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She's Ukrainian-American. Her relatives are in Russia. Family group texts are awkward

As Russia's war in Ukraine drags on to almost a year, diaspora communities with families on different sides of the conflict have been trying to both stay informed and maintain family relations.
Yifan Wu for NPR
As Russia's war in Ukraine drags on to almost a year, diaspora communities with families on different sides of the conflict have been trying to both stay informed and maintain family relations.

Anna Shyrokova used to have a family group chat, where she and her extended family across the United States, Ukraine and Russia shared baby videos and other family moments.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine last year.

"My husband brought up the war...kind of incidentally, and everyone kind of clammed up," Shyrokovasays, "And some people kind of left the chat."

Conflict soon spilled off the chat. Her mother, who grew up in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv and now lives in California, had a huge fight with Shyrokova's cousin in Moscow about whether Kharkiv's zoo had been bombed. They agreed that bombing the zoo is senseless.But they disagreed over whether the attack actually happened.

"My cousin's, like, no, they didn't bomb the zoo. Why would they bomb the zoo? There's no military strategy in bombing the zoo." Shyrokova recalls, " [she] was like, yeah, they bombed our zoo. Why would they do that? There's no military strategy in bombing the zoo. Why are they so heartless?"

While Russia's war in Ukraine has dragged on for a year, diaspora communities with families on different sides of the conflict have been trying to both stay informed while maintaining relationships. They grapple with wells of cynicism and distrust so deep that one can end up wondering whether truth is knowable at all.

"Nothing is true and everything is true"

Shyrokova has another cousin in Russia, Elena, who lives in St. Petersburg (NPR is only using Elena's first name for safety reasons). Elena has a separate family group chat with a different branch of the family, including an aunt who lives in Odessa, a southern Ukrainian city that has been targeted with missiles.

"She tells us stories, and of course we sympathize." Elena says, "but we do not discuss who is for which president or who heard what on...channels, because this may not be true."

For events in Ukraine that are beyond her aunt's family's immediate experience, "we cannot know how accurate our information is, nor can they know." she says.

Emergency workers search the remains of a residential building that was struck by a Russian missile yesterday on Jan. 15, 2023 in Dnipro, Ukraine.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
Getty Images
Emergency workers search the remains of a residential building that was struck by a Russian missile yesterday on Jan. 15, 2023 in Dnipro, Ukraine.

For example, Elena doesn't know who is to blame for the missile attack that struck an apartment building in Dnipro in January, killing dozens of civilians.

"We don't really know, because the adviser to the office of the Ukrainian president said that it could have been their air defense missile, and actually, he was fired for saying this. So we don't know."

Shyrokova didn't think it was meaningful to argue about the origins of the missile strike. "At the end of the day, who shot the missile at the building at Dnipro? It was the Russians."

Russian authorities want people to think that it's impossible to know the full truth of what's going on, says Yevgeniy Golovchenko, researcher of Russian propaganda tactics at Copenhagen University.

"Nothing is true and everything is true. Just follow your gut feeling."

Russian propaganda that pulls at the heartstrings

While Elena insists she's unsure about what's really happening in most of Ukraine, she feels markedly more confident about what is going on in the Donbas, a Russian-occupied region of Ukraine where the armed conflict began in 2014.

This photo, taken on March 23, 2022, shows the mobile messaging and call service Telegram logo on a smartphone screen in Moscow.
/ AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
This photo, taken on March 23, 2022, shows the mobile messaging and call service Telegram logo on a smartphone screen in Moscow.

She gets most of her news from the messaging app Telegram. One channel is run by a former member of Russia-backed separatist forces distributing clothing to children and Russian soldiers in that region. Elena came across the woman through social connections, sent her children's clothes, and read her updates.

"They post actual addresses and names of people who died. Of course they don't talk about that on Ukrainian channels." Elena says.

A key pro-Kremlin talking point is a false claim that the war is over the persecution of Russian speakers there. Independent journalists have not been able to access Russia-occupied areas of Donbas.

Another Telegram channel Elena follows is Mash. It was founded by people who have been behind other outlets sanctioned by Canadaand the EUas spreaders of Russian propaganda and misinformation. A former editor-in-chief of Mash lives in an apartment owned by the Russian government, reported the investigative outlet Insider.

"The channel has quite a direct relationship with the state and likely aligns its content accordingly." says Roman Osadchuk, a researcher at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab who reviewed the Telegram channels for NPR.

Elena sent a story from Mash to Shyrokova, describing Russian-speaking families fleeing in fear of the Ukrainian army. Shyrokova knows little about any of these outlets, and finds the stories unreliable but sees their power.

"This is pulling at the heartstrings of... both of my cousins, they're saying, these Ukrainians and Russians who speak Russian - they're being bullied, abused and threatened by the Ukrainian army."

Russia versus NATO

Shyrokova's cousin in Moscow also initially focused on the Donbas. But as it became abundantly clear that Russia's invasion wasn't just about the region, he started telling Anna a different story.

"It's not...just about Donbas. It's more about restructuring the world order. And I was like, okay." Shyrokova says.

He sent her new links. "A few articles basically going on that say the U.S. has created and has been creating an influence in the world that is U.S.-centric."

It's a version of an argument that has been stated explicitly by Russian President Vladimir Putin many times - that Russia attacked Ukraine in self-defense because the U.S. allegedly planned to bring Ukraine into NATO and encroach on Russia's sovereignty.

Golovechenko says Russia's narrative portrays Ukraine and Ukrainians as mere puppets."Only Russia can be an actor, an agent of something in this region...this is very much an expression of the Russian imperialist worldview.

Ukraine isn't the only actor absent in this story - Elena also feels that she has no agency and punts to politicians even as she agonizes over the conflict.

"I don't see enemies...anywhere. And my aunt thinks the same." she says. "Any war ends with the signing of a peace treaty. Why are politicians postponing this signing? It's tearing my heart apart."

Distance from the front lines

Elena does know people in the war zone, but she still may not be close enough to the conflict. She and Shyrokova are far from unique - a Russian journalistdocumented in a film how family ties have frayed as people grapple with colliding realities in Russia, Ukraine and overseas.

When it comes to believing stories we want to believe, people involved in conflict aren't very different from people who aren't, says Daniel Silverman,who studies war and misinformation at Carnegie Mellon University.

His study found one exception.

"People on the front lines of war who directly experience in the most visceral way of what's happening, tend to see it very differently." Silverman says.

People close to the front lines can see what's happening, and they also really need accurate information.

It might come across as a relief - myths can be dispelled after all - but civilians on the front lines are a relatively small number of people.

"War is so highly localized and specific to where you are." Silverman says, "You can set down, get off a plane yourself, and you probably feel fine in a capital city."

Most people are even further removed from the conflict than Elena and Shyrokova , watching the war from afar with no family or friends at stake.

"I want my family back"

Since the invasion, pro-Kremlin outlets and social media accounts have pushed narratives to drum up support for Russia, sow distrust in the Ukrainian government and encourage discord between its allies, the DFRLab's latest report shows. Russian propaganda campaigns have been ongoing in Ukraine, Russia as well as Europe, Latin America and Africa.

Golovchenko says buying into Russia's narratives - or just not believing anything - could lead to fewer people helping Ukraine defend itself.

"The consequences," he says, "would be...real lives on the battlefield."

Both Elena and Shyrokova say they have given up trying to persuade the other one about who's to blame for the war.

"The politicians will figure it out," says Elena. "Why spoil the relationship with relatives right now, trying to prove your point?"

"I want it to resolve itself because I want my family back." says Shyrokova, "But I also understand it's really hard to see what we see from our perspective and then have it be denied."

For now, her family's group chat remains silent.

NPR’s Alina Selyukh contributed reporting. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 23, 2023 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the Atlantic Council's DFRLab as the DFR Lab.
Huo Jingnan (she/her) is an assistant producer on NPR's investigations team.

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