Ukrainians find that relatives in Russia do not believe it is a war
"I am not angry at my father — I am angry at the Kremlin. I’m angry about the Russian propaganda."
LVIV, Ukraine — Four days after Russia began dropping artillery shells on Kyiv, Misha Katsiurin, a Ukrainian restaurateur, was wondering why his father, a church custodian living in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, had not called to check on him.
“There is a war, I’m his son, and he just doesn’t call,” Katsiurin, who is 33, said in an interview. So, Katsiurin picked up the phone and let his father know that Ukraine was under attack by Russia.
“I’m trying to evacuate my children and my wife — everything is extremely scary,” Katsiurin told him.
He did not get the response he expected. His father, Andrei, did not believe him.
“No, no, no, no stop,” Katsiurin said of his father’s initial response.
“He started to tell me how the things in my country are going,” said Katsiurin, who converted his restaurants into volunteer centers and is temporarily staying near the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil. “He started to yell at me and told me, ‘Look, everything is going like this. They are Nazis.’ ”
As Ukrainians deal with the devastation of the Russian attacks in their homeland, many are also encountering a confounding and almost surreal backlash from family members in Russia, who refuse to believe that Russian soldiers could bomb innocent people or even that a war is taking place at all.
These relatives have essentially bought into the official Kremlin position: that President Vladimir Putin’s army is conducting a limited “special military operation” with the honorable mission of “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. Putin has referred to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a native Russian speaker with a Jewish background, as a “drug-addled Nazi” in his attempts to justify the invasion.
Those narratives are emerging amid a wave of disinformation emanating from the Russian state as the Kremlin moves to clamp down on independent news reporting while shaping the messages most Russians are receiving.
An estimated 11 million people in Russia have Ukrainian relatives. Many Ukrainian citizens are ethnic Russians, and those living in the southern and eastern parts of the country largely speak Russian as their native language.
Russian television channels do not show the bombardment of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and its suburbs, or the devastating attacks on Kharkiv, Mariupol, Chernihiv and other Ukrainian cities. They also do not show the peaceful resistance evident in places like Kherson, a major city in the south that Russian troops captured several days ago, and certainly not the protests against the war that have cropped up across Russia.
Instead they focus on the Russian military’s successes, without discussing the casualties among Russian soldiers. Many state television correspondents are embedded in eastern Ukraine and not in the cities being pummeled by missiles and mortars. Recent news reports made no mention of the 40-mile-long Russian convoy on a roadway north of Kyiv.
On Friday, Russia also banned Facebook and Twitter to try to stem uncontrolled information.
All this, Katsiurin said, explains why his father told him: “There are Russian soldiers there helping people. They give them warm clothes and food.”
Katsiurin is not alone in his frustration. When Valentyna V. Kremyr wrote to her brother and sister in Russia to tell them that her son had spent days in a bomb shelter in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha because of the intensive fighting there, she was also met with disbelief.
“They believe that everything is calm in Kyiv, that no one is shelling Kyiv,” Kremyr said in a phone interview. She said her siblings think the Russians are striking military infrastructure “with precision, and that’s it.”
She said her sister Lyubov, who lives in Perm, wished her a happy birthday Feb. 25, the second day of the invasion. When Kremyr wrote back about the situation on the ground, her sister’s answer via direct message was simple: “No one is bombing Kyiv, and you should actually be afraid of the Nazis, whom your father fought against. Your children will be alive and healthy. We love the Ukrainian people, but you need to think hard about who you elected as president.”
Kremyr said she sent photos from trusted media sites of mangled tanks and a destroyed building in Bucha to her brother, in Krasnoyarsk, but was met with a jarring response. “He said that this site is fake news,” she said, and that essentially the Ukrainian army was doing the damage being blamed on Russians.
“It is impossible to convince them of what they have done,” Kremyr said, referring to Russian forces.
Anastasia Belomytseva and her husband, Vladimir, have been encountering the same problem. They are residents of Kharkiv, in Ukraine’s north near the Russian border, which has been hit hard by Russian bombs. But they said in an interview that it was easier to explain the invasion to their 7-year-old daughter than to some of their relatives.
“They totally don’t understand what is happening here; they don’t understand that they just attacked us for no reason,” Belomytseva said. Her grandmother and Belomytsev’s father are in Russia.
Asked whether they believe that an attack is happening, Belomytseva responded “NO!”
Parts of Kharkiv have been reduced to rubble, and its city hall is a burnt-out shell. Belomytseva said she was sending videos of the bombings to her relatives on Instagram, but they just responded with the Kremlin’s oft-repeated claims that the invasion is just a “special military operation” and that no civilians would be targeted.
In reality, more than 350 civilians had died as of Saturday night, according to the United Nations. The real toll is probably much higher.
For Svetlana, a 60-year-old woman living in Cherkasy, the hardest thing to accept is the advice she has received from her sister, who lives in Belarus, and her cousins in Tomsk, Russia: that she and other Ukrainians should not concern themselves with what is going on.
“It’s not that they don’t believe it is happening, but they think that the high-level politicians should figure it out,” said Svetlana, who was uncomfortable providing her last name.
“I tell them that we are people too, and this has affected us,” she said. “I asked them not to hide their heads in the sand, I asked the mothers to think about not sending their sons to the army. The response was amazing to me. That is, that politicians are to blame for everything.”
She displayed a WhatsApp exchange with her cousin showing that her cousin had also been swayed by a narrative being pushed by Russian state TV: that the West fomented this war, was thrilled to see two “brotherly nations” fighting each other and was expecting to reap a significant profit from it.
Her cousin sent a string of messages asserting that Western defense companies were raising their profits and that alternate sources of energy were being procured for the West.
It was not the response she had hoped for — no recognition of the gravity of the situation for Ukrainians or sympathy for the loss of human life.
“Every day I send them the necessary information, but the response is that ‘This is some kind of fake information, that this cannot be the case at all, that no one can or will shoot at civilians,’ ” she said.
Belomytseva said that while her husband was still trying to communicate with his family in Russia, she had cut off most of her relatives there eight years ago, after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine.
But Katsiurin said he could not push his closest family members out of his life.
“They are our relatives, they’re the closest people we have, and this is not about them,” he said. “I am not angry at my father — I am angry at the Kremlin. I’m angry about the Russian propaganda. I’m not angry at these people. I understand that I cannot blame them in this situation.”
He said he thought about cutting off his father but decided that was the wrong response. “The easiest thing to do would be to say, ‘OK, now I don’t have a father,’ ” he said. “But I believe that I need to do this because it is my father.”
He said that if everyone worked to explain the truth to their families, the narrative could change. After a post on Instagram complaining about his father’s disbelief went viral, he launched a website, papapover.com, which means “Papa, believe,” with instructions for Ukrainians about how to speak to their family members about the war.
“There are 11 million Russians who have relatives in Ukraine,” he said. “With 11 million people, everything can happen — from revolution to at least some resistance.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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