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Oct. 2, 2022

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Russian-speaking families in Seattle area split: That Ukraine video is fake!

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From Bothell, Ekaterina Mishchenko sends long, pleading messages on an encrypted app to her mother in Russia.

She wants to be careful with her communications, but she needs her mother to know there’s a different story about the war in Ukraine than what’s shown on Kremlin-controlled TV.

“Mom look at everything I’ve sent. All videos. They don’t show it on your TV. That’s what’s really going on. Don’t believe anyone at work, they don’t know, they watch the same TV as you,” Mishchenko writes.

She is 30, a software developer who came to the United States in 2011. She is married to an apartment-building maintenance engineer originally from Kazakhstan.

Her mother, whose name and hometown are not being used to protect her, often doesn’t reply to the messages about Ukraine. When she does, nothing her daughter has sent convinces her.

A typical response: “And why do you believe this? One can show and write anything. The press has always been corrupt.”

When it comes to Ukraine, there are two worlds for Russian speakers in the Seattle area.

There is the war as shown on U.S. news channels and newspapers, and there is what the Kremlin-controlled media doesn’t call a war but a “special military operation.”

In the latter, Russian soldiers did not execute civilians in the town of Bucha. No, said Vladimir Putin, that was “fake.”

Many people originally from Russia or Ukraine, and now living in this area, are in contact with friends and relatives in the old country.

Sometimes they find themselves talking in circles with those overseas friends, even within their own community in the Seattle area.

On the Russian Seattle Facebook page, a woman posts, “I’m from Russia and I’m proud of it! Not going to burn my passport … Insulting and beginning to hate each other, we do not help anything, we just destroy communication with each other.”

Among the comments she receives is, “I fully support Putin and special operation to denazify and demilitarize Ukraine … Don’t be afraid of who you are. If you ashamed to be Russian, don’t worry, you are not Russian.”

At the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral on Capitol Hill, Father Alex Kotar says, “We’ve instituted a kind of regime on non-discussion. We have a big percentage of Russians, a big percentage of Ukrainians. I want to keep our parish peaceful. Our main goal is to pray for peace. So far it’s working.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were nearly 57,000 people in this state who spoke Russian at home, and some 23,000 who spoke Ukrainian at home. That estimate is from a survey done between 2009 and 2013.

Ivan Tarapov, 40, of Redmond, is a software manager who came to the United States in 2012 with his wife and two children. He was born in Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, which has been under constant shelling by the Russians.

When he was a kid, Tarapov says, he’d visit a nearby area in Russia during the summer, where he had family.

From here, Tarapov sends his friends in Russia videos, news stories and YouTube posts about what has been going in Ukraine. He shared the WhatsApp chats he’s been having with two of them.

Fake, they both respond.

One of the friends is a woman about Tarapov’s age, a homemaker with two children, her husband a construction site supervisor, he says.

“Watch this video,” Tarapov messages about the Russian shelling of Ukrainian towns. “They are pounding at residential areas, every day, from all kinds of weapons.”

In Russian, the woman responds, “ … a lot of lies from both sides … We will never know the truth.”

Tarapov answers, “ … we can know the truth about Kharkiv right now … Russian Army is indiscriminately pounding at the residential neighborhoods of a Russian-speaking city with cluster munitions and cruise missiles.”

You can almost envision the woman shaking her head. “We don’t have cluster munitions in our army, this is all your army doing the shelling. I’m certain that this is all has been agreedd upon. Putin wouldn’t go like that, alone against the rest of world.”

There is something the two can agree upon.

The woman messages Tarapov, “Neither Ukraine nor Russia will be the same again.”

A March 11 story in ProPublica, the investigative journalism site, tells how the recent wave of pro-Putin disinformation is consistent with the work of Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the infamous troll farm.

It quotes Darren Linvill, a Clemson University professor who has studied dozens of Twitter, TikTok and Instagram accounts from the paid trolls.

Says Linvill, “I can’t stress enough the importance of understanding the way that this is a tool for Putin to control narratives among his own people, a way for him to lie to his own people and control the conversation. To suggest that the West is blanketly winning this information war is true only in some places. Putin doesn’t have to win the information war, he just has to hold his ground. And these accounts are helping him do that.”

A number of Russian speakers interviewed for this story did not want their names used. They said they feared repercussions for friends or relatives in Russia.

Russia has reverted to a Soviet-style hunt for “traitors” who oppose the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, reports The Washington Post, with students turning in teachers who don’t back the war. War protests have been criminalized, with penalties of up to 15 years in prison. .

Maria Paramonova, 40, of Redmond, 10 years ago arrived in the United States from Moscow with her husband and a baby. She’s working as an administrative assistant while going to community college and studying interior design. Her husband, she says, was a lawyer in Russia. He’s working at a Pagliacci Pizza while studying computer science at another community college.

Paramonova talks to a sister in Russia who works in media and is putting out the Kremlin version of the Ukraine war.

“Some people, how do you say it, they follow the stream,” she says, explaining her sister. “I think she’s trying not to get herself in trouble.”

Paramonova has brought up the reports of war crimes committed in Ukraine.

She says her sister answers, “How do you know it’s Russian troops doing this, not Ukrainians?”

The conversations go in a loop of whataboutisms.

Alexander Chernousov, 43, of Moscow, is a film director on a Fulbright scholarship working in Eugene, on a project bringing together Russian speakers in Oregon, and some in Washington state.

Chernousov navigates the emotions created by the Ukrainian war. He shares the Facebook pages of Russians acquaintances who are pro-Putin.

One of them is Sergei Ustinov, 51, of Moscow, who says he works as an editor at a post-production studio. In long emails he expounds on his beliefs.

Ukraine?

“LIES ARE LIES AND LIES!”

“With regard to the crimes of Russian soldiers, of course I do NOT BELIEVE! I was a sailor myself, and everyone who served in the army of the USSR or Russia knows that Russians NEVER TOUCH PEACEFUL PEOPLE! NO WAY!”

“The Nazis are killing their own citizens without ceasing in huge numbers! There are countless video conformations of this!”

Says Chernousov, “Sergei sounds and looks like he has fallen into a totalitarian cult. So do many Russians now.”

Working on his Fulbright project, Chernousov says he quickly found out about the divisions in a community that includes numerous nationalities that once were part of the Soviet Union.

At first, the project was called “Russian-Speaking Oregon.”

But, Chernousov says, “The word ‘Russian’ provokes a negative response, very negative.” The project was renamed, “In my own words.”

This story began by recounting the email exchanges between Ekaterina Mishchenko and her mom.

Last week, Mishchenko ordered the Kindle version of a book she had read back in Russia when attending South Ural State University in Chelyabinsk, an industrial city about 1,100 miles east of Moscow.

Perhaps you also remember that dark novel from your student days, in which an empire’s ruling party pounds three slogans:

“War is peace,” “Freedom is slavery” and “Ignorance is strength.”

It was time, Mishchenko said, to reread George Orwell’s “1984.”

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