Ukraine war: ‘My city’s being shelled, but mum won’t believe me’

Oleksandra and her four rescue dogs have been sheltering in the bathroom of her flat in Kharkiv since the shelling began.

“When I heard the first explosions, I ran out of the house to get my dogs from their enclosures outside. People were panicking, abandoning their cars. I was so scared,” she says.

The 25-year-old has been speaking regularly to her mother, who lives in Moscow. But in these conversations, and even after sending videos from her heavily bombarded hometown, Oleksandra is unable to convince her mother about the danger she is in.

“I didn’t want to scare my parents, but I started telling them directly that civilians and children are dying,” she says.

“But even though they worry about me, they still say it probably happens only by accident, that the Russian army would never target civilians. That it’s Ukrainians who’re killing their own people.”

It’s common for Ukrainians to have family across the border in Russia. But for some, like Oleksandra, their Russian relatives have a contrasting understanding of the conflict. She believes it’s down to the stories they are told by the tightly-controlled Russian media.

Oleksandra says her mother just repeats the narratives of what she hears on Russian state TV channels.

“It really scared me when my mum exactly quoted Russian TV. They are just brainwashing people. And people trust them,” says Oleksandra.

“My parents understand that some military action is happening here. But they say: ‘Russians came to liberate you. They won’t ruin anything, they won’t touch you. They’re only targeting military bases’.”

While we were interviewing Oleksandra, the shelling went on. The internet connection was weak, so we had to exchange voice messages.

“I’ve almost forgotten what silence sounds like. They’re shelling non-stop,” she said.

But on Russian state TV channels on the same day, there was no mention of the missiles striking Kharkiv’s residential districts, of civilian deaths, or of four people killed while queuing for water.

A screenshot from a Channel Rossiya 1 TV broadcast. An aston refers to the war in Ukraine as a "special operation"
Image caption,State TV channel Rossiya 1 refers to the war as a “special operation”

Russian media say the threat to Ukrainian civilians doesn’t come from the Russian armed forces, it comes from Ukrainian nationalists using civilians as human shields.

Russian state TV channels justify the war by blaming Ukrainian aggression, and continue to call it “a special operation of liberation”. Any Russian outlet using the words “war”, “invasion” or “attack” faces being blocked by the country’s media regulator for spreading “deliberately false information about the actions of Russian military personnel” in Ukraine.

And now a new law has passed through the Russian Parliament that means people who spread “fake” information about Russia’s military forces could be jailed for up to 15 years.

Some Russians have taken to the streets to protest against the war – but these demonstrations were not shown on the main state television channels.

Mykhailo, a well-known Kyiv restaurateur, didn’t have the time or inclination to watch Russian TV coverage of the invasion.

When shelling of Ukraine’s capital started, he and his wife were concentrating on how to protect their six-year-old daughter and baby son.

Mykhailo with his father before the war
Image caption,Mykhailo with his father before the war

At night their children woke up at the sound of explosions and couldn’t stop crying. The family made the decision to move to the outskirts of Kyiv and then flee abroad.

They travelled to Hungary, where Mykhailo left his wife and children and came back to Western Ukraine to help the war effort.

He was surprised not to have heard from his father, who works at a monastery near Nizhny Novgorod in Russia. He called his father and described what was happening. His father replied that this wasn’t true; there was no war and – in fact – Russians were saving Ukraine from Nazis.

Mykhailo said he felt he knew the power of Russian propaganda, but when he heard it from his father, he was devastated.

“My own father does not believe me, knowing that I’m here and see everything with my own eyes. And my mum, his ex-wife, is going through this too,” he says.

“She is hiding with my grandmother in the bathroom, because of the bombardment.”

Russian media has been tightly controlled for many years and viewers are given an uncritical view of Russia and its actions around the world.

“The state narrative only ever shows Russia as the good guy.” says Dr Joanna Szostek, an expert in Russia and political communications at University of Glasgow.

“Even the tales they tell about World War Two, the Great Patriotic War, Russia has never really done anything wrong. And this is why they won’t believe it now.”

Most Russians, she says, don’t look for other points of view. She believes the one-sided narrative that is highly critical of the West helps explain why Russians can have opposing views to their relatives in neighbouring countries.

“People who criticise Russia have for so long been presented as traitors or foreign agents; critics are all foreign agents working for the West. So you don’t even believe your own daughter.”

Anastasiya’s parents live in a small village 20km (12 miles) away from the rebel-held Donetsk People’s Republic. The village is still under the control of Kyiv authorities, but Russian state TV channels are always on in their house. They even have the clock set to Moscow time – a throwback to the Soviet past.

So when on 24 February, Anastasiya woke up in Kyiv to the sound of sirens, she knew how her parents would react.

‘My mum was the first person I called when I jumped out of bed at five, disoriented. She was surprised I called and sounded really calm, almost casual,” she says.

Anastasiya, a BBC Ukrainian correspondent who moved to Kyiv 10 years ago, heard bombs exploding after waking and was worried about where would be hit next.

Anastasiya with her cat Freddie in a bomb shelter
Image caption,Anastasiya – and her cat – have left home

“I called my mum again. I told her I was scared. ‘Don’t worry’, she said, reassuringly. ‘They [Russia] will never bomb Kyiv’.”

But they are already doing it, Anastasiya replied.

“I told her there were casualties among civilians. ‘But that’s what we had too when Ukraine attacked Donbas!’, she said, laughing. For a moment I couldn’t breathe. Hearing my mum say this with such cruelty just broke my heart.”

Anastasiya believes the image Russian media has created is one of the “glorified Russian army” ridding Ukraine from Nazis. For years she avoided political arguments with her parents, but this time she slammed the phone down on her mum.

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