Kyiv, Ukraine – The Russia-Ukraine war made me sever ties with my stepsister.
Our father died 20 years ago.
She lives in Russia, in a large Siberian city, and I am not mentioning her name because I know that one day she will regret what she thinks about Ukraine.
Since the war began, we’ve been in touch only twice.
“How are you? Where are you?” she texted me on February 24, the war’s first day. I wrote back that I was in Kyiv.
She didn’t reply.
I could have said more.
I could have said that I heard the thud of distant bombing that fills you with adrenaline and wakes up a reptilian instinct: find a hole to hide in!
That my 81-year-old mother and I would spend the night on thin rubber mattresses, on the granite floor of a subway station, where we hid from the bombing.
That we couldn’t sleep because of the panicked conversations of hundreds of people, their weeping babies and squealing pets, and the cigarettes some of them smoked deep inside the tunnel’s black hole, right next to two Arab students sleeping on their prayer mats.
But I didn’t text her anything.
I was busy thinking about stocking up my fridge with food and planning a possible evacuation.
Russian forces were right north of Kyiv. Soon, Ukrainian authorities and international bodies would report that Moscow’s troops had killed and tortured hundreds of civilians.
My stepsister doesn’t like Russian President Vladimir Putin, but she hates the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, because he’d caused the 1991 Soviet collapse.
She knows that our grandfather was executed by a firing squad in 1937, and our father spent years in an orphanage because his mother was in prison for alleged “theft”.
But my stepsister is deeply nostalgic about the USSR’s lost global might.
She is adamant that the West wants to dismember Russia and appropriate its mineral riches.
Six months after the war started, she got back to me with a simple, “How are you?”
I wrote back saying that the Russian forces were being forced out of key Ukrainian regions.
I wrote that my daughter, my stepsister’s niece and namesake who lives in Russia with her mum, frantically drew Ukrainian flags and even composed a naive, poorly rhymed poem about the war that filled me with pride.
“What is the percentage of pro-war people around you?” I asked my step-sister.
“Many want the war to end,” she replied.
Wow, I thought, that sounded reassuring. Reasonable.
But then she went on with what sounded like a line from the Kremlin’s playbook.
Many Russian servicemen arrived in her city’s hospitals, she’d heard, and some had been castrated.
“Atrocities of Nazis,” she wrote.
“And where are the Nazis?” I asked.
“In Ukraine,” she replied repeating the Kremlin’s persistent narrative.
“Bye, cotton coat,” I wrote, and blocked her.
A “cotton coat” is the cheapest winter garb in Russia that resembles a prison uniform and refers to those who believe in the spiel Moscow televises – whether they are in Russia, Germany, the US, any ex-Soviet republic or even Ukraine.
“I used to be a cotton coat,” Mykolay Trofimenko, a 43-year-old construction manager in Kyiv, told me.
“I started watching [the famous Russian TV personality Vladimir] Solovyov, thinking, ‘Let’s check out what they say about Ukraine’, and soon realised I was nodding my head in approval,” he recalled.
After the war began, Ukrainian internet providers blocked Russian media, and Trofimenko had to quit watching, cold-turkey style.
“I woke up,” he said.
But some Ukrainians are still aligned with Russia’s perspective.
A servicewoman who was injured on the front lines of southern Ukraine told me that her elderly mother said her wound was “punishment for the blood of the children of Donbas”, allegedly spilled by Ukrainian shelling.
An opposition-minded Russian man, who left for Armenia after the war began, told me he stopped talking about the conflict with his elderly parents living in the separatist-controlled part of Ukraine’s Luhansk.
An ethnic Russian woman in Uzbekistan does the same when communicating to her parents.
“I only have one mum and dad,” she told me.
If there’s one term that can describe the effect of propaganda, it is “incongruity”, a divide between one’s real-life experience and the explanatory mechanisms that help them realise what’s going on, according to a Ukrainian psychologist.
Sometimes this divide could be considerable, making what’s happening to one’s experiences, occurrences and actions almost unrelated to what they think about themselves, said Svitlana Chunikhina, vice president of the Association of Political Psychologists, a group in Kyiv.
Russian “propaganda” specifically makes the divide wider, she added, so that people in a state of deep incongruity can’t make deliberate decisions and trust themselves altogether – and instead rely on the authority of their television sets.
“That’s why Ukrainians often find it hard to understand why their Russian relatives and friends don’t want to hear anything about the real state of affairs in Ukraine,” she told me.“
Propaganda deprived them of their ability to respond to real-life experiences – theirs and those of others,” she said.
To another psychologist, propaganda offers a mechanism of false emotional protection.“It’s like a woman beaten by her husband who still believes him when he says he loves her. [She has] no strength to process reality,” a Moscow psychologist told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
Therefore, the Kremlin-funded media network makes tens of millions of Russians feel vulnerable in the face of reality, she said.
“And vulnerable people are easy to convince,” she said.
My stepsister knew that I’d been living in Ukraine for four years – and that I had reported on the annexation of Crimea and the Moscow-backed separatist rebellion in southeastern Ukraine in 2014.
But she never cared to ask me about what was really going on in Ukraine, on the ground, amid the explosions and panic, death and determination to win.
She preferred her TV to me.
When the war is over, she might realise she was wrong about the war – but only because she might hear it on TV.
If she says sorry, will I respond?