What my Russian-American relatives have to say about Putin and the war in Ukraine

Recently, I learned more about my roots. Turns out my grandfather left behind five brothers and sisters in Russia when he came to the U.S. in the early 20th century.

Many of their descendants are still alive and well, living in the U.S., Russia, Germany and elsewhere. This was news to me. Exciting news.

Among my new-found relatives is a married couple, Julia, 46, and her husband Sergei 47 (not their real names). They are IT engineers living in California who immigrated to the U.S. in 2001, a year after Putin came into power.

Julia’s 75-year-old mother still lives in Russia. In fact, Julia was able to visit her mom in Moscow as recently as December of last year. Presently, her mother is trying to get a visa to come to the U.S. She still isn’t sure if she wants to live in America permanently or remain in Russia, where her son and other relatives live.

Julia and Sergei keep in touch with friends and family in Russia and Ukraine. With day after day of watching the horrors happening in Ukraine, I thought the couple might be able to share some light on the war there. They generously agreed to talk to me. Here’s part of what they had to say.

Q: What do the average people in Russia believe about the ongoing situation in Ukraine?

Sergei: You have to understand that unless you have some technical background, it is very difficulty to get access to independent media in Russia. Putin has shut it down. What the population hears on the radio and watches on TV is complete propaganda.

Russia is led by a dictator in an autocratic state so most people learn only what Putin decides they should hear. He suppresses any other information. You can’t even use the word “war.” You can get up to 15 years in prison if you “misrepresent” what’s going on in Ukraine! You have to say “special military operation.”

He told the Russian people that soldiers went into Ukraine because it’s a serious threat to Russia. That there was militarization against Russia, new fascist elements, neo-nazism within Ukraine. Therefore, he said, Russia invaded Ukraine for humanitarianism and peace-keeping reasons.

But Putin is a master of deception. He feeds people lies and half-truths. For example, while it is true that there is historical context for widespread antisemitism in Ukraine in the past, that is not the case, now… After all, the president of Ukraine is Jewish!

Julia: My mother was never a supporter of Putin, but he had the support of most of the Russian people for a long time. Putin represented stability, the ability to travel, get free medical care. At the same time, a lot of people say he is a different person now than he was then.

Sergei: Putin told the Russian people that Ukraine, directed by the U.S., has biological labs where they are working on developing weapons which the Ukraine army will direct at Russian cities, and that Ukrainians in Chernobyl were working on a dirty nuclear bomb.

Most people believe him and support him. But from the people I talk to in Russia, nobody expected Putin to do what he is doing–not in their worst nightmares. 

Putin was surprised by the resistance to Russian troops. Russians approved when he invaded Crimea. He thought in Ukraine, the people there–especially in the east, would greet the Russian soldiers with flowers and open arms.

Q: What do you think is the real reason Putin sent troops to Ukraine?

Sergei: There are different narratives of why Putin went into Ukraine. The decision was made by Putin and a small group of people he trusts. There are probably multiple aspects which influenced his decision.

I believe one of the reasons is economic. There is natural gas in the region, and Putin wants it. After Poroshenko–who was the president of Ukraine after pro-Russian Yanukovych, but before Zelensky, contracts with Russia were canceled.

Another reason, is oil transit. He wants to be able to go through Ukraine to get Russian oil to sell to European countries.

He also sees Russia as losing influence. He wants to establish a new Russian Empire. He wants to be remembered as a great leader and have his legacy to be as a Peter The Great.

Q: What do you hear from relatives and friends in Ukraine?

Most of them have fled the country, but I have three elderly aunts in Kiev and Odessa who won’t leave.

When the war first started and people wanted to get out, it could cost $2,500 for a person to get on one of buses to take them to the border! Now there is more organization, more volunteers to help them. And most people who wanted leave already did.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked to one of the aunts, and they were all doing okay. They were happy because they were able to get out and buy bread and sugar. But everybody is super nervous.

For the last month, one my aunts was sleeping in the hallway of her flat because she thought she was more protected if bombs went off. Last night was the first time she slept in her bed.

As the Russians pull out of Kiev, things are improving there, at least for now. They have heat and electricity for the most part. People are talking about kids going back to school. But everyone is glued to their TV sets and on the internet, trying to get information. My aunts are devastated as they’re just learning about all the atrocities.

Q: How are Russian people living without access to credit cards such as Visa?

 Sergei: One way is that people are using Chinese credit cards now instead of American ones.

Q: Is there anything else the U.S. can do to help stop the war other than sending our soldiers into Ukraine, which Americans don’t have an appetite for?

Well, many people want to leave Russia and Ukraine. The U.S. can streamline the process of issuing visas. Also, we can put as much pressure as possible on China to not trade with the Russians. We need to pay attention to other rogue actors like Iran and North Korea. We need to increase sanctions on Iran, which could become a proxy for Russia.

 Q: What can ordinary Americans do to help? Do you have any organizations you’d recommend donating money to?

Julia: I support Cash for Refugees.

Sergei: We are Jewish and also support through the American Jewish Committee.

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  • Congratulations on finding new relatives, and thank you for giving them a forum to talk to us. It protects us all from "But I don't know anyone on that side"-itis. Well done.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Thanks, Margaret! Yes, it was thrilling to find out I have new relatives!

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