Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

As the one month anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has passed, it remains difficult to accept the unfolding events in Ukraine as reality. Thousands of my fellow Ukrainians are dead and millions have fled their home country since the beginning of the invasion.

The vast majority of the world has been outraged, showing its passionate support for Ukraine, its troops and its citizens. But what has been the attitude towards the Russian population of Charleston and what do Russians in America have to say about the invasion?

Russian Charlestonians

“Both Ukrainian and Russian citizens are victims here”, said Dr. Leah Esther, a Charleston-area pediatrician originally from St. Petersburg, Russia. “Those Russian soldiers who are dying in Ukraine are children. They are 18- to 20 year-old kids”, she said compassionately. 

“They are victims of the awful [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s regime and his administration. But unfortunately, not everyone understands that. One of my recent clients, a 7-year-old boy of a Russian descent, was called a ‘Russian terrorist’ by his classmates, she said. “My own children are afraid to speak Russian and prefer English in public these days”, she added. 

Katya and Roman Pekar tell another story of a girl in seventh grade, a daughter of a friend, who was bullied at school and called a “Russian terrorist” and a “communist.” To combat bullying and to show where her true allegiance lies, the girl ended up making dozens of blue and yellow ribbons worn by some of the performers of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra (CSO) where Roman Pekar performs. Katya is originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, and Roman is from Kyiv, Ukraine. They both are passionate supporters of Ukraine: “What’s happening there right now is unprecedented. It’s so sad and infuriating at the same time, and I don’t know a single Russian who lives abroad who supports this insanity”, said Katya.

Their son, Misha Pekar, is a pianist. He was born in St. Petersburg and moved to the United States with his parents at the age of 4. He added: “It’s such a difficult balance for us, immigrants, now. On the one hand, we try to hold on to our culture, to our roots and to celebrate our history, and at the same time, that recently has become very difficult. 

“When your country is known around the whole world as the aggressor, it becomes really hard to be proud of your country and, unfortunately, of everything that your country represents. I was so proud to perform in the ‘Program of Russian music’ at the CSO, but now that association has become shameful. 

“It makes me sad and embarrassed to be associated with Russia and yet those are my roots and my culture which I am attempting to still hold on to.”

Misha’s emotional challenge surely will resonate with many Russian-Americans who are living through this unprecedented time.

“But we cannot blame the people”, he said. “Russian propaganda is very effective and some of those living in Russia will undoubtedly believe it. It’s very, very effective. And at the same time, I feel ashamed before my Ukrainian friend.  I try to educate them, try to explain to them the toxic effects of propaganda, spewed by the Russian government, and to please not hold this against the Russian people.” 

Tips from your Ukrainian psychologist

Since the invasion, many of my Russian and Ukrainian local friends have asked me how they should deal with their relatives in Russia (and occasionally in Ukraine and other Baltic and European countries) who are supportive of the invasion and believe Putin’s propaganda. I will leave you with these tips:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the studies on obedience in psychology – the classic Milgram and the Stanford prison experiments – to remind yourself of the power of suggestion and the influence of authority on the human psyche.
  2. Remind yourself that under different circumstances, you too could have formed different beliefs. Instead, try to avoid trying to change the “programmed” person’s mind.
  3. Find a way to feel compassion, rather than anger, towards the “programmed” person.
  4. If the above proves challenging, minimize contact.
  5. Show support for a fellow Russian-American.  It is tough for them, too. They do not support this war. And please educate your children on doing the same to prevent bullying.

This war has many victims. Let’s continue to stay united and show support to Ukrainians and Russians alike against the evil that is residing in the Kremlin. To the victory!

Viktoriya Magid, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist specializing in addiction, anxiety, depression, life transitions and self actualization from her office in Mount Pleasant.

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