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Ukrainian-Russian families are being torn apart by Russia's invasion

Updated March 7, 2022 at 3:58 PM ET

Standing in his small kitchen in Lviv in western Ukraine, Vasyl Chaplaiev's eyes scan the door of his refrigerator and the colorful magnets that his family has collected on vacations over the years.

There's Rome, Greece, Amsterdam, and New York. And then his fingers land on one bearing the onion-domed St. Basil's Cathedral.

"Ah, Moscow," he says with a laugh.

Chaplaiev's ties to Russia are not those of a casual tourist. Like millions of Ukrainians, he has family and friends just across the Russian border — a reflection of the deep historical ties between the two countries.

In Chaplaiev's case, he was born in Russia into a mixed Russian-Ukrainian family in the city once known as Stalingrad. He joined the Soviet military and eventually settled in Ukraine. But his mother, his sisters and their children still live in Russia.

Those family ties are starting to tear following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"Two days before the war, what my sister said killed me: she said 'Putin is awesome,' " Chaplaiev said. "He's even exceeded her expectations. 'You sold out to the United States,' she said. 'You don't control your own country. You are Nazis so we will liberate you.' "

Chaplaiev is in his late 50s. His sister is a few years older. In his view, she, like many others of their generation, has bought into Russian state propaganda. He said that has made it increasingly difficult to talk to her in recent years.

And that became impossible after Russia launched its full-scale invasion, he said. So much so that he blocked her on social media.

"I feel like now my neighbors, my friends here, are better people for me than my own sister," he said.

Chaplaiev is still in touch with a niece in Russia, though. On the day the war began, he says, she sent him a voice message. Sitting at the small table in his kitchen, he pulled out his phone and played the audio.

"I love you, too, Uncle Vasya," his niece says in the message. "I heard about the sad things that are happening. I'm ready to shelter you and your family, if you need it. I have an apartment for you."

Chaplaiev said he initially responded with a text message wishing her well. But after Russia ramped up its attacks on Ukraine, shelling its cities and towns, he fired off a voice message of his own.

"Burn in hell all of you, together with your Putin," he says on the voice memo. "I don't wish you anything personally, but your people are bastards. They are animals... bastards... I would tear them with my own hands."

After playing the message, he sighed, and said he was emotional when he sent it. It's not his niece's fault, he said. She's against the war. but she's scared and not ready to rush the barricades and oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin's government.

Classical composer Oleksii Shmurak was born in Russia to a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father. He fled Kyiv and is now living in Lviv with a fellow composer.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Classical composer Oleksii Shmurak was born in Russia to a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father. He fled Kyiv and is now living in Lviv with a fellow composer.

How much responsibility do average Russians bear?

That sentiment gets to something many Ukrainians who have friends and family in Russia are wrestling with: Yes, this is Vladimir Putin's war, but how much responsibility do average Russians bear for what's going on?

Classical composer Oleksii Shmurak said that's a difficult question.

Shmurak was born in Russia to a Russian mother and a Ukrainian father. He lives in Kyiv where he is also an online teacher of music composition, but he fled west after Russia invaded. Now, he and a friend who's a fellow composer are renting an apartment in Lviv's old city.

Shmurak said when the war started he sent a message to one of his students in Russia.

"I wrote 'Remember this moment for all your life, your country took the country in which your teacher in composition now is located,'" he said.

Communication across the border varies between support and propaganda

When it comes to his Russian friends, he said they have reached out to offer their support.

"They said it is something crazy and something shameful," Shmurak said. "They asked me am I safe? And how they can help me?"

But he said his Russian friends live in a liberal bubble and are not representative of the broader Russian public.

A better example of that, in his view, is his mother's cousin, who for days after Russia attacked didn't write to ask whether Shmurak and his mother were safe.

And when he did, the cousin offered up the Kremlin's propaganda line about de-nazifying Ukraine.

"This line was just our military kills only Nazis and no problem with civil population," Shmurak said.

Ukrainians question whether ties can be rebuilt

For years, Shmurak has done music projects in Russia, although he dialed back a bit after Putin invaded Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014. When asked whether he'll continue to work in Russia or travel there again, he's confident in his answer.

"No, never, never. It's impossible because I know what they did, what they do, and unfortunately, I know what they will do, so no," he said.

Shmurak is not alone.

Ksenya Kovaleva lives in Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine. The city has been one of the hardest hit in the war.

She, too, comes from a mixed Russian-Ukrainian family. She said she was planning on moving in the fall to St. Petersburg to get her Ph.D. in political science but not anymore.

"After everything that has happened here, I will never go back in my life," Kovaleva said. "I withdrew all of these documents and rejected this part of me because this is a shame for me to call myself Russian after that."

She's insistent that this is not a temporary decision — it's a permanent one.

And it's a decision that people across Ukraine will have to make when the war eventually ends.

For Shmurak, at least, it depends on how that happens. If Putin is ousted and Russians apologize, he said, then it could be possible to rebuild ties.

"But in all other cases, we now are enemies for maybe centuries," Shmurak said. "Centuries."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.