How Ukrainian-Russian {couples} are faring after a yr of struggle


Listen to this story:

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

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

As 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 Year’s Eve 2018, throughout a three-day prepare journey throughout Belarus. Oksana, knowledgeable pianist who labored as a concertmaster at a music college 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 incessantly crisscrossing borders to see one another. In the summer time 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 positioning 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. “But when he saw Sergio for the first time, he said, ‘OK! It’s your choice, maybe he’s not 100 percent Russian’,” Oksana recollects.

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

A Photo Of A Bird’s Eye View Of Tbilisi.
A chook’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]

‘Had to get away’

At the time of the invasion, the couple was living within the southeastern Russian metropolis of Rostov-on-Don. “I was full of hatred for Russia and pain for my people. I knew I just had to get away,” 30-year-old Oksana recollects.

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

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

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. But 38-year-old Sergio has struggled to herald an earnings.

Instead, 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 reside collectively in a one-bedroom condominium that they lease within the japanese 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 in regards to the struggle. “I feel disappointment and shame,” he says lastly.

He says he’s against the struggle, however at a time when many Ukrainians accuse Russian residents of inaction, he believes widespread Russians are powerless. “Even if people protested daily, I doubt it can change anything with the strong military regime in place,” he explains.

But he admits that he may not have left Russia if not for Oksana.

“Sergio is not a political person,” Oksana chimes in defensively.

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

But the struggle has introduced new tensions to their life collectively. Financial worries, uncertainty in regards to the future and Sergio giving up his educational 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 be taught a software program programme within the hopes that he can proceed his profession on-line.

Discussions in regards to the struggle itself have additionally been a supply of friction, with the couple disagreeing over variations within the phrases they use. Only as soon as has this became 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 got mad and screamed how it could be a ‘terrorist attack’ to bomb a bridge” when Russian troopers “were bombing apartments and killing children and women every day”, Oksana recollects.

After that incident, they’ve tried to not speak in regards to the struggle.

When requested if he needs to return home 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 imagine how to live life without him,” she says.

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

A Photo Of Mariam Pesvianidze.
Mariam Pesvianidze, a Georgian-Russian filmmaker born and raised in Moscow, and her Ukrainian boyfriend struggled to overtly focus on the struggle 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 properly about having to decide on her phrases rigorously when discussing the struggle along with her Ukrainian boyfriend.

The couple has lived collectively in Tbilisi since 2018, however regardless of their shared political beliefs, some matters have develop into taboo because the struggle started.

“I need to be careful not to say anything to trigger him. Any mention of problems faced 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 scenario.

Mariam exudes a buoyant power that she has thrown into activism since her teenage years. Speaking at a downtown Tbilisi café housed in an 18th-century crimson brick constructing, she shares how, throughout her movie college 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. But she grew more and more despondent as her nation cracked down on activists and political opponents.

She says her political beliefs 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.

Within 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 hitch 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 via mutual Ukrainian mates that she first met her boyfriend. “At first I found him annoying and loud, but I was soon enamoured by his huge teddy bear personality and large 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 back then, but [his anger] was never directed personally at anyone,” says Mariam.

A Photo Of A Boy Waling Past Graffiti On The Wall That Reads “Russians Go Home&Quot;.
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 speak

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

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

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

This sentiment has taken a toll on her friendships, says Mariam, who’s an lively pro-Ukrainian anti-war campaigner. “It was hard for me to hear terrible things about all Russians – painting us all with one brush. It was like our friendship didn’t matter any more,” 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 living collectively, Mariam needed to resort to assembly her Russian mates solely exterior.

Mariam understands that the inflow of Russians into Tbilisi was tough for her boyfriend who was already coping with post-traumatic stress dysfunction (PTSD) from his time within the military. “I know his grief is much bigger and I completely understand silence and empathy is needed from my part, but it also hurts not to be able to talk about my grief without guilt,” she says, referring to how she feels in regards to 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 move to Canada, the place her boyfriend hopes to place a ways between himself and the struggle 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 accustomed to the friction between Russians and Ukrainians that has erupted because the struggle.

As a volunteer with a neighborhood group that was set as much as present free counselling to the primary wave of Ukrainian ladies 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 struggle.

Some Russians living in Georgia additionally signed up for remedy periods that had been carried out in Russian. “Everyone was in shock and there was a lot of mixed emotions. [The war] triggered pain and trauma in everyone,” she recollects. But quickly, with tensions getting in the way in which, group remedy periods had been changed with particular person counselling for some individuals.

“They did not know how to communicate with each other … Many Russians were also coping with a lot of guilt and could not express themselves freely,” says Khabibulina.

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

Khabibulina, who’s of Russian and Georgian heritage, recollects how the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the brutal civil struggle 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 totally different ethnic teams in Georgia for years. “My family has lived here for generations but some of our neighbours stopped talking to us because they saw us as Russians. I was a young girl then and this stayed with me for a long time,” the 46-year-old explains.

Although she has not labored immediately with Russian-Ukrainian {couples}, Khabibulina has counselled individuals from each international locations fighting households in Russia who assist the struggle. Respectful open dialogue can save relationships, she believes. “We can practise empathy without sharing beliefs. Listen and when you can’t take it any more, take a pause but don’t cut 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 end of my relationship’

But for Levan Pesvianidze, Mariam’s 60-year-old father, separation was inevitable. “If your spiritual and moral values don’t connect, that’s when you can’t sustain a relationship any longer,” he insists.

“When the person I considered my closest ally was happy [Russia] took Crimea ‘back’, it was the end 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 reside after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

A burly man with a hearty giggle, Levan, says he’s nonetheless grateful for his life together with his ex-wife with whom he owned a profitable advertising enterprise in Moscow, regardless that he was at all times uneasy about living in Russia and taking over a Russian passport as the previous Soviet republics grew to become unbiased nations. But each time he expressed a need for them to move to Georgia, his then-wife, with whom he had three kids, would dissuade him, pointing to their comfy life. Levan’s discomfort grew when Putin got here into energy and progressively cemented his authoritarian rule.

Levan recollects how his spouse opposed Russia’s 2008 struggle on Georgia. But 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 increase the NATO bloc.

He says he needs he may have saved her from Putin’s propaganda. “She’s a highly educated, intelligent person but she still fell for it,” he says.

Bitter arguments

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

They met at a neighborhood boxing fitness center of their late teenagers. “Back then, there was no war, no Crimea. We were very young and deeply in love,” recounts Dimitri who, as a result of safety considerations, most well-liked to correspond over WhatsApp messages from Moscow.

They married of their early 20s and had their first youngster in 2014. At the time, Dimitri, now 30, by no means imagined {that a} struggle between their two international locations would develop 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 consider that Russia’s invasion was an act of self-defence in opposition to the West.

In the early days of the struggle, the couple argued incessantly, nearly 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 obtainable flights out of Russia and into Tbilisi in March.

But very quickly, the couple with three kids 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 two have since agreed to work out their variations for his or her kids, however Dimitri says it’s a each day wrestle to combat the grind of Russian propaganda his spouse consumes on TV and social media. With all criticism of what Russia calls its “special military operation” punishable with as much as 15 years imprisonment, there aren’t any voices to counter the regular stream of state-sponsored disinformation.

“I understand that my wife is a victim 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 struggle on Ukraine stands exterior Georgia’s parliament constructing in downtown Tbilisi as a mark of the nation’s solidarity with Ukraine [Pearly Jacob/Al Jazeera]

Prisoners of struggle

Dimitri was born in Kyiv and was a toddler when his household moved to Russia in the hunt for work within the late 1990s, a time of financial, social and political tumult for post-Soviet international locations following the dissolution of the us. In Moscow, he earned a legislation diploma and, after a number of years working at a Russian legislation agency, obtained a Russian passport.

But he has at all times felt like an outsider. “I’ve always remained Ukrainian at heart. That’s how my parents raised me. I speak Ukrainian fluently still and wore the vyshyvanka [traditional embroidered Ukrainian shirt] in Moscow … I’ve lived with [Russians] almost all my life but they almost always called 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 goal by working as a defence lawyer for captured Ukrainian troopers – a job with dangers given his Ukrainian heritage, and the rationale he requested anonymity.

Although his spouse, who’s a stay-at-home mom, stays not sure about Russia’s function as an aggressor within the struggle, she is compassionate in regards to the plight of Ukrainian prisoners of struggle. She helps search on-line boards to determine these in want of authorized illustration and fills out paperwork for Dimitri’s circumstances. Dimitri hopes this can be a signal that his spouse might sooner or later change her stance. Despite every part, he says, “We absolutely love each other.”

War’s psychological penalties

Experts have warned of the big long-term psychological well being penalties of the struggle for Ukrainians. “Populations that are affected by military conflict, violence and displacement, are much more vulnerable to mental health disorders like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders,” says Dr Darejan Javakhishvili, a professor of psychology at Tbilisi’s Ilia State University. And these can have an effect on individuals’s relationships – whether or not with companions, households or mates, she provides.

She means that many Russians might face an enormous ethical dilemma. “We can only speculate. But there is a chance that many Russians are caught between their identity and loyalty to the Russian statehood and their internal values,” Javakhishvili displays.

She believes that ethical harm, or the psychological misery arising from perpetrating, witnessing or failing to forestall actions that go in opposition to an individual’s morals, could possibly be fairly excessive amongst Russians.

“The war experience”, 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 struggle, be it Ukrainians, Russians, Georgians or anybody intently following the occasions who identifies strongly with one of many sides.

People might develop into “short-tempered, irritable, even aggressive or withdrawn”, she explains.

The two ladies have collaborated on analysis into the social and psychological well being results of struggle on internally displaced individuals (IDPs) following the 1990s’ battle in Georgia in addition to in Ukraine, the place near one million 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.

“Unfortunately, we saw splitting of a lot of families since 2014 and not only mixed marriages, but Ukrainian couples who did not share the same ideology,” Makhashvili explains over e-mail.

“Every family has its dysfunctions,” Javakhishvili says. But if companions have a mutual understanding of the opposite’s beliefs, it’s a great foundation “to try and work through differences. There is not any one single reason for [the] collapse of relationships … and [the] Russian-Ukrainian war cannot be one single reason for divorce.”

Drawing on previous analysis, each consultants consider that trauma from this struggle is more likely to persist past the current technology.

“Even after almost 20 years from the 1990s’ war, the mental health burden among IDPs [in Georgia] were very high,” 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 reality’ of the struggle and the strain it has dropped at their lives [Pearly Jacob/Al Jazeera]

‘New reality’

Despite her greatest efforts to protect her relationship, Mariam broke up along with her Ukrainian boyfriend in late December, a few month after she was first interviewed for this story. She admits his animosity in direction of her ache in addition to her incapacity to precise herself freely was an enormous a part of her choice to finish their nearly five-year-long relationship.

He had additionally turned down her requests to hunt remedy collectively. “He [was] too confused and did not want to introspect and change at all,” she says. Her ex-partner’s visa for Canada was accepted, and he moved there earlier this yr. Mariam has additionally determined to depart Tbilisi and plans to relocate to Lisbon.

She says she is going to proceed to marketing campaign for an finish to the struggle in Ukraine. Mariam labored with a bunch 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 lately requested over WhatsApp if she has any hope of the struggle ending quickly, she wrote: “Hope is not my feeling. I prefer to fight as always – for freedom, human rights and truth.”

Oksana and Sergio see the struggle as cindering any risk of them living in Ukraine. Despite Ukrainians welcoming Russian dissidents through the years and people preventing for Ukraine, Oksana believes that Sergio could be akin to the enemy. “I cannot ask that of him [to live in Ukraine] for the sake of my own people,” she says.

For Oksana, the struggle is a “new reality”.

“It will stay with us for a long time.”

The solely foreseeable future she will be able to see with Sergio is in a rustic not of their very own, which for now could be Georgia. “Maybe, South America someday but that’s a dream,” she provides.