by Sarah Lovin and Shawn Simmons
A brief history of events preceding the Crimean status referendum
Crimea is at the center of one of the biggest geopolitical crises in Europe since the end of the Cold War, as Russia faced off with the west over Ukraine. Crimea is a hub for pro-Russian sentiment, owing to ties with the country which date back centuries. Crimea remains an important base for Russia, both strategically and ideologically, but not all Crimeans are sympathetic to their former ruler, including the historically anti-Russian Crimean Tatars.
On February 22, 2014 Ukraine’s parliament sided with Kiev protesters and voted president Victor Yanukovych out of office. The Ukrainian legislature reassembled an interim government as the pro-Russian Yanukovych disappeared. Five days later on February 27 pro-Russian armed men seized government buildings. They seized the regional parliament and placed Russian flags on barricades. Pro-Russian forces wearing unmarked uniforms surrounded Ukrainian bases, taking up positions in major cities armed with vehicles and weapons.
The vote on Sunday, March 16, 2014 was to confirm the decision to join Russia. The referendum was a direct response to uprisings in Kiev, which led to the ouster of a pro-Russian leader in favor of an anti-Russian interim government. Interim prime minister of Ukraine, Arseniy Yatseniuk, dismissed the vote and referendum as “illegal” and said “no one in the civilized world” would recognize the vote (Jalabi). The United States, along with European leaders threatened sanctions if Russia were to absorb Crimea, whether it be directly to indirectly after the referendum vote.
Freelance protesters from Russia amassed in Crimea and the eastern part of the Ukraine protesting in favor of joining Russia and to threaten those who opposed. Also, Russia launched a massive propaganda campaign, a throwback to Soviet times. Every place a person would look, they’d see poster’s billing the upcoming vote and the choice between the swastika of National Socialism and the red, white, and blue of modern Russia.
Russian propaganda and mixed sentiment locally fueled continued confusion. Outrage against western “fascists” mingled with discomfort at the Russian occupation. Suspicions persist that Russia had bribed crowds, a tactic that was frequently used to curb domestic dissent. Crimea used billboards across the region, mostly playing on Kremlin propaganda that suggests Kiev is full of fascists.
Crimean status referendum billboards; a closer look
We will look at these billboards more closely, using the language of Edward Tufte and his explanations of visual confections. Edward Tufte enforces in his book Visual Explanations that a confection is a collection of image events that present a visual argument that tells the viewer a story using both real and imaginary elements (121).
The billboards in Crimea with Russia also use imagery (both real and imaginary) that evokes in the viewer feelings of loyalty and fear toward the Ukraine, pushing voters towards re-joining Russia.
Look at the billboard below, photographed by Baz Ratner four days before Crimea voted in a referendum to become part of Russia or to stay a part of the Ukraine.
Watch as Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State, speaks about some of the feelings evoked by this billboard.
The images presented by the billboard in figure 1 are clear and easy to interpret. It uses the technique of ‘pop-outs’ that Colin Ware discusses in his book Visual Thinking for Design, and uses it effectively. Ware tells us that in order for images to pop-out, or be processed very quickly, their background must be relatively plain and constant, while the images popping out should be dramatically different (29-31).
On the left we see the shape of Crimea, it is red on a black background. But the red country is being gridded by black barbed wire, vertically and horizontally, bringing to mind being trapped by a wall of razor wire. The ‘barbs’ are random and resemble lightning bolts, calling to mind electrified fencing. There is no fence or wire that looks like this; it is, as Tufte would say, and imagined image. Another imaginary component of the left compartment of this confection is the swastika. The Ukraine is NOT the Axis powers. It is not a country that has nationally declared itself to be Nazi or even loosely affiliated with such a way of thinking. But there is the swastika, in the middle of this blaring black and red compartment.
Black “symbolizes menace or evil” (Muse Design inc.). Red is often associated with unsavory areas or behaviors, for example the labeling of an area known for illegal activities is often called the ‘red light district.’ It can also invoke associations with “blood and warfare…and has been known to raise one’s blood pressure” (Muse Design inc.). This negative color scheme is continued in the background color of the left compartment, the Nazi (aka Ukrainian) Crimea is surrounded by a sea of black, representing the darkness that choice would bring for Crimea.
To the right, the shape of Crimea is duplicated exactly, in shape and size to the left compartment’s Crimea, and it is situated identically within its compartment. The shape is filled with the Russian flag, waving in the breeze. We know this because the white, blue, and red are rippling, as if in a gentle breeze. Also, the shape of the peninsula is surrounded by a light blue. The blue of a cloudless sky or a shallow sea. A color associated with peace and stability (Muse Design inc.).
The creator of this billboard has used colors and iconic symbols to inspire the feelings of viewers. The swastika is known throughout the world as a symbol of hatred and intolerance, and the Russian flag is a symbol of the country itself. The symbol of the swastika evokes feelings in the Crimean people against Ukraine, while the billowing flag and calm blue evokes good feelings toward Russia.
Consider Ware’s argument for “networks of association,” he argues that images activate concepts of that image, while evoking feelings and readiness for action. Below he goes into more detail as to how the visual image of a dog is perceived:
These visual details are linked to various kinds of information that we already know about dogs through a network of association, and therein lies the power of the
system. Concepts that dogs are loyal, pets, furry, and friendly may become activated and ready for use…Actions such as petting the dog or avoiding the dog (depending
on our concepts) become primed for activation. Of course if it is our own dog, “Milliie,” a much richer set of associations become activated and the possibilities become more varied. (11)
This push and pull was an overall theme in Crimean media preceding the referendum, but these billboards are examples of wonderfully constructed visual arguments for it. The simple message of good versus bad is conveyed by the visual contrast of a Ukrainian Crimea as opposed to a Russian Crimea, and it is done so clearly and quickly.
The viewer quickly gets the message:
Its simplicity and lack of visual noise make it powerful. Through the use of a simple confection consisting of compartments of imagined images, the author of this billboard has created a visual piece that harnesses the science of human perception through the artistry of visual explanation.
The billboard below also combines the science of Ware and the art of Tufte to effectively promote Russia and defame Ukraine:
This billboard uses a universal pictogram, the ‘no’ symbols (see also Olympic Pictograms) what Ware refers to as pop outs (29) and Tufte calls compartments in the context of a visual confection (127). The entire billboard is designed to draw they eye to these ‘no’ symbols. The eye is drawn first to the center ‘no’ symbol, a swastika surrounded and called out by the red ‘no’ symbol (see also Olympic Pictograms). Moving outward to the two other ‘no’ circles, we see UPA (Ukranian People’s Army) and right quadrant (also called right sector). The UPA brings up associations of the Ukraine joining the Axis powers (briefly) during World War II. Of course, the viewer has just looked at the swastika, so the strong negative emotional response has been triggered before looking at the acronym UPA; meaning any good or forgiving feelings a Crimean might have about why some of the Ukrainians joined the Nazis are much less likely to surface. The third symbol denounces the right quadrant or sector, a group of Ukrainian nationalists associated with the overthrow of former President Viktor Yanukovych, a recent event which set the referendum into motion. Though the viewer may have mixed feelings about the ouster, the emotional association of the swastika has pre-conditioned the viewer that whatever is inside the ‘no’ symbols is very bad.
Now the eye moves up STOP (in red) FASCISM!, and here we have word associations. Again red and black are used, the colors of evil and warfare (Muse Design inc.). And the bottom brings back in the cool blue for ALL IN REFERENDUM. Again we have red/black as opposed to calm, cool blue, just as we did with the billboard of the two Crimeas. And the message is the same: How does one stay away from panic, from bad, evil? One votes against Ukraine and for Russia. The calm blue of ALL IN REFERENDUM is a moment of relief after the panic of the black and red invasion of FASCISM and ‘no’ circles.
The large compartment contains an actual photograph of the white colonnade of the Grafskaya Wharf the port city of Sevastopol, in Crimea. Due to the bright and urgent messages on top of and around the compartment created by the photograph, its presence is almost lost. But if the people of Crimea do notice it, they will know instantly what it is. This is an image containing rich and complex associations for the Crimean people. The official site of Sevastopol’s city government says it best:
The white colonnade of the Grafskaya Wharf has been decorating the city since 1846…The image of the Grafskaya Wharf has become a specific emblem of the hero-city: the whole history of Sevastopol from foundation to the present days relates to this architecture monument… The higher parapet (attic) decorates it and shows the date of the building – 1846…As it was planned by the admiral Lazarev, the wharf became the front berth of Sevastopol. Today the Grafskaya Wharf, one of the oldest monuments of the city and its decoration, still shares all worries and joys of Sevastopol (“Modern Sevastopol City”).
Again, simplicity has delivered a powerful, and emotionally charged message to it’s viewer. The composer of this particular billboard used several compartments, in fact, compartments within compartments to create this confection. It also uses the power of words to convey its message. This confection brings in the real image of the real monument of Grafskaya Wharf to validate its imaginary argument, and evoke Russian nationalist emotions. This is because Russia has had a naval base at Sevastopol since 1954.
Regardless of the photograph, though, the big picture is (again) simple:
That is the power of these billboards. Their simple declarations of what is right and wrong. Also, the complete disregard for factual accuracy, which is the imaginary aspect of the confection.
This billboard manages to “interweav[e] a diversity of real and imaginary images, creat[ing] a poignant narrative-fantasy that makes an overall general point…and also reveals specific details…” (Tufte 131). As a Tufte visual confection it is brilliant. It also contains the features promoted by Ware for pop-out, meaning the brain perceives and processes what it sees more quickly and easily (Ware 29). For a billboard, this is important, as the viewer may be driving by at 65 kph.
These billboards are just two examples of many that popped up around Crimea just before the vote on the referendum.
If you would like to see a few more Crimean status referendum billboards, here is a link to an EFL teacher in Sevastopol’s blog. She posted all of the billboards she saw on a walk on March 13, 2014, three days before the referendum.
Haskill, Julia. “Color Psychology in Graphic Design.” musedesign.ca, 2 Oct 2013. Web. 3 May 2014.
Jalabi, R., & Yuhas, A. Russian propaganda over Crimea and the Ukraine: how does it work? | Alan Yuhas and Raya Jalabi | World news | theguardian.com. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/17/crimea-crisis-russia-propaganda-media
Jalabi, R., & Yuhas, A. Crimea’s referendum to leave Ukraine: how did we get here? | World news | theguardian.com. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/13/crimea-referendum-explainer-ukraine-russia
Tufte, Edward R. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative.
Cheshire, CT: Graphics, 2000. Print.
Ware, Colin. Visual Thinking for Design. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann, 2008. Print.
Figure 1: http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/propaganda-poster-of-the-day-crimean-edition/
Figure 2: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/17/crimea-crisis-russia-propaganda-media (Figure 2)