Julia Kallaur wears a necklace with her Russian name every day.
For most of her life, the freshman criminology major struggled to reconcile her Russian identity with her American upbringing. When she found out Russia invaded Ukraine, she was distraught.
“I’ve spent so many years of trying to figure out my identity in being Russian. And then as soon as I’m getting used to it or feeling like I’ve grown into it more, it’s like ‘oh, I really am ashamed,” she said.
When Kallaur’s grandparents immigrated during the Cold War era, they hid their Russian identity in fear. Now, her family is again worried; they advise her to take off her necklace and stop speaking in Russian on the phone.
For many University of Maryland students with Russian identities, the Russian invasion was a bombshell – both literally and figuratively. Once the dust settled after the initial shock, complex emotions set in.
For Kallaur, the war is especially painful because Russian culture is similar to Ukrainian culture.
“It’s really heartbreaking because most of the people in those areas [affected by war] are our brothers and sisters,” she said. “The people in that region of the world – the Slavic states – they’re all very similar cultures, very similar people.”
Kallaur is not the only Russian student distraught over the violence in Ukraine. Many other Russian students are standing in solidarity with Ukrainians.
Arseniy Braslavskiy, an economics doctoral student from Russia, spoke against Russian aggression at a recent vigil for Ukraine at the University of Maryland. He also protested in front of the White House.
Born and raised in Russia, Braslavskiy attended Moscow University before coming to the University of Maryland. He said he is devastated for those affected – directly and indirectly – by the violence in Ukraine.
But he’s also concerned for his family in Russia. Many of Braslavskiy’s friends in Russia have left the country, but some of his immediate family remains. Right now, they’re relatively safe, he said, but he worries about what is to come.
“I call them almost every day now,” he said of his parents.
His mother and father take care of his extended family, which makes leaving difficult. Through tears, his mother recently told him over the phone “I feel trapped here,” he said.
For other Russian students, family worries run deeper. Many Russian students reported struggling with family members who have been subject to disinformation and Russian propaganda. Others have family members who fear even broaching the subject of war.
Nastasia Belova, a senior civil engineering major, moved from Russia to Maryland when she was 7 years old. Some of her family in Russia is terrified to talk on the phone about the war, fearing the government may be listening.
“A lot of [people] are in denial about how bad this actually is,” Belova said, adding that some of her family is as well.
She likened the situation to that surrounding the 2020 election and the insurrection: Some people believed everything former President Donald Trump said.
“Some people understand what Putin is doing and how he is brainwashing [them] and other people, they’re just kind of accepting it and listening to it,” Belova said.
Some don’t want to accept the truth because everything they know is rooted in Russia, she said.
Sarah Oates, a professor who studies Russian propaganda, agreed with Belova’s comparison.
“I think it’s actually quite useful to compare Trump and Putin supporters. It’s not that Trump and Putin are the same or anything,” said Oates, a senior scholar at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism. “But it’s because people who believe in Trump’s narrative – it’s really more like a cult than it is a consumption of news.”
Oates said Putin supporters – like Trump – are often making a political statement rather than truly believing the propaganda they are consuming. Independent information won’t change that, she said.
“It’s about people being lost in particular worldviews. And wishing to believe things as they would like them to be rather than as they are,” Oates said.
That idea of Russian people believing propaganda because it represents what Russia could be makes sense to Russian student Arsenii Karelin, a sophomore international business major who was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia. Despite Russians having made great contributions to literature, art and theater, he said, many Russians are still living in poor conditions.
“People are craving greatness,” he said, “trying to hold close to that old greatness of Russia.”
While the desire to believe their country is great may be influential, other students point to the sheer difficulty their family members have in obtaining independent information.
Vladimir Butyrkin, a first-year neuroscience graduate student who grew up near Moscow, says his parents have nobody around them to explain what is going on. Part of an older generation, they primarily get their news from state-sponsored television channels.
“They don’t know the facts,” Butyrkin said of his parents.
TV programs they watch present an alternate world in which the war in Ukraine is simply a “military operation.”
His parents are normal people, Butyrkin says.
“They try to live their lives like all people in the world, wherever they live. They try to make their lives meaningful and do some right things.”
But after a lifetime of disinformation, his parents don’t know what to believe. Butyrkin has been sending them information and articles to help them understand.
Oates said that this generational gap is key to understanding reactions to the conflict: Older people, she said, rely heavily on televised, state-controlled news.
Independent news has been increasingly hard to come by in Russia – even more so after the Russian government passed legislation recently threatening citizens with up to 15 years in jail for calling Russia’s invasion a war.
Younger generations look to online sources and social media instead of television.
“They’re far more skeptical and far more international in orientation,” Oates said.
Those in the West shouldn’t expect Russians — old or young — to topple Putin anytime soon, Karelin said, because it’s hard for Europeans and Americans to understand where Russians are coming from.
“Americans and especially Europeans like to say ‘just go out and protest and take [Putin] out of power,” he said. “It’s like trying to save the Titanic but you are trying to close holes with your own hands.”
“People who are born and raised in democracies – here – they have this innate understanding that if your politician does something, you’re responsible for it because you elected him.”
It’s not like that in Russia.
“It’s very hard to break the system,” he said.
That system leaves many Russian students with little hope for the future of the country.
“I feel like the core of who I am and all of my home is being crushed right now,” said Belova. And yet, she said, “life in America goes on.”
Featured image: Julia Kallaur wears a necklace with her Russian name every day. Her family is worried she will be the victim of anti-Russian sentiment. Photo courtesy of Julia Kallaur.