newspaper of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, [humorously] alleged that the CIA had whisked Yanukovych Stateside after offering him and his family personal guarantees of safety should he step away from the political arena. The paper followed by refuting Yanukovych’s asylum by the Russian Navy in Cossack Bay, Sevastopol, ‘Yanukovych is not in the facilities or ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet,’ citing an ‘informed military source’. Ultimately, the Russian Border Service neither confirmed nor denied the earlier reports on Yanukovych’s entering the country.

Interfax, citing Russian government sources, confirms that Yanukovych is indeed being provided asylum in Russia.

On February 27 Yanukovych resurfaced, sending a message to Ukraine declaring himself still the legitimate president of the country. In his address, he stated he was “forced to ask the authorities of the Russian Federation to ensure [his] personal safety from the actions of extremists.” A government source confirmed that Yanukovych’s request has been granted “on the territory of the Russian Federation.” Later, newly elected head of Crimea’s parliament, Sergei Aksenov of the fringe Russian Unity party said that he recognized Yanukovych as the true president of Ukraine and that he would obey his orders – and presumably provide him save haven should he return to Ukraine. Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky told reporters he was glad the Russian government has provided Yanukovych with security personnel.

In the evening, Yanukovych arrived in Russia’s Rostov-on-Don via airplane at 10pm local time to hold a news conference in Rostov-on-Don at 5pm on Friday February 28. In it he claimed he would return to Ukraine only if given security guarantees, and credited ‘patriotic officers’ with enabling him to escape Ukraine into Russia. “It was thanks to patriotic officers that I was able to get to Russia. Let me put it this way: officers who did their duty and helped me stay alive,” Yanukovych told reporters at the conference.

This story will update as new information becomes available. Last updated 2/28 at 10:45 am EST