“Were you able to get ahold of your 85-year-old uncle?” I asked my aunt on our weekly family Zoom call. “Is he OK?”
“Uncle Yefim is actually 87 and yes he says he’s fine. It’s just taken me weeks to reach him because he is always outside doing his gardening,” she chuckled. “He said he has food and water. He just kept telling me, ‘Don’t worry, Anna dear. I’m just fine. Everything is fine. Don’t worry.’”
“Uncle Yefim has always said he was fine no matter what was happening,” my cousin Elaena chimed in. “If the sun is still shining and the Earth is still spinning, uncle Fimka is ‘fine.’”
“But what about the bombing?” I asked.
“My cousin took him to a small town in the country, but there is no difference,” aunt Anna sighed. “The way they are bombing the cities and the countryside is the same. You can’t get away from it. So, he came back home to Mykolaiv.”
“But he can’t stay there,” I insisted. “Isn’t there somewhere else he can go? Lviv or Poland?”
Aunt Anna shrugged helplessly, “He says the bombings are on the Kherson side of town but he is on the other side. He just wants to stay home tending to his garden and says I shouldn’t worry.”
We’ve all been hearing about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it feels far away, but it isn’t to me… Great-uncle Yefim lives only a couple of hours south of Odessa, Ukraine, the city where I was born.
If you’ve heard of Odessa recently, it’s likely that you know it as a strategically critical resupply access port for Ukraine. But to me, it was the first place I knew as home. Sprawling cobblestone streets stretched from the famous beaches to the ornate 19th-century neighborhoods and parks on one side of town in stark contrast to the rows of Soviet-era Khrushchyovky tenement blocks on the other. The imposing concrete apartments were flanked by patchy rolling fields where we played beside the occasional sunflower breaking through the gloom growing wild.
In Odessa, more so than in some of the other republics, I remember the stifling weight of the Soviet regime. I once asked my mother why she took so many risks to defect from the Soviet Union. She said, “It was to escape Soviet reality.” Empty grocery store shelves, the scarcity of everything, not being able to trust anyone, constantly being afraid of what she said and in front of whom, the closed borders and being at once both a foreigner and a prisoner in her own country. “I left because there is no hope in Soviet reality,” she said.
Safely from across the ocean, we watched Russia collapse in what the West held up as a symbol of democracy’s inevitable righteous victory over tyranny. But what rose from the ashes was not democracy. Over the past three decades, the dark clouds of Soviet reality began forming anew over Russia as its leadership sought to rebuild the empire. Russia pushed westward, asserting itself and consuming bit by bit its smaller, weaker neighbors. Russia’s explosive aggression this past month shocked us for its brutality, but not its intent.
In addition to my aunt’s beloved uncle Yefim in Mykolaiv, I wanted to share the story of Sasha, an activist family friend living in Moscow, and Vladimir, my half-brother living in Crimea. These are three individuals with ties to my family living on three opposing sides of the Ukrainian war.
Sasha had been something of an activist his entire life. Even during the Soviet days, he toured with a performance troop putting on politically charged skits. My mother often wondered how Sasha managed to never get arrested for the things he publicly said. After college, Sasha moved to Moscow, raised two children, and eventually retired.
As Russia encircled Ukraine and became more overtly autocratic, my mother asked if Sasha’s outspokenness put him in danger and if he was planning to leave the country.
“If I need to, I’ll throw everything into a sheet and run for the border,” he half joked.
Unfortunately, the political situation moved more swiftly than Sasha, and the dash for the border never materialized. By the time he was able to act, sanctions had banned Russian travelers from most of the world. Progressive Muscovites, worried that Russia would once again shut its borders, rushed to buy plane tickets to whatever country would take them. Airline seats quickly sold out.
When war broke out, I asked how Sasha was doing on the weekly family Zoom call and was told that no one was calling anyone in Moscow for fear that their phone communication may be monitored.
My cousin Elaena, looking exhausted, lamented, “Everyone disappeared from Facebook. Even my friend who posts some stupid little thing every day has gone completely quiet. I think Russia is blocking them.”
“Better to wait for those in Moscow to call us,” everyone agreed.
Two weeks ago, Sasha finally called. He said it was no longer safe to call using his local telephone provider but insisted that for now, the authorities were not monitoring Skype calls if made using VPN through Poland.
“Do people really believe the propaganda?” I asked.
“Yes, probably 80% of them do.” He responded, “I even heard some guys at the gym boasting, ‘We already bombed them here, and we bombed them there.’”
“How is this possible?”
“Eight years of state sponsored propaganda,” Sasha shrugged.
Sasha had purchased one ticket for a planned trip to Tbilisi, Georgia through Belarus months ago but now could not buy tickets for his wife and adult children. To make matters worse, his wife fully believed the Kremlin’s propaganda and was reluctant to leave. He said he couldn’t imagine life without his family and would have to return to Russia if he couldn’t get them out.
“Then what will happen to you?” I asked.
“Then who knows?!” he responded.
Fifteen hundred miles directly south of Sasha, on the eastern tip of Crimea, lives my half-brother Vladimir. Vladimir and I connected a decade ago and made tentative plans to meet. The plans fell apart and we eventually lost contact. On the rare occasion, I still browse his vk.com page (similar to Facebook) to see pictures of him and his young daughter.
I always suspected he was a Putin supporter, but we avoided talk of politics. He had really struggled in Ukraine before the Crimean annexation. After finishing a degree in biology, he worked in a lab for two years before losing his job to a weak economy and being forced to drive a taxi for a living, eventually starting his own taxi company.
Putin had promised a bridge from mainland Russia to Vladimir’s hometown of Kerch that would drive business and tourism to his economically depressed fishing town. We never spoke of it, but I imagined his life improving following the Russian occupation of Crimea.
When the war broke out, I decided to check Vladimir’s online posts to see what he thought of the war. Scrolling past pictures of recent lavish family vacations was an unsurprising pro-Putin rant followed by numerous propaganda videos. What did surprise me was how frightfully Orwellian some of the videos were.
In one video, a large crowd of young adults wave Russian flags while a man at the front of the crowd angrily rattles off Putins list of grievances about Nazis and NATO oppression concluding with the crowd chanting, “For Russia! For Russia! For Putin! For Putin!” As if the two were interchangeable.
Another video played heavy metal behind clips of Russia flexing its military might. Over images of missiles launched from land, air, and sea, Putin’s emotionless voice could be heard softly saying, “If you can’t walk away from the fight, strike the first blow.”
Despite the endless access to information, we still manage to live in separate realities. In Russia, “the special military operation” is succeeding. In Ukraine, the Russian occupation is stalled. To the west, Poland and the Baltics wring their hands knowing they are in the crosshairs of Russia’s vanity while Western Europe holds out endless optimism for diplomacy. To the southeast, China sees a win-win proposition. And from a distant shore, we look on.
Please consider contacting your representative and letting them know what you think about the actions being taken. Nothing is more powerful than the collective will of a democratic people.