Born to a Russian father and a Ukrainian mother, 23-year-old Alex finds himself playing the role of a mediator in a family split by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
His mother, who lives in Belarus, has been struggling to reach her relatives in Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered attacks on multiple Ukrainian cities on Feb. 24, in a conflict that has cost at least hundreds of civilian lives and displaced 2 million people. But every time she calls Alex’s father, who lives in Lithuania, all they do is argue endlessly, Alex said.
“He’s absolutely sure the Russian army is hitting civil infrastructure only because it missed or the Ukrainian army is using these buildings as a shield,” Alex, who lives in Belarus, said of his father.
He added that his father only watches official Russian television and considers the invasion a legitimate operation to “liberate” Ukrainians. His mother, on the other hand, believes in first-hand accounts from her Ukrainian family and sees Putin’s actions as nothing short of an unprovoked war.
None of this, however, matters to Alex, who like other interviewees is identified only by his first name for security reasons. The 23-year-old is desperately seeking to flee Belarus to avoid getting drafted to “fight with our brothers,” he told VICE World News. Belarus has allowed Russia to use it as a launching pad for attacks on Ukraine, but the country’s president Alexander Lukashenko has said he has no plans to join the invasion.
“It doesn’t matter from which side rockets have been fired when your life and family are in danger,” Alex said.
The bickering between Alex’s parents reflects how Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has caused bitter rifts in families with members on both sides of the conflict, sowing discord between two peoples with an intertwined history.
Their differences are often amplified by their contradictory views on what exactly is happening in Ukraine.
Ilaneet, a Toronto-based Canadian social worker with mixed Russian and Ukrainian ancestry, said conversations in her family have grown tense in part because of where her relatives get their news from.
Ilaneet said her stepfather—who consumes Russian state media—doesn’t believe civilians are being attacked, despite credible reports of Russian rockets hitting Ukrainian homes and schools and mortar shells killing evacuees outside the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
He believes, Ilaneet said, in Putin’s claim that the attacks on Ukraine were an operation targeting only military facilities, intended to demilitarize and de-Nazify its neighbor, a notion dismissed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish.
“I can’t have these conversations with him,” Ilaneet said. “It’s painful because I’m hurting for the people who are dying there, and I think he’s not seeing what I’m seeing.” She added that she respects her father despite their conflicting viewpoints.
Like some others with Ukrainian and Russian roots, Ilaneet laments how Putin’s war has made enemies out of families in a matter of days. For her, the conflict also feels like an attack on her mixed identity.
Ilaneet remembers little distinction being made between both cultures while growing up in Kyiv. At home Ilaneet spoke Russian, but was taught both Ukrainian and Russian at school. Her mother was Russian-Ukrainian by ancestry, but identified as Russian culturally, whereas her biological father is Ukrainian. Ilaneet’s stepfather, whom she lived with from the age of 10, is Ukrainian-Jewish.
“The differences were not significant, not in terms of you versus me,” she said. Her grandmother, who lives in Ukraine, describes Russian soldiers as just boys plucked from their villages to fight their “brothers,” Ilaneet said.
The shared heritage of both countries dates back more than a thousand years to when Kyiv, the current capital of Ukraine, became the claimed birthplace of both Russia and Ukraine’s modern culture, religion, and language.
Since the 10th century, Ukraine has been repeatedly invaded by several countries, including Poland and Lithuania. In 1793, Ukraine was annexed by the Russian empire and experienced Russification—the imposition of Russian culture on the many ethnic minorities in the country, including the Ukrainians, the Poles, and the Lithuanians. Over a hundred years later, Ukraine fought a bloody civil war before it became part of the Soviet Union in 1922.
Alexander, a 40-year-old resident of Nizhny Novgorod, a Russian city 260 miles east of Moscow, grew up in the Soviet Union and said it was common for people to think of the USSR as one country.
“Back then there were a lot of poems, songs, books, cartoons about cultures of different Soviet republics,” he told VICE World News.
He recalled singing both Russian and Ukrainian songs while attending music school and learning about the various Soviet states from kindergarten.
“We were dressed in different national costumes, not according to the kid’s heritage, actually, because the point was to not feel the difference but to feel a relation, to put yourself in a place of another, and danced traditional dances,” he said.
But since the collapse of Soviet rule in 1991, an independent Ukraine and Russia began witnessing growing national pride and widening differences between the countries. Younger Ukrainians born after 1991 were especially eager to distinguish themselves from their Russian neighbors.
Daria, a 27-year-old resident of Kyiv, shares this yearning for a separate identity from Russia.
“Now it’s our only chance to be finally free from the empire that has been terrorizing and destroying us for centuries for our very existence,” she said.
But for Ilaneet, the social worker based in Canada, it’s hard to forget that her identity comprises both countries. “We’re Russian Ukrainians, together as one person,” she said.
“It really does feel like a family fighting family,” she said of the war. “How do you tell a Russian from a Ukrainian—one inside the tank, one outside the tank?”