‘When the blitzkrieg failed, he started to have doubts’ The Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine put some Russians at odds with their loved ones. For others, it brought them together.
In the aftermath of Vladimir Putin launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many Russians have found themselves at loggerheads with their loved ones. With the Kremlin’s propaganda machine in full swing, some are having a hard time convincing their relatives that the war being waged in Ukraine is more than just a “special military operation.” For other families, opposing the war has been a source of common ground that allowed them to reconcile their political views. Here are some of their stories, as recounted to Meduza.
Please note. The following translation have been abridged for length and clarity. In addition, all names have been changed to shield Meduza’s sources from felony prosecution under Russia’s new law that punishes the spread of “fake news” about the Russian military.
25 years old, Novosibirsk
It was easier with my mom and dad (he used to be a local deputy from the Communist Party) — we never supported the president’s politics. But we rarely see other relatives, mainly due to distance: some of our relatives live in a village of 2,000 people. We always spoke about life, about ourselves: when you go to visit, you don’t want to spend time arguing about politics. I didn’t really have a good idea of what they generally think. But it was like the war lifted the mask. I began to quarrel with my relatives, because keeping quiet became unbearable. I believe that each person has their own opinion, but people should be aware of information from both sides, not just one side.
My mother had cancer, she died a couple days ago. She said she opposed the war right from the start: she didn’t want for anyone to suffer the same pain as she did. When the war began, the medications my mother was prescribed began disappearing from the pharmacies. It didn’t affect her, but recently, out of curiosity, I looked for these medications on online pharmacies. It pains me to see the words “out of stock.”
Most of the difficult conversations were with my sister’s husband. He was always the first to raise the topic of the war. At first I was at a loss: how can a grown man support violence, shelling peaceful neighborhoods, killing people? The arguments were difficult: he’s twice my age and a former soldier. It’s emotionally difficult to argue with someone who says all independent news sites have been “bought by the West.”
I’m boiling with hatred for everyone who supports the war: both because they’re endorsing the deaths of civilians and because my mom died of cancer, and money that could have been spent on helping cancer patients is being spent on the war. I didn’t want my brother-in-law to be among those I hate.
I also had a conversation with my grandmother. She started saying that Zelensky was to blame for everything and that Ukraine unleashed the war. At first I got angry at the fact that she was shifting the blame to Ukraine. I swallowed that anger: I understand that she’s just seen a lot of TV. I breathed a sigh, sat down next to her, and began to explain.
I try to have a dialogue with my relatives in a calm tone: it seems to me that shouting won’t help me get my point across. It was enough to tell my grandmother about how Putin started it all, about my friends still in Ukraine, about the bomb shelter in Kyiv, where women are giving birth. My grandmother always said that we, young people, are smarter than her generation, and this time she trusted me.
My brother-in-law wasn’t convinced by these arguments, but he became more critical of the news. After a few days passed and it became obvious that the blitzkrieg had failed, I felt that he was starting to have doubts. By the end of the week, when [other countries] began imposing sanctions, he reached a turning point. My brother-in-law stopped supporting the war, but he maintained that a Russian troop withdrawal wouldn’t help Russia now, and that Russia needs to end the war it just started — or lose. He, as a former military man, is convinced that any action must end with a result. But as a human being, he’s against it.
After all our conversations, he still hopes that Russia will win the war, but he says everything to do with our economy and foreign policy will be bad no matter what. I felt relieved — including for my sister — when I realized that my brother-in-law understands what’s happening is Ukraine is a war, and not a “special operation,” and that he doesn’t support it after all.
When the rallies in support of the “special operation” popped up, my brother-in-law started to find “any idiots with the letter Z” loathsome. When “idiots with the letter Z” appeared in the streets he started reading something other than RIA Novosti from time to time. Now, he also thinks that we have to end the war — and that Putin is “unhinged.”
30 years old, Moscow
My mom and I always had disagreements about politics. We also argue because I’m queer and she doesn’t accept that. We spoke about the war on Sunday, I called her and I don’t even remember how the conversation turned to the war or which one of us started it — it’s just impossible not to discuss the war right now.
She started spouting Russian propaganda almost immediately. I began telling her about everything that I had heard from real people. I emphasized that these are real people: Ukrainians, who write to me regularly because I want to know that they’re alive; journalists from independent publications, who I’ve known personally for many years, I know the principles that guide their work. She told me that I’ve been brainwashed by Western propaganda. I replied: “No, you’re the one who's been brainwashed by propaganda from federal [state-controlled] television channels.”
For a while we tried to figure out which one of us is really brainwashed. The degree of tension escalated almost instantly. I said that the war is unjust — she started talking about fascists. I shouted into the receiver that we’re bombing civilians — she shouted that all of this is a lie. We kept shouting at each other until one of us hung up the phone.
I was angry: I just didn’t understand how a loved one could make excuses for ogres. After this conversation I fell into despair. I’ve been feeling despair a lot lately, for ten years we went to rallies, struggled, and now everything vanished into thin air. It seems as if these years of effort were wasted.
Honestly, I don’t know if anything will change for the better, but I’m throwing up my hands: from the first day of the war I’ve felt only grief and fear. And when I realized that my mom wasn’t behind me, that my years of protests and struggle failed to affect not only the country but even my own mother, I felt all alone among the crowd of those who support this inhumane war.
Usually, when my mom and I would argue about political issues, I’d stop myself at a certain point — I thought that preserving the relationship was more important than asserting my own opinion to a loved one. But this is such a fundamental moment that I didn’t hold back. A catastrophe is happening. For me, it’s important to open people’s eyes to what’s going on, so long as there’s a meager chance of getting through. Our attitude toward this war will shape our outlook on the world and sense of self as Russians for years to come.
I was sure my mother was angry, that she was against me. But she called me back the next day. Apparently, she had realized something that day, went looking for information — I don’t know if it was after we spoke or not. My mom said that we really are bombing Kyiv and Kharkiv, and there was no longer any question of whether this is good or bad. She agreed with the fact that this is beyond good and evil. It seems to me that she had lived through the Soviet Union and the 1990s, and she wanted to believe that happy times had finally arrived. But her illusions were dispelled quickly.
Regardless of her views, my attitude towards my mother doesn’t change. I know how she thinks, I know that she sometimes has problems with critical thinking, but this doesn’t affect my love for her. When my mom called me back I felt relief, joy, and a lot of love for her. It seems to me that this isn’t the time to quarrel with relatives — we need to stick together. But, I honestly don’t know what I would’ve done if my mother had stood her ground.
23 years old, Bashkortostan
So far, I’ve only managed to convince my younger brother — he’s turning 15. I wouldn’t involve him in politics if it wasn't necessary to convince our relatives of the need to leave [Russia]. My mom is stubborn and refuses to talk about it; my grandmother agrees that there’s hard-hitting propaganda here, but she doesn’t want to emigrate.
Before the war, we usually didn’t touch politics in our conversations: I know that my relatives were definitely “for power, for the great Russian people.” This didn’t really bother me before — people are different, everyone has different opinions. Now, in my opinion, the situation is too serious to stay silent. We’re not just facing the threat of a third world war — we’re facing the threat of an Iron Curtain. The country could become a second North Korea.
I, like many people, think about the health and well-being of my family members first and foremost — I now understand that we have no future here. I don’t know if it's for better or for worse, but I’m too attached to my family to flee alone and leave them here, so I really want to convince them that there’s a possibility of us all leaving together. My mom says that we can’t change anything anyway; she says that as the authorities say, so it shall be. But at least we can try to change our own lives, so as not to waste away here.
In the initial days of the war, I tried to talk to her about it on the phone, but she told me to stop before she got fired over this conversation — she works for the government. We don’t see each other often, we still haven’t seen each other since the start of the war, she simply refuses to talk about it over the phone. She ignores all my messages about the war.
I’m always the one who starts the conversation about the war: my relatives try to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to all this. I’m very disappointed that I can’t get through to my mother, since she’s the person closest to me.
At first I wasn’t going to talk about the war with my brother, but my flatmate has acquaintances who told her that there’s wild propaganda in support of this war being spread at their school. My flatmate and I were shocked, and I wondered if this was happening at my brother’s school. I texted him and he replied: “No, nobody cares.” But when I asked him what he himself thought, his answer was typical of those who have been exposed to propaganda: we’ll win, we’re a strong nation, and so on. This is actually why I called him and we started having this conversation.
The discussion was heated. For several minutes we just kept interrupting each other, shouting. We spoke for about an hour. He told me: “Russia will just win, and everything will be fine.” Honestly, I’m still not sure where the joking ended and his real thoughts began. He also didn’t answer the question of who Russia is supposed to defeat and why.
At first I was upset that he supported everything that being said on television. I only recently stopped seeing him as a child and started seeing him as a full-fledged person with a mind of his own. It hurts me that he grew up like this — that he doesn’t understand how to verify and filter information, how to protect himself from propaganda, that he supports the war. That he simply doesn’t understand what war is and what’s behind the words “Russia will win.”
Mid-way through the conversation he stopped answering my questions — he didn’t stop talking, but he didn’t have a leg to stand on. Thanks to these gaps in the conversation, I think I managed to talk him round: I had arguments and he didn’t. But, of course, my focus was to talk about all the risks that await us, to say that what’s happening inside the country right now isn’t normal.
I think the fact that he, unlike the older generation, isn’t dependent on television played a big role. He combed the Internet himself, he also saw what Ukrainians were saying. Apparently, he simply didn’t know who to believe and decided to distance himself from everything that’s happening — until I called.
When I started to talk about the fact that there’s no future here for me or for him, or for our mother and grandmother, and that there won’t be the treatments we need (our medications are imported, there will no longer be supplies due to the sanctions), he piped down and stopped interrupting me. No matter how indifferent he may be, he cares about the fact that we may have health problems. This became a turning point in the conversation. Judging by the pauses in his speech, he had started to think over what I was saying. Then I told him how we should act in the near future, where we can move while we have the chance. He agreed with me and then agreed to talk to our mother.
I think that if I can convince him and my grandmother to move, it will be easier for all of us to convince my mother that we should leave.
19 years old, Udmurtia (this person asked Meduza not to disclose their city)
I didn’t raise this topic with my grandmothers, getting through to them isn’t an option, they really believe the propaganda. I began discussing [the possibility of a] war with my mom long before February 24. Back in December, an instructor [at the university] told us that war was close and that the situation could escalate into an armed conflict very soon. I told this to my mom at the time. She, of course, didn’t believe it, and we decided to postpone this conversation until a “better time.” When [Russia] recognized the “D/LNR” on February 21, I told her that war was inevitable. She didn’t even want to hear it and said that Putin wasn’t that crazy.
She and I have always argued about politics: before the war, we talked about [Alexey] Navalny’s case and the [pro-Navalny] rallies. I tried to convince her that Russia was headed towards economic failure. My mom always tried to change the subject by saying “let’s talk about it later” or “but there’s no war under Putin.” For several years, I tried to show her [political scientist Ekaterina] Shulman’s videos and Navalny’s investigations, but she said that she didn’t want to fill her head with this stuff, because she wasn’t “up to it,” because she’s “outside of politics.” We often resorted to swearing and insults, I heard boilerplate phrases from her like: “You weren’t alive in the 1990s, you don’t know anything.” But I dug in my heels and told her to mark my words.
When we argued about the state of the country I got the feeling that I was talking to a wall and couldn’t break through it. For me, it was important to at least try and find some common ground with her, to understand that our views could align on something. Of course, being on the same page about the war is fundamental — I really wanted us to agree on what’s happening in Ukraine right now: this isn’t about one’s political position, this is about humanity.
On February 24, I woke up, looked at the news, and was shocked. I texted my mom about what happened. She said that she had heard about it on TV. Then I wrote, “Don’t believe what they said, this isn’t a special operation.” And when she came home from work that evening, I suggested we talk about it.
My mother would sometimes say to me, “In Russia under Putin at least there’s no war.” And so, when our troops entered Ukraine, I said to her, “So, is there no war under Putin?” She hesitated and shrugged it off. I realized that I couldn’t stay silent and listen to her excuses any longer, it was important for me to get through to her and open her eyes to certain things. I continued to spout arguments. I dug into the history of 2014, saying bluntly that Crimea was annexed and that Putin unleashed the war in the Donbas. I could tell that she was sort of beginning to understand, when, instead of arguing and making her case, she said, “Perhaps you’re right about some things” — and when she asked me to tell her about what’s happening, from both sides.
I realized that my always apolitical mother had really started to take an interest in what’s happening. Her line of argument — “I don’t support Putin, but we have no choice” — changed to, “Okay, Putin is crazy after all, and we’re screwed.” When my mother called him a dictator, I finally understood that the wall between us had come down. This happened on the first evening after the start of the war. It’s hard to believe, [because] the war put everyone at loggerheads, but for us it was the opposite — it reconciled us.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart