Hopes and Memories
Edited by Faustas Norvaisa
Epigraph: This article is the first one of a dedicated column. It was inspired by a wish to explore the broad social impact of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. It evolved into a series of informal interviews with people of post-Soviet backgrounds (Russian, Polish, Lithuanian) whose family members support Russian invasion of Ukraine. The goal of these interviews was to understand the personal impact such vast ideological differences have on emotional family bonds. The citations that appear in the text are taken from the interviews, but due to the sensitivity of the topic, the identities of the interviewees remain anonymous.
Some Gaps Can Only Be Bridged by Hope: Family Relationships Amid the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict
Selective memory supported by the omniscient Internet created a hotbed for molding strong individual beliefs. People are convinced their truth is the only truth. In everyday life, productive conversations regarding social issues are scarce, facts are being misinterpreted left and right, and people who disagree are growing further and further apart. Unless your family is whom you disagree with.
Family is unconditional. You’re there, despite the shortcomings, the disagreements, and the differences. But what if the disagreements are rooted in such profound differences, they evolve into despair? How short can the shortcomings be?
With the initial shock wearing off, we’ve learned to live in the shadow of Russian aggression against Ukraine. Daily reminders that humans are capable of unspeakable evil are far more accessible than ever. So we live in the shadow of it, but we definitely haven’t forgotten about it. And even though all the facts are seemingly there, somehow we’re still divided. These views are not often broadcasted, for obvious reasons, but as a result of extensive propaganda, a good chunk of the Soviet Union generation stand by Putin and render the Russian aggression justified.
Propaganda functions in complex and mysterious ways. The general outlook is that propaganda brainwashes susceptible people and turns them into mindless marionettes to be manipulated at the whim of the source. In reality, you can’t simply force people to immediately believe what you want them to believe. You have to weave the narrative around pre-existing beliefs. The effectiveness of Russian propaganda is a product of, at this point, centuries of deliberate national glorification and fact reinterpretation or denial that made people want to believe.
The Soviet Union did a solid job of cutting up history and social realities into pieces and sewing an agreeable aunty quilt out of it. One of those you know is ugly, but cherish nonetheless. And even though the Soviet Union is long gone, the quilt in the form of homo sovieticus remains. Homo sovieticus supports Russia in anything it does.
Homo sovieticus is oftentimes used in a pejorative and overgeneralized sense, but my intention here isn’t to mock. Homo sovieticus refers to blind conformism to the Soviet regime and is a more dangerous concept than it seems at first. It can be interpreted as the inability of the average masses to think critically, but in reality it’s a product of social trauma inflicted by the regime, even on the most intelligent of the crowds.
If your family members support Russian military actions, you’re at no risk of becoming a reliable statistic. Few people openly speak up, so secret polls and semi-educated guesses are our best bet if we wish to estimate the number of Russians that favor Putin’s actions. However, those numbers are at a staggering 70-80% (Statista Research Department, 2023), depending on the source. Amid these statistics, personal family life is at a confusing crossroad. An especially confusing one for children who grew up under generally liberal influences, with complete freedom to shape informed opinions and stand in stark contrast to their parents raised in the Soviet Union, where even acknowledging prohibition was prohibited. With such drastically different backgrounds in play, conflicts occur.
The conversations around this topic are intensely personal; no one wants to see their family members publicly exposed and judged, no matter their flaws. But from the conversations I did manage to have, the despair upon realizing your family supports Vladimir Putin is met with denial, logically grounded conversation, or an emotional fight. From all angles, hope is what unites.
Hope for a change of opinion is what drives a family forward in the time of complete and utter ideological separation. But a rooted opinion is not an easy stone to move. And you can choose to nurture that hope both passively or actively. Most decide to live in denial - “It’s like a public secret within our family circle - many know my dad approves of Putin’s international actions, but no one talks about it. I’ve learned not to ask questions”. And you can’t really blame them; a battle with selective memory, propaganda, and a pinch of strong character that most Soviet era parents have is not an easy one to take on.
Others turn to religion. “I constantly pray for my family. I ask God to open their eyes. Because I feel like if not God, who else can?”
Some take on a much more active role in their hopes. They join anti-war protests, albeit dangerous even outside Russia, support independent press and media channels and, most importantly, challenge their family members. They decide to try and open up their loved ones to a different angle on the current events, even though they encounter walls. “We’ve tried to talk about these topics, don’t think we haven’t. It’s just that my dad lived in Russia for a while and had a high level of business success. So he’s convinced Putin is doing something right.”
One prevalent thread was regularly sending financial support to Ukraine. “That’s the least I can do. I can’t do anything about my family, but maybe I can tip the scale this way.”
There is hardly any place for judgment on how people handle such differences within a family unit. What I’m trying to accomplish is to learn and understand, for the situation is troublesome.
Many cups of coffee, grim faces, and uncomfortable silences went into forming an understanding of this struggle within such complicated family environments. And the takeaway is this - hoping passively might be enough for coping, but it doesn’t solve anything in itself. No matter how profoundly troublesome the topic, we have to try and build a constructive conversation around it, at least in our immediate circles. That is, we have to hope actively.
Statista (2023) Russia: opinion on military actions in Ukraine monthly 2022-2023. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1306904/russia-public-opinion-onmilitary- action-in-ukraine/.