In early May, the Russian media disseminated a video of an elderly woman coming out of her gate to soldiers waving a red flag. But they turned out to be not Russian, but Ukrainian soldiers. So, they trampled the flag but gave the woman some food instead.
Russian propaganda grabbed the hot footage with the red flag and turned the grandmother into a living symbol of a “pro-Russian Ukraine,” a woman “courageously standing up to the nationalists,” in line with its official propaganda narrative of justifying its invasion with a mythical “denazification” of Ukraine.
Nicknamed “Babushka Z,” (“Grandmother Z,” after the letter used by Russian invaders on their equipment), the elderly lady is now featured on Russian posters and murals and even has a few monuments in Russian cities. This woman, whose actions the Kremlin twisted to fit its narrative, became an important symbol for Russia, where the Soviet past is glorified while Communist crimes are swept under the carpet.
A monument to “Babushka Z” was erected in Belgorod, Russia. And on May 4, the occupiers unveiled the same monument in Mariupol, Ukraine, with the participation of the head of the political bloc of the Russian presidential administration, Sergei Kirienko, and the secretary of the United Russia General Council, Andrey Turchak.
Head of the political bloc of Russia’s presidential administration Sergei Kiriyenko and the secretary of the United Russia General Council Andrey Turchak stand with local Mariupol collaborators at the unveiling of the monument to “Grandma with a flag.” Photo: Mariupol mayor’s adviser Petro Andriushchenko on Telegram
What actually happened
In reality, it were Ukrainian soldiers who shot the video.
The grandmother, who lives in a village near Kharkiv, came out to them with a Soviet flag because she didn’t understand who they were.
She says she was waiting for them and “prayed for you and for Putin. And for all the people.”
Ukrainian soldiers gave her food in the exchange for flag, and the woman tried to return the food, saying “you need it yourself.” One of the soldiers took the red flag from her and trampled it with his feet. The grandmother then returned the food package, saying that her parents died for that flag. Trying to understand her views, the soldiers learn that she has not received her pension in two months. The woman believes that Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is to blame for this, because “he did not find common ground” with Putin.
Later, another video appeared, in which the couple discussed the possibility of evacuation with the Ukrainian soldiers. At that moment, Russian troops were five kilometers from the village. The grandmother and her husband did not want to leave home, especially their dogs and cats. Russian propaganda interpreted this as a reluctance to live in Ukraine.
Shortly speaking, Russian propaganda created a mythological image of a Ukrainian pensioner.
Russian media picked up the footage of the grandmother carrying the red flag out of the yard and turned it into a symbol of the Russian Army receiving a hospitable welcome in Ukraine, while the Ukrainian forces get rejected.
The propagandists said that the grandmother lived in the village of Dmytrivka in Kyiv Oblast, but after the village was liberated by Ukrainian troops, she was allegedly taken to Russia by her son.
And when the Ukrainian authorities found the grandmother and talked to her, the Russian propagandists wrote that she was captured by the Ukrainian Security Service and forced to tell a lie. It urges Russian special forces to abduct her and bring her to Russia.
Ukrainian Center for Strategic Communications found “Babushka Z”
Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communication found “Babushka Z” and talked to her.
In the video they shared, the woman whose name is Hanna, sits with her husband in a ward of a Kharkiv hospital. The correspondent reports that the couple was evacuated after a Russian mine hit their yard.
Hanna explained to the correspondent that she believed the red Soviet flag was actually Russian.
According to Hanna, she came out to the Ukrainian military because she thought they were Russian occupiers and tried to “reconcile” with them with a red Soviet flag so that they would not “destroy” the village and Ukraine. But now she feels like a “traitor.”
She says she believed what by the local priest of the Moscow Patriarchate was telling, likely meaning that he was sharing pro-Russian propaganda with her.
In addition, a soldier of the 22nd Battalion of the 92nd Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine with the call sign “Cadet” helped Hanna and her husband to evacuate from their home.
Contrary to Russian propaganda, Hanna’s son did not take her to Russia, and she herself says that the Russian army shelled her house.
The woman’s house, located in a village near Kharkiv, is now destroyed by an enemy mine.
But now, the elderly lady has nothing but regrets:
“Putin doesn’t need people, Ukrainians, he just needs the land. I understand the guy who trampled the red flag. They are protecting us, dying, and I am there with that flag…”
She regrets that she became a celebrity in Russia:
“It would be better if there were no celebrities, and there would be no war.”
Why the symbol?
Russia hoped that Ukrainians would welcome its soldiers, who were allegedly “liberating” Ukraine from “Nazis,” with open arms and flowers. But during more than two months of the war, this has not yet happened in a single Ukrainian city.
The image of “Babushka Z” fueled the Russian propaganda narrative that Ukrainians welcome Russian occupiers as “liberators.” As well, it turned a confused elderly woman into a poster girl of the Soviet “Great Patriotic War” myth, the main nation-forming narrative of contemporary Russia, where Soviet dictator Stalin is glorified and Soviet crimes whitewashed as President Putin seeks to resurrect the USSR.
This “pro-Russian Ukraine” is the true Ukraine that Russian soldiers are “liberating” from the shackles of “Ukrainianness” and “nationalism,” the propaganda narrative implies — and thus, the brutal invasion of Ukraine, which both brings unspeakable misery to Ukrainians and kills Russian soldiers, as well as strains the Russians under the burden of sanctions, is justified.
However, even the story of this grandmother shows that Ukrainians do not want this future. Especially after the start of the invasion, Ukrainians overwhelmingly reject the Soviet past and view the Russian invasion as a genocide. Moreover, in occupied cities in southern Ukraine, unarmed locals kept protesting the Russian invasion even as the Russian troops fired on them.
The fact that Russian propaganda hails this elderly lady who now regrets waving the Soviet flag as a poster girl of a “pro-Russian Ukraine” is more than anything a sign of despair: Russia was so unwelcome in Ukraine that its propaganda media could not find even one real Ukrainian cheerleader of its invasion.
- Ukrainians hate Stalin, see the Russian aggression as a genocide: opinion poll
- Ukrainians of occupied towns protest against Russian invaders, undermining “liberator” narrative
- Russian media operates by law of war, tapping into Great Patriotic War myth
- Memory of the Great Patriotic war in Russia’s expansionist policy
- The Soviet foundations of Russia’s Great Patriotic War myth
- Why have Z and V become Russia’s symbols of war against Ukraine?