Strife over Ukraine conflict pulls Russian families apart

The people who don’t believe Russian soldiers are killing people in Ukraine tend to be from the older generation

In the early days of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Olga Popova, a Moscow-based editor and analyst who opposes the war, tried to reason with her father Yevgeny, who backs it.

But the bombing by Russian forces of a Ukrainian maternity hospital in March drove their relationship to breaking point, she said.

Popova, who has a young child and is pregnant herself, was horrified by the international coverage depicting bloodied women fleeing the devastation. However, her father, a Russian-Ukrainian who lives on the Crimean peninsula, insisted that an injured woman pictured being carried from the scene, who was later reported to have died along with her newborn child, was an actor. The story had been faked by Ukrainian nationalists to denigrate Russia, he argued.

Amid such polarising views, Popova, who is also from Ukraine but has lived in Moscow for 23 years, largely gave up trying to sway him, sometimes blocking his phone number to avoid communication altogether.

“I can’t even explain why I can’t convince him of the truth” about the conflict, she said in an interview. “It’s very labour intensive. For every accusation, you need to have a denunciation with evidence.”

Two months into the war the conflict has divided family and friends on either side of the Russia-Ukraine border. Relationships have frayed even among Russians themselves as some manage to access alternative news sources to the state-backed channels that adhere to the Kremlin line, despite Moscow’s crackdown on dissent and independent media.

Divisions

Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said deep divisions about President Vladimir Putin's military campaign crossed all generations in Russian families.

“I know a case where a grandfather is against the war, but his grandson is eager to volunteer to fight for Russia ... this is not a specific story only between adults and children. It concerns all ages, genders and professional groups.”

However, polling suggests some generational differences, with support for the war lowest among the young who did not live through the Soviet era and are more adept at finding alternative news sources.

In a survey this month by the Levada Center, Russia's only independent pollster, 64 per cent of respondents over the age of 55 said they "definitely" supported Russia's military actions in Ukraine. This compared with 56 per cent of 40-54 year olds, 42 per cent of those aged 25-39 and 29 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds.

Observers have urged caution about poll numbers in Russia given the Kremlin crackdown on dissent. But Alexandra Akhipova, a Russian anthropologist, said she had first-hand experience of the family strife sparked by the war.

"There are families – including mine – where people don't believe each other," she said. "Some of them say it's all fake news that people were killed in Bucha [where hundreds of civilians were found dead after Russian troops withdrew], and so on. In many cases the people who don't believe Russian soldiers are killing people are from the older generation."

Complex

The reasons were complex, Arkhipova said: “The [older] generation prefers to believe in something, to believe the Russian government, and they try not to allow this different information to enter into their minds. The moment you allow yourself to hear about the massacre of Bucha or something like that, you start to doubt your government. To avoid this ... people prefer not to hear anything.”

The Soviet role in defeating Nazi aggressors in the second World War also played a role, especially among older people, she said: "They grew up with the idea that they once saved Europe from the Nazis. And now they cannot accept the fact that they are the aggressors."

Alexei, a 33-year-old consultant at a western company in Moscow, who opposes the war and did not want to give his full name, said that in the first days of the conflict his parents and grandmother, who live in Russia’s far north, were hesitant about Russia’s involvement. But within days their scepticism had evaporated.

“After a lot of countries introduced sanctions against Russia, after a lot of companies left Russia, they started to be much more supportive,” he said. “Sanctions were the first factor and I think the second factor was the propaganda on TV.”

Elena, a 40-year-old mother of three in Moscow and opponent of the war, who also did not want to give her full name, said she now struggled to communicate with her parents, largely because of the influence of Russian propaganda.

“They’re in a defensive position. They’re hiding in this world where they remain good people who are fighting for truth,” she added. “If they end up on my side ... they’ll understand something terrible is happening and that the future is very dark. Probably to live out your retirement years with that awareness is really hard.”

Nationalism

Popova said her father had moved further towards Russian nationalism following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the fighting between pro-Russia separatists and Kyiv’s forces in the eastern Ukraine region of Donbas over the past eight years.

He had previously lived in Kyiv but moved to Crimea in 2014 and had become convinced the rest of Ukraine was overrun by nationalist extremists, Popova said.

“It’s easier for him to think that Russia is so pure and so correct and that everyone in Ukraine is mistaken [about what’s going on] and that on Russian TV they are showing an accurate depiction,” she said.

“At some moment he decided that he was fighting for Russia against all the banderovtsy,” she added, using the pejorative term for Ukrainian nationalists. “Including me.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022

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