Family ties break under the pressure of Russian propaganda

The millions of families separated by the Russia-Ukraine border now find themselves on opposite sides of a war. The Russian website Meduza (based in Riga) spoke with Ukrainians who can't convince their Russian relatives of even the most basic facts about the war in Ukraine. This is the story of Maria Chumak, who broke with her relatives. She fled Kharkiv for Russian bombs, but her family refused to believe her. A chilling account about the force of propaganda.

oekraine propganda staatstvNewsprogram of Russian state television interrrupted by anti-war action by Marina Ovsyannikova (screenshot)

by Maria Chumak

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.

Russia the Saviour

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.

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.”

Red flag

[Russia’s] recognition of the LDNR [the Donetsk and Luhansk 'people's republics' in eastern Ukraine, on 21 February 2022] 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.

oekraine charkiv gumenyukDestruction in Kharkiv (picture Natalya Gumenyuk)

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.'

For my family it’s 'my word versus the television’s word', and the television is winning. That’s wild to me.

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 devastated

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.

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.

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'.

oekraine charkiv mensen in metroInhabitants of Kharkiv living in subway trains (picture twitter)

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.

This article was published by Meduza. Read also the story of the Ukrainian restaurant owner Mikhail Katsurin who set up the 'Father, believe' project, with advice how to convince relatives in Russia that they are being lied to.