How Ukrainian-Russian couples are faring after a year of war | Conflict


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Tbilisi, Georgia – When Oksana Slipchenko first exchanged glances with the person she would ultimately marry, she was instantly drawn to his eyes.

“They had been like … a small kitten’s eyes,” she recounts with a giggle. She pauses to think about a extra applicable time period. “I believe defenceless is extra the phrase.”

Because the couple sits of their sparsely furnished one-bedroom condominium in Tbilisi on a November afternoon, Oksana’s husband Sergio Skudin flushes with embarrassment.

Oksana, who’s Ukrainian, and Sergio, who’s Russian, first met on New 12 months’s Eve 2018, throughout a three-day practice journey throughout Belarus. Oksana, an expert pianist who labored as a concertmaster at a music faculty in Irpin, Ukraine, was instantly drawn to the shy, soft-spoken Sergio, an archaeologist and unbiased researcher who typically labored on expeditions for the Russian Academy of Sciences.

An preliminary friendship quickly blossomed right into a long-distance relationship, with the 2 often crisscrossing borders to see one another. In the summertime of 2020, they married in Kyiv. Oksana stop her job and moved to Russia, accompanying Sergio on archaeological digs, together with a months-long expedition to the location of the traditional Greek colony of Chersonesus in Sevastopol in Russian-occupied Crimea.

Oksana’s father, who grew to become mistrustful of Russians after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, was initially against her marriage. “However when he noticed Sergio for the primary time, he stated, ‘OK! It’s your alternative, possibly he’s not 100% Russian’,” Oksana remembers.

The political enmity between their international locations – and the preventing in jap Ukraine – had been subjects the couple often mentioned, however these by no means got here in the best way of their relationship. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine a yr in the past modified that.

A chicken’s eye view of Tbilisi, the capital metropolis of Georgia, to which an estimated 100,000 Russians and 25,000 Ukrainians have fled [Pearly Jacob/Al Jazeera]

‘Needed to get away’

On the time of the invasion, the couple was residing within the southeastern Russian metropolis of Rostov-on-Don. “I used to be stuffed with hatred for Russia and ache for my folks. I knew I simply needed to get away,” 30-year-old Oksana remembers.

Sergio recommended they head south to Georgia, one of many few international locations the place they might enter visa-free with their respective passports. After a protracted overland bus journey, they crossed into Georgia on March 4, travelling simply with what they might carry of their backpacks.

Since arriving within the Georgian capital, the couple has moved properties twice. Lease has soared with the inflow of an estimated 100,000 Russian exiles – a few of them against the battle and a few escaping sanctions or mobilisation – who far outnumber the 25,000 Ukrainians who sought refuge in Georgia.

Considered one of their largest preliminary challenges was discovering employment. Oksana discovered work as a piano trainer and tuner and sometimes performs in eating places and bars. However 38-year-old Sergio has struggled to herald an revenue.

As an alternative, he has been caring for Oksana’s mom, a wheelchair consumer who survived the Russian siege of Bucha within the early weeks of the preventing by hiding in a basement. She was evacuated to Tbilisi and now shares the condominium with the couple.

A photo of Oksana’s mother Tanya sitting in a wheelchair with Oksana sitting in a chair next to her and her husband Sergio sitting on a table with a laptop in front of them.
Oksana’s mom Tanya, Oksana and Sergio stay collectively in a one-bedroom condominium that they lease within the jap suburbs of Tbilisi. Oksana and Sergio sleep within the bed room, whereas Oksana’s mom occupies a nook of the eating space [Pearly Jacob/Al Jazeera]

New tensions

Sergio has an air of bewilderment as he tries to explain his ideas concerning the battle. “I really feel disappointment and disgrace,” he says lastly.

He says he’s against the battle, however at a time when many Ukrainians accuse Russian citizens of inaction, he believes widespread Russians are powerless. “Even when folks protested each day, I doubt it will possibly change something with the sturdy army regime in place,” he explains.

However he admits that he won’t have left Russia if not for Oksana.

“Sergio will not be a political particular person,” Oksana chimes in defensively.

She says that her anger is directed in the direction of the Russian regime and its military of “orcs” – not at Russian residents. “I nonetheless attempt to imagine in humanity,” she explains.

However the battle has introduced new tensions to their life collectively. Monetary worries, uncertainty concerning the future and Sergio giving up his tutorial profession have strained the connection.

Oksana typically feels responsible that Sergio has not discovered work, and because the extra digitally savvy of the 2, helps him study a software program programme within the hopes that he can proceed his profession on-line.

Discussions concerning the battle itself have additionally been a supply of friction, with the couple disagreeing over variations within the phrases they use. Solely as soon as has this was an enormous argument after Sergio learn out Russian information headlines referring to the October bombing of a key bridge in Crimea as a “terrorist act”.

“I acquired mad and screamed the way it may very well be a ‘terrorist assault’ to bomb a bridge” when Russian troopers “had been bombing flats and killing youngsters and ladies each day”, Oksana remembers.

After that incident, they’ve tried to not discuss concerning the battle.

When requested if he desires to return residence sometime, Oksana teasingly says that he may go and “get mobilised”. Sergio laughs uneasily. Chided by her mom, Oksana shortly apologises for her joke. “I can’t think about stay life with out him,” she says.

Like Oksana and Sergio, different Ukrainian-Russian {couples} in Georgia are having to navigate the brand new challenges the battle has delivered to their relationships.

A photo of Mariam Pesvianidze.
Mariam Pesvianidze, a Georgian-Russian filmmaker born and raised in Moscow, and her Ukrainian boyfriend struggled to brazenly talk about the battle after the invasion started in 2022 [Photo courtesy of Mariam Pesvianidze]

Relationship taboos

Mariam Pesvianidze, a 34-year-old Russian-Georgian filmmaker born and raised in Moscow, is aware of all too effectively about having to decide on her phrases rigorously when discussing the battle together with her Ukrainian boyfriend.

The couple has lived collectively in Tbilisi since 2018, however regardless of their shared political opinions, some subjects have change into taboo for the reason that battle started.

“I should be cautious to not say something to set off him. Any point out of issues confronted by Russians, even Russian activists and political dissidents, upsets him,” says Mariam.

Her boyfriend, she explains, believes that given the big struggling in Ukraine, Russians haven’t any proper to complain about their state of affairs.

Mariam exudes a buoyant vitality that she has thrown into activism since her teenage years. Talking at a downtown Tbilisi café housed in an 18th-century crimson brick constructing, she shares how, throughout her movie faculty days in Moscow, she attended numerous human rights protests and political rallies as a supporter of Boris Nemtsov, the late opponent of President Vladimir Putin. However she grew more and more despondent as her nation cracked down on activists and political opponents.

She says her political opinions had been influenced by her Georgian father, who separated from her Russian mom following 32 years of marriage after she introduced her assist for Putin and the annexation of Crimea over a household dinner.

Inside the yr, each father and daughter had left Russia. Mariam initially moved to Odesa in Ukraine, however when Nemtsov was assassinated in 2015, she determined to affix her father in Tbilisi, the place she arrange a movie manufacturing firm with some Ukrainian mates and launched one of many metropolis’s first plastic recycling non-profits.

It was by means of mutual Ukrainian mates that she first met her boyfriend. “At first I discovered him annoying and loud, however I used to be quickly enamoured by his big teddy bear character and enormous coronary heart,” she says of her 32-year-old boyfriend who declined to be interviewed for this story.

Her accomplice had initially moved to Tbilisi to recuperate from shrapnel accidents he sustained whereas serving within the Ukrainian military in Donbas.

“He already hated the Putin regime and Russian politics again then, however [his anger] was by no means directed personally at anybody,” says Mariam.

A photo of a boy waling past graffiti on the wall that reads “Russians Go Home".
A boy walks previous anti-Russian graffiti in Tbilisi, an indication of the resentment directed on the inflow of Russians and their nation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine [Pearly Jacob/Al Jazeera]

Hurts to not discuss

Mariam and her boyfriend may as soon as have lengthy intense conversations about Russian politics and society with out them turning into arguments. They combined with like-minded Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians. However for the reason that full-scale invasion of Ukraine, issues have modified.

In Georgia, folks began questioning the culpability and collective duty of Russian residents opting to flee their nation somewhat than resist their authorities.

Solidarity with Ukraine, and animosity in the direction of the wealthier new immigrants who’re seen as pricing out locals, are seen in graffiti telling Russians to “go residence”.

This sentiment has taken a toll on her friendships, says Mariam, who’s an energetic pro-Ukrainian anti-war campaigner. “It was exhausting for me to listen to horrible issues about all Russians – portray us all with one brush. It was like our friendship didn’t matter any extra,” she says, explaining that she additionally left the manufacturing firm she co-founded to keep away from inflicting discomfort.

Her boyfriend stopped interacting together with his Russian mates and, with the 2 of them residing collectively, Mariam needed to resort to assembly her Russian mates solely outdoors.

Mariam understands that the inflow of Russians into Tbilisi was troublesome for her boyfriend who was already coping with post-traumatic stress dysfunction (PTSD) from his time within the military. “I do know his grief is far greater and I utterly perceive silence and empathy is required from my half, nevertheless it additionally hurts not to have the ability to speak about my grief with out guilt,” she says, referring to how she feels concerning the crackdowns on anti-war protesters in Russia, and a few mates severing ties.

Mariam has turned to remedy to debate her relationship whereas additionally specializing in her and her boyfriend’s deliberate future collectively. She says they’re making use of for visas to maneuver to Canada, the place her boyfriend hopes to place a ways between himself and the battle he’s reminded of each day.

A photo of 8-year old Mariam with her father Levan Pesvianizde on the beach.
Mariam, then eight, and her father Levan Pesvianidze by the North Sea in Germany throughout a household trip [Photo courtesy of Mariam Pesvianidze]

A psychologist’s take

Diana Khabibulina, a psychologist in Tbilisi, is aware of the friction between Russians and Ukrainians that has erupted for the reason that battle.

As a volunteer with a neighborhood group that was set as much as present free counselling to the primary wave of Ukrainian girls and youngsters who arrived in Georgia as refugees, Khabibulina’s staff initially supplied group remedy to Ukrainians in addition to ethnic Russians who had escaped from Kherson throughout the early days of the battle.

Some Russians residing in Georgia additionally signed up for remedy periods that had been performed in Russian. “Everybody was in shock and there was loads of combined feelings. [The war] triggered ache and trauma in everybody,” she remembers. However quickly, with tensions getting in the best way, group remedy periods had been changed with particular person counselling for some folks.

“They didn’t know talk with one another … Many Russians had been additionally dealing with loads of guilt and couldn’t categorical themselves freely,” says Khabibulina.

She fears that the breakdown in relations between the teams, significantly for folks with households on each side of the battle, may result in particular person and collective trauma with results felt for many years to come back.

Khabibulina, who’s of Russian and Georgian heritage, remembers how the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the brutal civil battle that adopted in Georgia from 1992 to 1994 – when Russian-backed separatists took management of the breakaway areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – left deep scars and fuelled distrust amongst completely different ethnic teams in Georgia for years. “My household has lived right here for generations however a few of our neighbours stopped speaking to us as a result of they noticed us as Russians. I used to be a younger lady then and this stayed with me for a very long time,” the 46-year-old explains.

Though she has not labored straight with Russian-Ukrainian {couples}, Khabibulina has counselled folks from each international locations combating households in Russia who assist the battle. Respectful open dialogue can save relationships, she believes. “We will practise empathy with out sharing beliefs. Pay attention and when you possibly can’t take it any extra, take a pause however don’t lower ties,” Khabibulina says.

A photo of Levan Pesvianidze sitting at a table.
Levan Pesvianidze, who’s Georgian, separated from his Russian spouse of 32 years after mounting political variations and her assist for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 [Pearly Jacob/Al Jazeera]

‘The top of my relationship’

However for Levan Pesvianidze, Mariam’s 60-year-old father, separation was inevitable. “In case your religious and ethical values don’t join, that’s when you possibly can’t maintain a relationship any longer,” he insists.

“When the particular person I thought-about my closest ally was blissful [Russia] took Crimea ‘again’, it was the tip of my relationship,” Levan says candidly.

He and his spouse had met in Dresden as engineering college students throughout the Soviet Union and moved to Moscow the place they continued to stay after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

A burly man with a hearty snort, Levan, says he’s nonetheless grateful for his life together with his ex-wife with whom he owned a profitable advertising enterprise in Moscow, although he was all the time uneasy about residing in Russia and taking over a Russian passport as the previous Soviet republics grew to become unbiased nations. However each time he expressed a want for them to maneuver to Georgia, his then-wife, with whom he had three youngsters, would dissuade him, pointing to their snug life. Levan’s discomfort grew when Putin got here into energy and step by step cemented his authoritarian rule.

Levan remembers how his spouse opposed Russia’s 2008 battle on Georgia. However her views modified through the years when it got here to Ukraine, believing that Russia had a proper to Crimea and that the present invasion was spurred by the West attempting to develop the NATO bloc.

He says he needs he may have saved her from Putin’s propaganda. “She’s a extremely educated, clever particular person however she nonetheless fell for it,” he says.

Bitter arguments

Ukrainian-born Dimitri, a pseudonym to guard his id, and his Russian spouse have discovered themselves on reverse sides of the battle.

They met at a neighborhood boxing gymnasium of their late teenagers. “Again then, there was no battle, no Crimea. We had been very younger and deeply in love,” recounts Dimitri who, because of safety considerations, most popular to correspond over WhatsApp messages from Moscow.

They married of their early 20s and had their first youngster in 2014. On the time, Dimitri, now 30, by no means imagined {that a} battle between their two international locations would change into the topic of bitter arguments, after which he has generally requested himself why he married the “enemy”.

Dimitri says his spouse, a religious Orthodox Christian, has been conditioned by her household and the church to imagine that Russia’s invasion was an act of self-defence towards the West.

Within the early days of the battle, the couple argued often, practically splitting up twice. When Dimitri insisted they depart Russia, they had been among the many tens of 1000’s of Russians who caught the final out there flights out of Russia and into Tbilisi in March.

However very quickly, the couple with three youngsters under the age of 10, discovered themselves unable to afford the excessive price of lease. After 5 months in Tbilisi, they flew again to Moscow.

The 2 have since agreed to work out their variations for his or her youngsters, however Dimitri says it’s a each day wrestle to struggle the grind of Russian propaganda his spouse consumes on TV and social media. With all criticism of what Russia calls its “particular army operation” punishable with as much as 15 years imprisonment, there are not any voices to counter the regular stream of state-sponsored disinformation.

“I perceive that my spouse is a sufferer of propaganda,” he says, including that he has utterly severed ties together with his in-laws who’re open supporters of Putin. This, in flip, has additional strained their marriage.

A photo of a memorial to the victims of Russia's war on Ukraine.
A memorial to the victims of Russia’s battle on Ukraine stands outdoors Georgia’s parliament constructing in downtown Tbilisi as a mark of the nation’s solidarity with Ukraine [Pearly Jacob/Al Jazeera]

Prisoners of battle

Dimitri was born in Kyiv and was a toddler when his household moved to Russia in the hunt for work within the late Nineties, a time of financial, social and political tumult for post-Soviet international locations following the dissolution of the USSR. In Moscow, he earned a regulation diploma and, after a couple of years working at a Russian regulation agency, obtained a Russian passport.

However he has all the time felt like an outsider. “I’ve all the time remained Ukrainian at coronary heart. That’s how my mother and father raised me. I converse Ukrainian fluently nonetheless and wore the vyshyvanka [traditional embroidered Ukrainian shirt] in Moscow … I’ve lived with [Russians] virtually all my life however they virtually all the time referred to as me khokhol [a derogatory term that refers to a Ukrainian Cossack topknot hairstyle],” wrote Dimitri.

Since returning to Moscow, Dimitri has discovered some consolation and function by working as a defence lawyer for captured Ukrainian troopers – a job with dangers given his Ukrainian heritage, and the explanation he requested anonymity.

Though his spouse, who’s a stay-at-home mom, stays not sure about Russia’s function as an aggressor within the battle, she is compassionate concerning the plight of Ukrainian prisoners of battle. She helps search on-line boards to establish these in want of authorized illustration and fills out paperwork for Dimitri’s circumstances. Dimitri hopes it is a signal that his spouse could someday change her stance. Regardless of every part, he says, “We completely love one another.”

Battle’s psychological penalties

Consultants have warned of the big long-term psychological well being penalties of the battle for Ukrainians. “Populations which might be affected by army battle, violence and displacement, are rather more susceptible to psychological well being problems like despair, nervousness and post-traumatic stress problems,” says Dr Darejan Javakhishvili, a professor of psychology at Tbilisi’s Ilia State College. And these can have an effect on folks’s relationships – whether or not with companions, households or mates, she provides.

She means that many Russians could face an enormous ethical dilemma. “We will solely speculate. However there’s a likelihood that many Russians are caught between their id and loyalty to the Russian statehood and their inner values,” Javakhishvili displays.

She believes that ethical harm, or the psychological misery arising from perpetrating, witnessing or failing to forestall actions that go towards an individual’s morals, may very well be fairly excessive amongst Russians.

“The battle expertise”, direct or oblique, is a “traumatic stress” that may closely have an effect on relationship dynamics, provides Nino Makhashvili, a psychotherapist, researcher and colleague of Javakhishvili. This, she says, may apply to anybody emotionally affected by the battle, be it Ukrainians, Russians, Georgians or anybody carefully following the occasions who identifies strongly with one of many sides.

Folks could change into “short-tempered, irritable, even aggressive or withdrawn”, she explains.

The 2 girls have collaborated on analysis into the social and psychological well being results of battle on internally displaced folks (IDPs) following the Nineties’ battle in Georgia in addition to in Ukraine, the place near 1,000,000 Ukrainians had been displaced following the annexation of Crimea and when pro-Russian separatists took management of swathes of the Donbas area in 2014.

This analysis may maintain classes for the current battle.

“Sadly, we noticed splitting of loads of households since 2014 and never solely combined marriages, however Ukrainian {couples} who didn’t share the identical ideology,” Makhashvili explains over electronic mail.

“Each household has its dysfunctions,” Javakhishvili says. But when companions have a mutual understanding of the opposite’s beliefs, it’s foundation “to try to work by means of variations. There is no one single cause for [the] collapse of relationships … and [the] Russian-Ukrainian battle can’t be one single cause for divorce.”

Drawing on previous analysis, each consultants imagine that trauma from this battle is more likely to persist past the current era.

“Even after virtually 20 years from the Nineties’ battle, the psychological well being burden amongst IDPs [in Georgia] had been very excessive,” warns Makhashvili.

A photo of Oksana Slipchenko and her husband Sergio Skudin.
Oksana and Sergio say they’re dedicated to one another in what Oksana calls the ‘new actuality’ of the battle and the strain it has delivered to their lives [Pearly Jacob/Al Jazeera]

‘New actuality’

Regardless of her finest efforts to protect her relationship, Mariam broke up together with her Ukrainian boyfriend in late December, a couple of month after she was first interviewed for this story. She admits his animosity in the direction of her ache in addition to her lack of ability to precise herself freely was an enormous a part of her resolution to finish their practically five-year-long relationship.

He had additionally turned down her requests to hunt remedy collectively. “He [was] too confused and didn’t need to introspect and alter in any respect,” she says. Her ex-partner’s visa for Canada was accepted, and he moved there earlier this yr. Mariam has additionally determined to go away Tbilisi and plans to relocate to Lisbon.

She says she’s going to proceed to marketing campaign for an finish to the battle in Ukraine. Mariam labored with a gaggle of native Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian activists to launch an anti-war artwork exhibition in late February with work, performances and installations from anti-war Russian musicians and artists in exile.

When just lately requested over WhatsApp if she has any hope of the battle ending quickly, she wrote: “Hope will not be my feeling. I desire to struggle as all the time – for freedom, human rights and fact.”

Oksana and Sergio see the battle as cindering any risk of them residing in Ukraine. Regardless of Ukrainians welcoming Russian dissidents through the years and people preventing for Ukraine, Oksana believes that Sergio could be akin to the enemy. “I can’t ask that of him [to live in Ukraine] for the sake of my very own folks,” she says.

For Oksana, the battle is a “new actuality”.

“It would stick with us for a very long time.”

The one foreseeable future she will see with Sergio is in a rustic not of their very own, which for now could be Georgia. “Perhaps, South America sometime however that’s a dream,” she provides.

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