CNN Offended Belarus and Russia

On 24 January, CNN published a rating of the world’s ugliest monuments, causing an outrage in many post-Soviet countries, both officially and among the general public.

The channel described the Courage monument from the Brest Fortress memorial in Belarus as looking constipated, a strange characterisation from a professional media company.

The story provoked a chain of official letters of protest in Belarus and Russia. In Russia the anti-American wave seemed to grow even stronger as a result. In return, Russian TV show depicted soldiers at Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, hinting that they were simulating a sexual act. 

The case demonstrated just how Belarus and Russia still use World War II glory, developed by the USSR on a massive scale, as an important tool for ideological battles with the West. But while in Russia the anti-western mood remains strong both among the elite and general population, in Belarus people are not as hostile and the government does not dare engage in another informational war in a period of rapprochement

The Controversial Ratings

On 24 January, CNN published a rating of the world’s ugliest monuments with photos, giving them some facetious descriptions. Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King Junior, a monument given to the United States by Russia to commemorate the 9/11 World Trade Centre bombing, Pope John Paul II and other monuments appeared on the list.

These pieces of art were accompanied by light-hearted humorous comments, and while some of these works of art are sacred for many people, they did not cause a big stir at first.

However, one of the monuments soon sparked a firestorm in several post-Soviet countries. The momument, known as Courage, is a monument of a Soviet soldier that commemorates the struggle with the Nazis in World War II and is located in Brest, Belarus.  Although CNN published the material on 24 January, in the former USSR countries it exploded only two weeks later.

The description of the monument in the CNN story said the Soviet soldier “emerging from a mountainous block of concrete looks as if he's about to thump the West into submission before hurling North America at the sun.” It also noted that others think the soldier “simply looks constipated.” The editors could hardly expect a firestorm that this joke finally caused.

The Monument’s Story

The history of the monument dates back to the very beginning of World War II. The German troops supported by artillery and aviation attacked the fortress on the border early on 22 June 1941. German command planned to capture the fortress by 12 p.m. the very same day. However, the Soviet soldiers desperately resisted for about a month, with 2,000 Soviet soldiers killed and 7,000 taken prisoners.

This resistance became a symbol of struggle with the Nazis in the USSR. After the war, the story of fortress defence became a part of Soviet mythology, glorifying the victory and continues to play a similar role in Belarus until now. The authorities decided to build a memorial in 1965. Today, the Brest fortress is a place of countless visits and commemorative events held by officials.

Russians, who share the heritage of Soviet war ideology, also consider Brest Fortress as an important symbol of their own. It is not only official Russia's state ideology that makes use of the monument. Many average Russian tourists come to Belarus just to visit the memorial. It should be no surprise, then, that the outrage spread across Russia even to a larger extent than in Belarus.

Belarus and Russia’s Nervous Reaction

On 7 February, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus summoned the Chief of the US diplomatic mission to Belarus, Ethan Goldrich. Belarusian officials informed Mr. Goldrich that the CNN piece with the Courage monument is unacceptable.

“The insulting material caused an outrage among regular Belarusians and even civil organisations. Belarus lost one fourth of its citizens in World War II and memory of heroes who died for the country's liberty is sacred to the Belarusian people,” the note said. Belarus' Embassy in the US addressed the Department of State and CNN channel with a similar note.

Interestingly, the reaction of common Belarusians to the incident appeared quite moderate. TUT.by media portal polled Brest dwellers on the incident, and usual answers were “Well, it is not ugly I think…”, “I think Americans do not understand it…”, “I wish Americans came here and we would explain to them the meaning of the monument…”  

Apart from official Foreign Ministry note, Belarusian officials refrained from publicly commenting on the issue. Meanwhile, Russians appeared much more active in this respect. A Russian foreign ministry told CNN Moscow Bureau chief Phil Black that the mockery of the memory of Soviet soldiers, who gave their lives for the victory over fascism, cannot be justified or forgiven. The Russian embassy in the US called the inclusion of the Courage monument in the rating unacceptable and insulting and beyond reason. 

The vice-speaker of the Duma, Russia's lower house of Parliament, and the secretary of General Council of United Russia party Sergei Neverov called the rating an affront and sacrilege to the 5 million dead, who saved the world from falling into the grips of fascism. He thinks that US public should consider this incident seriously.

A member of the Federation Council’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, Senator Igor Morozov even proposed placing a temporary ban on CNN broadcasts inside Russia. According to him, this will show CNN and other media agencies “the boundaries of their publicity” and give them a better understanding of “which evaluations are appropriate and which are not.” Other Russian officials also used this opportunity to criticise the channel and the United States in general.

Russian Ideologists Strike Back Despite CNN Apologies

On 6 February, a CNN editor’s note appeared on the story. He apologised on behalf of the corporation for including the Courage monument in its rating. “We understand that inclusion of the Courage monument in the rating insulted Belarusian people. This was done unintentionally and we apologise for this. We expected that the material would be an overview of monuments worldwide. CNN realises that the monument has a sacred value for many people who honour the memory of the soldiers who gave their lives,” the note said.

On 7 February, CNN withdrew the story entirely, explaining that it was not to the standard they would expect of a CNN report.

However, the apologies seemed not to be enough for the Russians. On 9 February Rossiya TV channel showed weekly programme of Dmitry Kiselyov,  an anchor well-known for his active pro-Kremlin propaganda.

He explained in the programme how CNN humiliated the memory of Russian people everywhere. Soon thereafter in the broadcast appeared a picture of the US Marine Corps War Memorial of Iwo Jima Battle.

Kiselyov hinted that the soldiers’ positions in the monument could be understood as homosexual intercourse. "It's easy to mock. A fevered subconscious could ascribe just about anything to it. Take a closer look: A very modern theme, is it not?" he said.

This is not the first time that Kiselyov also made homophobic comments, a trend which the Russian government supports and which the West has extensively criticised recently.

The reaction of Russian officials and propaganda show that the  anti-Western mood among Russians remains high, higher than among Belarusians. Russia sees its Soviet war legacy as important tools for propaganda and continues its confrontational model of relations despite the Olympic Games taking place in Sochi. Meanwhile, Belarus, which again tries to reconcile with the West, dares not launch any kind of similar informational war - so far.

Vadzim Smok is the Ostrogorski Centre coordinator in Belarus and researcher at the Institute of Political Studies 'Political Sphere' based in Minsk and Vilnius.

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