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‘Maybe the Lord Himself sent me’ BBC journalists interview ‘Granny Anya,’ the elderly Ukrainian woman whose Soviet nostalgia made her an icon of Russian war propaganda

Source: BBC Russia

Since early April, Kremlin propaganda has celebrated “Granny Anya” as a symbol of supposed Ukrainian popular support for Russia’s “special military operation.” Anna Ivanovna Ivanova, a 69-year-old woman who lives in Velyka Danylivka (a town outside Kharkiv), became an icon in Russia after appearing in a viral Internet video where she greeted a group of soldiers with a Soviet flag and said she was praying for Vladimir Putin. More recently, however, Ukrainian officials released an interview with Ivanova, revealing that the war had forced her and her husband to flee their home. Correspondents from BBC Russia met with Ivanova (who’s returned to Velyka Danylivka) and learned that she opposes Russia’s invasion and wishes only for peace. Meduza summarizes what Anna Ivanova told the BBC.

Granny Anya’s backstory

In early April, a viralvideo showed an elderly woman greeting a group of Ukrainian soldiers (she apparently mistook them for Russians) with a Soviet flag. The woman also told the troops that she was praying for President Putin. When one of the soldiers took her flag and stomped on it with his boots, she refused to accept a bag of groceries from him, saying that her parents “died for this flag.”

Days later, the footage aired on the Russian state television network Channel One. On the verge of tears, anchor Vitaly Eliseyev told viewers: “Nazism was crushed under the red flag. It’s clear, you see, whom they’ve been waiting for there and how they’ve lived under this Ukrainian regime. […] I’m at a loss for words. I’ve heard about ‘ripe old age,’ but now I know what an ‘unbroken spirit’ looks like. Defending such people is a sacred task. And God sees that there are people who need protection.”

In just a few weeks, propagandists transformed the woman in the video into a symbol of support for the invasion of Ukraine. Artists painted her image on the sides of buildings, and monuments in her honor appeared in various towns and cities. On May 4, occupying forces even unveiled one of these statues in the recently captured city of Mariupol. Sergey Kiriyenko, President Putin’s deputy chief of staff and domestic policy czar, attended the opening ceremony and said in a speech that Russian officials still didn’t even know the full name of the “granny with the flag.”

A day after Kiriyenko’s remarks, the Center for Strategic Communications at Ukraine’s Culture and Information Policy Ministry released a new video with “Granny Anya,” revealing her full name: Anna Ivanovna Ivanova. The video stated that Ukrainian soldiers helped the woman and her husband flee Russian artillery fire. The new footage also included an edited interview with Ivanova where she said, “It’s rotten, of course, that Russia did this. […] I was thinking I’d welcome the Russians who came, in order to tell them not to wreck anything here, to resolve things peacefully.”

The USSR is love

BBC Russia correspondents visited Anna Ivanova at her home in Velyka Danylivka on May 12. A few days earlier, journalists at Spektr.Press also managed to talk to her, learning that she speaks a mix of Russian and Ukrainian, previously worked as a grain-elevator operator, has buried all four of her children, and currently lives with her husband, a 77-year-old man named Ivan, who was born in the Russian city of Belgorod and is hard of hearing.

Ivanova told Spektr.Press that she greeted the soldiers with a Soviet flag because she “wanted to show them that we also have a Russian flag.” She says she was surprised to learn that Russia now uses a different flag. “You don’t say… Well, I wanted to show that we have the flag from when we fought with them. It’s red, after all. That’s love, you know! […] It’s like the color of blood, but this was peace. Peace after the war! Because when we were defeating Germany, it was for peace, not for war!” the woman explained.

Speaking to the BBC, Ivanova described her actions as follows: she says she heard the Ukrainian soldiers speaking Russian, assumed they were Russian troops, and showed them her “Russian sign” (this is what she called the Soviet flag). To her, the flag represents “a banner of love and happiness in every family, every city, and every republic.” Ivanova says she also wanted to ask the soldiers for President Putin’s telephone number, so she could call him and ask him to stop the war.

Asked why she told the soldiers that she was praying for Putin, Ivanova explained that she prays for the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus alike. “I pray for them all,” she said, “for them to come to an understanding and not fight against each other.”

Ivanova admits that she became terrified when one of the soldiers took her flag and trampled it. She thought they were going to shoot her, she says.

Voronezh-based woodcarver Alexander Ivchenko works on his monument to “Granny Anya,” April 23, 2022
Eric Romanenko / TASS

The Ukrainian soldiers who first met Ivanova in early March say they later became friends

First Lieutenant Viktor Kostenko — the same soldier who stomped on Ivanova’s flag — told the BBC that he acted out of anger “against those who attacked us and who want to revive that empire, the Soviet Union, in which my people starved to death in ‘32 and ’33,” he said, referring to the Holodomor famine.

Kostenko acknowledges that the video ended in a dramatic scene (where Ivanova refuses to take the groceries after watching her flag being trampled), but he says the reality was less intense: the soldiers argued with the woman a bit more and then went on their way. Kostenko says Ivanova retrieved her flag, her husband grabbed the groceries, and the couple returned to their home.

That confrontation took place on March 4, according to Kostenko. A fellow soldier recorded the encounter on his cell phone and the video bounced between other servicemen on Telegram and WhatsApp. Kostenko says he doesn’t know who uploaded the footage to the Internet beyond these messaging apps.

Kostenko says his company entered Velyka Danylivka in early March when the Russian military was shelling the outskirts of Kharkiv. The town itself, he explains, was “no man’s land” at the time. Russian troops never occupied the area, in the end, and Anna Ivanova later got on well with the Ukrainian soldiers, says Kostenko: “We became friends with this old woman and brought her food, the next day.”

Ivanova says she doesn’t regret what happened, insisting that she “didn’t want to betray anyone,” but she senses that others now view her with hostility

Dmitry Galko, who works at the Ukrainian Culture and Information Policy Ministry’s Center for Strategic Communications (which tracked down Anna Ivanova in early May), told the BBC that he believes Russian officials have transformed the elderly woman into a “dead idol.” “They don’t care who she is, where she’s from, what her name is, or about her past or future,” he says, adding that Kyiv refuses to use her for “counterpropaganda.”

Russian artillery fire recently damaged Ivanova’s home. Ukrainian soldiers sent the couple to a hospital in Kharkiv, but they’re back in Velyka Danylivka now, caring for their pets and planting potatoes, reports the BBC.

Anna Ivanova showed the BBC’s correspondents the same flag she brought out for the Ukrainian soldiers in March. When the journalists showed her photographs of the murals and statues in her honor that have appeared in Russia and occupied Ukraine, she responded, “They work quick. What a nightmare.” According to the BBC’s story, however, “Ivanova’s face indicated that she rather enjoys the monuments and the fame.”

Her neighbors expressed hostility when the BBC asked them about the flag incident and Ivanova’s new notoriety. People in Velyka Danylivka said the couple’s life in the town is effectively “over,” meaning that Ivanova and her husband are now social outcasts.

First Lieutenant Kostenko told the BBC that he hopes others won’t judge Anna Ivanova “for the past that she’s living.” But she says she can sense the animosity: “Today, the men who collect the trash, the ones from the city… they called me a traitor. […] They asked me how I can live with myself. But I didn’t want to betray anyone — I wanted peace: for Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus to coexist like before. For nobody to offend each other, and for the only fighting to be for the Christian faith and against drug addiction, alcohol, and smoking!”

Asked if she regrets what happened and if she would greet soldiers with a Soviet flag again, Anna Ivanova told the BBC answered: “Probably, I would. Whether Ukrainians or Russians. I would. And maybe I’d say: Take this flag and win with it… Maybe the Lord Himself sent me to hand over this flag, so they triumph and return Russia to its place. That could be it. Maybe the Lord Himself sent me like this. Not to become famous but for peace.”

Translated summary by Kevin Rothrock

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