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Family feuds

Don’t mention the war: Families divided by Putin’s invasion

We spoke with three Russian Berliners whose families are bitterly divided over the war in Ukraine.

Illustrations: Agata Sasiuk

A divided home

“I beg you, not a word about the war to my husband. It just won’t do any good,” says Inna to Veronica, a relative who just arrived from Ukraine, upon entering the small Lichtenberg flat. Veronica is a distant cousin from Odesa, who has recently arrived after the long and exhausting journey that took her – and her eight-year-old son Ilya – from the Black Sea to Berlin. Inna’s flat is too small, but she found a friend to accommodate the young mum and boy. Now on their second day in Berlin, they’ve come for tea. Inna, originally from Donetsk, lives here with husband Igor, a 56-year-old Siberian who has been a staunch supporter of Putin throughout the two decades he has lived in Germany. The two of them got together 14 years ago, and have been a more or less harmonious couple – until recently.

The trouble started in 2014, with the war in Inna’s native Donbas. “I was devastated to see my homeland torn to pieces,” she says. “I was worried sick about my mum and my friends who still lived there. But we didn’t speak too much about it – he somehow assumed that, me being a Donetsk girl, we were on the same side.”

You should be glad, Russia’s coming to free your country from the Nazis and zombies who took it over.

Last year, Inna lost her mother. Barely one and a half years after fleeing the war to live with relatives in Kremenchuk, the 70-year-old died of a heart attack. Inna’s bright blue eyes turn red as she explains: “My mother was inconsolable, she couldn’t deal with being away from home. The destruction of her homeland, the forced exile – it was too much for her.” Since then, Ukraine has become a taboo subject in Inna’s home. “I just avoided the topic,” she says. Igor, meanwhile, carried on watching Russian state-controlled television. “You know the likes of (Dmitry) Kiselev and (Vladimir) Soloviev…,” she says referring to Russia’s star talkshow hosts known for their rants against the West and Ukraine’s “Nazis”. “He won’t listen to anything else.” So on February 24, when Putin launched his “special operation” and Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Igor cheered; Inna cried. “‘You should be glad,’ he told me. ‘Russia’s coming to free your country from the Nazis and zombies who took it over’,” Inna recalls.

The fact that his wife’s friends and relatives from Ukraine feel and know otherwise doesn’t trouble Igor. These are all Russian-speaking Ukrainians who never thought they would have to flee or fight the Russians – that is, until Putin’s missiles started flying over their heads, destroying not only military targets but also residential homes, schools, theatres and hospitals. Veronica and her husband decided to leave as the Russian troops drew closer to Odesa: they had hoped to stay in Lviv, all together, with Ilya and his 16-year-old brother. But after three nights sleeping on the floor of a school, among crowds of refugees, Veronica reluctantly agreed to bring Ilya to safety when the opportunity arose. With two sets of clothes each in two backpacks, they hopped on a mini-truck to the Polish border and on to Berlin, where they knew they could rely on Inna’s help. Their family is split for the first time. Veronica is at a loss. Everything here is intimidating and foreign. Ilya won’t talk or eat. He wants his dad. He wants home.

Now, at Inna’s place, while the grown-ups try their best to ignore the elephant in the room, Ilya is drawing. He likes to draw maps of countries, cities, tram and metro routes. In the two days he stayed in Lviv, he mapped out the city’s entire bus network. Now he’s working on a map of Europe, from France all the way to Ukraine.

“It’s a nice drawing, but what about Russia?” challenges Igor. Silence. “Russia’s a big country,’’ the boy finally answers, shy but determined. “But I won’t draw it.”

Igor won’t say a word until he and Inna are alone again – but then his rage erupts: “See? That’s how those Banderites brainwash children! It was about time Putin brought Ukraine back on the right track. Those kids need a proper education – in the right language!” Ilya is perfectly bilingual. But for Igor – and for his family of Russlanddeutsche who’ve lived in Germany for 20 years, the decision to make Ukrainian the official teaching language is nothing short of an attempt at “cultural genocide”, perpetrated by the followers of the late ultranationalist Stefan Bandera. They are convinced fascists are now ruling Ukraine, and are all behind Putin and the war. “I told him: I don’t want to hear anything,” says Inna. “Not in my home. Not from your family.”

Every day, Igor watches his Russian programmes; Inna monitors her Ukrainian channels – mostly Telegram reports and texts from friends and her cousin Natasja who’s remained in Kyiv with her mum. “I call her everyday to know she’s okay.” The status quo in the small flat is fragile. Inna was woken up by Igor singing the Ukrainian anthem. “He thought it was funny,’’ says Inna, and she bursts into tears.

Unorthodox views

Illustrations: Agata Sasiuk

It’s a cold Sunday afternoon, and Yulia Nezhnaya is standing with her daughter Anna outside the Resurrection Cathedral, Berlin’s official Russian Orthodox church. Yulia is extremely upset. It’s March 6, a whole 11 days since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine – but Bishop Tikhon (Zaitsev) didn’t mention a word about the war. “Not a single word!” she whispers indignantly to Anna. “The service was rushed. Why did they only sing one psalm?” Yulia cannot believe that the Russian orthodox bishop could just ignore what’s on every Russian’s mind, in everyone’s hearts. As she greets acquaintances outside the church, one woman notices the yellow-and-blue ribbon pinned on Yulia’s winter jacket and asks, obviously chagrined: “Yulia Maksimova, what is this for?” Yulia could choke with indignation. Her mind is made up: She won’t be coming back. “There are many orthodox churches in Berlin.”

For 60-year-old Yulia, a retired journalist and editor from Moscow, Berlin is still rather foreign. She’s been a (part-time) Berliner for less than two years now, living in a small flat on the border between Treptow and Neukölln; she is still finding her feet in the German capital. The mentality of her compatriots, however, is nothing new to her. She talks about the Russians’ fatalism, their guilty resignation when faced with adversity, and their wilful ignorance. “It’s typical,” she says. “Better not to think about vexing topics. Like an unwanted war – too hard, too taxing. And ‘What can we do anyway?,’ that’s the thinking.”

She’s convinced that Russians are hated in Germany, that Nazism is rife here, that Russians get beaten up in the streets…

Russians are experts at surviving, she explains, having endured decades of hardship under the Soviets. And then there’s the deep-rooted fear: “What would Tikhon, here in Berlin, risk by mentioning this horrible war – just by saying a small prayer for all victims? Nothing! If anything, he should fear God’s judgement, not the Kremlin’s.”

Yulia feels reminded of the days she read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in samizdat during Soviet times. “Many of my friends were horrified back then. They thought it was dangerous – they had that fear in them, and they still do.” Does Yulia not have the fear? “No,” she says. “But we are a minority.” Her husband is the prolific author and journalist Aleksandr Nezhny, who, besides writing essays and fiction, has been publishing vitriolic rants against the war and Putin. The latter prompted police officers to show up at their Moscow door, apparently unaware that the couple were instead at their Berlin flat. “It’s happened three times since the war started. They wake up neighbours and ask where he is…” A blogger they know received a similar visit. He was taken to a station and questioned for a full night and day by FSB officers. Eventually they forced him to sign a confession, after threatening his family. He’s since fled to Israel. For Aleksandr, going back to Moscow isn’t an option right now.

Yulia is no longer able to withdraw the small pension money she gets from Russia – her bank has been kicked out of the Swift transaction system, and her credit card blocked. She remains stoic: “It wasn’t much anyway”. More difficult has been the disconnection from certain people back home. “Cutting ties hurts,” she says. “I’ve been narrowing my circle. It’s impossible to change their minds, anyway.” Some friends, once refined critical minds, have suddenly become loud Russian patriots. “If you show them photos or videos of what’s happening there – the destruction, the many victims on both sides – they just dismiss them as ‘fakes’. And they immediately start shouting.” A few have changed beyond recognition, like her Moscow friend Svetlana. “She’s convinced that Russians are hated in Germany, that Nazism is rife here, that Russians get beaten up in the streets,” Yulia explains. “She sent me a Russian website about Olaf Scholz, where it’s explained that his grandfather was a Nazi. She calls [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy a junkie, and is convinced that Putin is doing the right thing in Ukraine.”

When we meet two weeks later, Yulia has found a new spiritual home at the small Orthodox Church of the Intercession of the Holy Mother on Richard-Wagner-Platz. “Ukrainian refugees live there. They have been given shelter, food and comfort,” she says. But not even this church is beyond the reach of hatred and violence. “Yesterday some scoundrels threw three Molotov cocktails through their windows. All the people are alive, thank God, and there was no fire, only three windows broken.”

Farewell to mama

Illustrations: Agata Sasiuk

“My mum wasn’t always such a toxic, militant Putin supporter. She actually used to be very critical.” Iliona’s unease is painful to witness. “When the Soviet Union collapsed, she was among those fierce, pro- democracy, liberal minds. This insanity didn’t happen until 2014, Donbas and Crimea, that’s when she started going down the slippery slope and eventually falling for Putin!” To Iliona, a 42-year-old Berliner born in Nizhny Novgorod, this is all connected to Vladimir Putin’s mighty indoctrination machine. “When people started demonstrating against the annexation of Crimea, that’s when she became defensive. She slowly switched off alternative media – the few sources that didn’t get shut down, anyway – and started to follow the official line on state-controlled mainstream media.”

“OMG, the Russians are starting a war,” wrote Iliona. Her mum was the first to reply: “So happy! Already drunk! 😛 😝 ”

On February 24, when Iliona heard news of the war, her world collapsed. “It was this mix of disbelief, horror and anger. I’ve worked with Chechen refugees – I know all about Russia’s dirty ways, the lies, the crimes. All at once, I felt like I’d lost my home country. Who are those aliens that started this? I don’t know those people any more.” Iliona relates the day of the invasion as one might last night’s nightmare – with the same acute, lingering sense of horror. “I tried to pull myself together and brought my kid to kindergarten,” she says. “And here on the street I saw a girl crying – I didn’t dare come up to her and ask why. I knew what was up: War has started.”

Meanwhile, back in Nizhny Novgorod, 72-year-old Lena – Iliona’s mother – couldn’t contain her joy at the news. Later that day, Iliona mistakenly sent to the family group a text intended only for her sister: “OMG, the Russians are starting a war,” wrote Iliona. Her mum was the first to reply: “So happy! Already drunk! 😛 😝 ” Iliona, still filled with disgust, adds: “And those awful emojis….”

She was so upset that she couldn’t sleep for many nights. “I really needed to see my Ukrainian friend,” says Iliona, who has lived in Berlin since 2002 and works in the publishing business. “So the following Saturday we met there, at Teutoburger Platz, and we cried together. I didn’t know what to tell her. Kids were playing on the Spielplatz, it was all peaceful and quiet – and we couldn’t stop crying.”

Since then, Iliona has stopped talking to her mother. “I just know it would heat up straight away. For me it’s just maddening to see how someone like my mum – she used to be a pacifist! – can justify shelling a maternity ward or a school.” Whenever she used to ask her, Lena would answer: “The Americans started it!”

Even when Lena was hospitalised in early March, Iliona didn’t call her. “My sister tried to talk some filial sense into me: ‘You’re on the right side of history, you know that, just talk to her about something else.’” But Iliona wouldn’t budge. “How can I have a mundane conversation while we are at war? Sorry but that’s all I have on my mind!” She says that some Russians here don’t want to talk to her anymore. “They think I’m over the top, and guilt-tripping them. But I say: Make the war your issue!”

Iliona thinks Berlin’s Russians are “too passive”, and guiltily silent. Beyond the pro-Putin camp, which accounts for many older Russian-speaking Germans who consume Russian state propaganda TV every day, Iliona says she’s observed two types of reactions: “I have friends who, sure, they’re appalled about the war, but then they fall for that whataboutism: what about American provocations, and so on. Then there’s the people who say it’s ‘more complicated’ – but how complicated is it not to shell grannies, kids and mums, not to shell schools and hospitals?”

Iliona also has little patience for media reports about a hypothetical wave of Russophobia in Germany: “Oh, come on! Cut the victimisation crap! I could cope with a little aggression – at least we’re not being shelled or victims of a real war. Plus, I never saw it or experienced any of it. I’m not buying this Russophobia thing.” Meanwhile, Iliona has been volunteering at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, while also staying active on social media “trying to inform dickheads” about what’s really going on. “This has been going on for eight years, and we turned our heads the other way,” she says. “I feel guilty. Collective guilt exists, and that’s what is happening to me now – I don’t know how to wash it out.”

When Iliona’s mother last reached out, she accused her of no longer being a Russian. “She guilt-tripped me with those crying emojis, saying I wasn’t one of them anymore”, says Iliona. “And she may have a point. I don’t recognise Russians as my people now, they’ve become alien to me. I can’t explain to myself how Russia’s value system could have shifted so dramatically into something this horrendous.” Iliona’s conclusion is bleak. “I don’t have a place to go back to,” she says. “There’s no motherland any more.”