Olga Ivanova, Liar or Neo-Soviet Patsy?
On August 15th, a Russian graduate student in journalism from Duquesne University named Olga Ivanova published an op-ed article in the Washington Post. In it, without attribution to any specific source, she repeated as fact the following Kremlin propaganda statement:
Within hours, Georgian troops destroyed Tskhinvali, a city of 100,000, and they killed more than 2,000 civilians. Almost all of the people who died that night were Russian citizens. They chose to become citizens of Russia years ago, when Georgia refused to recognize South Ossetia as a non-Georgian territory.
She then compared Georgia’s attack on its breakaway province of Ossetia to the actions of Nazi Germany that led to World War II, implying Georgia’s democratically elected leader was analogous to Adolf Hitler. As far as we can tell, that’s Olga pictured above, showing her participation in the Muskie Scholarship Program of the U.S. Department of State; apparently, the U.S. government funded all or part of her education. Click here to listen to her being interviewed by NPR.
These factual claims by Ivanova were not only totally false, they were made based solely on statements issued by the Russian government, a highly interested party, without disclosing that fact to Post readers, and Ivanova has done nothing to set the record straight — all while purporting to lecture Americans about their journalism standards.
Here’s the real story.
As far as we know the source of the claim about “2,000” killed and a “destroyed” city was the Russian government alone. On August 18th, for instance, the Moscow Times reported that “on the second day of the conflict, Aug. 9, Russia’s ambassador to Georgia, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, declared that more than 2,000 Ossetian civilians had died.” To our knowledge, no independent third-party confirmed the Kremlin’s self-serving claim. To our knowledge, Ivanova put blind faith in the Kremlin’s own account, without telling her readers she was doing so.
But, as the MT noted in the August 18th story, within days the Russian government itself had reduced the figure to 1,600 and the MT reported that by the second week “some human rights activists on the ground said, however, that they were struggling to find even 100 slain Ossetians.”
It turns out that the activists were right.
On August 25th, the Washington Post itself reported: “Witnesses and nongovernmental organizations say that although widespread looting and some detentions occurred, far fewer civilians died than originally reported. In fact, on bothsides it has been hard to find people with firsthand knowledge of deaths in a war that sparked the biggest crisis in Russia’s relations with Europe and the United States since the Soviet Union collapsed.” In regard to the assault on Tskhinvali, the Post reported:
In the wake of the fighting, a few facts have become clear. Tskhinvali was not flattened by the Georgians, though in recent days, an unknown number of Georgian villages in South Ossetia have been burned. After a public backlash, the Russians seemed to clamp down on the militias, but about 160 forced detentions have been reported in Tskhinvali. A large number of unexploded cluster bombs have been found.
Russian officials adjusted their figures last week to 197 dead — 133 Ossetiansand 64 Russian soldiers. Georgia now says 400 Georgians were killed, half of them in the military — with 150 to 180 soldiers still unaccounted for.
So, first it was “2,000.” Then it became rapidly “1,600.” Now, weeks later, it’s down to 133, along with 64 Russian soldiers. And Tskhinvali? It was “not flattened.” Or, to use Ivanova’s word, it was not “destroyed.” Russia used cluster bombs, and killed at least as many Georgians if not more. Rampant looting occurred, and several ethnically Georgian villages in Ossetia were razed by the separatists.
In other words, the Russian government lied brazenly to the Russian people, and to the world, in order to whip up support for its naked imperialistic aggression towards Georgia.
On August 16th, writing on Pajamas Media, LR publisher Kim Zigfeld responded to Ivanova’s screed in the Post, exposing its falsity and hypocritical bias (embarassingly, Kim noted in her piece, a report challenging the casualty figure appeared in the New York Timesthe same day as Ivanova’s op-ed). The next day, after first confirming that she would agree to be interviewed about her article, Kim sent Ivanova a list of 26 questions to be answered by the author for publication on La Russophobe. She promised to publish Ivanova’s answers verbatim, without editing. Three days later, on August 20th, Ivanova responded to the list without answering a single one of the questions. She stated “I had so much fun reading these questions” but claimed “I’ve been very busy these days with my work.” She then indicated that she wished to answer only some of the questions, explaining that she didn’t want to do any work to provide source material or answer any personal questions.
We have to question the morality of someone who finds it “so much fun” to read questions that challenge her professionalism and discuss a bloody war in which hundreds of people lost their lives. We also question the judgment of someone who would say so to the publisher of La Russophobe. But that is, perhaps, beside the point.
Ivanova raised objections to 12 of the 26 questions. For instance, although Ivanova stated in her op-ed that she “wished she could fly back to Russia,” she didn’t want to answer question about why she was unable to do so, saying it was “too personal.” Although Ivanova called in her op-ed for objective reporting on Russia, she didn’t want to provide any links to articles she had published criticizing material about Russia that she found too one-sidedly pro-Russia, and told Kim she should go look for them herself. That suggestion is a ludicrous one, since “Olga Ivanova” is an extremely common name and there would be no way to confirm whether any given story belonged to Ivanova herself without asking her. Equally insane is suggesting that we sift through her entire body of work to find the needle in the haystack where she adopts a critical view of pro-Russia reporting. She also said she didn’t want to talk about who was paying for her education or what qualified her to receive it, nor did she wish to name any person who was using their American education to work for democracy in Russia, as she claimed many had previously been doing. This evasiveness undermines her credibility, to say the least.
But all that, too, is mostly besides the point. By far the most important question on Kim’s list was the one that asked Ivanova for her source regarding the “2,000” and “destroyed” claims. She expressed no objection to the question of any kind, but failed to answer it, seeming to raise a smokescreen of objections to other questions and using that as an artifice to suggest we might not want some of the questions answered but not others. In other words, classic neo-Soviet propaganda tactics.
Kim wrote to Ivanova again on Monday and asked her to comment on the reports referred to above, showing that her claim of “2,000” Ossetians killed and a “destroyed” city were totally false. She asked for a retraction and apology, and said she would publish it unedited. Kim provided Ivanova with all the links referred to above. Ivanova refused to comment, saying she might get around to answering the questions at some time in the indefinite future. She stated: “I am not a public person at all – my opinion is MY opinion.” So that is why, of course, she wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post and offered the gratuitous personal information that she wished she could go home to Russia!
Meanwhile, of course, Ivanova is entitled to her own opinion — but not her own facts. That she won’t correct the record (or stand by her report) when facts she has reported turn out to be false strongly indicates there is something deeply wrong with her journalistic ethics.
It should be noted that Kim has told Ivanova she can have as much time as she likes to formulate her answers to our questions, and told her as well that we will publish a partial set of answers, giving the complete list of questions and Ivanova’sreasons for refusing to answer some of them. So if she ever does choose to stand behind her article, we will publish her responses. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
Meanwhile, we’d still like to know whether any Russian newspaper with status equivalent to the Washington Post has published an attack on the Russian government similar to the one Ivanova wrote about the United States. So far, nobody has been able to provide us with a single example.