I don’t remember how the conversation turned to politics, but I certainly didn’t plan to go there — I had been careful around the subject with my Russian parents for months. It was 2018, and I was in my room in a small West Virginian college town, where I’d moved from Russia less than two years earlier. My mother was on the other side of the FaceTime call on one of our weekly catching-up sessions, and she looked tense — I wasn’t speaking positively of Vladimir Putin.
It was something simple that I said, something like, “Putin isn’t good for Russia” or “It’s not patriotic to just ignore all the bad things in the country, hoping they will just resolve themselves” that did it. She turned away from the camera, trying to hide her tears.
We sat in silence for a moment before I changed the topic. Since when did a political disagreement have the power to make my mother cry? How much further had my family been transformed by propaganda since I had escaped its claws?
Like my parents, I had been pro-Putin once. I thought that Russia had “saved” Crimea from neo-Nazi rebels, that it was the victim of a global smear campaign because the world couldn’t bear the fact that Russia is so big and oil-rich. But since I moved to the U.S. for a second bachelor’s degree and fell in love with journalism, I realized that my political views were rooted not in facts but in a lifelong exposure to the Kremlin’s propaganda machine.
My family is still in Russia, and over the years, the views of my reasonable, highly educated and once liberal-leaning parents have become almost alien. Like many Russians, they believe the invasion of Ukraine is just an “operation to take out neo-Nazis.”
I’ve had many similar conversations with my parents since that talk with my mother. Now, I’m usually the one who gets hurt. These discussions were never easy, but now, with the war in Ukraine, they are as essential as they are sickening. There is a cost to people believing Russian propaganda — and it’s a bloody one.
My hope is that Russian speakers can slowly chip away at support for Putin in our propaganda-aligning families. At the least, we might convince our loved ones that the bloodshed is wrong.
I haven’t given up on my parents. We might be on different continents, but it’s politics that has put us worlds apart.
Putin Seemed Young and Promising
Like many people of my generation who grew up under Putin, I was largely apolitical for most of my life. I grew up in Yoshkar-Ola, capital of one of the poorest Russian regions, in a family of educators.
My grandmother, who lived with us, missed the Soviet Union. She liked the idealistic idea of unity and the certainty that there would be a job for her — she was a beloved German language professor and enjoyed stable and secure employment. She taught me pioneer songs from Soviet times and often said that people were kinder back then. I wonder if they were only “kinder” because they worried someone would snitch on them.
When Putin emerged as a bright star, my grandmother was as excited as could be. He was appointed as prime minister in 1999 by then-President Boris Yeltsin, and his meteoric rise came from his handling of the response to a series of apartment building bombings the same year — a Russian 9/11 that took more than 300 lives and injured many more. Putin blamed the bombings on Chechens, and it became one of the justifications for the Second Chechen War.
I learned much later that some historians and journalists attribute those bombings to an attempt by the Federal Security Service, commonly referred to as the FSB, to get their former director Putin elected. But back when I was a child, Putin seemed young and promising. My grandmother took me with her to vote for him in the 2000 elections. To share the excitement about this historic moment, she lifted me up and showed me where to mark the ballot for her.
The initial excitement about Putin wore off over the years. We had expected him to change our lives for the better, but as nothing improved, the hope became tiresome. The roads were still a mess, traffic police and local officials were still corrupt, salaries stayed low and taxes stayed high. It never even crossed my mind that, in another place, people would have voted for someone else at the next election — maybe because the only options we saw on the news were either incompetent or clowns. I resorted to ignoring politics altogether.
We started to hope again in 2008, when Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s prime minister, was elected president. My peers and I thought that he might make Russia a real democracy. By then, I had changed schools. For the first time, I had teachers who tried to get us to re-examine Soviet history and question the current state of Russia, even when it meant being critical of the Kremlin. One teacher even dared to criticize Stalin’s rule and the political repressions that left millions dead. It wasn’t that these teachers were unique — it just so happened that I hadn’t crossed paths with them before. The moral clarity felt alien.
As time passed, it became clear that Medvedev was keeping the seat warm for Putin. In 2008, under Medvedev, a new constitutional amendment lengthened the four-year presidential term to six years. In Sept. 2011, when Putin announced he would run for the presidency again in 2012, my friends and I understood that it meant a strong chance of another 12 years of Putin.
This was certainly not the democratic direction my friends and I had hoped Russia would take. In December that year, the biggest anti-government protests since the 1990s broke out across the country in response to the accusation that Putin and his United Russia party had rigged the parliamentary elections. The visuals of a crowd chanting “Putin is a thief!” and “Russia without Putin!” somehow found their way to me on VKontakte, a Russian social network inspired by Facebook.
My friends and I had heard enough talk about Putin being corrupt to believe it. We were finally old enough to vote, and we took it seriously — we researched the candidates, debated their campaign promises. Most of us liked Mikhail Prokhorov, an oligarch who promised to reverse the constitutional amendments and crack down on state propaganda and corruption. It felt like our generation, one that grew up under Putin, could finally make a change. Even my grandmother’s confidence in Putin was shaken, and my whole family considered other candidates.
But something changed at the last moment — there was a wave of negative press against Prokhorov and positive press for Putin. It felt like Russia needed someone experienced to protect us, and Putin was the only choice. I felt defeated and confused when the election day came. One of my friends felt the same way. “Putin is the only rational choice now, and my unused ballot will automatically count for him anyway,” she told me.
It came as no surprise that Putin was re-elected amidst allegations of fraud.
To my shame, it was the annexation of Crimea that placed me squarely into the pro-Putin camp. The Euromaidan revolution of 2013-2014 in Ukraine received a decent amount of airtime on Russian news. But instead of showing Ukrainians protesting a corrupt government and successfully ousting pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian narrative painted the new Ukrainian government as a fascist gang and extolled Putin’s effort to save Crimea and its ethnic-Russian population from fascist rule. The process was democratic, the propaganda swore. I remember seeing a photo online of an allegedly Crimean apartment building with many Russian flags hanging out of the windows and thinking that this was the most genuine piece of evidence one might need. My dad heard somewhere that even our hometown welcomed Ukrainian refugees, that Russians were giving up their spots in line for social assistance. I gained a respect for Putin I didn’t have before.
According to the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling and research organization, Putin’s popularity spiked from 69 percent in Feb. 2013 to 82 percent in April 2014. Propaganda poured out from everywhere, and it overwhelmed me. It was easier to accept the Kremlin line as truth than to question each confusing argument, one by one. I came to believe that Western attacks on Putin’s actions were synonymous with attacks on my country. My concept of patriotism twisted into blind support of Russia. This time, I didn’t discuss it with my friends, but I was certain they felt the same way.
Over the past years, it has become even harder for the casual news consumer in Russia to find independent media. The new difficulty has risen since the war in Ukraine started, with Putin signing a law that threatens anyone spreading “fake news,” or a non-Kremlin-approved narrative, with fines or up to 15 years in jail. Some news outlets froze their operations and many journalists left the country. Russians who still want to get real news use VPN to access the news websites that the Kremlin banned. For others, like my parents, it’s a flood of propaganda on TV and in print as well as social media.
Everything I Believed About Russia Came Crashing Down
Everything changed when I moved to West Virginia in January 2016 for a second bachelor’s degree. I wasn’t actively political, but whenever the chance came up, I defended Putin and Russia against what I thought was American propaganda. One time, my friends were watching a documentary about what happened in Crimea, and I launched into a rant about everything being either fake or just an unfair case of cherry-picking. Surely there were no Russian tanks in Crimea, and Russians didn’t kill anyone. Often, I would pull out that photo of the apartment building with Russian flags as proof. Most of the time, people on the other side of such rants either didn’t care enough to argue or were too polite to challenge me.
But slowly, my suspicion that something was off with the Kremlin’s narrative started to grow. Moving to the U.S. physically removed me from the fresh supply of propaganda — only the occasional pro-Putin arguments made their way to me through talks with my parents. And I fell in love with journalism after joining the college newspaper, learning how to gather and vet information.
When the first news of Russia’s influence on the 2016 presidential election came out, I defended Russia to whomever would listen. Russian propaganda wasn’t there to supply me with “facts,” so I read credible English-language reporting — and couldn’t make sense of it. It felt so black and white, nothing close to the real world.
I shared my confusion with my father back in Russia. “I know what they teach us in journalism classes. I know how articles are put together and that journalists value facts. At what level of a news organization do lies about Russia make it into stories?” I wondered.
It finally clicked for me at the end of the summer of 2017, after I spent some time surrounded by serious reporters. I got pushback on some of my claims that Russia “saved” Crimea and that Putin would never harm other nations. I went to a conference for journalists in Arizona and told one or two very successful reporters that the U.S. media was misled about Russia. Their quiet amusement got under my skin. One reporter whose work I admired just politely smiled and gave me a funny look. Another one, with the same kind of look, found my opinion interesting and quickly introduced me to his friend. I wasn’t credible, and it was confusing or even entertaining to others, I realized.
Everything I believed about Russia, the world and myself came crashing down. It was disorientating and lonely. I couldn’t talk to my parents because they were still pro-Putin. I couldn’t talk to my Russian friends about it either — they either ignored politics or got defensive, pushing whatever views they had as the only correct ones. My friends in the U.S. couldn’t grasp the magnitude of personal loss. I didn’t know who I was or what I believed anymore.
The next semester, an international relations class helped me work through my need to find a “good guy” after Russia lost the title. I learned that there’s no such a thing as a “good guy” in international politics, that the world is more complicated than that. I leaned on Sally, a professor passionate about Russian politics, and with book recommendations and many talks, she guided me through the process of piecing together the truth about Russian politics and history. I would drop by her small office on a nearly daily basis to talk about what I’d read in the books Sally had lent me — the mass graves from Stalin’s repressions, the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, the corruption and vindictiveness of Putin. We also talked about my parents — their beliefs began to resemble conspiracy theories, revolving around a central theme that there was a centuries-old effort to cover up Russian greatness. They believed opposing things at the same time, going from “Putin is so corrupt” to “Putin is the best thing to have happened to Russia” in one conversation.
I was surprised to learn that so much of what I considered “common knowledge” came from propaganda and conspiracy theories. No, Ukraine hadn’t been stealing Russian gas for years. No, Hillary Clinton wasn’t behind the 2011 protests in Russia. No, Barack Obama isn’t Muslim (I’m ashamed to say I fact-checked this one just a couple of years ago). I’ve done so much work to fix the damage, but every now and then I still catch myself using some nonsense as an argument rooted in what I think is history or science, and I have to reexamine my thinking.
This experience is common among people who have abandoned beliefs that once shaped their identities. My husband, an American who was raised Catholic, had a similar experience reevaluating his relationship with religion in high school. Through my reporting on QAnon, I met people who reconstructed their beliefs after they realized their conspiracy-fueled upbringings were filled with falsehoods. Those who quit QAnon describe the same sense of disorientation and political homelessness.
Sally and I still talk books and politics sometimes, and she recently told me that she had no clue how crucial she’d been to my transformation. Without her, I would have slid back into propaganda or lost my mind.
I’ll Keep Trying
My political realignment wasn’t easy for my parents either. It’s one thing to let your child move across the globe — it’s quite another thing to watch the move change her, making it harder and harder to discuss things that were once “common knowledge.” We couldn’t easily share what was on our minds when it came to politics. Most of the time, to avoid propaganda-fueled disagreement, we avoided the topic altogether.
Then, on Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine, and everything changed. Suddenly, those political disagreements had very real and very bloody consequences. Russian propaganda intensified, capitalizing on the generational trauma of World War II by calling Ukrainians “Nazis” to justify the invasion.
My father called me the next day for emotional support. I could tell that he was just as crushed as I was. Something about his manner of speaking when he said, “We’re doing this to take out the Nazis,” revealed a need for reassurance. I should have pushed back then — he later told me he had doubts at the beginning of the war. But now he’s done his “research,” and he’s sure Russia did the right thing. A few days after the war started, my mom sent me a message, warning me that even liking posts critical of Russia was participating in informational warfare. Then she started sending me audios suggesting I send “positive thoughts” to Ukraine to even out the “negative” in the world.
My parents and I moved even farther apart. They are growing more patriotic about “Russians taking out Nazis and saving civilians.” They believe the crimes Russian soldiers are committing against Ukrainians are either committed by Ukrainians themselves or staged.
I have thrown my energy into reporting on Ukraine and the damage Russians have caused. For one story, I spoke with refugees who fled their homes and told me horrid stories of what they saw — the bombings of civilian apartment buildings, the unprovoked shooting of civilians. The news media provided many more accounts of crimes: sexual violence against women and children; the images of bodies lying in Bucha; a genocide against the people Russian propaganda still claims to be our brothers and sisters.
My father and I discussed me writing about the war once. He hadn’t read my stories and he didn’t agree with my position, but he was proud of me for standing up for what I thought was right. My parents sacrificed a lot for me to be able to move to the U.S., even though they deeply dislike the American government. They supported me every step of the way. Recently, I discussed their political position with my Russian friend who knows them, and she was quite surprised to hear it. “Your parents? Really?” she asked. My parents aligning themselves with the Kremlin doesn’t really make sense — they are smart, educated, inquisitive, kind. They had more advantages than many Russians exposed to propaganda, but it still got to them.
The invasion appears to be popular in Russia. Based on various polls, more than half the population approves of it. It remains unclear, though, what people really feel — some may just say what they think they should say.
Even the Russians who do have access to outside information still dismiss reports of Russian aggression. “Everyone lies,” they say. It’s one of the most effective thought-stopping ideas I repeatedly come across, and I attribute it to the deluge of Russian propaganda. There are those who do have questions, but the thought that Russian soldiers could be so violent is unimaginable to them.
The latter is the group I hope to reach. This bloodshed has forced me to understand that there is a moral duty to stop this war and this propaganda-fueled monster. Propaganda alone can’t be blamed for these terrors — there are plenty of Russians living abroad who are exposed to media that show the atrocities Russian soldiers are committing against Ukrainian civilians and yet still continue to support the war. But the stakes to get through to Russian speakers are as high as they’ve ever been. We, as Russian speakers, have to engage in difficult conversations with those who believe in conspiracies and disinformation.
I still try to talk to my parents about the war. I bring up specific atrocities from the news, tell them the stories of the people I know. I talk until they get too annoyed to listen. But I’ll keep trying. Maybe one day they will start doubting. When that day comes, I’ll be there to help them figure out the truth.