We Spoke to Ukrainian Refugees at the Polish Border

Vladimir Putin claims to be protecting Russian speakers in Ukraine. A Jacobin reporter at the Polish border found Russian-speaking refugees outraged at his claims — and at Russian media’s denial of horrors they saw with their own eyes.

Ukrainian refugees arriving at a shelter in Młyny, Poland on March 12, 2022. (Adri Salido / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Anna Temirbekova fled Kiev on Thursday. Her family had the spent two weeks prior sleeping in the hallway of her apartment building, to try to protect themselves in case the Russians shelled close by. After weeks of anxiety and little sleep, she heard one explosion closer than ever before, and realized she had to leave. She packed her bags and — together with her husband and their nine-year-old son — boarded a train for Poland the next morning. Her mother stayed behind in Kiev.

Amidst these weeks of trepidation, Temirbekova and her mother received text messages from cousins in Russia. “They asked, ‘How are you?’ How should we be? We’re under bomb attack,” she said, incredulous. “My relatives in Russia said, ‘Don’t worry, we are coming to rescue you from these neo-Nazis,’” she added, shaking her head. Temirbekova’s husband is originally from Kyrgyzstan, and the two speak Russian at home. They find ridiculous the Kremlin rhetoric that Russian speakers in Ukraine don’t have rights. “My husband has been in Ukraine for fifteen years, he doesn’t speak Ukrainian but it wasn’t a problem,” she said.

After the promise of “rescue,” Temirbekova said she deleted all her cousins and family group chats. “Now they’re not my relatives,” she said. “They’ve been reading propaganda for twenty years and are now like this.”

The Russian state has been strict in its media coverage — the invasion of Ukraine is not a war but a “special military operation,” necessary to liberate Russian-speaking Ukrainians from neo-Nazis. There are some far-right antisemites in Ukraine, and laws prioritizing the Ukrainian language in official settings have drawn criticism from minority-language media in Ukraine. Yet these facts have been inflated and instrumentalized to justify an invasion that bombs the “fraternal people” it claims to “protect.” For Ukrainians fleeing the war, this propaganda — and ordinary Russians’ swallowing of it — is so absurd as to be painful.

Forced From Home

“I hope that this war will be over soon and I will be able to go back home,” said Anna K., standing in a train hall in Przemyśl, Poland surrounded by suitcases. Anna, who didn’t disclose her last name, traveled for three days from her home in Sumy in the east of Ukraine to reach Poland. Normally she works as an associate professor of physics and math, but the week before she left Sumy there was incessant bombing and gunfire, and she spent a lot of time underground, before finally making her escape with some relatives.

Before the war, Anna didn’t often watch the news — but once it started she regularly tuned into the television news dispatches. She found that the Ukrainian public broadcaster reliably reflected what she also saw happening, but found Russian state coverage maddening: “Sometimes, I watch news from Russia to compare, but it makes me angry,” she said. “Some of it is really not true. In the Russian news they say they are not bombing people: but I see it in my city, buildings being bombed. I saw it with my own eyes.”

Many Ukrainians, like Anna, can switch fluidly between Russian and Ukrainian. “For me, Russian is my mother tongue, I was born in the Soviet Union,” said Anna. And like millions of Ukrainians, she has family in Russia. But she said those relatives completely believe the lies she’s been seeing in Russian-language reports.

“It’s impossible to explain to them it’s not true,” said Anna. “Maybe young people who have access to the internet think differently. But old people, they 100 percent believe the TV news, they really believe this war is not real.” Anna has largely cut off contact with her relatives because of their war denial. Like well over 1.5 million Ukrainians, she is now looking for somewhere to stay in Poland — though she hopes it will only be temporary.

The Russian propaganda about the war has been interminable and multifarious. On Russian state TV and on state-owned news sites there have been thousands of unfounded reports that Ukraine was preparing attacks against Russian separatists or Russia itself. It is alleged that Western powers staged a coup in Ukraine, that Ukraine is filled with and controlled by Nazis, and that “genocide” was committed against Russian-speakers in the Donbas region — claims that online misinformation watchdog NewsGuard categorizes as myths. On Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and on Telegram channels in recent months, there was a dramatic uptick in such content and its promotion by the Russian government.

This propaganda has also been pushed in English-language media. In addition to frequent posts on Kremlin-controlled sites Sputnik News, RT, and TASS, after the Russians bombed a maternity clinic in Mariupol on March 9, the Russian Embassy in the UK claimed that one of the pregnant women in photos was merely a “crisis actor.” She was in fact pregnant and in the bombed maternity clinic.

“The Russian news says they don’t attack common people but it’s not true,” said Valery Kalinovshka, a medical student who fled Zaporizhzhya for Poland. “Even if you don’t die from guns there’s no food, no water, no electricity.” When the cellphone networks are working, her friends in the nearby Donetsk region send updates that they are trapped, unable to flee and besieged on all sides. She worries they will soon run out of food.

“Fake News” Ban

Kalinovshka speaks Ukrainian and Russian. At home her family speaks Surzhyk — a creole of the two languages. In the first days of the war, she started reading Russian news all the time, trying to understand what the Russians believed. She found some bloggers and YouTubers who did acknowledge the war by name. “Some of them are ok, they understand,” she said. “But now in Russia they don’t say it’s war, they say it’s a special operation. But it is war.”

The Russian state has been trying to reduce access to information about the war. In the past weeks, they have blocked access to independent reporting from inside Russia, as well as other European media such the BBC and Deutsche Welle. Shortly after the war began, Facebook blocked RT and Sputnik inside the EU, and in response Russia then blocked Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The Russian Duma simultaneously passed a law criminalizing “fake” reports with up to fifteen years in prison — essentially making it illegal for Russians to even acknowledge the war.

Some Russians have been vocal against the war. Thousands were arrested for attending antiwar protests across Russia, and there are even some reports that protesters holding blank signs — in a guileful nod to the law — were arrested.

But Kalinovshka said most of the Russian posts she saw on Instagram and Telegram denied the war completely. In the first days she attempted to argue with them: “I tried to speak Russian to these people who told untrue information, but they don’t understand us,” said Kalinovshka. “They don’t understand that it’s war. Now I don’t want to speak to them.”

She has since deleted all the Russian Telegram channels she was following. By the time she arrived in Poland, she had stopped reading the news completely — finding it all too painful.

“They see news but it’s not the news we see,” said Kalinovshka. “We see our cities being bombed.”