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Young Russians challenge parents on Ukraine

Kira Sokolova
March 8, 2022

How can young Russians change the minds of their parents, who get most of their news from state television and defend the war in Ukraine? We spoke to some who talked about heated family debates and deep divisions.

A crowd of anti-war demonstrators in Russia, night-time, carrying a sheet in front of them that reads, in Cyrillic, "Ukraine - Peace / Russia - Freedom"
Since the war began, there have been numerous demonstrations against it across RussiaImage: picture alliance/dpa/AP

Before Twitter was blocked in Russia, the site saw frequent discussions about how people might be able to persuade their parents not to believe Kremlin propaganda — and, above all, not to support the war in Ukraine.

According to a survey by the state-led opinion research institute VCIOM, 68% of Russians support the war, which within the country can only officially be referred to as a "special military operation." There are hardly any critical or independent press outlets left, and older people in particular get most of their news from state television.

A few young Russians, whose names have been changed here, spoke to DW about their disagreements with their parents over Ukraine, which go back to President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the international sanctions that followed.

'My father has begun to be critical, but my mother remains a Putin supporter'

Yelena, 29-year-old IT developer for NGOs from Moscow

This is an all-out war and I am definitely against it. On the first day, I was totally shocked and cried when I read the news. I am ashamed and sad, and I feel responsible for the fact that the sickness of our land, in the form of our president, is affecting not only us, but also people in another country. I never voted for this government, and I have taken part in protests.

I am going to protests now, as well, and I have already signed everything there was to sign against the war. I talk with people about what they can do to have some kind of an impact on the situation. My friends and I have started going to a metro station in Moscow and handing out green bands as a symbol of peace. We have had all sorts of responses. An older man came up to us with tears in his eyes and asked for a second band for his wife. And then there was an older woman who yelled all the way down the street that we were fascists and needed to be killed.

Security forces take anti-war protesters into custody in Moscow
Russian authorities have arrested hundreds of protesters taking part in anti-war ralliesImage: Sefa Karacan/picture alliance

My parents also live in Moscow. My father is 59 years old and works for a cash transportation company. My mother is 63 and retired. She used to work as a scriptwriter for children's shows. When all this started in Ukraine, we argued. My parents believed everything they saw on television. On the morning of February 26, I called my brother, who shares my opinion. I suggested to him that we all sit down together and talk. We were partly successful.

We got our father to realize that this is all terrible. Since then, he has started to think critically. Even before, he had begun to understand that not everything was as they said it was on TV. But these new realizations were a disaster for him. He had a seizure and couldn't breathe. His entire thinking about Russia and his people was completely shattered.

After my mother retired, all she did was watch TV, and it turned her into a fanatical Putin supporter. We tried to persuade her to read other sources, but she won't hear of it. As soon as you suggest to her that her ideology might be wrong, she gets angry and aggressive, like that old woman on the street who called us fascists. When it became known that Kadyrov [head of the Chechen Republic — Editor's note] was sending his troop of cold-blooded murderers to Ukraine, she was so happy she practically applauded. That hurts.

A woman in a dim kitchen watching Putin giving a speech on the TV atop her fridge, February 2022
Most Russians, especially older people, get all their information from Russian TV, which is tightly controlled by the stateImage: Anatoly Maltsev/EPA-EFE

My mother and I are no longer in contact with each other. Maybe I'll talk with her about it one day, when she's experiencing all the consequences and her rose-tinted glasses begin to crack. But our father is on our side. He was always opposed to me going to protests, just because he was worried about me. But after all our conversations, to my amazement, he told me that if I went to protests again, he would come with me.

'My mother repeats propaganda slogans, but we both find Nemtsov good'

Anton, 24-year-old designer from the Moscow region

I grew up in Morozovsk in the Rostov region, about 200 kilometers (124 miles) from the Ukrainian city of Luhansk. I've known Ukrainians since I was a child; everything was always fine between us. On the morning of February 24, when the war began, I packed my rucksack in case we were mobilized, so I could go and hide in the forest. My mother immediately asked where I was going. She said she supported the war against Ukraine, that it should have been occupied completely in 2014, and that Putin was doing everything right. I was aghast.

My mother is 52 years old and believes in all sorts of strange things, like runes, tarot cards and conspiracies. When she talks about politics, she just repeats propaganda slogans. But I had not expected her to justify the murder of people in a neighboring country. It's important for me to convince her that murder cannot be justified by anything.

Checklist: How do I spot political  propaganda?

I believe that war is unacceptable. I have served in the army, and it was clear to me then that something was wrong in our country. We weren't allowed to take photos of broken equipment, and the officers stole petrol. When I came back from the army, I started going to protest rallies. The war is a product of this system, which is why I'm trying to convince my mother that what is happening in Russia is not normal.

On the second day of the war, February 25, we talked about everything without quarreling and getting angry. I set things out in logical sequence, presented her with arguments, suggested she read Orwell. We talked the next day, quite calmly. But I don't think I can convince her. Her thinking is all muddled, but I'll still keep trying. For example, we both agreed that we find Boris Nemtsov [Russian politician and Putin critic who was killed in 2015 in Moscow — Editor's note] really good.

'If people justify this slaughter, what else will they justify?'

Alena, 26-year-old economist from St. Petersburg

My mother is 47 years old and works in the administration of a hospital. My father is 56 and works for Russian Railways. They both live in Perm, and back in 2014 they were already supporting the Russian government and parroting what was being said on TV.

In the meantime, though, their views have changed. It started after the import bans in 2014, when we couldn't buy cheese every day because we could no longer afford it and it didn't taste good any more. I was in class 11 back then, and I remember it very clearly.

Masked soldier with gun standing in front of a line of army vehicles in the Crimean town of Balaclava in March 2014.
Russia landed troops in Crimea in early 2014, seizing control and illegally annexing Ukraine's peninsulaImage: Reuters

At the same time, my father's Russian Railways salary was cut, because a lot of money was being spent on Crimea. I studied at the Faculty of Economics, and I made clear to my parents that we had suddenly started to live less well after the invasion of Crimea because that was what our money was being spent on. Was it worth it? A very good argument was always: "You worked really hard for me and my sister, and in the end, because the government, for which we didn't vote, seized part of another country, our quality of life has got much worse."

I admit that different generations can perhaps have different ways of looking at certain things, but not the things that are happening right now. I'm happy that my parents seem to share my opinion about the war; I don't know how anyone can think differently about it and still be a good person.

I always think: If people justify this slaughter, what else will they justify? You don't want parents like that. But we children can help them, for example, by providing orientation amid all this information.

This article was originally written in Russian

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