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‘It was him or me’ The daughter of a conservative Russian senator on her decision to speak out against the war — and lose her father

Source: Meduza
Maxim Zmeyev for Meduza

Interview by Kristina Safonova. English-language version by Sam Breazeale.

One morning in April 2022, Diana Isakova, the 25-year-old daughter of Russian Senator Eduard Isakov, put out some anti-war flyers for others to find in Sochi. She was arrested almost immediately. Within a day, her father found out, and, according to Diana, he kicked her out of his home. Diana is now living abroad, but before leaving Russia, she spoke to Meduza about her father, her decision to oppose the war publicly, and how she plans to work towards a democratic future for Russia.

For every rank-and-file Russian politician who takes part in the chorus of lies that sustains Putin’s war in Ukraine, there are family members and close friends who have to decide whether to denounce the invasion and humiliate the politician or to remain silent. Since the war began, the vast majority have chosen the latter. A few people, though, have been unable to handle the cognitive dissonance and broken with their powerful loved ones.

In 25-year-old Diana Isakova’s case, the decision to tear away from her father, a Russian senator and ardent Putin supporter, may have been inevitable: as she tells it, there was never much of a difference between Eduard Isakov the warmonger and Eduard Isakov the dad, and she wasn't a fan of either one.

She describes her younger self as a peculiar teenager who valued critical thinking and was unusually interested in psychology and spirituality. “Dad always showed me how unacceptable that was, and that I shouldn’t be that way. He tried to re-educate me, especially in my last year of school [...] by disparaging my interests in conversations with me.”

It's clear from Isakov's public statements that he's more interested in patriotism than psychology. In 2016, for example, he proposed giving “patriotism ratings” to Russia’s various regions based on how well each region’s families and institutions instilled the value in its children. “Raising children with a sense of patriotism begins with the family, where their spiritual and moral values are formed,” he once said in an address to Russia’s federation council.

But to Diana, the statement rings hollow. Her parents divorced when she was small, and while her dad always paid alimony on time, he’s much closer with his three younger children than he ever was with her.

Maxim Zmeyev for Meduza

“Dad was so cold and inaccessible,” she told Meduza. “In order [for two people] to have a relationship, there has to be some mutual interest, but he was always more interested in his own needs.”

Like her dad, however, Diana has a strong belief in the power of the nuclear family. She just believes it serves as a negative force in modern Russia.

“If you look at the nuclear family, the unit in which people are brought up in our country, you’ll notice the same lack of democracy you can find in our country as a whole,” she said. “There’s no democracy in the family; children’s needs are ignored.”

To her, the relationship between this tendency and Russia’s political culture is simple.

“Our political system is most likely made up of people who experienced violence in childhood and developed a tolerance for it and a feeling that no other way is possible. [To them,] authority, manipulation, strength, fear, and repression are the only way,” she said.

‘A traitor to the family’

Two years before Diana finished high school, after years of having only occasional contact with her father, she moved in with him in Khanty-Mansiysk, a city in Russia’s Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, which he represents in Russia's Federation Council. At that time, his political career was just taking off.

“But this is how our family works: you have the head of the family, and everything else revolves around him,” she said. And by the time she graduated, she'd had enough. At 17, she decided to leave home and hitchhike around the world.

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“The way my parents raised me was one of the biggest drivers of my decision to leave home. Because of the aggressive rejection and belittling of the interests I showed, I felt unwanted.”

In 2019, Diana “caught word” that extrajudicial killings were being carried out against gay men in Chechnya. Thought she had never spoken out about a political issue before — she thought of herself as “apolitical” — she couldn't shake the issue from her mind. She decided to make a social media post. Soon after, like clockwork, she got a call from her dad.

“He said, ‘Do you like your dad’s job? Then delete [your post],’” Diana said. “I obeyed. But that was the beginning of my interest in political life. I started catching wind of all kinds of information about funny business in the elections, large protests, and our country’s archaic cruelty. I started immersing myself more and more in it, keeping silent all the while. I kept it all inside of me — for the sake of my father.”

Maxim Zmeyev for Meduza

If she were to truly stand up for her beliefs, Diana told Meduza, she knew her dad would kick her out and tell her to go to hell. “I realized it was either me or him,” she said. “And at that point, I chose him.”

But on February 24, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, something changed for Diana.

“I followed Ukrainians [on social media]. I didn’t even know that they were Ukrainian, because they spoke Russian fluently and looked just like us. And suddenly I logged into Instagram and saw that these girls’ stories were full of bombs and sobbing. I felt their suffering as if it were my own,” she said.

After that, Diana and her father’s interactions followed a familiar script: she made some anti-war posts on social media, he began sending her pro-Putin propaganda about how the war was a “rescue operation,” and the two soon came to a tacit agreement not to talk about it. But that wasn’t because Diana had decided to stay silent about the war — she simply realized that her father was a dead end.

So, too, were traditional picket protests. She tried to go to one in Sochi, but quickly noticed that every person who pulled out an anti-war sign was instantly arrested. So when she went to a coffee shop instead and met some other aspiring activists, they decided to come up with a less conspicuous approach.

“We decided to make flyers. I wrote a long article. The flyers had QR codes that led to the article. It had a psychological premise: Why don’t you believe in yourself, people? What’s wrong with you? Putin’s a person just like us. Let’s wake up. We’re not Nazi Germany. [...] And that was the whole plan: put the flyers up,” she said.

On the morning Diana started putting the flyers up, she was arrested. Though the FSB promised not to tell her father, word had reached him by the end of the day.

“We had a conversation, and all of my fears came true. He told me I was a traitor to our family, an enemy of the people, and a criminal,” she said.

‘We shouldn't just shoot Putin’

As a newly outspoken member of Russia’s opposition — a role she can now afford to play, having left the country — Diana has an ambitious, if perhaps not fully fleshed-out, plan for cultivating democracy in Russia. It’s characterized by her view of Russia’s political illiberalism as a consequence of authoritarianism in the family — and by the corollary that the country’s despots are products of childhood humiliation and deserve compassion.

“I consider judgment its own form of hate,” she told Meduza. “It’s the same thing Putin embodies: cruelty, arrogance, and impunity.”

Maxim Zmeyev for Meduza

It would be easy to think this is Diana's way of excusing her father for his support of Russia’s actions in Ukraine — and maybe it is. But she told Meduza that while she doesn’t know exactly what justice might look like, she does believe her dad should ultimately face accountability for his actions — as should Vladimir Putin.

"Inside of every cruel person, there’s an unhappy child who’s afraid to admit his weakness, his vulnerability, and his needs. At some point in his childhood, someone was cruel to him and it was painful," she said. "[...] Naturally, Putin should be held accountable, but that doesn’t mean we just shoot him. By seeking revenge, we’re effectively going down the same hateful path."

Overall, Diana said, the key to building a more democratic and healthy Russian society will be education — and that’s exactly what she hopes to focus on with a new initiative she calls the Power of Love Project. Part of her plan is to recruit psychologists to help people understand “what’s really happening and why” and to move beyond “the language of violence” that Putin speaks. She also plans to get help from well-known activists and public figures to help her promote content made with the same goals in mind. She said she’s not deterred by her arguable lack of experience.

“I carried out a protest [in Sochi], and I consider that very brave. In a city without an opposition, as the daughter of a politician, finding a way to organize something like that, in my view, is very brave and cool. After that, I spent several months in Moscow, where I spoke to opposition groups and analyzed what they were most concerned about. And I’m confident that my project is unusual, progressive, looks at the problem from a new angle, and offers real hope,” she said.

* * *

Eduard Isakov did not respond to Meduza's requests for comment. On August 19, soon after a longer version of Meduza’s interview with Diana was published in Russian, her father published a statement about her on Telegram.

“She’s taking a stand against the execution of the special military operation — against her own country’s policy. Evidently, she received money from certain media outlets; in other words, she sold out her father, her family, her Motherland, and left Russia. It’s difficult to find words for when your daughter turns out to be a traitor,” he wrote.

Three days later, on August 22, he released another statement. “The media is printing sensational headlines about how I ‘disowned my daughter,’ which are words I never said. My daughter and I are in a conflict, a serious disagreement,” he said.

“I’m not denying my responsibility for how my child was raised,” he continued. “It’s my daughter and my pain.” He said he suggested she go to the Donbas as a volunteer in order to “learn firsthand the reasons for the special military operation.”

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Interview by Kristina Safonova

English-language version by Sam Breazeale