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Marianna Vyshemirskaya in the maternity wing of Hospital No. 3 in Mariupol. March 9, 2022

A new wave of old lies More false claims about the Mariupol maternity hospital bombing, debunked

Source: Meduza
Marianna Vyshemirskaya in the maternity wing of Hospital No. 3 in Mariupol. March 9, 2022
Marianna Vyshemirskaya in the maternity wing of Hospital No. 3 in Mariupol. March 9, 2022
Evgeniy Maloletka / AP / Scanpix / LETA

In early April, Denis Seleznyov, a blogger from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR), posted a new video on his YouTube channel: an interview with Marianna Vyshemirskaya (who also goes by her maiden name, Podgurskaya). Marianna is a beauty blogger from Donetsk who caught the world’s attention after AP journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Yevgeny Maloletka photographed her at a maternity hospital in Mariupol immediately after it was bombed on March 9, 2022. The Ukrainian authorities reported that the hospital had been hit by a Russian airstrike.

After the photos were published, several pro-Kremlin Telegram channels immediately claimed that they were staged (their “evidence” was that all of the images showed only one woman, Vyshemirskaya, which is not true). Larger pro-government news agencies in Russia soon began repeating the claims. Meduza asked Ilya Ber — editor-in-chief of Provereno Media, which specializes in debunking fake news — to analyze and debunk those early attempts to cast doubt on what happened in Mariupol.

Since Seleznyov published his interview with Vyshemirskaya, Russian propagandists have jumped back on the story — so we asked Ilya Bera to check and see whether Vyshemirskaya's own words revealed anything new. This material is being published jointly by Meduza and Provereno.

The hospital strike was not 'staged' — and that's a fact

Vyshemirskaya confirmed that she was pregnant and was a patient in the maternity wing of Hospital No. 3 in Mariupol (several pro-Kremlin bloggers have tried to challenge even this). When shells began hitting the hospital on March 9, Vyshemirskaya and other maternity patients and hospital staff went into the basement. Soon after, they were evacuated from the hospital.

Vyshemirskaya was photographed by journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Yevgeny Maloletka as she evacuated. She wasn’t the only patient caught on camera, as she confirmed in the interview: contrary to early claims from the pro-Kremlin media, some of the images showed another pregnant woman being carried on a stretcher — unlike Vyshemirskaya, she’d been badly wounded. Her name has not been made public, but The Associated Press has confirmed that neither she nor her baby survived.

Vyshemirskaya also stated in the interview that at the time of the attack, the hospital’s maternity wing was operating — and was not controlled by the far-right Azov Battalion, as pro-Kremlin outlets have claimed. She explained in more detail in an Instagram story she posted after the interview:

Don’t confuse it with Maternity Hospital No. 1, which is a perinatal center and is located on the outskirts of Mariupol — that building was taken over by the military in late February. They asked all maternity patients to go home, and they sent the rest to Hospital No. 3, where I was from March 6 to March 9. So it was functioning — there were workers, pregnant women, and new mothers there.

These statements do suggest that soldiers took over Maternity Hospital No. 1, though all of Vyshemirskaya's information about the hospital is second-hand, as she heard it from patients who were transferred to Hospital No. 3.

How the pro-Russian media portrayed the video

Claim: ‘There was no airstrike’

Vyshemirskaya's interview was presented by many Russian state media outlets and pro-government Telegram channels as proof that there was no airstrike at the maternity wing of Hospital No. 3. Vyshemirskaya does say multiple times in the video that neither she nor the other patients nor their husbands heard the sounds of planes flying over the building, and that this must mean it wasn’t airstrikes that destroyed the building.

In the initial days after the photos and videos from Hospital No. 3 were published, three versions of the events began circulating. According to one, the Russian Air Force had conducted an air strike on the building. Another version was that Russian artillery troops had fired from a distance. The third was the Russian Defense Ministry’s claim that the explosions had been instigated by Ukrainian forces — specifically by the “Nazi Azov Battalion.” Vyshemirskaya's statements from the interview have been construed as evidence of the Kremlin’s version of events.

At the same time, military experts who spoke to Meduza said that it is possible not to hear bomber planes flying overhead.

“Planes are not always audible when they launch air-to-surface missiles from a distance or use glide bombs (which are still in development in Russia, as far as I know),” said Pavel Luzin, an expert on Russia’s Armed Forces.

Another expert, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed. “A plane can release a guided bomb from 20 kilometers [about 12.5 miles] away from its target, rather than directly over it, and in that case, the plane won’t be visible or audible. Conventional bombs are dropped from 7–8 kilometers [about 4.4–5 miles], with the plane almost directly over the target [not more than 1–2 kilometers, or 0.6–1.2 miles, away], using a radar sight system and GLONASS” (a Russian satellite-based navigation system). According to him, even a conventional, non-supersonic plane can be inaudible behind clouds. Weather also plays a role, as planes “can be heard from further away in higher air pressure.” For a plane to be clearly audible, it usually has to be flying lower than 5,000 meters (about 16,400 feet). According to the expert we spoke to, the Russian Air Force has many different models of planes and various types of guided and unguided ammunition, making it difficult to say exactly what equipment was used in this case.

Vyshemirskaya did not repeat the Russian Defense Ministry’s story that Ukrainian “death squads” orchestrated the bombings at the hospital. She and others who hid in the basement said only that the explosion was caused by a “shell that was launched from somewhere else.” 

Other people who witnessed the explosion claim to have heard a plane approaching. According to AP journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Yevgeny Maloletka, the sound of a bomber flying overhead can be heard in the first few seconds of this video.

However, even if Vyshemirskaya really did not hear a plane flying overhead, that doesn't prove the explosion didn’t come from an airstrike.

Claim: The Associated Press photographers appeared on the scene ‘suspiciously fast,’ filmed Vyshemirskaya ‘without her consent,’ and ‘concealed’ footage that showed her refuting the airstrike story

Vyshemirskaya claimed that she asked AP journalists Mstyslav Chernov and Yevgeny Maloletka not to take photos of her outside of the hospital and that they “ignored” her request, thereby “dragging her” into the story. When asked how soon the journalists appeared outside of the hospital, Vyshemirskaya said they were there “immediately.” Finally, according to Vyshemirskaya, Chernov and Maloletka chose not to publish an interview with her in which she allegedly refutes the idea that there was an airstrike (the interview was recorded on March 11, a day after the attack and after the birth of her child).

Journalists are not required to get the consent of people captured on camera in order to publish news reports. Additionally, it is clear from the video published by the AP that Vyshemirskaya did not ask the reporters to stop filming (1:57 — 2:17).

Chernov and Maloletka said that they reached the hospital about 25 minutes after the bombing; police officers, soldiers, and first responders were already on the scene. Chernov also happened to record the exact moment of the bombing from a different part of the city: in another of his videos, an explosion is heard, a shockwave is seen, and smoke is seen rising above nearby buildings. This suggests the journalists were not far away when the building was struck, so it makes sense that they arrived at the hospital soon after. They could have arrived even sooner if they hadn’t stopped at another building to charge their cameras, which they also caught on film.

Ukrainian rescue workers outside of the destroyed hospital building in Mariupol. March 9, 2022
Evgeniy Maloletka / AP / Scanpix / LETA

The interview with Vyshemirskaya that Chernov and Maloletka recorded on March 11 was uploaded to AP’s publicly available archive, though the video doesn’t include any questions or answers about what happened to the hospital. Later, the entire conversation was uploaded on the AP’s website. In the full video, Vyshemirskaya says the following: “We don’t know where it came from, who sent it, what it was, or what they were targeting. There’s lots of speculation, but the fact is that we can’t say anything for sure” (4:22 in the video).

Was Vyshemirskaya forced to make specific statements?

We don’t have a definitive answer to this question.

Vyshemirskaya says in the video that she was evacuated from Mariupol. At the same time, the interview was recorded by journalists Denis Seleznyov and Kristina Melnikova, who regularly work for the self-proclaimed “DNR” and its armed forces. This suggests that she is almost certainly located either on territory controlled by the self-proclaimed “republic” or in Russia. The former is perhaps more likely since, according to her, she lived in Makiivka, which has been under “DNR” control for eight years, before moving to be with her husband in 2020.

Still, there’s no evidence that she was forced to recite a script prepared by someone else. It’s notable that she doesn’t use many of the cliches common in Russian propaganda — the phrase “special military operation,” for example, doesn’t appear a single time in the 24-minute video, while the events in Ukraine are referred to as a “war” five times (once in one of Seleznyov’s questions). Not once does Vyshemirskaya mention the Azov battalion, which, according to Russian propaganda, captured the hospital in Mariupol. In Vyshemirskaya's telling, the hospital was captured by “soldiers,” and she provides a completely rational explanation (rather than repeating the propaganda cliche that the soldiers used people as live shields): “They need energy — there’s no electricity in the city, but Maternity Hospital No. 1 is equipped with solar panels.”

The end of the video shows Vyshemirskaya calling for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to “negotiate and look for compromises,” a message that was recorded separately. It’s unclear whether Vyshemirskaya said this on her own initiative or whether she said it at someone else’s request or under pressure.

Explainer by Ilya Ber

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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