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‘The TV is winning’ Many Ukrainians now share a common experience: their relatives in Russia refuse to believe their accounts of the war.

Source: Meduza
Oleg Yakovlev / RBK / TASS

The millions of families separated by the Russia-Ukraine border now find themselves on opposite sides of a war. And in recent weeks, many on the Ukrainian side have learned the hard way that their relatives in Russia would rather believe the Kremlin's story than their family's first-hand accounts. Meduza spoke with Ukrainians who have had trouble convincing their Russian relatives of even the most basic facts about the war in Ukraine.

‘Fourteen years later, our family is split’

Maria Chumak, social media manager from Kharkiv

I’m originally from Donetsk. I moved away in 2014, but my parents and my older sister stayed there, in Russian-controlled territory. All of the Ukrainian TV networks were shut off, and my family was left with only Russian information sources. Sometimes Ukrainian media manages to break through, but my family basically gets all of their news from pro-Russian outlets. And their political views reflect that: it’s impossible for Russia to do anything wrong, because Russia always tells the truth.

I had a great relationship with my parents until 2014. We were always together — we spent all of our weekends together at the site where our cottage was being built, not far from the Donetsk airport. The cottage was our whole family's dream — we spent 10 years building it.

Even before that, in 2008, we were brought closer together by a tragedy: my brother died in a car accident, and our family reconnected with all of the relatives we’d fallen out with. It brought me closer to my parents, strengthened our relationship — our trust and our love for each other grew. But now the family is totally split.

We tried not to talk about politics for several years, in order to maintain our relationship. I moved to Kharkiv, but until the war, I spoke to my parents and my sister on the phone constantly.

The last time I was in Donetsk was 2016. The city had really transformed: it looked the same on the outside, the buildings, but the inside, the atmosphere, was completely different. It wasn’t the same Donetsk I’d left in 2014. My family was completely comfortable there. They referred to the events in eastern Ukraine as a “peacekeeping operation” and they believed Russia was saving them. It was like they’d fallen in love with Russia — like the beginning of a relationship, when you see the person through rose-colored glasses and forgive everything they do.

Donetsk, February 27, 2022
Alexander Ryumin / TASS

One time, on my birthday, they even told me to come home sooner so that our family could be reunited and live in Russia. They still have this unwavering faith that Russia can’t attack — or make any mistake at all.

None of this was top of mind for me, but I understood that their media landscape was different. It’s also true that Ukraine’s leadership at that time [2015-2019] turned out to be less than honest — it seems to me that they also had a hand in this conflict, and it’s largely their fault that people turned away from Ukraine.

In 2015, the house my dad was building got hit by a shell. And a year before that, dad got hit in the leg by a piece of shrapnel. The family is convinced it was Ukrainian troops — with no evidence, of course. But even after I left for Kharkiv, we tried to stay neutral. They would tell me, “We’re glad you’re in a safe place right now, but we hate the country you’re living in.”

The war before the war

A brief history of the Donbas War, in photos American Brendan Hoffman captures eight years of life along the contact line in eastern Ukraine

The war before the war

A brief history of the Donbas War, in photos American Brendan Hoffman captures eight years of life along the contact line in eastern Ukraine

[Russia’s] recognition of the LDNR [the Donetsk and Luhansk “people's republics” in eastern Ukraine] was a red flag — I should have known the war was coming. When I called [my family in] Donetsk, I could hear the euphoria in my sister’s voice, the elation, you know: “They’ve finally recognized us!” Even the U.S. sanctions against the LDNR made her happy: she took it as proof that the U.S. had recognized their statehood, and that there would therefore soon be peace. But all of that kind of flew right past me: I was swamped at work, and I thought it was just another piece of political news about Donetsk, the same kind of thing that had been coming out every once in a while for eight years. My sister was thrilled by the news. She told me, “Don’t worry, they won’t touch you — it would be noisy for us,” referring, apparently, to the LDNR. And she was sure that the war would end within 2-3 days, and that everything would resolve well — meaning in Russia’s favor.

Kharkiv started bombing at 4:45. All I wrote to my sister was, “They’re bombing us, we’re running.” “Okay,” she wrote back. The next day, February 25, I got to Poland, finally exhaled a bit, and decided to tell my parents where I’d escaped to and how. I wrote my sister on Telegram, and she responded that the main thing was to destroy the “Nazis,” and that all civilians would be protected by Russia. To be honest, that scared me. Are we Nazis too? Or were we being bombed for some worthy cause?

I asked her, “You seriously don’t believe that Russia attacked us?” She responded, “All of that’s fake.” I sent her photos and videos from my colleagues and friends who were still in Kharkiv — posts from people in basements who were hiding from gunfire, security camera footage, videos of explosions, photos of playgrounds that had been shelled. Her only response was, “That’s impossible. All of that is fake.”

Video montages, provocations, splicing footage, or photos from old military conflicts recast as fighting in Ukraine — they’ll use anything to justify Russia, anything not to believe that all of this has really happened and continues to happen in Ukraine. Both my parents and my sister told me that civilians aren’t being touched, that they’re only bombing military sites where the U.S. is planning to deploy weapons.

I was distraught. Not just distraught — devastated. I don’t understand how it’s possible not to believe something so obvious. When you’re shown videos and photos of real events from real people — people I know personally. My parents know I worked as a journalist; they understand how thorough I am when it comes to fact-checking, how important critical thinking is to me.

The Russians who see the truth

‘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.

The Russians who see the truth

‘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.

At some point in the conversation, I realized how angry my family makes me. I thought they believed that I wouldn’t spread fabricated information, that I can tell a lie from the truth. But they chose to trust the television over their own relative. Right now, it’s “my word versus the television’s word,” and the television is winning. That’s wild to me.

I realize they’re my family and that they may have gotten a little confused. But when you flee to another country in a single night to avoid being killed in the line of fire, and the people closest to you accuse you of lying, there’s no way to just take it in stride.

When I made a post on social media about my position — I called the war a war and wrote that Russia had attacked us — my aunt, my uncle, my cousin, and his wife, all of whom are in Donetsk, unfollowed me. A little bit later, they unfollowed all of the pages I run as social media manager and blocked me everywhere.

But I’m still trying to reach my parents and my sister. When I saw a video of Kharkiv being bombed, I got overwhelmed, and I wrote to my sister, “Look at how they’re ‘not touching civilians,’ look at what the Russian soldiers are doing.” After that, she blocked me too. They don’t want to hear it — they’re afraid to lose faith in the image the Russian TV networks have created.

The aftermath of the shelling of Kharkiv. March 3, 2022
Sergey Bobok / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

I decided not to go knocking on closed doors, and we no longer communicate. On March 8, though, my sister unblocked me and wished me happy International Women’s Day. No apology, nothing about how we’re still family, despite our disagreement. Just “Happy Women’s Day” — as if our conversations about the war hadn’t happened.

I wasn’t in the mood to accept her wishes. I calmly wrote, “I understand that I won’t change your opinion, but just look at this.” I started sending videos from colleagues and friends with neutral captions — you know, this video was filmed in such-and-such region on such-and-such day. My sister replied that these were the same Nazis who injured dad seven years ago, so Ukraine was getting what it deserved. I explained that both sides were responsible for the start of the conflict — Ukraine had a different government at that time, and it also made some mistakes. But now, it’s not the Ukrainians bombing schools and children’s hospitals. I begged her to watch, analyze, and compare what I was saying with the things she saw on the Russian TV networks. The last thing she said was, “I hear you.”

That was it: no messages, no calls. I’ve only been in touch with my parents through my sister. They’re probably worried about me, but they haven’t tried to find out how I’m doing, whether I’m getting settled okay in my new home, or even where I am. The last time I spoke to my sister was a week ago. She hasn’t asked, either, about what’s going on with me, whether I need help, or whether I plan on returning to Ukraine.

I hope my family will open their eyes at least a tiny bit, but I don’t think any of them will accept me back into the family as long as I maintain my position. I hope we’ll at least be able to talk on the phone occasionally so I can make sure they’re alive and well.

‘Gram, they’re shooting civilians’

Valeria, student from Kyiv

My grandma and her brother live in Siberia. My grandma was born there, graduated from the local institute, then met my grandpa and moved to Donetsk, his hometown. They spent most of their lives in Ukraine.

I can’t say we kept in close contact, but until 2014, there were no big arguments or negativity in our family. Then, the family literally split in two: my grandma took Russia’s side, and we started arguing and fighting constantly. I was a child at that time, and my parents and I moved with my uncle from Donetsk to Kyiv. Grandma, meanwhile, left Donetsk. She started visiting her brother in Russia more frequently; at first, she told us that he needed help because he had no wife. Then, around 2018, she told us that Russia was her Motherland, and she was going to live there, despite our pleas that she live with us.

She used to come visit us in Kyiv, staying for long periods, even though she didn’t like Ukraine. She refused to acknowledge that what was happening in the Donbas was the result of Russian aggression. She believed that Ukraine was killing Donbas residents. She would get particularly upset whenever someone criticized Putin. At any given moment, she might start a conversation about politics, which would always lead to a conflict, but we’d always tried to smooth things over and maintain a functional relationship with her.

My grandma called me herself at five in the morning, Kyiv time — right when the bombs were starting. I was in tears as I assembled my go bag to take to the bomb shelter: technically we were still in a safe area, but there were already explosions in the city — I could hear what was happening in other parts of the city. I told my grandma I was searching for money and documents in case I needed to hide. The first thing she told me was that they wouldn’t shoot any civilians. Choking with sobs, I said, “Gram, they’re already shooting. They’re shooting homes, they’re shooting everywhere.”

Kyiv residents hide from shelling in a metro station. March 8, 2022
Dimitar Dilkoff / STF / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

It was like she didn’t hear me. She didn’t have any coherent arguments — she just said something like, “Well, it’s not that simple.” She said Ukraine was guilty, too, and that Russia wouldn’t allow civilian casualties. I understand that she was worried for us, of course, and that it was morally difficult for her, too, but the words “Russia isn’t the aggressor, it’s the liberator” are just not calming at all when you hear explosions in your city at five in the morning. Grandma told us to take care of ourselves, and that’s how the conversation ended — I didn’t have the energy to try to prove anything to her. Even now, I don’t see the point.

Now, she calls us from time to time and throws in phrases like “Hang in there.” For the first few days of the war, she would call me and ask, “Are you alive? Are you healthy? Okay, then, bye.”

For the first week, she would call my mom to give her opinion — which basically meant she repeated the Russian propaganda. She went into total denial of the situation. I suspect she still believes there are [Ukrainian] nationalists here bombing apartment buildings, maternity wards, playgrounds, and schools, and the Russian troops are liberating us, but she’s not brave enough to admit it to us, or something. She’s trying to have it both ways: not get into a fight with us, and not be disappointed in Russia.

Mom told her she had it wrong — she told her what she had seen herself. Grandma had nothing coherent to say, and she tried to finish the conversation she had started herself. When Mom asked her to outline her own position on the war, Grandma said, “Will it be easier for you if I tell you the majority of Russians support what’s happening in Ukraine?” After that, Mom hung up the phone.

I wasn’t part of that conversation, but I would have done the same thing. It’s too painful to tell our loved ones that we’re being killed, and then hear in response that we’re either lying or we’re confused — as if they know better than us what’s happening in our own city. It’s just ridiculous.

I have cousins in Moscow, and I immediately unfollowed them on Instagram, because they’d started to post things in support of the war. After that, one of them sent me this stupid post about how “we need to stop hating each other.” I said, “Hatred towards Russians won’t stop until Russian troops leave Ukraine.” My cousin told me that we Ukrainians had been brainwashed by propaganda, and besides, “where were you all for the past eight years, when the Donbas was being bombed?”

And then, for some reason, she told me that for Ukraine’s entire existence, “the country had treated the Donbas disgustingly.” That part was especially funny to me since our family is from Donetsk; we never experienced any discrimination from the state, and I never felt any sort of bias against Ukrainians. A few days after that conversation, my cousin finally deigned to ask whether we were alive and how we were doing. I didn’t have the energy to give a detailed answer.

I’m not currently in touch with any of these people. I don’t have any desire or strength to try to change their minds — these last few weeks have taught me that it’s a losing battle. These are people who refuse to believe their own family members who are in mortal danger — how can there be any talk of empathy, of concern for one’s relatives? It’s awfully painful and unpleasant. For them, everything that’s happened here has been a “liberating operation,” while for me and for every Ukrainian, it’s true genocide. Compromise is impossible.

‘We need to become an alternative to the TV’

Mikhail Katsurin, restaurant owner from Kyiv and founder of the “Father, Believe” project

My mom and dad got divorced when I was still very young. I stayed with my Mom, and I only met my dad three years ago. I was looking up my own performance on YouTube — I’m a recording artist — when I stumbled upon a video of my dad singing in a church choir. I still had photos of him, and I recognized his face. I wrote to him, and we made plans for me to come and visit. I stayed with him in the Nizhny Novgorod region, where he works as a security guard in a monastery. Ever since then, we’ve talked on the phone regularly; he calls me on all the religious holidays, and there are a lot of them.

When the war began, Dad didn’t call for several days. I thought it was strange, so I decided to call him myself. I knew that because he doesn’t use the Internet, he gets all of his news from TV. Plus, he lives in a village and spends a lot of time in the monastery or out in the forest — he often has trouble getting service on his phone. I decided he might just not know what was going on.

When Dad picked up the phone, I told him my wife and I were still alive and that we were searching for a safe place — I didn’t really want to hide in the basement with my eight-month-old son and be afraid to bring my daughter to kindergarten because it could get hit by a bomb. In a very calm voice, Dad told me that none of this was true, that we weren’t being bombed, that there were Nazis hiding around us, and that Russia was removing the Nazis to save the Russian-speaking population from oppression. When I reminded him that I myself am a Russian-speaker, that I grew up in Russian-speaking Berdyansk, and I’d never in my life been oppressed, he repeated that I was making it up. I told him that Mom was in Berdyansk, hiding in the bathroom from explosions, but it didn’t help.

A bomb shelter in Irpin. March 12, 2022
Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

I tried to get through to him, but Dad was adamant. Eventually, I just put down the phone. I was so disappointed in him that I didn’t want to continue. We weren’t so close, so it wasn’t too painful, but I was upset that we weren’t being believed: I was in Kyiv, Mom and Grandma were in Berdyansk, and we were seeing what was happening with our own eyes, but it turned out our words weren’t enough, our fear wasn’t enough to convince my dad that Russian soldiers weren’t giving Ukrainians food and clothing, they were bombing residential buildings — Russia wasn’t the liberator, it was the aggressor.

Overwhelmed with emotion, I wrote a post on Instagram. And I quickly learned that the problem was widespread. In just the first few hours, a whole lot of Ukrainians wrote to me about how their relatives also didn’t want to talk to them, or were trying to convince them that Russia wasn’t bombing civilians. 135 thousand people shared my post. And that’s when I decided I needed to do something.

Me and my other friends who are working on the “Papa, Believe” project determined that 11 million people in Russia have relatives in Ukraine. Out of those 11 million, less than half are on platforms like Facebook and Instagram — which, of course, have a lot of disinformation, a lot of propaganda, but at least they're given a choice, a chance to find trustworthy sources. Whereas the ones who aren’t on social media don’t have a choice — they only have TV. So we need to become an alternative to TV. We’re seeing what’s happening in Ukraine with our own eyes, and we have the chance to communicate this to our families. Imagine if we tell these 11 million people, and each of them tells three of their friends and relatives — that’s already 33 million people who know the truth. That could be enough to stop the war.

I called my dad again and told him I was shocked at what he’d said in our previous conversation. We talked for almost an hour. That conversation didn’t completely change his mind, of course — it’s impossible to solve a problem like that over two phone calls, or even five, and I don’t know how many times it will take before he’s completely on my side. But I broke the ice. I managed to convince him that Russia is firing on residential buildings: later on, I sent him pictures of my mom, his ex-wife, in the bathroom as bombs fell outside — it was impossible for him not to believe someone he knew personally. I told him nobody had ever oppressed me, not in eastern Ukraine nor western Ukraine. There are some things he’s still holding onto: he still blames America for a lot of things, for example, and he thinks it’s pouring money into the conflict to divide the Slavic nations. So I couldn’t change his mind about everything, but I know it takes time.

I realize I need to save up my patience: changing Dad's mind will be a slow process, it’ll take baby steps. I’ll need to control my emotions: a calm voice is more effective than a raised one. I tried to really listen to him, to answer his questions, no matter how crazy his words might seem. On the “Papa, Believe” website, we’ve compiled the answers to the most common questions that come up in conversations with people’s relatives from Russia — we’re hoping this will help someone get through to their family.

Since that conversation, we haven’t talked — or rather, I can’t get a hold of him. I hope it’s because he’s just gone into the woods and lost service again, as he does from time to time, and that when he returns, he’ll pick up the phone and be willing to talk to me.

Interviews by Nadezhda Svetlova

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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