Putin is trying to make Russians and Ukrainians hate each other. It won’t work

Show caption Russian police deployed to break up an anti-war protest in Moscow. Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA Opinion Putin is trying to make Russians and Ukrainians hate each other. It won’t work Alex Halberstadt Putin’s underestimation of the bond between the two countries makes this war the least popular and most self-destructive action he has taken Fri 11 Mar 2022 14.14 GMT Share on Facebook

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My paternal grandfather, Vassily, was a Ukrainian who lived in both Russia and Ukraine and spoke both languages. He and my father stopped speaking to each other around the time I was born, and I met him in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, in 2004. I was in my 30s; Vassily was 94 and very likely the last living bodyguard of Joseph Stalin. In Vinnytsia, a medium-sized city near the country’s center, Ukrainians, Russians and Jews lived as neighbors, their ethnic and cultural differences blurred by 70 years of Soviet rule. As for Vassily, for 12 years he had shared a one-bedroom apartment with his kindly third wife, Sophia, a Russian whose parents had perished in Stalin’s purges.

Ukrainians and Russians share much of their culture and history, and an estimated 11 million Russians have Ukrainian relatives. Millions more have Ukrainian spouses and friends. Like me, many have memories of spending summers in Odesa, Kherson and elsewhere in Ukraine, a country that Russians call their “brotherly nation”. The two people also fought alongside each other in the second world war – which in Russia is still sometimes called the great patriotic war – and lived side by side under Soviet tyranny and repression.

Putin’s underestimation of their bond, and overestimation of his ability to control the flow of information inside his country, is what makes this war the least popular and most self-destructive action that he has undertaken: it will take more than Kremlin propaganda to make Russians think of Ukrainians as enemies. And Putin’s stunning claim that Ukraine’s democratically elected Jewish president is harboring “Nazis” and waging “genocide” has a particularly hollow ring in Russia, a country where those words still evoke memories for many.

In his insularity, paranoia and taste for performative sadism, Putin is coming to resemble Stalin in the last years of his life. If he survives this war, his country will resemble Stalin’s, too: isolated, totalitarian and economically weak. Russians of my generation are witnessing a return to a past they thought they had outlived. Suddenly, they are facing the choices negotiated by their grandparents – forced to decide whether at any given moment to choose self-preservation, or at least silence, over what they know to be right. Some are choosing instead to flee their country.

In the 1930s and 1940s, my grandfather Vassily spent more than a decade as an officer of the Soviet secret police, and, like the members of the Russian military carrying out this war’s campaigns, he committed horrific acts on his superiors’ orders. The grinding shame never left him. Before we said goodbye, the former secret policeman grasped my hands, pressed his face to mine, and whispered: “I was scared every single day.”

No doubt many Russians will believe the propaganda manufactured by the state media, or choose inaction, and some will even support the invasion as an exercise in imperial might. Yet the war has already sparked levels of resistance in Russia unprecedented in the Putin era, despite an increasingly brutal and desperate crackdown by the regime. Though a law announced last week punishes the most basic acts of protest with up to 15 years in prison, and many are losing jobs and university admissions for voicing their dissent, demonstrations in Russia are growing: Sunday saw the largest crowds to date, with police arresting nearly 5,000 protesters across 65 cities in a single day.

The Kremlin’s move to shutter the last vestiges of a free Russian press and block Facebook and Twitter will not prove enough to deceive Russians for long. Information has become simply too free, and Ukrainians are disabusing relatives and friends in Russia about the state of the war with a phone call. Having been raised to think of themselves as the people who liberated the world from Hitler, many Russians are finding the role of aggressors in an unjust war to be unbearable. And the crippling economic fallout, low military morale and considerable Russian casualties – reported to be nearing 6,000 dead – are bound to further swell the public outcry. While we wonder whether Kyiv will fall, it’s increasingly prudent to ask whether the chief occupant of the Kremlin will outlast the year.

It is difficult not to sympathize with Ukrainians’ outrage not just at Putin but at Russians. It is, of course, justified. The events in Ukraine are a disaster for both countries, and it is my hope that both Russians and Ukrainians will increasingly assign the blame for their suffering to the despot waging this war. The two people have preserved their kinship through wars and calamities, and they will again. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with my Ukrainian grandfather’s Russian wife in Vinnytsia. When I asked Sophia how, after what she had been through, she could stand to be married to Stalin’s former bodyguard, she replied: “We lived in terrible times. All that is left now is to be kind to each other.”

Alex Halberstadt is the author of Young Heroes of the Soviet Union and a contributor to the New York Times Magazine and other publications