War in Ukraine reveals familial rifts for some Washingtonians

Russia's invasion has led some Washington residents to question their relationships with loved ones who don't hold the Kremlin culpable. 

Liliya Askarova poses for a portrait at her home

Liliya Askarova poses for a portrait at her home in Newcastle, Washington on March 14, 2022. Askarova was born in Ufa, Russia, and grew up in Kyiv, where her parents were living when the invasion began. She moved to Washington in 2012, but still thinks of Ukraine as home. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

As the world reevaluates its relationship with Russia, Eastern Europeans in Washington state are doing the same with friends and family swayed by Russia's propaganda on the violent invasion of Ukraine. 

“It’s really hard for me to understand that they do believe their own state media and don’t believe the family,” said Liliya Askarova, 37, of Newcastle, calling it “the most heartbreaking experience.” 

Askarova had trouble eating and sleeping for 10 days, glued to the news as a war that has left hundreds of civilians dead unfolded. The conflict forced her parents from their home in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. They caught a train to Lviv and spent hours in the cold to board another train to Poland, eventually making it to a relative’s home in Sweden.  

Russia launched its invasion Feb. 24 after weeks of escalating tensions. Although the attack has sparked widespread condemnation, many stand behind Russian President Vladimir Putin, including some of Askarova’s family members, who told her Ukraine was bombing its own citizens. 

Comments like these reflect a cognitive and informational rift between Russia sympathizers and the rest of the world, which is watching in horror as the Kremlin spins an alternative narrative to justify its military action against Ukraine.

"The purpose of this operation is to protect people who for eight years now have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime," Putin said of the war, according to NPR

Askarova was born in Ufa, Russia, and grew up in Kyiv, where her parents were living when the invasion began. She moved to Washington in 2012, but still thinks of Ukraine as home.

“I don’t know if [my parents] will be able to go back to their home,” she said, wondering the same for herself. “It’s just heartbreaking.” 

Adding to that heartbreak is her extended family’s refusal to hold Russia accountable. 

Liliya Askarova (top center) is seen with friends in Kyiv, before moving to the U.S., in a Facebook photo displayed on a computer at her home in Newcastle, Washington on March 14, 2022. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

Russia invades, the world responds

The invasion came as a shock to Askarova and her family. 

She recalled suggesting to her parents that they live with her for a few months until tensions blow over, but her father was confident nothing would happen. 

“He was, like, ‘No, Putin will not do this, because he’s not suicidal,’” she said. 

She first learned of the war from a Facebook group for Ukrainian moms, where someone posted about hearing explosions. Once Russia invaded, the world sprang into action. 

The Department of Homeland Security offered Temporary Protected Status for 18 months to Ukrainians already living in the U.S. as of March 1 (those who arrive after will be ineligible) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a directive to cabinet agencies on March 4, banning new contracts with Russian state entities. 

"This invasion, which continues, has resulted in grievous loss of life among Ukrainian military personnel and civilians, and it has sparked an historic refugee crisis with global impacts — including for Washington state's large Ukrainian, Russian and other Eastern European communities," Inslee wrote. 

Washington lawmakers also responded to the attacks by introducing legislation to divest public funds supporting the Kremlin and by voting to set aside about $19 million to resettle Ukrainian refugees. 

The state has received a wave of people from Ukraine recently: Out of 350 refugees who arrived in the state between October 2021 and February 2022, more than 220 were Ukrainian. A majority of them came in February. 

Those who arrive in the coming weeks and months could find a haven in Everett, where Irina VanPatten lives.

VanPatten, 53, watched last year as the conflict in Afghanistan made international headlines. 

“My heart broke,” she said.

She signed up to host people from Afghanistan and, if need be, will open up her home again to the newest wave of Ukrainian refugees expected to come to Washington. 

VanPatten, born to a Ukrainian mother and raised in Moldova, moved to the U.S. in the early 2000s, leaving behind an “extremely difficult economic situation.” She brought her children, who were born in Crimea, where her ex-husband currently lives. He had no clue about the war until their son informed him.  

“We don’t know why he didn’t know,” she said, speculating it had to do with how little he uses the internet. 

While some remain in the dark, others are in full denial. 

Photos of war damage in Kyiv and a message saying “I’m home!” that were sent by Liliya Askarova’s father, Ryf Askarov, a few weeks ago are seen on a computer at Askarova’s home in Newcastle, Washington on March 14, 2022. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

Misinformation from the Kremlin 

Washingtonians fear they are losing their loved ones to propaganda. 

One of VanPatten’s distant relatives got into a heated argument with his father that nearly turned physical, she said. 

“He [the father] kept saying that, ‘This is not true, this cannot happen, everybody can post something on the internet, it’s all fake,’” she said.

Russia strictly limited the news available to its people, no longer allowing access to the BBC’s website, for example. Despite the severe lockdown, this attempt to insulate has not been entirely successful.

In mid-March an employee at Channel 1 in Moscow interrupted a live broadcast with a sign that said, “They’re lying to you here.” 

Doubt was also cast on Russia’s attempts to explain a hospital bombing in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, made infamous after an image circulated of people carrying a stretcher with a pregnant woman, who has since died from the attack.

The level of Russian propaganda and brainwashing is unprecedented, according to Askarova. She attempted to send information to her family’s group chat, like how to access different media and screenshots of the latest news.

Her family removed her from the chat. 

Author Irina VanPatten of Everett, WA, shows her support for Ukraine during the ongoing war with Russia. She is adorned with a special Moldovan hand towel and colors of the Ukrainian flag while holding decorative sunflowers- Ukraine's national flower and global symbol of solidarity for the country. Her family members abroad hold different beliefs about the ongoing conflict. (Ting-Li Wang for Crosscut)

Arguing for days 

For those able to talk about the war with family, the experience can be incredibly taxing. 

Katya Suvorova of Seattle, who asked to use a pseudonym for a surname to protect her writing career, was born in Moscow but left in the late 1990s when her mother fled the country. 

The invasion forced her to reckon not only with the suffering of people in Ukraine, where she has roots, but also the fear that she could lose access to her family in Russia, if the country further isolates itself. 

She recently reconnected with her father, who lives in Russia, and learned she had two younger siblings. 

“I suddenly had this huge family,” she said. 

After years without her dad, Suvorova wants to keep him in her life. That means reconciling her image of him with his perspectives on the war, including his view that Ukrainians are Nazis killing their own people. 

“I literally spent four days arguing [with] him, like straight,” she said.  

This has been a central theme in Russian propaganda. Putin has expressed a desire to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, which has a Jewish president.

One of Askarova’s cousins suggested as much to her, which did not speak to her experience growing up in Ukraine, where her parents practiced Islam. She acknowledged her country is not perfect, but felt Ukrainians have relative freedom compared with those living under the Kremlin. 

A damaged road in Kyiv is seen in a Facebook photo taken by Liliya Askarova’s father, Ryf Askarov, as it is displayed on a computer at Askarova’s home in Newcastle, Washington on March 14, 2022. Askarova’s parents have now fled their home in Kyiv, eventually making it to a relative’s home in Sweden. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

Punished for speaking out 

Hearing loved ones refuse the realities of war in Ukraine has left people with a deep sense of frustration, but also empathy.

While the war has colored Suvorova’s view of her father, she does not plan to cut off a man she describes as compassionate and caring. 

“He’s a really smart guy, but I see him ingesting this propaganda,” she said. “I really think it’s a survival tactic.” 

She recognizes where he is coming from 一 believing that to survive in Russia one cannot question the government 一 and understands why her mom left the country.  

“By bringing me here, she gave me the privilege to be angry at him for not protesting,” she said, adding that she has the ability to speak out in a way her father does not. 

Still, the Kremlin has faced backlash from its citizens: Thousands took to the streets in protest, prompting mass arrests. 

Putin recently signed a law that prohibits people from spreading “false information.” The New York Times reported that describing the events in Ukraine as a “war” could be enough to raise suspicion in Russia, which refers to the invasion as a “special military operation.”

Violations of these restrictions could land Russians in prison for up to 15 years or saddle them with a hefty fine. People could also be punished for protesting the invasion or calling for sanctions. 

While Russia continues to stifle criticism directed at its invasion of Ukraine, VanPatten does not blame people who she said have been brainwashed by propaganda for years. 

“In a silly way, it’s not their fault, right?” 

Liliya Askarova poses for a portrait at her home in Newcastle, Washington on March 14, 2022. (David Ryder for Crosscut)

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