A border on a map is all that separates eastern Ukraine from Russia. Across that boundary exist similar cultures, and citizens who have referred to each other as close kin. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has destroyed all of that in a month, by invading Ukraine. He has set the two nations against each other for Russia’s political gain and territorial expansion. The attack has resulted, so far (though these numbers are constantly changing), in over three million refugees fleeing Ukraine to Poland and other countries, more than 900 civilian deaths, $100 billion and climbing in damages, and an alleged assassination attempt on Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The invasion is the largest war on the ground in Europe since World War II.
As the world watches, all those with family members in Ukraine try every day to communicate with their loved ones, who are caught in the crossfire of bombs and tanks. At the same time, people who grew up in the era of the Soviet Union are reminded of what it was like to live in a time when total government control and propaganda were all they knew.
“Elya” grew up in Crimea, in the 1980s, not long before the breakup of the Soviet Union. At the time, Crimea was still considered a part of Ukraine, until Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014. She asked that the Voice withhold her real name, as she is afraid she could be traced back to her family in Russia, who Putin could harm if they were found to have contributed to spreading opposition to the war. Now in her 30s, Elya lives on the Upper West Side. She spoke to the Voice about her upbringing in the Soviet Union.
Elya’s father, Sergey, is a classically trained painter from Siberia who grew up in the Soviet Union in the decades following World War II. At the time, the damages wreaked by Joseph Stalin, then the leader of the Soviet Union, were still felt daily. Sergey said that both of his grandfathers were murdered by Stalin, and he believes others in his family were as well.
Despite growing up at a time in Siberia when there wasn’t enough food and people were living in extreme poverty, Sergey remained optimistic. His artwork was not dark, reflecting a childhood in an impoverished country, but colorful and full of life. Sergey remained hopeful that he would be able to travel outside the Soviet Union and see the world one day. His family moved to Kyrgyzstan when he was 10, where, he said, life was easier and there was more food. Sergey met his wife, Alfya, in art school in Kyrgyzstan; the couple married in 1980 and moved to Crimea, where Alfya had lived since she was 4. Elya and her older sister, Margarita, were born in the 1980s and grew up in Crimea.
The family remembers that, before the end of the Soviet Union, they lived in a sort of ignorant bliss. They had a good family life, and they stayed out of politics. However, when Ukraine declared independence in August of 1991 and the Soviet Union fell four months later, life in Ukraine became harder. “I remember life revolved around the government,” recalled Elya. “My childhood was very happy. But, looking back as an adult, you know there’s certain things that weren’t right, that the government shouldn’t have been doing.” For Elya, this included stores carrying only one brand of shampoo throughout the entire country, from one state-sanctioned supplier, in limited quantities. Or parents having to trade with other parents pairs of children’s shoes, because many sizes weren’t carried, in the hopes of finding a pair that fit their growing children’s feet.
“If you run your people down, and all they think about is survival day to day, they’re not gonna have time to organize themselves and overthrow the government,” Elya observed.
A deep recession in the early post-Soviet era led to economic and infrastructure problems. Sometimes the family would be out of water for hours, and the electricity would cut out. Margarita recalled that around this time, crime was high in Ukraine, as the new state was being established. However, back in 1989 the family had finally been able to travel outside of the Soviet Union, and Sergey and Alfya had visited her family in Connecticut. “I saw the country. I saw people, and I felt like I could live here,” said Sergey. When they returned to Ukraine, Sergey had decided he had to move his family to America. In 1995, the family packed up and moved to Connecticut, with the goal of finding “the American Dream” and living a truly free life. “You don’t know it’s weird until you’re out of there,” said Elya. “When we came to the United States, it was a shocking experience in a great way as well, because it felt like you’re liberated.”
Just two weeks after their move, even though neither Margarita nor Elya spoke English, they were enrolled in school (and in an English as a Second Language program). Sergey continued his career in art and has since worked as a painter and muralist throughout New York City and Connecticut. Alfya now owns a spa, and both Margarita and Elya attended Parsons School of Design. Elya remained in the city and works as an art director; Margarita moved back to Connecticut, where she is an interior designer. The family has been in America for 27 years, nearly as long as Ukraine has been an independent country. They still have ties to loved ones in Ukraine and Russia. The war has caused them to fear for their family and friends back home—Sergey and Alfya try to speak to family in Ukraine as often as they can, keeping in touch while towns are bombed and thousands seek refuge in Poland every day.
Alfya’s nephew moved with his family to Lviv, a major city close to Ukraine’s western border with Poland, which they hoped would be safer—along with more than 200,000 internally displaced people, according to Lviv’s mayor. However, on March 18, Russian missiles struck an aircraft repair facility near an airport in Lviv, the first strike on the city since the invasion began. Alfya’s nephew and his son are within the 18-to-60-year-old age range of men who must stay in Ukraine in case they are needed for the military. The rest of his family is staying behind with him; his wife doesn’t want to leave him alone.
“It’s heartbreaking, because my parents moved us to the United States with this idea of “American Dream” freedom, to give your children a better life,” said Elya. “To see my family that I love deeply suffer for these basic things, freedom, the thing that’s being taken away from my family in Crimea, my family in Ukraine, and my family in Russia. It’s unbelievable to watch.”
While the world rallies in support of Ukraine, the treatment of people from Russia has been different. On February 22, President Biden began to impose sanctions on Russia to freeze support to Putin and his regime; as a result, many companies have stopped doing business in Russia. In New York, some people have refused to support Russian businesses, boycotting restaurants and any company having to do with Russia. This tactic has gotten so extreme that Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine has spoken up: “We need to take on Putin and his inner circle while continuing to embrace our many Russian-speaking neighbors. Unacceptable that these businesses are suffering,” wrote Levine on Twitter.
The website of the iconic Russian Tea Room, in Midtown, has a message on its home-page that reads, in part, “The Russian Tea Room renounces Russia’s unprovoked acts of war in the strongest possible terms. Just as the original founders, Soviet defectors who were displaced by the revolution, stood against Stalin’s Soviet Union, we stand against Putin and with the people of Ukraine.”
While Russian Americans can use their voices to speak out against the war, any act of opposition in Russia could result in a 15-year prison sentence. For Elya’s cousin in Moscow, there is fear and uncertainty about what Putin will do next, and if he will inflict harm on his own citizens. Her cousin, who will be referred to as “Dmitri,” has requested that his real name be withheld for his safety; he spoke to the Voice through a secure app. He claimed that most Russians were not prepared for the war until it happened, not really believing it would go that far, and that when reality set in, people ran to the banks, hoping to change their money for dollars in case of an economic collapse. They stocked up on products before things became more expensive (Dmitri said many things cost three to four times more now than before) or unavailable. As businesses like McDonald’s and Netflix pull out of Russia, Dmitri, who owns a business that helps restaurants open, feels sure that the hospitality industry will suffer, with businesses closing up.
“We are feeling this emotional depression and stress. You can feel it walking along the streets,” Dmitri told the Voice, explaining that in Russia, there is a fear that the country will revert to a Soviet Union–style regime, or something similar to North Korea. A large percentage of people he knows are opposed to the war, he told us, but many are too afraid to protest. In Moscow, for instance, where Dmitri said the majority does not support the war, police patrol the city, looking for protesters to arrest. Dmitri is also afraid that the war in Ukraine will result in a civil war in Russia, and the deaths of Russian citizens. Many of those who oppose the war are frantically trying to escape Putin’s grasp. Some are fleeing Russia without any plan of where to go or with any ties to other countries.
“In my opinion, many people are just fleeing without a plan or any financial backup,” Dmitri explained. “That’s not a great solution, they didn’t think things through. Just to flee without family or friends in another country. What would they do there? They are not really wanted there. I just don’t think it’s the right decision.”
Dmitri spoke about how his fears center on “the unknown”—the uncertainty of what Putin will do. He believes that Putin is mentally unstable, having isolated himself for years, cut off ties with other countries, and surrounded himself with a circle that tells him only what he wants to hear. “He was confident that the Russian army would reach Kyiv and occupy it within 90 hours. Convinced that Ukrainians will welcome them and greet them with flowers,” said Dmitri. “He thinks the same thing about our country. He thinks everyone agrees with him and supports him. That everyone is happy. Instead, he and the people around him hold absolute power.” However, Dmitri added, “I think even his circle can’t understand or predict his actions.”
He then said, “And that’s how we’ve been living. Propaganda is working well.”
Now, Dmitri has made the decision to try to leave Russia. “I cannot be on the same territory as the people who are supporting this war. I have nothing in common with them. These are not my people. A true Russian is against this. If things change, I will gladly return and live in Russia.” Dmitri is also worried about what future generations of Russians will have to go through because of this war. “I’m afraid in our country, if you know its history, changes only happened when there was blood and war. I’m afraid that my generation, and generations to follow, will spend their lives convincing the world that Russians are not fascists.”
If Putin does turn his wrath on Russian citizens, Dmitri is certain that no one will come to help them. “Just like no one is coming to help Ukraine,” he said. “Ukraine is fighting on its own, no one is sending troops. No one is going to interfere because they are afraid of World War III.”
While Dmitri and his inner circle are not in support of the war, it’s unclear exactly how many people in Russia do agree with it. In some parts of the country, Dmitri said, a rural or older population does not have access to the Internet or know how to get around the government’s Internet block, and many watch the government-controlled TV channels daily and don’t question what they hear there. A few days ago, Sergey put up an Instagram post supporting Ukraine. A friend who is opening a museum in Russia commented in support of Russia’s invasion.
The spread of disinformation is so ingrained in human history that it can be traced back to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which a prisoner who broke free tries to explain to his fellow prisoners, who have spent their lives in the cave, that they are being lied to about what reality is. The other prisoners tell him they don’t believe him, and remain in the cave.
Similarly, Margarita spoke about how Russian propaganda is so embedded in the lives of Russian citizens that some people are “brainwashed,” advocating for the war or turning a blind eye, supporting Putin every step of the way. “It’s so incomputable to me that now Russians and Ukrainians, which are so close, literally brother nations, that someone would do something like this,” she said. “It’s really very difficult for me to wrap my head around it. There are so many intermarriages, people don’t look at Russia and Ukraine as different nationalities. It’s almost part of the same culture, the same people.” ❖