“Babouchka Z”, the improbable new darling of Russian propaganda

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A strange statue was arrested on Thursday by Russian soldiers who occupied Mariupol in Ukraine. It depicts an old woman holding a Soviet flag. A choice which owes nothing to chance and which has everything to do with “Babouchka Z”, an improbable Ukrainian peasant who appeared on a video shot by Ukrainian soldiers and who represents the new icon of Moscow propaganda.

In Russia, no one calls him by his real name, of which we are not sure. She simply became the “Babouchka Z” – in reference to the letter which became the symbol of the “Russian special operation” in Ukraine, official terminology of the Kremlin to designate the war – or the “Babouchka of victory”.

In recent weeks, this elderly Ukrainian has been reestablished as a star among pro-war Russians and the new face of Kremlin propaganda. Giant placards represent her waving a Soviet flag in Moscow, postcards bearing her likeness – always with the same banner – are sold throughout Russia.

A babushka who believes she is welcoming the “Russian liberators”

She was the subject of several reports on Russian television in early April, and an artist made wooden figurines in her likeness, recalls the Moscow Times.

In Mariupol, the occupation forces even represented, Thursday, May 5, a statue representing the “Babouchka Z” in the presence of Sergei Kirienko, deputy director of the Russian presidential administration.

However, this retiree does not seem out of the ordinary, except that she corresponds to the canons of the peasant woman of the Soviet era. But in reality, his story “sticks perfectly to all the elements of the language of current Russian propaganda”, assures Joanna Szostek, specialist in media and political communication in Russia at the University of Glasgow.


The “Babouchka Z” first appeared on April 7 in a surreal video prized by Ukrainian soldiers. We see the soldiers approaching a small farm in the Donbass, from which emerges an old woman proudly holding the Soviet flag at arm’s length. Surprised but not upset, the Ukrainians hand him the food and take the flag. She begins by accepting then returns it to them when she understands that she is not dealing with “Russian soldiers who have come to liberate her” but with Ukrainians who, supreme insult in her eyes, trample the said flag… Since then, a second video has was broadcast on Telegram which claimed that this woman would be called Anya and would live near Dvorichna, five kilometers from the front line.

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The initial video “perfectly illustrates the shock of memories on which all Putin’s propaganda plays”, notes Jaroslava Barbieri, specialist in relations between Russia and the states of the former USSR at the University of Birmingham. There is, on the one hand, the expression of “the disappointment of the Ukrainian soldiers who meet, in disbelief, a Ukrainian woman for whom the Russians are the good ones, and on the other, this old woman who still has the image of the Soviet liberators of the Second World War,” she continues.

It’s hard to imagine a “more ideal narrative for the Kremlin,” said Stephen Hutchings, a Russian media specialist at the University of Manchester. First of all, it is a “rare example of popular support in Ukraine for the Russian military operation and its official justification”, notes this expert. What give a little flesh to this propaganda of Vladimir Putin around the Russian soldiers who, like the Soviet heroes of the Great Patriotic War, will free Ukraine from the clutches of fascists.

New icon of “Mother Russia”?

To this expected, it is holy bread for the Russian media. “Russian TV covers this ‘special operation’ all the time and examples like this humanize their coverage. In addition, playing this story on a loop helps to hide the fact that it is very difficult to find Ukrainians ready to welcome Russian soldiers in such a positive way”, underlines Precious Chatterje-Doody, specialist in political communication and international relations. at the Open University in the UK.

The “Babouchka Z” is another quality: it is a “rare example of a positive message for Russia that comes from the base and not from the propaganda services”, underlines Joanna Szostek. This video, authenticated by Ukrainian media, is not a creation of the authorities which was then broadcast on all social networks by pro-Russian groups on the Internet. “Since the beginning of the war, Moscow has tried to give the most spontaneous aspect possible to its propaganda and there, it is delivered on a plate”, recognizes Stephen Hutchings.

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What more ? The Soviet flag; icing on this propaganda cake. The image of this retiree with her standard “evokes the iconography of the Second World War, during which the posters often depicted grandmothers supposed to designate the ‘mother Russia’ or even ‘mother country'”, recalls Stephen Hutchings .

When we know to what extent Vladimir Putin abuses the parallel between today’s Russia and that of the Soviet era, we guess that the eruption of this “Babouchka Z” must have enchanted him. “His representation serves to glorify the older generation, which calls on the new to reiterate the successes of yesteryear. It’s one more opportunity for Vladimir Putin to push the Russians to live in the past, hoping that they don’t realize that it doesn’t offer them any prospects,” sums up Jaroslava Barbieri.

And the fact that this new icon of the “motherland” is a humble Ukrainian peasant woman has only advantages for Moscow. This makes it possible, on the one hand, to suggest that the war is “made in the name of one and the same people, which joins the new Russian narrative which has begun to replace the concept of ‘denazification’ of the country with that of ‘ de-Ukrainization'”, underlines Stephen Hutchings. And this “glorification of the retirement of modest origin makes it possible to suggest that Russia places itself on the side of the ordinary people who play the leading roles here”, underlines Jaroslava Barbieri.

This “Babouchka Z” is therefore a massive propaganda weapon which falls, moreover, at the best possible moment. If the media are currently using and abusing this woman with the Soviet flag, it is because May 9 and its procession of symbols are fast approaching. Moscow is going to organize its big parade in memory of the Soviet victory over the Nazis, and for Stephen Hutchings, “there will surely be a place for this ‘Babouchka Z’ in the ceremonies”.

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