On Jan. 16, the world learned of Liza, a 13-year-old German-Russian girl from the Marzahn district of Berlin.
She had gone missing for 30 hours on Jan. 11, and when she finally returned home, she bore visible injuries and told the police that she’d been raped by a gang of men from “southern” countries—that is, Arab or North African ones.
Liza’s tale was broadcast by Russia’s most-watched television network, Channel One, whose Berlin correspondent, Ivan Blagoy, interviewed Liza’s relatives in a lurid and infuriating four-minute segment. They accused the German police of refusing to launch a criminal investigation and coercing the victim into saying that any sex she’d had was consensual.
Lisa’s alleged rapists, a woman presented as her aunt told Blagoy, “barely spoke German.” Residents of Marzahn further told Blagoy that they were afraid to walk by refugee shelters in the area, so menacing were these swarthy newcomers to a country that had famously, if controversially, adopted an open-door policy for Syrians fleeing the barbarities of Bashar al-Assad and ISIS.
Blagoy’s piece was, inevitably, a sensation. Coming so soon after plausible media reports of widespread sexual harassment and muggings in Cologne and Hamburg—and the German government’s sluggish response to these complaints—Liza’s story took off as a plausible nightmare and resulted in a surge in anti-migrant, and anti-Muslim, sentiment.
Seven hundred people protested outside Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office on Jan. 23, holding signs reading “Today my child, tomorrow yours.” Far-right groups rushed in. The National Democratic Party, whose deputy Juergen Gansel said President Obama’s election proved “the American alliance of Jews and Negroes,” and an affiliate of outwardly anti-Muslim Pegida movement staged their own demonstrations.
The Kremlin did its part to exploit Germany’s cultural sensitivities. Other government-run television channels ran with the Muslims-as-sexual-predators theme with gusto. NTV, for instance, informed its viewers that in “Germany and in Sweden, residents are regularly raped by refugees… but the local authorities and police hide these facts and do not open criminal investigations.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Berlin was being uncooperative with Moscow. “I would like to say that the situation has been very complicated since the very beginning,” she told state-run TASS news agency, before offering that “we learned about this situation not from our German colleagues but thanks to the media,” forgetting to mention that it was her own government’s media that did the teaching.
Finally, Zakharova’s boss, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, claimed to know events in the life of a pubescent girl in a foreign country. Accusing Germany of a cover-up owing to “political correctness,” Lavrov asserted that “the girl certainly did not voluntarily disappear for 30 hours.”
Except that she did, as Liza herself finally admitted Sunday, vindicating the position of Germany’s state prosecutor, who maintained all along there was no evidence that Liza had ever been abducted or gang-raped. Martin Steltner, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, told RFE/RL on Jan. 29: “It was clear to us from the start that the rape story, as she recounted it to us, could not have been true.”
Steltner cited data recovered from Liza’s cellphone that showed she had spent the period of her absence at the home of a 19-year-old male acquaintance. She had gone to stay with him to hide from her parents, who she feared would react badly to her “school problems.” Liza’s belongings were found in the acquaintance’s apartment, and though it is certainly eyebrow-raising that a 13-year-old girl stayed overnight with someone six years older, the man was only being questioned as an eyewitness, not as a rape suspect, as Liza bore no signs of having been sexually assaulted.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Russian emigré living in Berlin and a columnist for Bloomberg, noted that other parents at his daughters’ bilingual school “demanded increased security. Many believe the Russian TV report and distrust the Berlin police, believing them to be biased toward Middle Eastern immigrants for political reasons.”
One German attorney, Martin Luithle, has even filed suit against Channel One for inciting bigotry, no frivolous infraction in a country that has outlawed Holocaust denial. “The author of the false information works in Berlin,” Luithle told Russia’s still more or less independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta. “In this period, his broadcast with German subtitles on Facebook has been viewed by more than 1.3 million people. More than 28,000 of them have left nearly 3,500 vicious xenophobic comments. They incite hatred to refugees and encourage violence and other unlawful measures against the individual.”
Germany is home to 3 million Russian emigrés. A third of them are Jews. It was therefore no coincidence that three days after Blagoy’s sensationalist fabrication aired, President Vladimir Putin used the occasion of a meeting with representatives from the European Jewish Congress to encourage Jewish repatriation to Russia. “Let them come to us, to us let them come. We are ready. In the Soviet Union, they left, let them return,” he responded to a comment from one of the representatives that life in Europe is worse for Jews now than at any point since World War II.
Putin initially rejected the characterization as hyperbolic but conceded the gravamen behind it, citing the fear that many Jews in Europe have of wearing the yarmulke in public. That Putin allies with all manner of fascist political groups on the continent, such as the British National Party, Le Front National, and Jobbik, impinges not at all on his philo-Semitic self-portrayal. The new refuseniks, he implied, live in London, Brussels, Paris, and Berlin because Europe is being Islamized by the actions of its purblind political classes, which not only tolerate but encourage Muslim immigration.
(Putin is encouraging immigration in a more immediate way, by bombing Syrian civilians and rebels. Russia’s air war, coupled with Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah’s ground offensives, have displaced an additional 120,000 Syrians, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.)
The fringe, anti-establishment parties at least recognize that Russia is the true defender of Western civilization and Judeo-Christian values, which makes it all the more ridiculous that the United States, European Union, and NATO—the three most common foils of Kremlin disinformation campaigns—see Moscow as a revanchist security threat trapped in 19th-century mental categories. The 21st century could do with a bit of the 19th, counters Putin, who can now point to Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen, and other great-power nostalgists capitalizing on race hatred to legitimize this appraisal. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel, once Russia’s most stalwart commercial and diplomatic partner on the continent, is now an idiot turncoat and agent of civilizational suicide. It’s a tidy, reactionary narrative. And it’s working.
My friend Peter Pomeranzev, with whom I co-wrote a report on Kremlin propaganda and disinformation, says that the Liza affair is really a synecdoche for Putin’s view of Europe. It had two audiences: an internal one and external one. “In Russia,” Pomeranzev told me, “it was to show that Europe is in shit. There is no alternative to Putin; Europe is in chaos. In the USSR, there was an alternative—Europe. They need to show there isn’t one. And externally, of course, they want to undermine Merkel over Ukraine.”
The EuroMaidan Revolution and its violent responses were occasions for trial balloons in the new era of “active measures,” an old KGB trick of planting fake stories in the international press in the hope of undermining democratic societies and splitting Western traditional alliances. Channel One led the way in this regard, the network having invented the most horrific allegation to come out of the Ukraine crisis.
On July 12, 2014, Channel One broadcast a claim that the Ukrainian army had “crucified” a small child after recapturing Slavyansk, a city that for months had been under the occupation of pro-Russian separatists and Russian soldiers and intelligence officers. The story relied solely on the testimony of a woman calling herself Galina Pyshnyak, now a resident of a Russian refugee camp in Rostov, who claimed to have witnessed a “show execution” in Slavyansk’s “Lenin Square”:
“They took a child, a 3-year-old boy, a little one, in shorts and a T-shirt. And like Jesus, they nailed him, one nailed him, two held him down. All of this in front of the mother. The mother was held, and watched. Blood flowed from the child, there were cries and screams, they took him like this, and cut him. The shock of the child was impossible. People fainted. Then after they tortured the child for an hour and a half and he died, where this was all happening, and then they took the mother, tied her to a tank, unconscious, and dragged her around the square. They made three circles. A circle around the square is a kilometer.”
“Like Jesus” was an especially nice touch. That Pyshnyak was able to come up with the little boy’s exact age while being unable to give his name was never addressed in the broadcast, which shocked and enraged millions.
Then a journalist from Novaya Gazeta traveled to Slavyansk and discovered several things. First, there was no Lenin Square in the city. There was an October Revolution Square, but it bore little resemblance to the place described by Pyshnyak. Second, none of the residents queried by the outlet—mostly babushkas who surely would have known about the crucifixion of a toddler right outside their homes—could confirm Pyshnyak’s accusation. One woman told the newspaper she’d been in the square on the day in question and that no child murder had taken place.
Ukrainian blogger Anatoly Shariy also noticed that a very similar atrocity, whose details differed only slightly, had been promulgated on pro-Russian social media days before the Channel One interview. A man called “Alexei Smirnov” (think “John Smith” in Slavic countries) claimed to be in the business of rescuing child refugees from the marauding Anti-Terrorist Operation, as Kiev’s military campaign is known. In his version, it was the Ukrainian National Guard that “nailed a little child to an ad board” and let him hang there “until his father, a militiaman, came out, then they shot him dead.”
Alexander Dugin, Russia’s preeminent fascist philosopher and egger-on of even further annexation of Ukraine, posted on July 9 to his own Facebook account, with its 16,000 followers, that the victim was 6 years old and had been nailed “to a stand with a sign, well, an advertising stand, and he hung there until they brought in his father, a militiaman; when the father came running, they shot him in front of everyone, and Igor and his daughter saw this, the girl has such stress that she began to stutter, she speaks badly, and she is 12 years old.”
Finally, Col Igor Strelkov, a former Russian intelligence officer who was then commanding the separatists, had it that the kid was crucified in front of his mother and then a video of the gruesome crime was sent to his militiaman father. Strelkov professed to be so aghast that he “thought perhaps that was not true, but now first-hand this is confirmed, that these barbarians commit such things.”
The story was not even on casual terms with the truth. No human-rights monitor found the slightest trace of evidence that a 3- to 6-year-old boy had been nailed to a billboard in Slavyansk. The Ukrainian government demanded that Channel One be sanctioned for dangerous pseudo-journalism. Months later, talk-show host Kseniya Sobchak, the daughter of Vladimir Putin’s former mentor in St. Petersburg, challenged the Russian president at his year-end press conference about spreading such toxic falsehoods.
Only then did Channel One issue a non-apology apology, saying its reporters couldn’t check Pyshnyak’s scandalous accusations because they were barred from entering Slavyansk—unlike the Novaya Gazeta reporter—but that her tale tracked with an “endless chain of testimonies.”
The point was never to “prove” that a little boy had been nailed to a billboard. (Though nearly two years later, the crucifixion fiction has actually wound up in the Russian school curriculum in Sverdlovsk.) It was to substantiate and reinforce in the Russian popular imagination what the Kremlin had maintained ever since protests broke out in Kiev the prior winter: A gay Nazi junta, a cabal of ISIS-like baby-killers, was running the breadbasket of Europe into the ground. And it was all the fault of the State Department and the European Union.