The story of the brave 13 Ukrainian troops on Snake Island who refused a surrender demand by telling a Russian warship to “go fuck yourself” instantly became a legend, and a meme, when audio of the radio exchange went viral last week.
Initially, all the Ukrainian troops were thought to have been killed while defending the island, making their act of defiance all the more poignant. Online, the moment became Ukraine’s Thermopylae. The words “go fuck yourself” became an iconic statement of national resistance both within and outside of Ukraine. The chief mate of a Georgian maintenance ship appeared to repeat the phrase while refusing to refuel a Russian merchant vessel, adding the Russians could use oars if they had no fuel.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy initially vowed that each of the 13 border guards on Snake Island would posthumously receive their country’s highest award: Hero of Ukraine.
But like all legends, the story of the defiant Ukrainian troops on Snake Island turned out to be partially exaggerated. The Ukrainian government now believes that the 13 defenders survived the Russian warship’s bombardment and were taken prisoner afterward, the Ukrainian navy posted on its Facebook page.
“We are very happy to learn that our brothers are alive and well with them!” the Facebook post says.
The Ukrainian navy also wrote that it had lost all communications with Snake Island and repeated attempts to reach the border guards failed. The revelation that the 13 defenders are alive speaks to the degree to which the fog of war has made it difficult to get accurate information about the situation inside Ukraine.
Social media is flooded with unverified videos and imagery that are as confusing and misleading as they are captivating. A picture widely shared on Twitter over the weekend appeared to show Russian paratroopers being dropped over Kyiv. It was later determined that the “parachutes” shown in the image were an optical illusion.
Separately, a video that circulated on TikTok purported to show Ukrainians throwing Molotov cocktails at Russian military vehicles, but two sources told Task & Purpose that the video dated back to 2014, when protests in Ukraine toppled the country’s then-Moscow friendly government.
The Snake Island story also shows how quick Ukrainians and the news media have been to embrace myths about David slaying Goliath ever since Russia launched a full-scale attack on its smaller neighbor.
Shortly after the Russian invasion began, stories started circulating on social media that a Ukrainian fighter pilot nicknamed “The Ghost of Kyiv” had shot down six Russian aircraft, becoming the first European fighter ace since World War II. Yet no concrete evidence has emerged to verify that the “Ghost of Kyiv” actually exists. Ukraine’s defense ministry has even shared footage that purportedly showed a Ukrainian MiG 29 shooting down a much more advanced Russian SU-35, but the video turned out to be from a flight simulation.
To be clear: The Ukrainians are fighting hard. Attacks in and near Kyiv over the weekend by Russian reconnaissance forces failed to capture the capital, and a senior defense official recently told reporters that the Russians appear to be frustrated by their lack of progress.
But it’s also worth noting that both Ukraine and Russia are fighting an information war, and the combination of incomplete or inaccurate information, official propaganda, and highly charged emotions will ensure that the myth of the Snake Island defenders fighting to death will not be the last legend of this war.