Raadio 4 editor Aleksandr Žemžurov spent half of the last week on site at the Polish-Ukrainian border and the other half monitoring Russian-language media and social media in Estonia, and as he told Vikerraadio's Madis Hindre on "Uudis+" on Wednesday, the former was easier, in a way, as everyone escaping the border was at least on the same page.
"In short, one could say that the Russian landscape is in chaos," Žemžurov said when asked by the host what is being written right now in the Russian-language media and on Russian-language social media in Estonia.
"Last week we started seeing stories in our media portals that the police — and I — were most afraid of," he said. "When the war began, the Russians were tense about people's attitudes toward Russians changing. The first time I sought commentary from the police regarding what to do if one is exposed to conflict due to their ethnicity, then they personally asked me to think twice before bringing up the subject on the air. That I would be doing a disservice by doing so. But two days later, it was clear that it was too late already. Fakes started popping up so quickly that it wasn't possible to check what was true and what wasn't."
According to the Russian-language radio news editor, the most widespread story was about how refugees who had arrived in Estonia from Ukraine had yelled something bad at local ethnic Russians. Some channels even spread info about an alleged knife attack against local Russians perpetrated by Ukrainians.
"I was already on a bus on my way to the Ukrainian-Polish border when I read all of this, and it made me really tense up," he recalled. "Not thoughts of where I'm going, but about what is going on with our Russian people here [in Estonia]. How blindly and foolishly they believe info that somebody is intentionally putting out there to sow division and malice. It was easy to tell that these stories are being published somewhere else, because the language used I personally heard most recently in movies from the 90s. Nobody even actually talks using the expressions that were used to describe the attacks."
He cited as an example a Russian-language expression that translated as "poked with a knife," noting that he hadn't heard this expression used "in a thousand years."
Žemžurov said that he would have heard something if someone had actually been attacked by a knife in broad daylight in a popular park besides. "And it's interesting that suddenly everyone knows someone who knows someone who had dogshit stuck in their mailbox because they're Russian," he continued. "This of course reminds me of the stories told by anti-vaccine people, and it seems like the past few years were some kind of warmup for society."
Thankfully, he said, police in Estonia responded quickly to the news and immediately announced that the information that was being spread wasn't true, and that anyone who witnesses any conflicts should immediately contact the police.
The canceling of Russians is a topic that changes the way people think; even the strongest liberals succumb to it, Žemžurov said.
"It's worth accepting that not all decisions are reasonable," he continued. "For example, many experienced and intelligent people don't support the fact that universities [in Estonia] won't be accepting students from Russia or Belarus anymore. Delovye Vedomosti editor-in-chief Polina Volkova even wrote publicly that she is embarrassed by her alma mater; she graduated from the University of Tartu. And she wrote an entire story about it in her paper. It's worth reading."
He also pointed out that a petition was started urging the universities to reconsider their decision and consider that the ban on Russian and Belarusian students may not be logical.
"Even [President] Alar Karis somewhat doubts the rationale behind this idea, if you follow what he's been saying," he added.
Comment sections dogged by hate speech
Another major concern Žemžurov cited is the division being caused by the presence of refugees from Ukraine in Estonia.
"Underneath every post about help being organized for people who have come from Ukraine you can find those who are spreading hate speech and are stressing inequality," he said. "This is why most portals have already closed down their comments; those who haven't will come in contact with these disputes."
There is also just too much news to track right now, and every other person has suddenly become a self-styled opinion leader, the editor continued.
"What I will say on my part is this: I'm having a harder time being here right now than I did at the Ukrainian-Polish border, where people are fleeing together with their children and there are horrors and tragedy unfolding before your eyes, but at least everyone there is on the same page," Žemžurov said. "They want to help one another, and are sharing love and warmth, and believe that everything will end soon. They're grateful and respect one another. But here I don't know how to help — how to battle the fact that everyone is doing things their own way. That there is division and fear in news portals and in society. That people are generally afraid, and in pain, but have to go on living somehow."
If not for oneself, he continued, then at least for the sake of the children and youth, who don't want to spend their best years thinking about war.
"For example, as we sat down to eat together today, my child asked that we don't talk about the war," the editor said. "He is tired of it. They want to live in a normal evironment, and I think the best thing we can do is provide that normal environment for our children and youth, and give them the opportunity to live, and not saddle them with teensions and fears. So long as we're living in peace, let's be grateful that we've achieved that together."
Editor: Aili Vahtla