Stanford student fights for Ukraine’s history, truth in Russia’s disinformation warfare

Barely a week after Russia invaded Ukraine, Catarina Buchatskiy packed her bags in her Stanford dorm room to go help. As she planned her trip, she wondered how to best prepare for life in a warzone: Would her red backpack make her a target? What shoes would be better for running in, in case she needs to sprint for shelter?

Catarina Buchatskiy has been helping Ukraine protect its cultural heritage from destruction both on the ground and online, where she’s been countering disinformation about Ukrainian history. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Since March 5, 2022, Buchatskiy, who has taken a leave of absence from her studies, has been crossing from Poland into Lviv in Western Ukraine to mobilize supplies that would help museums and other cultural institutions safeguard Ukrainian heritage from destruction.

Unless protected, Buchatskiy said, Ukrainian identity is in danger of being destroyed. It is especially important to preserve these historical artifacts because Russian President Vladimir Putin pushes a revisionist narrative of the country that sees Ukraine, including its people and culture, not as a separate state with its own unique identity, but as part of Russia. (As Stanford historian Norman Naimark put it, “There is no Russian empire, to which Putin aspires, without Ukraine.”)

“​​I think it really comes down to a fight over historical narrative,” said Buchatskiy, a sophomore majoring in international relations and international security studies. “Ukraine has this narrative that it is an independent nation trying to forge its own path, whereas Russia believes that Ukraine is an inseparable part of its own history.”

That fight has extended to the internet, where Buchatskiy and colleagues have been working to correct and prevent constant attacks on the digital records of Ukraine’s culture, whether identifying webpages that intentionally use the Russian spelling of the country’s capital, (“Kiev” instead of “Kyiv”) or referring to Ukraine as part of imperial or Soviet Russia – things that might seem like small slights but are common tactics Russians employ to create confusion about the history and independence of Ukraine.

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