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A Personal Lens on Russian Conflict and Division: Reflections from Afar

03 Apr 2024
Ukrainian children are fleeing Russian aggression. Przemyśl, Poland 2022. Source: Mirek Pruchnicki /

Russians citizens are not a monolithic lot, unthinking or uncritical of the current regime. Yet many don’t have the resources to leave, nor do many think there is a viable option to life outside of Russia – a land where roots are deep and the information space is strictly managed. 

Russian-born, I am often asked to share my perspective on the Russia-Ukraine war (which to this day, is officially coined a “special military operation.” The use of the term “war” is strictly prohibited by the Russian government). It is important to note that my perspective is shaped by a life lived across borders, now observing events from the safe confines of Australia, yet still feeling a deep connection to my roots in Russia. This narrative is not an expert stance but rather one shaped by lived experiences and personal understanding of the complexities surrounding the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Raised in relative privilege, educated, and now living as a dual citizen of Australia, my perspective is admittedly unique, particularly as I view the unfolding events from afar.

We live in an age of great divides and digital information wars. Wherever you look, our exposure to “us versus them” rhetoric is evident. In the case of the Russia-Ukraine war, it is Russia (us) versus the US (them) war. Putin’s message on this point has been strong and consistent; he is not at war with Ukraine, but with the West, and the US in particular. This “seek a common enemy” approach has been remarkably useful and has reinforced the justification for starting the war as a “necessary act of self-defence against the aggression from the west”(aka “we had no choice – we had to defend ourselves”). While an oversimplification, it taps into primal instincts of belonging and finds support among many, reviving a Cold War-era mindset with renewed vigour.

It is crucial to acknowledge the voices within Russia that oppose the war and the current political regime. Despite the darkness of oppression and the lack of viable alternatives, dissent exists. Many oppose the war and the current regime, yet find themselves silenced or powerless in the face of authoritarian violence, intimidation, and propaganda. If anything, there is a growing desensitisation to the brutality (although the recent death of Alexei Navalny has shaken the complacency and numbness). Many choose to purposefully disconnect from the media and news as the essential self-preservation step, given that the alternative is a gut-wrecking sense of helplessness and guilt, as well as ultimate sadness and despair.

A poignant moment during my last visit was a conversation with Natalia, my grandmother’s best-friend. At 83, having lived her entire life in Russia, she turned to me during the family gathering and asked with genuine curiosity and pain, “What makes so many leave this place and not return?” Her innocent question highlighted the deep-rooted connections many Russians have to their homeland, despite its flaws. This struck a chord. What could I say to someone who grew up and lived her whole life, and will continue living, in Russia because this is the only place they call home and have no means or resources to change that? How can any answer justify the many issues of the Putin regime without also undermining the dignity of those who stay?

This conversation encapsulates the dilemma faced by many: how to critique a system deeply ingrained in the lives of loved ones without alienating or hurting them. It’s a delicate balance between acknowledging the reality of the situation and respecting the resilience of those who navigate it daily.

Many people live in this deeply poisoned system, and they genuinely do not understand how things can be different. Russians do not share the same views on democracy as Westerners. The only “democratic” regime that Russians are familiar with is the one they live in. So, unsurprisingly, given that the Russian democracy is wrapped in machinations, violence, and corruption, Russians are very cynical and have a distorted image of democracy. The Americans, on the other hand, are quite idealistic in their views, and many really believe in freedom and human rights. As a result, some Russians equate American idealism with stupidity, while others genuinely believe that Americans are just as cynical and also outwardly deceiving. Ultimately, there is no genuine belief that a different system (and democratic system in particular) could work any better. And to answer another popular question, “why can’t people from within fight and defeat this regime?” I will cite Ekaterina Shulman, a Russian political scientist – “unarmed people do not overthrow armed people.”

Natalia, like many, only has access to government-controlled TV and radio channels that are sanitised of any positive narrative that life outside could be different or better. The message rather is that everyone outside of Russia hates Russians, and no matter how many times I try to convince her of the opposite, I cannot change her mind. But the crux of the matter extends beyond individual beliefs and opinions. The “special military operation” is not endorsed by the collective will of many Russian people. It is, undoubtedly, a tragic event that has shattered the hearts, hopes, and lives of millions. However, this event cannot be analysed in isolation as it would result in a dangerous oversimplification of the historical narrative of east vs west and would likely devolve into finger-pointing from all sides. It is the complex amalgamation of history, political developments, and systemic oppression that has paved the way for the current chain of events. One can only hope that, this time, history will serve as a lesson from which we all can learn.

The author works at an Australian University and has requested to remain anonymous as a precaution.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.