After pro-Russia forces entered Crimea this year, many of my American friends were aghast and worried that the situation might escalate. But in Russia, where I grew up, it’s an alternate universe.
My friends and family are outraged at those who oppose the intrusion. Instead of being appalled by the violence threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty, they are irate about Western critiques of President Vladimir Putin and his policies. Every time I post something supporting Ukraine on Facebook, such as a recent article about members of pro-Russia forces attacking opposition leaders in Crimea, my Russian friends lash out, calling me brainwashed. One of them, a former reporter for a Moscow news agency, asked me why I didn’t recognize America’s influence in the Ukrainian crisis.
The reporter friend, whose news agency recently has been reshaped into a state-controlled media outlet, told me Putin just wants to protect Russians in Ukraine.
Phone calls to home end up in fights and tears when we touch on politics. During a recent chat, a relative who lives in a small town near the Russian-Ukrainian border fired back at me: “Your president tries to set the whole world against Putin. Who is Obama, the czar of the world?”
In normal times, my family and friends are rational, thoughtful people who bemoan the usual list of Russia’s shortcomings: the sluggish economy, chronic corruption and a Kremlin leadership that is alternately ineffectual and heavy handed.
Still, as I talk to them, I try to understand their point of view. After all, these are people I grew up with. But I realize now that I have a hard time understanding my own people.
I was born in Kazakhstan and grew up in Russia, but seven years ago I moved to the United States. My family’s past is diverse: I have Jewish, Russian and Ukrainian roots. My parents moved across the former Soviet republics several times and now live in Russia. I expect my family to be tolerant and objective. Usually, they are.
But that all seems to fade when it comes to Ukraine. “Putin is doing everything he can to prevent civil war,” my mother said recently.
When I was living in my homeland, I felt comfortable in the Russian system. I understood my friends and family. I knew how the bureaucracy worked and tolerated without much thought its endemic problems.
Now, I feel as though I speak a different language from the people I grew up with. How could something that is such a clear act of aggression get lost in translation from Russian to Russian?
Since his reelection in 2012, Putin has worked to tighten his control of the Russian media, slowly extending his influence over big and small news organizations as well as social media. The consolidation of media ownership coincided with a brief economic resurgence, Russia’s hosting of the Winter Olympics in Sochi and, generally, a growing Russian self-confidence. All this ran smack up against a Ukrainian independence movement that sought greater autonomy from Moscow.
The effect was evident as Russian troops rolled into Crimea. Public support for the annexation swelled.
What seems to unify many Russians today is their belief about American’s role in the affair. Many are convinced that the U.S. is behind the Ukrainian conflict.
“Why is the whole world against Russia? It’s because America was trying to take Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet, and now they are angry that Russia got it,” said my pro-Russian friend who lives in Crimea.
The more arguments I pose, the more aggression I face. It’s as if logic and facts have no power. I don’t bring the U.S. discussion to the table, but all of my friends feel it’s their duty to remind me of America’s shortcomings.
They blame the U.S. for being biased, aggressive and disrespectful. My friends always bring up the same issues: Edward Snowden, Guantanamo Bay and Iraq. They say Americans live in a bubble while preaching to the rest of the world.
A few decades ago, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russians considered America a place where dreams come true, the land of opportunity and prosperity. But now more and more Russians resent America for playing the “world’s gendarme.”
As I watch public opinion shifting in Russia, I’m horrified by what my people believe. There is no bigger victory for someone like Putin than a loyal public at home.
And why is it so important to point out America’s failings, after all? America’s wrongdoings don’t open the door for others to do the same.
I’m torn between defending America in front of Russians, and defending Russian dignity in front of Americans. I feel as if I’m a bridge being burned from both sides.
Every day, I read Russian, Ukrainian and American news sites, and question my own beliefs. I know I’m not going to lose my friends because of our opposite views, but I want to let them know how deeply disturbed I am by their position.
Recently, however, I received a hopeful sign that, despite all the posturing, I can still find some common ground with my friends.
A few days after the battle with my reporter friend on Facebook, I got an email from her saying that even though we have different views on the Ukrainian crisis, she still loves me.
Olga Grigoryants, a citizen of both Russia and the U.S., is a master’s candidate at USC’s Annenberg School for Journalism.