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Don’t Trust Every Story of a Badass Ukrainian Grandma

As the world watches the violent destruction wrought by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, many want to show solidarity with the people under siege. This can mean everything from donating to refugee and aid organizations to wearing Ukraine’s colors (blue and gold) to simply using the Ukrainian flag emoji on social media. It’s also the sort of crisis during which observers like to share inspiring stories of heroism and resistance — even if, on closer examination, they aren’t true.

One trend to emerge from these reports is the lionization of elderly Ukrainian women standing up to the invaders in one way or another. You’ve probably seen the video of a woman condemning Russian soldiers and telling them to carry sunflower seeds so that something will grow from the soil where they die. Interestingly, although you can’t tell her age from the viral clip, viewers became invested in the belief that she was old. The Daily Show, for example, referred to her as a “grandmother,” apparently with no further information to back up that characterization. 

Images themselves can also be misleading, or lacking in context. Days before Russia’s attack, Western media became infatuated with 79-year-old Valentyna Konstantynovska, who was photographed training with an AK-47. She graced the front pages of two major U.K. newspapers. The problem? She was practicing her aim with the Azov Battalion, a neo-Nazi faction of the National Guard of Ukraine, which had set up the publicity stunt as propaganda for their cause. 

While it might be unfair to call Konstantynovska a Nazi sympathizer — it’s plausible that she wanted to learn how to shoot from anyone willing to teach her — we should avoid laundering the press material of definite Nazis. After the truth came out, the pictures continued to make the rounds with positive comments. An impressed redditor even thought to add that Konstantynovska intended to “protect her family,” a detail the Azov soldiers would surely enjoy.    

Then there are the grannies who lift our spirit by promising to persevere and reminding us of all they have survived already. Typically, this involves them posing with a message “translated” by the individual sharing the photo — almost never a Ukrainian speaker. Some of these are no doubt genuine (at least per a few comparisons of the writing with Google translations of the proffered English text), though I’m also struck by the recycling of certain phrases. Here are two different women seemingly mocking Putin’s height and describing his military as “locusts.”

The sentiment is then easily repeated — down to specific word choices — in phony posts made to pull engagement. Here, it’s attributed to an alleged 92-year-old grandmother, but a small mistake gives the game away. The user writes, “On the paper it says…” Only there’s no paper. Yet the sham goes even further: the woman in this photo turns out to be Latinka Perović, a Serbian professor and dissident who opposed fascism and the regime of Slobodan Milošević. She’s 88 years old, not Ukrainian and renowned for her influence in an entirely separate political sphere.

In the last 48 hours or so, a new favorite grandmother has surfaced. “Baba Lida,” or Grandmother Lida, as she’s known, has turned up in a Polish web forum, an Albanian newspaper, several Ukrainian media outlets, multiple Reddit forums, and the Twitter feeds of both established American political operatives and likely bots. Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press was among the first to share this photo of an older woman with an AK-47, along with the only fact, besides a name, that anyone has attached to her person: She was born in 1938. (For whatever reason, Ukraine-born economist Roman Sheremeta, who posted the photo on his Facebook page two hours later, claimed she was born in 1939.) Clearly, the portrait is meant to speak for itself — nobody can tell us what city she’s in or what she had to say about Russia’s invasion. 

What’s really weird, though, is that the earliest appearance of Baba Lida I could find was in a tweet from a Japanese-language account, published about five hours before Euromaidan’s. There, she isn’t named, but included among images of “true feminists” in Ukraine. The author’s bio states that they are for “gender equality” and against “women’s preferential treatment.”  

Absent a viable source for the “Baba Lida” details (Euromaidan hasn’t run an article or interview that mentions her) we can’t say where or when the photo was taken, let alone who this woman is. All we have are people repeating each other, more or less verbatim, without any reasonable basis for what they’re saying. Maybe she is a grandmother named Lida, born in 1938, armed to fight Putin’s “locusts.” But right now, you have no way of confirming it. In the haste to create icons for the moment, we can convince ourselves of anything. Just something to consider before you smash that retweet button — now and whenever the next grandma comes along.