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For families on both sides of the war in Russia and Ukraine, talking about it is a challenge


Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine a year ago this coming Friday. For people who have family members on different sides of the conflict, it's been a long year of disagreeing, disbelieving and biting tongues. NPR's Huo Jingnan has more.

HUO JINGNAN, BYLINE: Anna Shyrokova was born in Kyiv. When she was 7, she and her mom moved to the U.S. Her extended family is spread out all across Ukraine and Russia, and they all kept in touch via group chat.

ANNA SHYROKOVA: Really, the chat was about us sharing baby videos and kind of family stuff. It wasn't supposed to be, like, a serious thing.

HUO: But things took a turn when Russia invaded Ukraine last February.

SHYROKOVA: My husband brought up the war kind of incidentally, and everyone kind of clammed up, and some people kind of left the chat.

HUO: Conflict spilled off the chat when her mother, who grew up in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, had a huge fight over the phone with a cousin in Moscow about whether the Kharkiv zoo had been bombed.

SHYROKOVA: He was like, you don't know they're getting bombed. That's crazy. And she was like, yes, I do. I see all this video on YouTube.

HUO: Anna has another cousin in Russia, Elena, who lives in St. Petersburg. We're only using her first name for safety. Elena says she's kept in touch with an aunt who lives in the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa, a town often targeted by Russian missiles.

ELENA: (Through interpreter) Right now, we inhabit very different environments. First of all, we are not being bombed. We cannot understand what's happening there now.

HUO: But in a way, Elena suggests her aunt being in the middle of it all actually means she, too, cannot be objective.

ELENA: (Through interpreter) We cannot know how accurate our information is. Nor can they know. You say they are at the scene of events, so they know everything. Well, how can they know everything?

HUO: Elena's source of information is mostly the Telegram app. The channels she follows have focused the narrative on the Donbas, a Russian-occupied region of Ukraine where armed conflict began in 2014. A key pro-Kremlin talking point is a false claim that the fight is over the persecution of Russian speakers there.

ELENA: (Through interpreter) In the Donbas, for example, some buildings are also being constantly hit. I'm subscribed to a channel where they post actual addresses and names of people who died. Of course, they don't talk about that on Ukrainian channels.

HUO: Anna says she sees the power of these stories. Elena, for example, was moved enough to donate children's clothing to someone who distributes it in the Donbas.

SHYROKOVA: This is what's pulling at the heartstrings of both of my cousins. They're saying there are these Ukrainians and Russians who speak Russian, and they're being bullied, abused and threatened by the Ukrainian army.

HUO: Anna's other cousin in Moscow has also sent her stories that push the argument that Russia attacked Ukraine in self-defense because the U.S. allegedly planned to bring Ukraine into NATO and encroach on Russia's sovereignty. Elena offers a line you'll hear from some Russians - that the war is a political decision, and perhaps those who run things know something regular people don't.

ELENA: (Through interpreter) I think that they should have somehow resolved things. And this was a radical decision, of course, that was made. And I don't understand if it was really necessary this way or - I don't know.

HUO: Russian authorities want people to think that it's impossible to know the full truth of what's going on, says Yevgeniy Golovchenko. He studies Russian propaganda tactics at Copenhagen University.

YEVGENIY GOLOVCHENKO: Nothing is true, and everything is true. Just follow your gut feeling.

HUO: Even as your loved ones in the war zone tell you otherwise. Research shows that it takes experiencing a war on or near the front lines to reliably dispel those cognitive biases. Most people? Not that close to the fighting, says Daniel Silverman of Carnegie Mellon University.

DANIEL SILVERMAN: Well, you can set down, get off a plane yourself, and you'd probably feel fine in the capital city.

HUO: Elena is hundreds of miles away in St. Petersburg. And for her, the accounts from her aunt in Odesa and those from the activists in the Donbas seem equally powerful. It makes it difficult for her and Anna to talk. Both cousins say they've given up trying to persuade the other one.

SHYROKOVA: I want it to resolve itself because I want my family back, but I also understand - right? - it's really hard to see what we see from our perspective and then have it be denied.

HUO: For now, Anna's family group chat remains silent. Huo Jingnan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Huo Jingnan (she/her) is an assistant producer on NPR's investigations team.