“I was depressed, and I couldn’t sleep,” said Galina, a violinist from the central Russian city of Samara, about her reaction to Russia’s war against neighboring Ukraine — a “nightmare” that she fears “is only accelerating.”
“I got into arguments, which was unusual for me,” she said. “Finally, I decided I’m not going to speak to people who support all of this.”
One of those people is Galina’s husband, Vladimir, a former criminal investigator who supports the war. Since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, they have been speaking less and less.
“When people fight in silence — if you can describe it that way — nothing good comes of it,” Vladimir said of the sometimes icy, sometimes fiery, atmosphere that has come to dominate the couple’s apartment. “She doesn’t see me as a like-minded person, and that’s all there is to it. And I also don’t see her as like-minded. But on the other hand, it would be stupid to renounce my point of view just to agree. So I prefer just keeping silent and avoiding arguments.”
Although the couple was still living together, their marriage was clearly on the verge of collapse. Galina and Vladimir are among the Russian families featured in Broken Ties, the latest documentary by journalist and filmmaker Andrei Loshak.
The film explores the devastating impact the war has had on many Russians, creating or exposing seemingly unbridgeable rifts between sisters and brothers, parents and children, husbands and wives.
The film premiered in Russian on Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, on June 19. A version with English subtitles has also been released.
Loshak, who left Russia for Georgia shortly after the invasion and lives in Tbilisi, said the idea of making a film about how the tensions with Ukraine were being felt in ordinary Russian families first struck him in 2014, when Moscow seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and fomented a separatist war in the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas.
He said his own cousin, a coeval with whom he grew up and has always been close, began using offensive slurs and violent imagery in reference to Ukrainians — showing a side that Loshak had not seen in the past.
“I thought about this and even tried to collect some material, but back then it wasn’t such a widespread phenomenon,” Loshak told Current Time. “But now, when so much more has happened, such stories are popping up everywhere. Among my close friends, among people I know on social media, and so on.”
Many of the familial disputes are marked by deep acrimony over the invasion, with some opponents accusing supporters of complicity in war crimes and some supporters branding opponents traitors or worse. Some relatives have stopped speaking to one another; some are angrily at odds whenever they do.
“The film is structured in a binary way,” Loshak said. “I spoke with each person separately because getting them to speak together didn’t work.”
With more than 1.3 million views online, the documentary has struck a powerful chord.
“It is a shocking film. Terrifying,” wrote journalist Ksenia Larina on Facebook. “Hopeless. There are no illusions in this tunnel of gloom. There is no hope.”
One woman featured in the documentary, Larina noted, says that she “cannot just give up and come to terms with her mother’s militarism for the sake of family and love. She can’t because it is unacceptable, unbearable for her to live in lies and hypocrisy.”
Larina concluded that the film was about “the mental genocide of a nation.”
WATCH: An edited excerpt from Broken Ties:
Loshak directed the film and conducted the main interviews remotely. Some of the most powerful sequences come as one family member listens while the other expresses their positions and feelings. Often the pathos is underscored by montages of photographs showing the families together in happier, prewar times.
“I’d like to hear from my mother something like, ‘There is some crazy stuff going on in the world, please be careful,’” says one young man in the film. “Instead of, ‘Hello, fascist.’”
Loshak, who does not hide his anti-war feelings, said that he respects those who support the war and agreed to participate in the film despite his liberal reputation.
“For them, what is happening in Ukraine is logical and understandable,” he said. “They don’t suffer over this like those who oppose the war do. But they are really suffering because the people closest to them no longer understand them.
“Maybe they thought that by expressing themselves in this film, their loved ones would hear them,” he concluded. “I just don’t know.”
One pro-war mother in the Kaliningrad region city of Baltiisk, the home of Russia’s Baltic Sea Fleet, said she agreed to participate in the film because her daughter, an anti-war pediatrician in St. Petersburg, feels as if she has no outlet to express her distress over the war.
“She is a good person if you don’t talk to her about [the war],” Loshak said. “A really beautiful person. She agreed to participate…simply in order to give her daughter a chance to be heard. She understood that our film was set up in such a way that her daughter could speak if she gave the other side. It was the gesture of a loving and suffering maternal heart.”
The Russian government and its massive propaganda machine are constant background features of the film, with President Vladimir Putin’s voice often intoning quietly in the background while Loshak’s pro-war interlocutors speak.
“People have been put in this position by the government,” Loshak said. “Either you are with us or you are against us. And that is how the government is acting — if you don’t accept the war, you are a criminal. The government itself — by forbidding all dissent — is splitting society and eliminating all space for dialogue.”
The film features Natalya, a psychologist and counselor who lives in London and opposes the war. Her retired mother lives in a small town in the Perm region, near the Urals, and supports the war, despite having critical opinions about Putin. Using her professional background, Natalya tries to build bridges with her mother.
“Carefully, not every day, bit by bit,” Natalya says in the film. “And, you know, after every conversation, she has moved a little bit. She starts to have doubts…. Then, after a few days, I call her and she’s right back where she started.”
Her mother, Lyudmila, tells Loshak that Natalya is just trying to “hypnotize” her. When Loshak asks if Natalya has had any impact on her thinking, Lyudmila answers: “No, of course not.”
“I never had the illusion the film would become a platform for dialogue,” Loshak said. “It is just a record of the fact that no dialogue is possible now or in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, we are talking about two mutually exclusive worlds.”