A tale of two homecomings

Savchenko greeted Image copyright Getty/Genya Savilov
Image caption Savchenko was awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine.

The prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia this week received coverage in both conventional and social media in both countries concerned and globally. But what really stood out was the difference in the homecoming reception given to Nadiya Savchenko in Ukraine and to Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yevgeniy Yerofeyev in Russia.

Savchenko, a Ukrainian officer of the volunteer Aydar battalion, was reportedly abducted in Ukraine by pro-Russian militants, taken to Russia and sentenced there for being an accessory in the murder of two Russian journalists in Ukraine's Donbass, a claim she vehemently denied. During her detention, many Ukrainians came to see her as a symbol of resistance to Russian aggression. Support campaigns were organised to raise international awareness of her situation. The hashtag #freesavchenko has been regularly trending in Ukraine since June 2014, when the flier was captured during a military operation near Ukraine's Luhansk.

On the other hand, even on the day of the exchange, the names of Aleksandrov and Yerofeyev, believed to be commandos of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), who were captured in Ukraine by the government troops in May 2015, did not get that much prominence. The names trended briefly in Russian Twitter on the day of the exchange, but never climbed above Savchenko's name mentions in Russia.

A possible explanation for the muted response to the two men's return is that the Russian government has always denied sending troops to eastern Ukraine. Moscow has always said that the two men were volunteers who had left active service. But then again, shortly after the annexation of Crimea, President Putin also denied Russian troops' involvement, but then admitted it on TV little more than a month later.


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In Ukraine Savchenko was welcomed back as a returning national hero. Family members, officials, and a swarm of journalists waited to greet at her at the airport. President Petro Poroshenko sent his motorcade to collect the servicewoman and bring her straight to his office where he awarded her the title of Hero of Ukraine. The homecoming was broadcast live on national TV and was also streamed on YouTube where it has received more than 800,000 views.

The welcome the two Russian citizens received was apparently much more modest. Upon their return, they were greeted only by their wives and a handful of representatives of Russian TV channels.

According to BBC Monitoring, the reporting of Savchenko's release was to all appearances a tricky assignment for Russian state TV which has previously portrayed her her as the woman accused and then convicted of abetting the murder of two of its correspondents.

But a split-screen video posted by the pro-opposition Dozh TV Russian channel on Facebook, contrasted the first moments of the prisoners' arrivals to their respective countries with the caption "Historic video. Left - Savchenko greeted in Boryspil; right - Aleksandrov and Yerofeyev greeted in Vnukovo". It received more than 400,000 views and over 5000 shares.

Image copyright Facebook/Dozhd TV
Image caption Split screen was used by one Russian channel to contrast the very different receptions given to the swapped prisoners.

According to BBC Monitoring, much of the online discussion in Russia was more concerned with the fact that Savchenko was released, than by the return home of two Russian citizens. Russian opposition activist Ilya Yashin wrote in a Facebook post that was liked 5,000 times: "Savchenko is going home with her head raised proudly. Yerofeyev and Aleksandrov return keeping their eyes to the ground… Ukraine fights for the release of its heroes. For Putin, the heroes in this war are those, who have not been caught and fulfilled their tasks without revealing evidence of our army's participation in this conflict."

Russian Opposition MP Dmitry Gudkov said on Facebook: "What a giant difference. The open welcome for Savchenko, the president, the prime-minister, parliamentary leaders, crowds of people, her press conference, the flowers, the live broadcast (which was also watched in Russia, by the way). And our silence, an embarrassed look behind, two guards preventing journalists from entering the airport. Where are Yerofeyev and Aleksandrov now? What happens to them? This is how motherland welcomes not its heroes but citizens who went and fulfilled superiors' orders."

Pro-government voices were also apparently more keen to discuss Savchenko's release rather than the return of two Russian citizens from a Ukrainian jail.

Image copyright LiveJournal/Oleg Lurye
Image caption Russian blogger Oleg Lurye said the British Queen would be unlikely to get as large a welcome as Savchenko received.

In a lengthy post, prominent pro-Kremlin blogger Oleg Lurye poured scorn on the hero's welcome given to Savchenko. "The lady, who was brought to Kiev by the president's aircraft, had a highest-standard welcome - a presidential motorcade, top officials, flowers from Yuliya Tymoshenko, and journalists from global media. Everybody was kissing her hands. Should the British Queen ever decide to visit Ukraine, she would definitely not get such a welcome. But for Savchenko..no problem."

Popular pro-Kremlin pundit Igor Korotchenko produced a series of sarcastic, and, at times derogatory, tweets about Savchenko's return to Ukraine. "Savchenko is a time bomb planted under Poroshenko" he wrote in one and also "Savchenko will become a powerful destabilizing factor of the social and political situation" in Ukraine, and, "shame on Ukraine for jubilant greeting of military criminal, murderer Savchenko". He added: "Of course, it was necessary to free our guys from Ukrainian imprisonment. But it is a pity that Savchenko will not spend the 23 years she has been sentenced to behind bars."

Image copyright Twitter/i_korotchenko
Image caption Pro-Kremlin pundit Igor Korotchenko described Savchenko as a "military criminal"

The general Russian reaction to the swap was summed up by a pro-Kremlin TV anchor Vladimir Solovyev, whose tweet "All this hysteria over Savchenko made us forget that two our citizens have returned to motherland" got over 280 shares and over 350 likes.

But it was not all that straightforward in Ukraine as well. Savchenko's return stirred uproar of jubilance on social media. But many people on social media also pointed out that Savchenko, who was elected a Ukrainian MP while in Russian jail, now faces a lot of challenges in Ukraine, where political bickering has become routine. "There is no show more disgusting than the one the whole world will see today. Crowds of ecstatic elderly politicians and would-be saviours of the nation, elbowing each other aside and with false tears in their eyes, running with embroidered towels and armfuls of flowers to Nadiya Savchenko on the gangway, and then they will be worming themselves onto TV channels, shouting about their special role in her release," pundit Taras Berezovets wrote on Facebook, which was liked by 8,000 people.

Other popular topic of discussion were the several dozen Ukrainians imprisoned in Russian jails and the calls for them to also be brought home as soon as possible. It's not known how many Russian prisoners may still be held by Ukraine. Some Ukrainians voiced concern that the swap for Savchenko was not really equal and that Ukraine should have got several people in exchange for the two Russians.

Image copyright Facebook/EuromaydanSOS
Image caption Ukrainian film maker Oleh Sentsov, who is currently imprisoned in Russia, is captioned saying "Ladies first!" in this meme that calls for the return of other prisoners.

Oleksiy Byk, spokesman of ultra-right Right Sector movement, said on Facebook: "Savchenko must remember to whom she really owes her freedom. It is neither [President Petro] Poroshenko, nor [Fatherland party leader Yuliya] Tymoshenko, nor anyone from the pack that showed up at Boryspil airport, but the mothers of our lads who were killed by the two Russian looters for whom she was exchanged. All of you who are having an unutterable orgasm after hearing news about the release of another goddess, do not forget about [Mykola] Karpyuk, [Oleh] Sentsov and other fellow citizens."

Blog by Dmytro Zotsenko

Reporting by BBC Monitoring

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