Olga M. spent the first week of the Russian invasion hiding with her teenage son in a shelter in Kotsiubynske, a Kyiv suburb. As the shelling intensified in nearby Irpin, they fled, reaching Spain a week later.
“My legs are bloodshot” from standing on the trains and in lines, said Olga, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect family members, including her husband, who stayed behind.
Throughout her ordeal, she tried to talk about the war with her parents, who live in Ekaterinburg, Russia.
“Why are you so upset?” she recalled her father asking her on the first day. “We will bomb your military bases. What difference does it make to you?”
Olga said she stopped talking to him after that, but maintained relations with her mother, who avoids discussing the war that has made refugees of her daughter and grandson.
Olga’s father grew up in Ukraine but moved to Russia in the mid-1970s and married Olga’s mother, a Russian woman. Olga married a Ukrainian man and moved to Ukraine but still considers herself Russian and maintains Russian citizenship.
She said her parents have not visited her in Ukraine since 2008, insisting they would be thrown into jail for speaking the Russian language.
“I was telling it was not true. I don’t speak Ukrainian, and I still haven’t obtained Ukrainian citizenship,” Olga said.
As much as her communication with her parents pains her, Olga finds talking to her former classmates in Russia worse.
“They start with sympathy, saying they are on my side, but always follow with accusations,” she said. “They repeat the propaganda narratives, like that we have been bombing Donetsk and Luhansk for eight years, or that we bomb ourselves. They told me that the Ukrainian government handed out 10,000 guns to the citizens, and now we shoot each other.”
Only one member of her family in Russia, her brother, doesn’t need to be convinced. “He knows that it’s Putin’s fault,” she said.
Other residents of Ukraine with family in Russia tell similar stories.
Tatiana L., who evacuated with her 17-year-old daughter to western Ukraine from Hostomel, one of the hardest-hit towns near Kyiv, describes talking to her relatives in Moscow and the Ural region.
“First, I was sending them my videos explaining what was happening in Hostomel. They were not replying. I was sending videos of Borodyanka, Mariupol. On the second week of the war, they blocked me,” she said.
She recalled that they sent a message to her mother about the price of potatoes in occupied Kherson and what sounded like a pleasant life under Russian occupation. “After that, they blocked my mom,” she said.
Her Ural relatives, said Tatiana, explained to her that the bombing was the Ukrainians` fault. “They told us that we should have surrendered to avoid casualties, but we didn’t do that because we wanted to be heroes. They don’t even try to understand that we want to stay alive, live in our own homes, raise our children in peace.”
Some Ukrainian residents report getting a more sympathetic hearing from relatives in Russia.
Vladislav, a political scientist in Kyiv, said his relatives in Moscow clearly understand what is happening.
“On the first day of the war, they sent me a message saying they were ashamed,” he said. The relatives, originally from Ukraine, know the Ukrainian and English languages, follow the Ukrainian television channels and ask him questions. “They wish us victory,” he said.
Still others say their relatives in Russia are gradually changing their opinions as the war grinds on.
Olexander, currently serving in territorial defense in Kyiv, talked about his conversations with his father, who has lived in the Altai region of Russia for the last 10 years.
“When I called and told him that the war started, he told me that we deserved it because we were Nazis and bombed the Donbas; he was repeating all these television messages,” he said.
That began to change after Olexander helped his father install a VPN that allowed him to follow the Ukrainian television channels and official statements from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.
“Now he keeps silence and asks me if I have a bulletproof vest, tells me to be careful,” Olexander said.
He said he believed his father had been heavily influenced by seeing images on Ukrainian TV of dead Russian soldiers and their demolished tanks.
“Their military TV channel, Zvezda, broadcasts that the Russian army is [so] powerful, as no other,” he said. “After seeing the destroyed tanks and dead soldiers, he understood that they lied to him.”
Alex L., a pensioner who spent three weeks in heavily shelled Chernihiv before evacuating to Germany, said he believed that his cousin in Moscow also had changed her mind, but that he didn’t know for sure.
“She called me, asking what was going on,” Alex said. “I said we were bombed and shot at. ‘Who is bombing and shooting at you?’ ‘Russians.’ ‘You are making it up.’ I stepped outside and held my phone to the sounds of explosions. She still told me that it was fake.”
Alex said he stopped talking to his cousin but remained in contact with her daughter, who understood what was going on.
“Her daughter probably convinced her. She says that her mother understands now. But they are speaking so carefully. They are very, very afraid,” he said.
While Ukrainians were eager to describe their conversations with their relatives in Russia, they refused to put VOA in contact with them. They also asked to have their identities not revealed to protect their relatives.
Russian opinion polling indicates that support for the war has been growing in Russia despite the lack of military progress. The All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center reported on March 23 that 74% of Russian citizens supported the decision “to conduct a special military operation in Ukraine,” up 9 points from a February 25 poll and 3 points since March 5.
But Natalia Savelyeva, a resident fellow at the Future Russia Initiative with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis, pointed out that polling in authoritarian countries is unreliable, especially during a crisis like a war.
“In autocracies, citizens are often afraid to answer pollsters’ questions, let alone questions about politics,” she has written. That tendency has been reinforced by a new law providing long prison terms for any candid discussion of Russia’s so-called “special military operation.”
Savelyeva points to an independent study conducted in Moscow by jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s organization, which “demonstrated that during the week from February 25 to March 3, the number of people who blamed Russia for the conflict and believed that Russia is an aggressor increased.”
Whatever the true numbers, it is evident from the experiences of Ukrainians with relatives in Russia that many Russians have accepted the narrative of the war provided by state-controlled media, even when it runs counter to what they are told by close family members.
“A person rejects information that contradicts their vision of the world, which is unpleasant. Even if this information comes from verified sources — from relatives, from friends in Ukraine,” said Maria Snegovaya, a political scientist and researcher at Virginia Tech, a research university in Blacksburg, Virginia.
She said people often choose to disbelieve the words of relatives because otherwise they would feel they must do something. “This motive is important for understanding why even liberals in Russia refuse to acknowledge their responsibility for what is happening,” she said.
Peter Pomerantsev, a senior researcher at Johns Hopkins University and an author of two books on propaganda, agreed, saying many Russians are experiencing cognitive dissonance — believing in mutually exclusive things and trying to push away doubts that make them uncomfortable.
Even so, he said, Russians understand that their government lies to them and can be convinced if their Ukrainian relatives persist with a sensitive approach. “Everybody in Russia has doubts,” he said. “Everyone, even the most fascist ones. None of them trust their government.”
In an interview with The New Yorker magazine, Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, who left Russia in 2020, pointed out some cracks in the Russian propaganda message were already beginning to appear.
“There are some cracks, but it’s not about more sympathy toward Ukrainians. It’s more killed soldiers, because the casualties are really big in the Russian military,” Soldatov said.
“I know from my relatives in the Volga region, quite far from Moscow, that now in small towns, they have people who have had their kids killed in Ukraine,” he said. “So, society started talking about it because there are so many deaths. But unfortunately, I don’t see any sympathy for Ukraine, which is a very hard thing to say.”