Russia’s attack on Ukraine has splintered personal relationships. Ukrainians are angry with family and friends who live in Russia, wrestling with just how average Russians could support the war.



ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

The war in Ukraine has devastated cities there, with horrific repercussions for those trapped in the country. It’s also splintered some families who have members on both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian border. NPR’s Ryan Lucas is in western Ukraine and brings us some of their stories.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Vasyl Chaplaiev is standing in his small kitchen in the city of Lviv in western Ukraine, looking at the refrigerator magnets his family has collected on their travels – Rome, Greece, Amsterdam, New York, but also…

VASYL CHAPLAIEV: (Speaking Russian).

LUCAS: …He scans the fridge and picks up one from Moscow with the onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral on it. He looks at it, laughs and places it back on the fridge. Chaplaiev’s ties to Russia are more than just those of a curious tourist. Like millions of Ukrainians, he has family and friends across the border in Russia, a reflection of the deep historical ties between the two countries. In Chaplaiev’s case, he was born in Russia into a mixed Russian-Ukrainian family. He joined the Soviet military and eventually settled in Ukraine. But his mother, his sisters and their children still live in Russia. For Chaplaiev and millions of other Ukrainians, the family ties and friendships that straddle the border are starting to tear following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

CHAPLAIEV: (Speaking Russian).

LUCAS: Two days before the war, he says, what my sister said killed me. She said Putin is awesome. He’s even exceeded her expectations. You sold out to the United States. You don’t control your own country. You’re Nazis, so we will liberate you. Chaplaiev is in his late 50s, his sister a few years older. In his view, she, like many others of their generation, has bought into Russian state propaganda. He says that has made it increasingly difficult for him in recent years to talk to her. But after Russia launched its full-scale invasion, he says, it became impossible, and he blocked her on social media.

CHAPLAIEV: (Speaking Russian).

LUCAS: “I now feel like my neighbors and my friends here are better people for me than my own sister,” he says. Chaplaiev is still in touch with a niece in Russia, though. Sitting at his kitchen table, he pulls out his phone and finds a voice message she sent him on the first day of the war.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) I love you too, Uncle Vasyl. I heard about the sad things that are going on. If you need it, I can shelter your family. I have an apartment for you.

LUCAS: Chaplaiev says he wished her well. But after Russia ramped up its attacks, he fired off a voice message of his own.

CHAPLAIEV: (Speaking Russian).

LUCAS: Burn in Hell, all of you, he told her, together with your Putin. I don’t wish you anything personally, but your people are bastards. They’re animals, bastards. I would tear them with my own hands, he said. After playing the message, he sighs. I was emotional, he says. It’s not her fault. She’s against the war. She’s scared. She’s not ready to rush to the barricades to oppose Putin’s government. And that gets to something that many Ukrainians who have friends and family in Russia are wrestling with. Yes, this is Vladimir Putin’s war, but how much responsibility do average Russians bear for what’s going on?

OLEKSII SHMURAK: You know, it is a very difficult question.

LUCAS: That’s Oleksii Shmurak. He’s a classical composer and online teacher of music composition. He was born in Russia to a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father. He lives in Kyiv but fled west after Russia invaded. He and a friend, a fellow composer, are now renting a first-floor apartment in Lviv’s old city. We sit at a small table in his kitchen after clearing off empty teacups, a packet of buckwheat porridge and a box of chocolate. Shmurak says that when the war started, he sent a message to one of his students in Russia.

SHMURAK: I wrote him, remember this moment for all your life. Your country attack the country in which your teacher in composition now is located. Remember this.

LUCAS: When it comes to his Russian friends, he says, they have reached out to offer their support.

SHMURAK: They said it is something crazy and shameful. They asked me am I safe and how they can help me.

LUCAS: But he says his Russian friends live in a liberal bubble, and they aren’t representative of the broader Russian public. A better example of that, in his view, is his mother’s cousin, who, for days after Russia attacked, didn’t write to ask whether Shmurak and his mother were safe. And when he did, he offered up the Kremlin’s propaganda line about denazifying Ukraine.

SHMURAK: This line was just our military kills only Nazis and no problem with civil population.

LUCAS: For years, Shmurak has done music projects in Russia, although he dialed it back a bit after Putin invaded Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014. I ask him whether he’ll continue to work in Russia or travel there again.

SHMURAK: Never.

LUCAS: You’ll never go back?

SHMURAK: No, never, never. It’s impossible because I know what they did, what they do, and unfortunately, I know whether they will do, so no.

LUCAS: Shmurak is not alone.

KSENYA KOVALEVA: After all of the things happened here, I will never go to Russia in my life.

LUCAS: Ksenya Kovaleva lives in Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, a city that has been one of the hardest hit in this war. She, too, comes from a mixed Russian-Ukrainian family. She says she was planning on moving in the fall to St. Petersburg to get her Ph.D. in political science.

KOVALEVA: But I withdrew all the documents and rejected this part of me because this is a shame for me, to call myself Russian after that.

LUCAS: She says she’s not putting this on hold. This is a permanent decision, and it’s a decision that people across Ukraine will have to make when this war finally comes to an end. For Shmurak at least, it depends on exactly how that happens. If Putin is ousted and Russians apologize, he says, then it could be possible to rebuild ties.

SHMURAK: But in all other cases, we’re now enemies for maybe centuries.

LUCAS: Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Lviv, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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