Alexander Serdyuk has stopped talking to his mother. He is nervously watching war edge ever closer to his home in Lviv. She is 1,500 miles (2,400km) to the east in Russia, denying that any of it is actually happening.
“I can’t speak with her,” says the 34-year-old Russian who moved to Ukraine 10 years ago. “She doesn’t understand me. She says it’s just Nazis killing each other, and that we are responsible for all this.”
“She just doesn’t believe me,” he adds. “We used to speak with each other a lot, but now there’s just no point.”
It’s the same for Natasha Henova. She has already fled her home near Kharkiv with her young sons and husband, as the bombs crept ever closer to their village. When she called a cousin who lives near Moscow to update her, however, the conversation was almost as upsetting as the war itself.
“She is sympathetic but says that we are being lied to,” says Henova, a 35-year-old English language tutor. “She says it’s all America’s doing. I say OK, but why are Russians hitting us if it’s all about America? She says Ukrainians have been so cruel to people in the Donbas.
“She said Ukrainian soldiers must surrender. She even invited me to come to Russia to be with her. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’m desperately struggling here to keep Ukraine independent and she invites me to go to Russia.”
As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its fourth week, an information war between people on both sides of the border is intensifying. The military onslaught is not just demolishing residential buildings and city centres in Ukraine; it is sorely testing myriad familial cross-border ties that have endured for decades, centuries even.
While people in Ukraine can see with their own eyes what is happening to their country, people in Russia do so only through the house of mirrors that is state television, and when those cowering in bunkers send videos and messages about their plight, many (but not all) of the recipients simply dismiss it as fake news.
Natalia Ivanivna has Russian parents and grandparents, so when the 62-year-old accountant had to flee Kharkiv earlier this month for a village in western Ukraine, there were plenty of relatives whom she wanted to alert. “Fifteen minutes after the shelling started, I sent them a series of messages: ‘We are being bombed.’ The first question they asked me: ‘Who is doing the bombing – our army or yours?’”
Ivanivna says she believes it is fear as much as ignorance that shapes the worldview across the border. “I think they are scared of Putin’s regime, as much as my parents were scared of Stalin’s. Now they just don’t reply. I don’t have anger towards them; I just feel sorry for them.”
So pervasive and persuasive is Russian television, that even some people in eastern Ukraine who watch it were taken in by its version of events.
Maria Kryvosheyeva, who fled Kharkiv with her two children, has a grandmother who stayed behind, too frail to travel. “She used to only watch Russian television,” Kryvosheyeva says, “and when the war started I noticed she was very calm. She was like, ‘Don’t worry. Putin said everything is OK.’”
She changed her tune when Russian forces started bombing Kharkiv. “We turned over to Ukrainian television, which was showing everything, all the destroyed buildings. But Russian TV was showing webcam videos from days earlier and was telling people that everything was normal in Kharkiv. My grandmother started to cry. She said: ‘I can’t believe I’ve been brainwashed all these years.’”
About half of Ukrainians – more than 20 million people – have family in Russia, according to a 2011 survey which also found that a third of Ukrainians had friends or acquaintances there. Familial interchange between the two countries has been prolific for centuries, from the early days of empire in the 17th century, through the late Soviet period and into the age of independence, says Orysia Lutsevych, a research fellow at Chatham House.
“Remember, Moscow was always the metropolis of the empire,” she says, explaining why so many Ukrainians moved east over the past 300-plus years. “It was an attractive place for people who wanted to make a career. The similarity of the language meant it was easy to go and study there. The best institutes were there, so it was very prestigious to go.”
Russians and Ukrainians living in other countries also feel infuriated with the denialism that seems to have infected their relatives. The kind of things they hear include: the war footage is fake; Nazis are running amok; Ukrainians should stay indoors or the fascists will get them.
Natasha, a UK-based Russian who didn’t want her surname published, has a Ukrainian father and Russian mother who both now live in western Siberia. Her father’s family are from Vinnytsia, in Ukraine, however, and some of them have already fled to Poland. Natasha asked her dad if he’d spoken to his brother. Her father said yes and that everything was fine – though he couldn’t hear much through the air raid sirens.
“I said to him, ‘How can everything be fine if there are air raid sirens? How is that OK?’”
She says her mother parrots Russian television, about the suffering of Russian people in eastern Ukraine and the need to protect them.
“But this sounds mad to me,” Natasha says, “because my family is Russian-speaking and they are fleeing to Poland.”
“When I ask my mother if she’s seen the images, the footage, and what’s happening in the cities, she says they are all fake,” Natasha adds. “It’s so frustrating not to be able to have this conversation. I’m really disappointed that she believes the president instead of me.”
Some of this might be generational. Natasha says the older generation grew up through the Soviet period believing that the west was against them, that the only people they could trust were their own leadership. She says there is a deep Russian sense of being the greatest nation on Earth, with the richest resources, a survivor race that can get through anything. “Of course they are going to believe what they have been told.”
Forgiveness may take a long time. Lutsevych says there is a very strong sense of ‘we will not forget’ in Ukraine, a determination that when the bombs have stopped falling, war crimes must be punished and people held accountable. She says it will probably take a truth and reconciliation process similar to what happened in South Africa after apartheid for families to be able to speak to each other again.
Artur Kolomiitsev, a 28-year-old photographer sticking it out in Kharkiv, is not sure he can forgive. His parents in Russia are understanding, he says, but his aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmother less so.
“They don’t believe this war is real. They believe we are bombing ourselves and that our government is on drugs,” he says. “If one day I were to send them a picture of a missile hitting me in the head, maybe only then would they believe me. I don’t want to see them any more. I don’t want to talk to them any more. I will never forgive them.”
Natasha Henova doesn’t want to lose touch with her younger cousin, who was clearly also a close friend through their formative years.
“Maybe when it’s all over, maybe in a few years, if my family stays alive, maybe I’ll be able to forgive her and understand her.”