“They shouldn’t glorify me. I’m just a farmer. I don’t understand why I became a celebrity.” The talk is Babushka Z, which the Kremlin has passed as the striking face of Russian propaganda. Strange because the woman is Ukrainian. The BBC found out that her name was Anna Ivanovna, who found her in the village of Velika Danilevka near Kharkiv.
Read all about the Russian invasion in this file†
It was not even clear whether the woman actually existed, but it turned out that 69-year-old Anna Ivanovna lives in Velika Danilevka, in northeastern Ukraine. She lives there with her husband among their dogs, cats, and rabbits. She barely recognizes herself in her bust, which BBC shows. “Do I look that old?” She wants to clear up a misunderstanding on the BBC: it does not support the Russian war in Ukraine.
This does not prevent the Kremlin’s propaganda from recovering impatiently from a meeting between Anna Ivanovna a few weeks ago with Ukrainian soldiers. Known in Moscow as ‘babushka Z’ or ‘grandma Z’, the letter Z stands for the symbol on the tanks of Russian forces in Ukraine. Pictures of the farmer’s confrontation with two Ukrainian soldiers went viral in April. Anna approaches the soldiers inside and waves a red Russian flag with a sickle and hammer. The soldiers told her they were bringing her food. They take her flag, throw it on the ground, and put their feet on it. Anna Ivanovna is offended and returns the food to the soldiers. “My parents died for this flag in World War II,” she says indignantly.
The Kremlin immediately realized that the gold was in their hands. It is rare for a Ukrainian to denounce the dissolution of the Soviet Union and see Russian forces as liberators, just as Putin thinks the world is. Even in the Ukrainian regions where many Russian speakers live, there is hardly any understanding of the Russian invasion.
Soon the word ‘babushka Z’ appeared all over Russia. She is portrayed as a stereotypical Soviet-era peasant woman, wearing a traditional veil, traditional shoes, and a traditional skirt. The image of Anna Ivanovna has been on murals, billboards, postcards and posters since May from Moscow to Siberia. Songs and poems have already been dedicated to her. Propaganda also reached Ukraine itself. A statue of Anna was unveiled in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which was bombed by the Russians.
But is Anna Ivanovna really pro-Russian as the Kremlin portrays her? She herself claims it is not for the BBC. She says it is “impossible to support the death of her own people” and that her science has been misunderstood. I thought the Ukrainian soldiers were Russians. “I was happy that the Russians came without wanting to fight us. I was happy that we would unite again.” For Anna, the red flag was not the flag of Russia, “not bloodshed”, but “the banner of love and happiness in every family, in every city, in every republic.”
“If I could talk to Vladimir Putin, I would tell him he made a mistake,” she says. “What have we Ukrainian workers done to deserve this? We are the ones who suffer the most.” At the same time, she does not want to openly criticize Putin. Putin is president. Caesar, king, emperor ”, according to the grandmother, who subsequently lived during the Soviet era.
Babushka Z may be a star in Russia, but her village and even her home in Ukraine have not been spared from Russian bombing. “Now I see her,” the grandmother told the BBC. “They don’t care about the people here in Ukraine, they just care about invading our country.”
The villagers turned Anna on after the flag incident, because they “view her as a traitor”. With the BBC team leaving, Anna wishes to give her lover the red flag to get rid of him. “I don’t want any problems. I never want people to use it against me.”
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