A little over a thousand years after conversion, the Ukrainian Orthodox population built a grand church that rivaled the Hagia Sophia. So sometime in the 11th Century, an army of builders—likely recruited directly from the Byzantine Empire, the home of the Hagia Sophia—constructed a blue, many-domed cathedral in Kyiv, filling it with over 800 square feet of mosaics and frescoes.
In this century, Kyiv’s St. Sophia Cathedral has continued to enjoy pride of place in Ukrainian consciousness. Over 100,000 people gathered on the cobblestone streets in 2019 to witness an official announcement: A separate Ukranian Orthodox Church would be established from one in Russia. The Ukranian Orthodox representatives gathered at the site to vote for a new leader.
Last Tuesday, U.S. officials referenced St. Sophia via a Twitter meme.
The tweet, sent by the State Department’s official account for the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, is meant to underscore Ukraine’s longtsanding history seperate from Russia, a key argument by both Western and Ukraine governments to dispell Russian claims over territory within Ukraine. The casual, conversational nature of the embassy’s message—delivered in a format usually meant for light-hearted jokes—contrasts starkly with the increasingly dire situation in Ukraine with America and other allies rushing to forestall a full-scale Russian invasion.
This tweet highlights a larger truth about the confrontation between Ukraine and Russia. The contest between the two countries will be fought not just between the forces present on the ground, but also online. The State Department has not responded to a request for comment on the Twitter meme.
Russia understands the necessity to act as a strategic frontline against America, and all other adversaries, for many years. Russian hackers, for example, attempted to get emails that were sent by aides of the Orthodox leader. This move Moscow worried would strengthen anti-Russian sentiments in Ukraine and drive it further away from the Kremlin.
Russia also has launched its digital campaign over the past weeks. Much of this has been sourced from Russian state media outlets like RT and Sputnik News. Telegram, which is popular in this part of the globe and created by a Russian billionaire, spreads disinformation. Recently, the pro-Russian news services have shifted from carrying stories denying there’d be any invasion to different angles: baselessly suggesting the West had previously staged a coup in Ukraine and that ethnic Russians in Ukraine’s contested Dombas region have faced government-sactioned violence and persecution.
With night falling on St. Sophia Tuesday, Dmytro Zolotukhin, Ukraine’s former deputy minister of information policy who tracked Russian disinformation tactics against Ukraine’s 2020 presidential campaign, likened the current situation on the ground to another style of gallows humor on Twitter.
“You know the picture of the dog sitting in the burning house and saying, ‘No, no I’m ok—it’s fine?’” he asks, referencing this meme. “That’s our absolutely ‘normal’ situation right now.”