There’s a Russian proverb that advises, “The less you speak, the wiser you’ll be.” Many others offer similar counsel, such as “Talk, but don’t blab" and "I’d talk some more, but a neighbor’s at the door." In other words: Keep your mouth shut. My family of Soviet émigrés taught me to follow that advice—especially when it comes to politics. It's no wonder, then, that two of my relatives living on opposite sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict are barely speaking to each other right now.
Irina, my second cousin, still lives in Kharkiv, one of the first Ukrainian cities where separatists staged protests earlier this year. The city has since quieted down, but just last week local police reportedly assaulted pro-Ukrainian demonstrators in the city center, and three Ukrainian troops died when their helicopter crashed nearby. Some 40 years ago, Irina's sister Tanya moved to the Russian city of Rostov, a three-hour drive northeast of Moscow. The sisters are used to keeping in touch over the phone, and with the occasional visit. Lately, however, the information war between Russia and Ukraine has made that impossible. Russian state television channels have been entirely blocked in Ukraine, and Ukrainian channels are inaccessible in Russia; Irina and Tanya are exposed to completely opposite sets of information about what’s going on in the conflict, and each thinks the other is insane for believing what she does.
“My Ira in Kharkiv, she doesn’t see what’s going on there,” Tanya told me over the phone. “They show everything to us on the television. I watch programs that Ira doesn’t see in Kharkiv.” Tanya recited all of the news items that she had seen on Russian TV—that Ukrainians had bombed a synagogue and a kindergarten, that Chechen soldiers had freed Russian journalists being held captive and starved in a ditch, that Ukrainian fascists were preparing Jewish pogroms. “Today, 13,000 refugees arrived in Rostov from Ukraine. These people are running away from Slavyansk and Luhansk, because there are bombs flying everywhere," Tanya said. "There are no Russians there, they’re all Ukrainian fascists."
Tanya said she and her friends in Rostov were doing everything to help Ukrainian refugees, and that all the locals support Russia’s efforts in Ukraine. Tanya is worried about Irina, but said that when they talk on the phone, “We don’t talk about political things anymore. When all this started in Kiev, I was telling her what I knew and she said, ‘Tanya, all of that is not right.’ She doesn’t have any idea.”
Irina said the same thing about her sister. She’d invited Tanya to visit Kharkiv, to see what Ukraine was really like, but Tanya refused because she thinks the border authorities will rip up her passport, discover her Jewish maiden name (Abramovna), and kill her. “I told her, ‘Tanya, I beg you, don’t watch that TV. Listen to music, go to the theater, watch cultural things,'” Irina told me. “But she doesn’t listen. Now, we just can’t talk about what’s going on.”
Tanya’s daughter, Sasha, emigrated to the United States several years ago, and is now married to a Ukrainian-American. When she calls home to Rostov, Sasha doesn't talk to her mother about the conflict anymore. She tried at first, telling her mother what was being reported in western media, but Tanya believed none of it, so Sasha gave up. The information war created an unassailable barrier between them. My friend Anna, whose family lives in Odessa—one of the largest Russian-speaking cities in Ukraine, with strong pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian factions—told me that her two sets of grandparents in the city no longer talk to their friends about what’s going on in town, because it’s hard to know where anyone stands.
My family is not alone in being at odds over the conflict, nor is their situation in any way remarkable. The war is unraveling Russian and Ukrainian families alike, and will continue to do so as fighting drags on. Tatyana Kavalova, a refugee from Crimea who found asylum in Poland, told me, “This war has destroyed so many families. My husband of thirty years started fighting under the Russian flag.” Kavalova now helps other refugees resettle. She told me that at this point, the situation has become so intractable that Ukraine should just cut the east loose and let the separatist republics join Russia.
In 1915, Henry James wrote in The New York Times, “One finds in the midst of all this as hard to apply one’s words as to endure one’s thoughts. The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated … ” The situation in Ukraine doesn’t compare to the devastation of World War I, of course, but the manipulation of language on both sides has all but evacuated words of meaning. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry dreamily ordered that Russia should move to disarm the separatists “in the next hours, literally." Russian President Vladimir Putin foreswore Russia’s right to send troops to Ukraine, even as more Russian tanks reportedly rolled into Luhansk. And over the weekend, leaders from the E.U., Russia, and Ukraine spent hours talking past each other on the phone trying to negotiate a solution to the crisis. They discussed the importance of maintaining a helpless ceasefire that was never really enacted (several forces were killed during the ten-day break in fighting), securing a border that in many places is unmarked, and the Europeans threatened, again, to impose sanctions that will likely never come.
It meant nothing: All parties agreed to “work on” a peaceful solution, but within hours, Ukraine declared the ceasefire was over and relaunched its attack against “parasites” in the east. Ukrainian journalists were taken captive in Luhansk, where, according to Russia’s Life News, they were “treated to tea and cake.” In Moscow, Russian politicians pledged to support the “anti-fascists"; Putin accused the west of trying to “turn the planet into a ‘global barracks,’” in the words of RT; the Russian Foreign Ministry accused NATO Commander Philip Breedlove of partaking in a "propaganda campaign" with the aim of escalating the situation in Ukraine. On Tuesday, Putin told an audience of Russian ambassadors, “Who is afraid of objective information? Apparently, only those who commit crimes." Indeed.
The whole situation recalls another Russian saying: “Talk to the right, but look to the left.” On both sides, the media is pushing opposing narratives, and leaders are doing the opposite of what they say. The "double-talk" of Wednesday's four-party talks in Berlin offers little hope for the coming weeks; though the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers begrudgingly sat beside to each other and agreed, again, to work toward yet another ceasefire, their relationship consists mostly of swapping accusations (Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin sent this biting tweet following the talks). Now that Ukraine has aggressively relaunched its anti-terrorist operation against separatist forces, good information will become even harder to come by. For some civilians caught in the middle of the conflict, the new state of affairs might mean living without water, shelter, or access to any form of communication. For others, it probably means fleeing west, or otherwise sitting tight and hoping that their houses aren't shelled. Given all that, it’s not hard to understand why many Ukrainians and Russians are taking the same approach to dealing with the crisis as my grandpa, a Soviet Army veteran born and raised outside of Kiev: “Better not to talk about it at all.”