At Home, Russia Spins Tale of Success in Syria

An honor guard carried a wreath in November at the grave of a Russian pilot who died during a military operation in Syria. ENLARGE
An honor guard carried a wreath in November at the grave of a Russian pilot who died during a military operation in Syria. Photo: TASS/Zuma Press

MOSCOW—At two large photo exhibitions recently held here, Russians were shown the bomb-scarred Syrian cities of Aleppo and Palmyra as the West rarely sees them.

Instead of images of destruction and starvation, the state-sponsored exhibits showed laughing, healthy children and Russian armored personnel carriers speeding unhindered through desert landscapes.

The disconnect with the carnage in Aleppo, where thousands of civilians are still waiting to be evacuated after a Moscow-backed offensive pushed out almost all rebels, reflects the Kremlin’s spin on the war for its domestic audience: Only Russia can resolve the nearly six-year Syrian conflict.

The Russian government and state media describe the situation in Aleppo as “liberation,” and Russian state TV last week interviewed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who praised Moscow for its support.

President Vladimir Putin’s year-old intervention has expanded Moscow’s political presence and military prowess in the global arena, inspiring songs, videogames and even the penning of letters by schoolchildren for troops stationed there.

“This horrible evil [in Syria] allows the whole world to behold the Russian spirit in its present form,” said Artem Grishanov, a 28-year-old who lives in Russia’s Far East and who composes songs about the heroism of the Russian army for his YouTube channel. Some of them have been viewed nearly a million times.

The rosy portrayal in Russia of what is happening in Syria can at times be at odds with the reality on the ground.

Islamic State recently recaptured Palmyra, an ancient city and Unesco World Heritage site that Syrian and Russian forces had taken from the militants earlier this year. The U.S. this month said it would strike Islamic State in the area if Russian and Syrian forces didn’t push the militants out again.

In Aleppo, efforts brokered by Turkey and Russia to evacuate the last remaining rebel-held neighborhoods have been delayed, though rebels said they could resume late Sunday night or early Monday morning.

The U.S. and Britain have accused Russia of committing war crimes in Syria. Syria’s White Helmets civil-defense group, along with others, last week wrote a letter to the United Nations, saying Russian airstrikes have killed over 1,000 civilians in Aleppo, including 380 children. Russia has yet to respond to the claims.

Still, the Russian-backed campaign’s success at rolling back the rebels in Aleppo has made the job of selling the war to the Russian public easier.

Over the weekend, Russian state TV showed hours of aerial footage over a largely empty and devastated Aleppo, accompanied by triumphant classical music. Both Aleppo and Palmyra have been given extra airtime in recent days, sometimes shown in black and white, evoking a World War II-era feel.

The turn of events has helped Mr. Putin project his view of Russia as a defender not just against terrorism but of Christianity and Western culture.

Even the country’s most famous gallery has been enlisted to the cause: The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has worked with archaeologists and experts to preserve Palmyra. When the city was previously under Islamic State rule, it destroyed Roman temples and beheaded a noted Syrian archaeologist.

Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, visited the ancient city of Palmyra in May with a delegation from Unesco, after Russian troops helped the Syrian government recapture the city from Islamic State. The museum is helping to restore the city’s ruins in a project overseen by Unesco’s World Heritage Center. ENLARGE
Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, visited the ancient city of Palmyra in May with a delegation from Unesco, after Russian troops helped the Syrian government recapture the city from Islamic State. The museum is helping to restore the city’s ruins in a project overseen by Unesco’s World Heritage Center. Photo: SERGEI CHIRIKOV/European Pressphoto Agency

“It’s our obligation to protect culture,” said the Hermitage’s 72-year-old director and archaeologist Mikhail Piotrovsky, who visited Palmyra after Russian troops helped the regime recapture the city from the extremist group in March. “And we must do this by force, even if the force is aggressive.”

State television broadcasts a drumbeat of high-tech and surgical Russian airstrikes, and the few scenes of misery and death it shows are said to be the work of Syrian rebels.

Some of this, such as the exhibits and broadcasts, is state-sponsored; others have emerged from the tide of triumphalism stirred up by the military intervention.

Dmitry Babkin, a 32-year-old game designer, works for a small Moscow-based company whose “Syrian Warfare” videogame allows users to play a Syrian policeman that defeats Islamic State with the help of Russia’s military. The climax of the game, scheduled for release in February, is set in Palmyra.

“Russia’s appearance has helped the country avoid finally collapsing and repeating the destiny faced by other once-prosperous, largely secular states like Libya and Iraq, where terrorism thrives,” Mr. Babkin said.

The State Historical Museum in Moscow displayed photographs of Syria in its “Return of Palmyra” exhibit in November.  ENLARGE
The State Historical Museum in Moscow displayed photographs of Syria in its “Return of Palmyra” exhibit in November. Photo: Amie Ferris-Rotman/The Wall Street Journal

The message appears to have won over the public. According to an October survey by the independent Levada Center, 49% of Russians believe their country should stay involved in Syria, while only 28% felt it was a bad idea.

While the Russian military has announced at least 15 deaths of service members, casualty numbers are routinely played down.

The overwhelmingly positive portrayal of Russia’s role in Syria is often set in contrast with U.S. involvement in the region. The U.S.-backed, Iraqi-led operation against Islamic State in Mosul is extensively covered on state television, and portrayed by Russian officials as a messy, direction-less campaign.

“One thing is clear: The [U.S.-Iraqi] coalition treats the peaceful Iraqis of Mosul worse than the militants in Aleppo,” foreign-ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on her Facebook page in November.

The Hermitage museum connects its planned restoration work at Palmyra to Russia’s shared heritage with the ancient Christian world and the ties the museum has with the city: One of its thousand-plus rooms is filled with Palmyra antiquities acquired at the outset of the 20th Century.

“This is part of our national consciousness: Syria for us is not only Palmyra, it’s also Orthodox Christianity,” said Mr. Piotrovsky, the Hermitage director, echoing Mr. al-Assad’s assertion last year that Mr. Putin is the defender of Christianity.

Mr. Piotrovsky, pointing to the Hermitage’s efforts to salvage its own treasures during the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad, said he hopes to bring that same spirit to restoring Palmyra.

The Hermitage’s work has been criticized by Syrians who oppose the Assad regime as window-dressing that doesn’t address the desperate plight of Syrians after years of war.

“Instead of these valiant statements that they’re going to save and restore it, why don’t they do something useful instead, like actually make it [Palmyra] safe?” said Amr Al-Azm, an associate professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio.

Corrections & Amplifications:
Mikhail Piotrovsky is the director of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. A photo caption in an earlier version of this article incorrectly gave his name as Boris Piotrovsky.

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