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Manufactured Reality

By Peter Stein

Masha Gessen, a Russian American journalist and author, has been an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin. Gessen has called what passes as news in Russia as “manufactured reality,” which refers to the daily stories covered by state-controlled media. Among Putin’s distortions are his argument that Ukraine is not a nation, that Ukrainians are not a people, and that the invasion and killing of civilians is not a war but a “special military operation.” The stated aim of Putin’s action was to “demilitarize and denazify” a country of 40 million people, which is led by a Jewish president who was elected democratically by 70 percent of the population. The ousted head of the leading Russian public opinion research organization states that current Russian propaganda is full of “lies and hatred on the fantastical scale.”

I was first exposed to manufactured reality during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia from March 1939 to May 1945. I did not realize it at the time, but much of what I heard on the radio, read in the newspapers, and what was told to me by my teachers was the Nazi version of reality. My mother reassured me that my Czech teachers were ordered by their Nazi supervisors to tell us about German military victories, even if they did not believe these lies.

On many Sundays during the war my mother and I, her sister Olga, and my cousins Gerti and Robert would get together at my Catholic grandparents’ apartment in downtown Prague. Both husbands were missing—my dad, Victor, was in Theresienstadt, and my Uncle Leo was sent to Auschwitz. Miraculously, my father survived, but tragically, my uncle was killed.

Sunday afternoons were special—it was fun to see everyone, especially my cousins. The major highlight was my grandmother’s cooking, particularly her baking. Despite increasing food shortages as the war progressed, she would prepare tasty meals and bake cakes for her family.

Another highlight of these weekends would occur after the meal—the BBC news broadcast from London. Grandfather Antonin, Robert, and I would move into the study, where we would listen to it on his German Blaupunkt shortwave radio. Grandfather would spread a large map of Europe on his desk and use black checkers to show territory controlled by the Germans and red checkers to show territory attacked and liberated by the Allies.

The BBC broadcasts always started with London’s Big Ben striking five times to indicate the hour, followed by the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and then the announcer’s English accent and deep voice saying, “Good evening. It is seventeen hundred hours and this is the BBC news coming to you from London.” After the “Bulletin of Main News,” a new announcer would come on and speak in Czech about the progress of the fighting. Grandfather told us that interspersed in the broadcast were secret messages for Czech resistance groups about supply drops, sabotage actions against the Germans, and other code words.

I still remember a day in June of 1944 when Grandfather ushered everyone into his study. Uncharacteristically, he was very excited. He reported that recently he had heard a BBC broadcast revealing the landing of Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy. He placed red checkers on five beach areas: American troops had landed on Utah and Omaha beaches; British troops had landed on Gold and Sword beaches; and Canadian troops had landed on Juno Beach. Omaha was the bloodiest landing surrounded by steep cliffs and heavily defended German positions. Many American infantrymen were gunned down by German machine gun fire before the rest finally made it across the beach to the foot of the bluffs, then up the bluffs. Robert and I marveled at the bravery of American soldiers. We were swept up in the excitement of the good news, and we both started to imagine having our fathers back. It was time with my grandfather that I’ll never forget. As I was leaving his study, he whispered into my ear: “Don’t worry. Your father will be alright.”

At a young age, I experienced what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. What I heard from Grandfather and the BBC contradicted everything I was told in school, or heard on the radio, and saw in newsreels in the local movie house. As to my question of which side was really winning, I decided that Grandfather told the truth, not the Germans.

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