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How the War in Ukraine Tears Apart Families and Friends Online

Categories: Eastern & Central Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Ideas, International Relations, Politics, RuNet Echo
Tatiana (right), and her twin sister Natalya, in Crimea in the 1970s. Photo by Yuri Nifatov. (Used with permission.) [1]

Natalia Antonova's mother, Tatiana (right), and Tatiana's twin sister, Natalya, in Crimea in the 1970s. Photo by Yuri Nifatov. (Used with permission.)

“The final blow was them posting bloody pictures of the Donbass dead on my Facebook, with comments like ‘This one’s on your conscience. Sleep well at night?’ I could have responded with pictures and accusations of my own, but that’s what idiots do. So I started blocking my relatives.”

Nina is originally from St. Petersburg. She married a Kievan and settled down in Kiev years ago. Now she finds herself in conflict with a bunch of people she used to be close to back home, including her stepfather, over the crisis in Ukraine.

It was social media in particular, which provides ease of communication and immediacy, but doesn’t provide the opportunity to look the other person in the eye, that made such an enormous, lasting falling-out possible, according to Nina.

“My stepfather is still very pleasant on the phone,” Nina says. “He calls regularly, asks how the grandchildren are doing… We don’t talk about the fact that I blocked him on both Facebook and VKontakte [Russia’s most popular social media platform].”

Eleonora, a Muscovite and Facebook user in her 30s, recently posted online about wishing to donate to help civilians in separatist-held areas.

“I used to work in Kiev, and the post attracted the attention of some of my old colleagues,” Eleonora told me. “Apparently, they no longer perceive the difference between armed separatists and regular people trapped by the conflict, because they began accusing me of supporting terrorists in the Donbass.”

Like many people who get suddenly caught up in a bitter fight online, Eleonora saw a new side to the people she thought she knew.

“A girl I used to grab coffee with after work told me ‘I hope you die’ and blocked me,” she said. “I wanted to explain myself, but I never got the chance.”

Eleonora considers herself a Kremlin critic and believes that Russia has spearheaded the separatist movement in Ukraine’s east. “I’m not stupid, I know that none of this would be happening without Russian weapons and personnel,” she says.

But Eleonora’s criticism of the Kremlin over Ukraine is not enough to provide common ground with some of her old friends in Kiev. “I don’t mind disagreeing,” she says. “I do mind it when people lash out hysterically.”

The information war currently waged over Ukraine has included revelations that there are many Russian trolls-for-hire [2] working to skew the discourse. Most of the time, they can be spotted easily, due to their sheer unoriginality and, frequently, poor grammar.

Dismissing the paid-troll phenomenon as merely ridiculous out of hand is, perhaps, dangerous. If you’re a writer who still reads the comments on your own articles (out of masochism, maybe), it can be very taxing to encounter reams of cruel insults and wild accusations.

Professional trolls also provide an illusion of a society wholly united behind a particular idea. If you encounter hundreds of Russian commenters saying things like “Russians couldn’t care less about sanctions!” (as I have), you might begin to suspect there is genuine consensus on this issue. Reputable polls, however, paint a very different picture—with a poll by the independent Levada Center saying that 47 percent of Russians are worried that sanctions and their effects could mar their future prospects [3].  

Professional trolling, in that sense, is just another manipulation tool. It presents a conveniently skewed picture.


Natalia Antonova.

Still, having talked to a lot of Russian and Ukrainian social media users about the issue of the Ukraine crisis, it’s obvious that it is personal, as opposed to professional, trolling that takes the biggest toll.

“I was used to people being mean on the Internet a decade ago, you know?” Nina told me. “I don’t care if it’s some loser I don’t know. I do care when it’s my own stepdad.”

Denis is another Muscovite who has had the Ukraine crisis throw his family into turmoil. His parents split up long ago, and his father has since remarried to a woman from Ukraine.

“My dad would post some innocent picture of my stepmom on VKontakte or Odnoklassniki [another popular social media platform in Russia], and his brother would come along and call her, in all seriousness, a Banderite [a word derived from the name of Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, accused of mass war crimes in WWII],” Denis says.

“The funny thing is, my stepmom is not just apolitical, I would say that she has a lot of mistrust for the government in Kiev,” Denis told me. “And I think if my uncle bothered to actually talk to her about her views, they might even get along. But it’s too easy for him to leave an insulting comment. So now my dad is not speaking to his own brother. Yay.”

Denis admits that arguments between his dad and his uncle began long before the current conflict, but says that the conflict “made all of the issues in this family sort of snowball.”

Russian psychologist Lyudmila Petranovskaya, who has been an outspoken critic of what she says is Russia’s reckless triumphalism on Ukraine, wrote last year about the growing level of aggression in society, including aggression online [5].

According to Petranovskaya, Russian television propaganda on Ukraine is bad enough to be labeled a kind of “mass emotional abuse,” and, as she points out, the sheer number of fake news stories on Ukraine serves as an assault on the nation’s critical thinking, inspiring many to lash out blindly.

In one of her follow-up articles, Petranovskaya talks about how the current chapter in Russian history is best described as a time of disillusionment [6]—for everyone from pro-democracy protesters to conservative supporters of imperial conquest and glory. And the disillusionment, as Petranovskaya points out, is not limited to politics and politicians, it extends to loved ones, as well.

A similar disillusionment, I would argue, is also abloom in Ukraine, where after a violent revolution caused by desperation, and following months of deadly fighting, corruption still flourishes. And so thousands of Ukrainians are paying with their lives to allow a small group of bureaucrats to continue where ousted president Victor Yanukovych left off. It’s no wonder that the print version of this story [7] on corruption by the news paper Novoye Vremya was heralded on their front page with a simple, succinct headline: “BASTARDS.” [8]

Bitterness is in the air, and bitterness affects personal relationships, as well—so I wasn’t even surprised when Eleonora told me a story of how a formerly friendly Kiev colleague wished death upon her in a Facebook post.

What do you do in this situation? What do you do when it affects your bonds with the people who matter?

I suppose anyone who tells you they “hope” you just go ahead and “die” probably wasn’t a very good friend to begin with. And even some of our relatives don’t turn out to be very good or loyal friends, in the end.

But Petranovskaya, who argues that now is not the time to burn bridges but to start getting realistic about the current situation and what can be done about it, is right, of course. Eventually, people have to start being constructive. Assuming they don’t kill each other.

Perhaps the best advice on all of this comes courtesy of Denis, though.

“You have to have a sense of humor about it,” he says. “Even if my dad’s not talking to my uncle, I still talk to my uncle’s kids, my cousins. And they’re like, ‘Is your dad still a crazy Banderite?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, does yours still have a mancrush on Putin?’ And then we can move on topics that are actually worth discussing.”