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Putin’s war in Ukraine has torn my family apart

My brother has picked up a gun to defend Kyiv, but my uncle in Moscow has been poisoned by propaganda.

By Olia Hercules

Today I wrote the saddest lines. They read: “My brother Sasha has now joined the territorial defence in Kyiv to protect his homeland and his people. These are the ‘Nazis’ that you are fed through your televised hell.” It pains me to say that I wrote this in a message to my uncle who lives in Moscow.

I won’t go into too much detail here, out of respect for my mother, Olga, who is suffering so much from this whole situation. But I rush to add that I loved this uncle. He was also the closest sibling to my mum. They are two of six children in the family.

My uncle was born in Voznesensk, a city in the Mykolayiv region of southern Ukraine. In the 1970s he went to Moscow to study in a military academy, he then married a Latvian woman, had two daughters and remained there for good.

He was an amazing human being who loved philosophy – we spent many a sleepless night chatting about Kierkegaard and drinking home-made wine. He did yoga! He followed a Japanese method of bringing up his daughters when they were toddlers – he never disciplined them, let them be free and run around like little hurricanes, to my grandmother’s bemusement.

He is still alive, by the way, but to me he is dead. Like in a zombie apocalypse movie. He and his family were bitten and they are no longer themselves. They haven’t been for a long time. There were hints ever since Putin came to power in 1999, and that’s what is so scary.

Every year for most of the summer they used to come to Kakhovka, the city where I grew up. They stayed either at my grandmother’s in the village of Lyubymivka, or with us in Kakhovka, or with our family in Odessa. Sometimes my otherwise kind, warm and funny, beloved cousins would say strange things. For example, they casually used the word hachchik, a racist term used for people from Caucasus. Finally, I told them firmly that we did not use such terms in our house.

[See also: The exemplary resilience of Volodymyr Zelensky]

Then once my dad said something mildly negative about Putin and my older cousin burst into tears. It was eerily reminiscent of the cult of Lenin, and of the numerous stories of children in the USSR bursting into tears when their parents finally revealed to them that dedushka (grandpa) Lenin was actually a murderous bastard. My point here is that we cannot underestimate Putin’s cult of personality. Or perhaps it is something he mixes into the tap water.

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It all really intensified after the war started in eastern Ukraine in 2014. My uncle travelled to my aunt’s funeral that April (she died of pancreatic cancer, after a short illness). He mentioned casually that Ukrainian was “not a real language”. My family were shocked.

If the son of Ukrainian parents who endured deportations in cattle trains to Siberia, the Holodomor famine of the 1930s and imprisonment, can become so deeply poisoned by his 45 years living in Moscow, then I really fear that the majority of actual ethnic Russians are lost to us forever.

A 17-year-old girl, ethnically half Ukrainian, half Latvian, was crying because my dad used the word Putik (a mildly derogatory word we use in Ukraine for their president). It feels awful to write about this. I want you to know that I am bringing up my Moscow family’s ethnicity not to condemn Ukrainians or Latvians. I am bringing it up to show how deeply poisonous and powerful Putin’s horror show television apparatus really is, however laughable and fake it looks to us. I just cannot fathom how all those Chechen teenagers who are currently representing the Russian army on the ground in my homeland can do what they are doing. Have you seen the photographs of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, after Russia was done with it? How is such a level of indoctrination and brainwashing possible today?

I wonder if they are watching. We fell out completely, you see, when my uncle’s wife started posting misinformation about the boys of Donbass who had been supposedly been crucified by “Ukrainian Nazis”. This should not have to be said, but just to be clear: there were no crucifixions and no Nazis. As soon as she and my cousins did that, I banned them all from my life forever. I just cannot believe how people whose parents went through so much at the hands of the USSR can buy all of the utter, laughable, badly acted nonsense that comes out of their TVs. Is it mass Stockholm Syndrome? Is there another more suitable term? Is it a wave of mental illness provoked by the most deranged one of all – Putin?

This is an appeal, really, to all the ethnic and non-ethnic Russians to rise up, to show the world that there is hope and a way out of this. Switch that hellish television off, throw it off the balcony. People in the West, keep campaigning to expel Russian ambassadors from your country. They are war criminals, just like Putin.

I don’t have the will to write these devastating, sad words any longer. Ukraine has not died. I need to preserve my energy to help it recover, but I have every confidence that it will, and we will too.

[See also: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changes everything]

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