Ukrainians discover that their relatives in Russia do not believe in war

LVIV, Ukraine – Four days after Russia began firing artillery shells at Kiev, Misha Katsiurin, a Ukrainian restaurateur, wondered why his father, a church keeper living in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, was not hadn’t called to check on him.

“There is a war, I am his son, and he just doesn’t call,” the 33-year-old Mr Katsiurin said in an interview. So Mr. Katsiurin picked up the phone and let his father know that Ukraine was under attack.

“I am trying to evacuate my children and my wife, that everything is extremely scary,” Mr Katsiurin told him.

He didn’t get the answer he expected. His father, Andrei, did not believe him.

“No, no, no, no stopping,” Mr Katsiurin said of his father’s initial response.

“He started telling me how things in my countries are going,” said Mr. Katsiurin, who has converted his restaurants into volunteer centers and is staying temporarily near the town of Ternopil in western Ukraine. “He started yelling at me and said, ‘Look, it’s all like this. They’re Nazis.’ As Ukrainians face the devastation of Russian attacks in their homeland, many are also facing a disconcerting and almost surreal reaction from family members in Russia, who refuse to believe that Russian soldiers could bomb innocent people, or even that a war is going on.

These relatives essentially adhered to the official position of the Kremlin: that the army of President Vladimir V. Putin conducts a limited “special military operation” with the honorable mission of “denazifying” Ukraine. Mr Putin called Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, a native Russian speaker of Jewish descent, a “drug-addicted Nazi” in his attempts to justify the invasion.

These narratives are emerging amid a wave of disinformation emanating from the Russian state as the Kremlin works to clamp down on independent reporting while shaping the messages most Russians receive.

It is estimated that 11 million people in Russia have Ukrainian parents. Many Ukrainian citizens are ethnic Russians, and those living in the south and east of the country largely speak Russian as their first language.

Russian television channels do not show the bombardment of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, and its suburbs, nor the devastating attacks on Kharkiv, Mariupol, Chernihiv and other Ukrainian cities. Nor do they show the peaceful resistance evident in places like Kherson, a major southern city that Russian troops captured days ago, and certainly not the anti-war protests that have sprung up across Russia.

Instead, they focus on the successes of the Russian military, not discussing the losses among Russian soldiers. Many state television correspondents are embedded in eastern Ukraine, not in towns bombarded with missiles and mortars. Recent reports made no mention of the 40-mile-long Russian convoy on a route north of Kiev.

On Friday, Russia also banned Facebook and Twitter in an attempt to stem unchecked information.

All of this, Mr. Katsiurin said, explains why his father told him, “There are Russian soldiers there helping people. They give them warm clothes and food.

Mr Katsiurin is not the only one frustrated. 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 Kiev suburb of Bucha due to heavy fighting, she was also greeted with incredulity.

“They believe that everything is calm in Kyiv, that nobody is bombing Kyiv,” Ms. Kremyr said in a telephone interview. She said her siblings thought the Russians were hitting military infrastructure “precisely, and that’s it”.

She said her sister Lyubov, who lives in Perm, wished her a happy birthday on February 25, the second day of the invasion. When Ms. Kremyr responded about the situation on the ground, her sister’s response via direct message was simple: “No one is bombing Kyiv, and you should actually be afraid of the Nazis, who your father fought against. Your children will be alive and well. We love the Ukrainian people, but you have to think carefully about who you elected president. »

Ms Kremyr said she sent photos from trusted media sites of mutilated tanks and a destroyed building in Bucha to her brother in Krasnoyarsk, but received a shocking response. “He said this site was fake news,” she said, and that the Ukrainian military was basically doing the damage blamed on the Russians.

“It is impossible to convince them of what they have done,” Ms Kremyr said, referring to Russian forces.

Anastasia Belomytseva and her husband, Vladimir, encountered the same problem. They are residents of Kharkiv, in northern Ukraine near the Russian border, which was badly hit 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 absolutely don’t understand what’s going on here, they don’t understand that they just attacked us for no reason,” Ms Belomytseva said. Her grandmother and Mr. Belomytseva’s father are in Russia.

When asked if they thought an attack was in progress, Ms Belomytseva replied “NO!”

Parts of Kharkiv have been reduced to rubble and its city hall is a burnt shell. Ms Belomytseva said she sends videos of the bombings to her relatives on Instagram, but they only respond to the Kremlin’s repeated claims that the invasion is just a “special military operation” and that no civilians would be targeted.

In fact, more than 350 civilians had died on Saturday evening, according to the United Nations. The actual toll is likely much higher.

For Svetlana, a 60-year-old woman living in Cherkasy, the hardest thing to accept is the advice she received from her sister, who lives in Belarus, and her cousins ​​in Tomsk, Russia: that she and other Ukrainians themselves should not worry about what is happening.

“It’s not that they don’t believe this is happening, but they think high-level politicians should understand it,” said Svetlana, who was uncomfortable providing her last name. .

“I tell them we’re people too, and that 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 has been amazing to me. That is, politicians are to blame for everything.

She posted a WhatsApp exchange with her cousin showing that her cousin had also been influenced by a narrative pushed by Russian state television: that the West had fomented this war, was delighted to see two “brotherly nations” fighting and expected to reap a significant benefit from it.

His cousin sent a series of messages claiming that Western defense companies were increasing their profits and alternative energy sources were being purchased for the West.

It was not the response she had hoped for – no acknowledgment of the gravity of the situation for Ukrainians or sympathy for the loss of life.

“Every day I send them the necessary information, but the answer is that ‘it’s a kind of false information that it can’t be the case at all, that nobody can or wants to shoot civilians'”, she said.

Ms Belomytseva, from Kharkiv, said while her husband was still trying to communicate with his family in Russia, she cut off most of his relatives there eight years ago after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine.

But Mr Katsiurin said he could not drive his closest family members out of his life.

“They’re our parents, they’re the closest people we have, and it’s not about them,” he said. “I’m not mad at my father, I’m mad at the Kremlin. I am angry with Russian propaganda. I’m not mad at these people. I understand that I cannot blame them in this situation.

He said he thought about interrupting his father, but decided that was the wrong answer. “The easiest thing to do would be to say, ‘OK, now I don’t have a father,'” he said. “But I believe I have to because This is my father.

He said that if everyone tried hard to explain the truth to his family, the narrative could change. After an Instagram post complaining about his father’s disbelief went viral, he started a website, papapover.comwhich means “Dad, believe”, with instructions for Ukrainians on how to tell their family members about the war.

“There are 11 million Russians who have relatives in Ukraine,” he said. “With 11 million people, anything can happen – from revolution to at least some resistance.”

Nataliia Yermak contributed reporting.

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