PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) – From his home in Seattle, Andrey Nokhrin sent his mother in Moscow a clip of a television editor interrupting a live Russian state-run news bulletin to hold up a sign and shout slogans protesting the Ukraine invasion.
The editor, Marina Ovsyannikova, told Reuters earlier this month that she hoped her protest would open Russians’ eyes to propaganda.
But his mother said the protest looked fake, as if it had been staged with a green screen, according to Nokhrin.
It is an example of how Russian Americans are sending their relatives in Russia accounts of the war in Ukraine produced by Western and other media outlets that contrast with what Russian state media is reporting. Reuters interviews with 11 Russian Americans suggest that, as with the case of Nokhrin’s mother, skepticism about the war in Ukraine runs deep.
“The propaganda there works very well,” said Nokhrin, a 37-year-old IT entrepreneur. “They’ve been told that this is a peacemaking operation and they truly, honestly believe it.”
State TV, the main source of news for many millions of Russians, closely follows the Kremlin line that Russia was forced to act in Ukraine to demilitarize and “denazify” the country, and to defend Russian-speakers there against what the Kremlin calls “genocide.”
Russia passed a law earlier this month banning the “public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” Offenders face up to 15 years in jail.
Russian state TV did not respond to a Reuters request for comment. The Kremlin declined to comment.
Russian Americans interviewed by Reuters said they are engaging in conversations with family over messaging apps WhatsApp and Telegram, sharing material they collect from social media and international news sites.
Nokhrin has sent his relatives pictures of injured Ukrainian children, dead Russian soldiers, and bombed-out apartment buildings and hospitals. He sent his mother the link to a news site that aggregates content about Ukraine from international news sites and translates them into Russian. He used WhatsApp to message his mother a YouTube clip of Russia’s independent news broadcaster, TV Rain, signing off with “No to war.”
Reuters has seen the messages sent by Nokhrin and others interviewed for this story and verified the sources of the videos and pictures they included. Reuters was unable to interview the relatives in Russia to verify the conversations.
“This military operation has been presented to them as if there were Ukrainian fascists that are trying to enslave the Russian population,” Nokhrin said. “My mom, she thinks (President Volodymyr) Zelenskiy is this evil monster who wants to join NATO, which wants to nuke Russia.”
“It’s crazy for us to think of this, since we see the other side of this, but when you are isolated in Russia and just seeing government media it really informs what you believe.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said in the past that the United States is an “empire of lies” that sows disinformation about Russia. Senior Russian officials such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov say Western media has misreported the conflict in Ukraine and has repeatedly failed to show the persecution of Russian-speaking people there.
Julia Bari, a New York City-based insurance broker who emigrated from Moscow 26 years ago, described a cousin’s reluctance to engage in a fraught discussion about what was happening in Ukraine.
Bari said she is frequently in touch over WhatsApp with the cousin living in southwestern Russia. After the invasion, “I called her to say, ‘Oh my God, war is happening,’ and she shut me down. She said, ‘Look, we don’t know anything. This is politics.’ I became quiet because my insides were boiling from anger.”
Bari sent her cousin what she could find: pictures of Ukrainian children sleeping in bomb shelters, videos of buildings being hit by artillery strikes, photos of orphans being evacuated on trains.
“I told her, you know, this is real. This is murder,” Bari said. “She said that it was unpleasant to see but she couldn’t be involved with it. She wants to act like everything is normal.”
International reaction to the invasion has been severe and includes sweeping sanctions that have sent the rouble plunging to record lows and left Russians isolated.
Bari said she is concerned for her cousin, whose salary with one of Russia’s largest state-owned companies was recently cut by 60%, according to Bari. She declined to name the company.
“She thinks (Russia) can switch to its own production lines or get whatever they need from China,” Bari said. “I’m scared for her.”
After leaving Moscow in 2018, Sasha and Vitaly, a couple in their mid-30s who asked that their last names not be used out of concern for the safety of their family, started a WhatsApp chat with their relatives. Until three weeks ago, their content was mostly pictures of their two young children. These days, they send news updates and videos about the invasion.
Vitaly’s mother, who works in healthcare in Moscow, reads the stories he sends her from independent Russian news sources that post on Telegram.
“She would bring up the war with her colleagues, and they’d say, ‘You think this way because your son is in America and has brainwashed you. That’s why you’re not supporting President Putin,'” Vitaly said in an interview at a café in Portland, Oregon. Vitaly’s mother, he said, was open to the idea of seeing the invasion of Ukraine as an atrocity.
However, since Russia passed the law on information dissemination, Vitaly said his mother, at his request, has stopped talking to colleagues about the war, for fear she could be accused of spreading falsehoods.
(Reporting by Deborah Bloom in Portland, Oregon. Editing by Donna Bryson and Rosalba O’Brien)