Students with family ties to Ukraine and Russia speak on the impact of the war

A+new+display+from+the+current+events+class+in+the+history+wing+breaks+down+the+Russia-Ukraine+war.+%E2%80%9CHonestly%2C+I+just+want+the+war+to+end%2C%E2%80%9D+sophomore+Misha+Eberle+said.

Alyssa Ao

A new display from the current events class in the history wing breaks down the Russia-Ukraine war. “Honestly, I just want the war to end,” sophomore Misha Eberle said.

By Reva Datar, Alyssa Ao, and Penelope Biddle

Almost everyone in the world is watching what’s happening in Ukraine. Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, there have been stories of Ukrainian families all over the news—as they flee as refugees, become victims of violence or take on the role of defenders. All of this might seem distant to observers from outside countries, but for students with Ukrainian or Russian roots, the war has an immense presence, even from the other side of the world.

Sophomore Katya Luzarraga’s mother immigrated to America from Ukraine in 1991. Luzarraga’s mother’s family is from Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine and the center of much of the warring between Russian and Ukrainian forces. Despite the danger of living in what has become a focus of conflict, many of Luzarraga’s relatives have chosen to stay in Kyiv, including her mother’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, great aunt and best friend. Her mother has been in contact with as many family members as possible, as often as possible, since the war began. Another aunt, living in New York, has started an initiative to raise awareness and donations going towards the Ukrainian war effort.

“I think for my mom it’s really hard to have that close of a personal connection,” Luzarraga said. “To see all of her childhood places and towns be torn apart by bombs and military soldiers.”

I think for my mom it’s really hard to have that close of a personal connection, to see all of her childhood places and towns be torn apart by bombs and military soldiers.”

— Katya Luzarraga

Most of Luzarraga’s family in Ukraine is unwilling to leave their home country and are instead trying to stay and help as much as they can. On Feb. 25, Luzarraga’s grandmother’s elderly sister took cover in a makeshift subway bomb shelter. Her mother’s cousin is helping in the military defense effort by mobilizing civilians to learn how to use rifles.

“I think [patriotism] for their home country is really rooted deep,” Luzarraga said. “I think most Ukrainians who are not directly compromised, who don’t have any disabilities or who aren’t fearing for their lives—they are hopefully trying to fight as much as possible. If that’s not possible, they are trying to escape with their loved ones and as much as they can carry on their backs.”

Russian families have also been affected by the conflict, even as the war is being fought in Ukrainian cities. Sophomore Misha Eberle has many relatives on his mother’s side currently living in Russia, and he is in contact with his maternal grandmother and cousins. Russian and Ukrainian people have a close history and share strong cultural similarities, which makes the effects of the war on the people of both countries even more complex.

“I’m sure [my family] knows a lot of people from Ukraine, because Russians and Ukrainians are so interconnected in their relationships,” Eberle said. “[Russians] don’t dislike Ukrainian people. They still view Ukrainians as their friends and brothers.”

Ukraine has been an independent country since the Soviet Union fell in 1991. Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been building since the 2014 Maidan Revolution, during which Ukrainians overthrew pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Later that year, Russia annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula, and as a result, the Donbas War between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists for control over the Donbas region of Ukraine began, killing over 14,000 people by early 2022. A Russian military buildup on the border of Ukraine continually escalated throughout 2021 and 2022, until the conflict finally exploded in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Sophomore Dima Bobrov has family living in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in Crimea. As Crimea is Russia-occupied, it is not under attack from Russian forces. Bobrov’s family does not have plans to leave either country although the future is uncertain.

“What I can say about life in Russia is that the actions of their tyrannical government are going to affect them massively,” Bobrov said. “People cannot get paid right now, SWIFT is shut down, their economy is going to come crashing down, and that is going to be terrible for the average Russian person, [a lot of whom] don’t want this.”

In an attempt to put pressure on the Russian government, many outside countries including the US have imposed severe sanctions on Russia. A worldwide boycott has led to over 450 international companies withdrawing from Russia. Seven Russian banks were banned from SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), effectively denying them access to international markets. Although Eberle and Bobrov’s families have not been severely affected so far, the everyday lives of countless Russians have been or will be impacted.

“A lot of the sanctions and measures put against Russia, they hurt the people, not the oligarchs,” Eberle said. “I think that’s evidence that people think that Russians support [Putin] and that by extension [the war] is the Russian people’s fault, which I don’t think is true. I don’t think that it’s the Russian people’s fault at all and I think that it is being unfairly put against them.”

Bobrov believes that despite poll numbers, most ordinary Russian people aren’t actively supportive of Putin.

“I wouldn’t say that [most Russian people] are supporting Putin,” Bobrov said. “They’re very passive. They don’t have access, especially now, to U.S. news or British news. They only have Russian news, and because of that I think that a lot of people are just very passive. I think they know it’s wrong but they don’t want to speak out because they’re scared of what could happen.”

Under a law passed by Putin on March 4, It is now forbidden to use words like “war” or “invasion” to describe the actions of the Russian military on social media, or in a news article or broadcast. Any coverage that spreads “false information,” as decided by the state, could lead up to 15 years in prison. Independent Russian news outlets have shut down. The propagandized state-controlled media reports the invasion as a “special military operation.”

“[My grandmother] watches Russian news, and she believes what they tell her,” Eberle said. “She doesn’t believe there’s actually a war. She thinks there’s a ‘military operation,’ [which] she thinks is different than a war. She thinks everything Putin and Russia [are] doing is good and that they’re doing it to protect the country.”

[My grandmother] watches Russian news, and she believes what they tell her. She doesn’t believe there’s actually a war. She thinks there’s a ‘military operation,’ [which] she thinks is different than a war. She thinks everything Putin and Russia [are] doing is good and that they’re doing it to protect the country.”

— Misha Eberle

Some Russians have found ways to access information outside of Russia. For much of the younger generation this means using VPNs to get past the firewall and gain access to western news. Russians in contact with relatives outside of the country, like Bobrov’s family, are also more able to stay informed.

“My family is at a particular advantage because we are in contact with them, we do have access to more non-biased media and we are able to tell them about what’s going on,” Bobrov said.

People living in America receive coverage of the war from Western media, which determines their perception of the war from an outside perspective. Both Eberle and Luzarraga believe that viewers have a responsibility to question whether the news coverage we receive from Western media is completely accurate or unbiased.

“I think that even though [Western news coverage] tries to be compromising to both sides, they still are kind of biased to one point of view, and I think that reflects on how everyone sees the conflict,” Eberle said. “I think that everyone knows what the facts are, but they don’t really understand both points of view that much.”

Social media platforms such as TikTok or Twitter have also become a source of information, bringing users a flood of updates, commentary and potential misinformation on the war.

“I would just want everyone to be really aware about what they post and what they take in from the media,” Luzarraga said. “Now that we have a bunch of coverage through social media, I think we need to be really careful about what videos we watch and to know that we’re getting the right information and to always ask questions about what’s going on.”

Although those living through the direct reality of the war are the most affected, people with connections to both countries have also been impacted.

“This affects me too, even as someone who isn’t living in Russia right now,” Bobrov said. “It’s not a big deal but what does really affect me is [that] normally we would go every year to Russia, but right now planes don’t go to Russia, and honestly I miss it. It’s my [culture]. I really miss it.”

Luzarraga believes that the heavy news coverage and public awareness of the war has brought many to recognize the individuality and resolve of Ukrainians.

“Before, no one really knew about Ukraine,” Luzarraga said. “This war has inadvertently brought Ukrainian people to the media coverage and I think, in a sort of backhanded way, this war has [led people to recognize] the strength and the unity and the power that the Ukrainian people have.”

Do you have family who live in or are from Ukraine? by Penelope Biddle

This story was originally published on Wayland Student Press on April 14, 2022.