The War in Ukraine Is Dividing Lifelong Friends

After Russia’s invasion, many post-Soviet immigrants in the U.S. are estranged from or barely speaking with longtime friends back home.

Illustration of two women looking at each other across blue and yellow hills
The Atlantic

Friends whom my parents haven’t seen in decades call every year for my birthday. Some have never met me. I was 2 when my family immigrated to Los Angeles from Chișinău, Moldova, in 1993. My whole life, I’ve watched my parents keep in close touch with friends who continued to live in former Soviet republics. First, they made phone calls, and more recently, they expanded to Odnoklassniki (a social network popular with friends and classmates from the former Soviet Union), and then Instagram, and WhatsApp. They regularly swap family photos and memes, life updates and transcontinental gossip. When I visited Russia for the first time in 2019, one of my mother’s childhood friends—whom I hadn’t seen since infancy—tearfully told me how much she adored me and held hands with either me or my mother everywhere we went. Nearly every diasporic person I know who grew up in the former Soviet Union has thriving long-distance friendships like this. The unwavering bonds among nashi lyudi—the Russian term for “our people”—across distance and time has always felt miraculous to me.

Yet, distance and time seem like quaint obstacles to me now, compared with the pain of being on different sides of the war in Ukraine. I talked with several post-Soviet immigrants in the U.S. who, after Russia’s full-scale invasion, are estranged from or barely speaking with longtime friends.

My family friend Kate, who asked to be identified by only her first name for fear of harassment over her ethnicity and political views, hasn’t spoken with her friend Vera in more than three months. Kate and Vera (not her real name) grew up in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and have been friends since they were 4. It’s been decades since they’ve lived in the same city—Kate now lives in Los Angeles and Vera in St. Petersburg—but the women talked regularly, and Kate is godmother to Vera’s daughter. In Kate’s telling, they argued over Vera’s belief that the visual evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine is fake. Kate did not expect her friend to publicly oppose the war and risk a 15-year jail sentence. But recently, a mutual friend had to evacuate Kharkiv, and Kate was dismayed that, as she perceives it, even this didn’t cause Vera to soften her views. Kate suspects that Vera might be more skeptical of Russia’s version of events than she felt safe letting on. But their inability to find common ground over the basic facts of the war has fractured 40 years of friendship and cut off Kate from her goddaughter. “It’s hard. I know that she struggles, and I can’t even send her money,” Kate told me, because money-transfer companies such as Western Union have suspended operations in Russia. Sending money abroad is somewhere between an immigrant love language and a duty.

Losing a close friendship under these circumstances is an ambiguous loss. Ambiguous losses lack closure and can leave those experiencing them in a state of emotional limbo. Kate, having grown up in the former Soviet Union, understands her friend’s actions to be a survival skill. Still, the closure-less question of what a friend truly believes, and to what degree they should be held accountable for it in the context of this war, haunted the people I spoke with.

For immigrants who still have relatives in Ukraine, an additional calculation must be made: Stay silent or risk imperiling not only a friendship but also your family’s safety. Alona Ford grew up in Ukraine and moved to Arkansas in her 20s. When, in the early days of the war, a childhood friend living in Moscow posted an Instagram photo of herself flipping off the camera with the pro-war Z symbol stitched on her sleeve, captioned, “We’re going to win,” Alona felt terrible. The two spent summers together at their families’ dachas in Ukraine and kept in touch through social media. “She’s a very educated person. I wanted to message her,” Alona told me. She quietly unfollowed her instead. “All of these Russians, even my friends, know where my people live,” she explained.

If this sounds paranoid to you, you probably aren’t from the former Soviet Union, where civilian informers were essential collaborators in state-sanctioned violence. Human-rights groups attest that the Russian government and police force continue to violently punish civilians who publicly criticize the Kremlin. In that light, confronting a friend over their views of the war could feel like a selfish choice rather than a noble one. For Alona, there was little honor in vigorously defending Ukraine’s right to self-determination from the safety of her home in the U.S. if it meant putting her loved ones at risk.

Another friend of Alona’s, Liza (not her real name), grew up with her in Kherson, Ukraine. They’ve been friends for more than 20 years, and Alona is close with Liza’s son. As Alona recalled, they mostly kept in touch through a group chat with two other Ukrainian women. When the invasion began, Liza refused to talk politics in the chat, and she stopped responding altogether after Alona and the other women said that ordinary Russians should be doing more to oppose the war. Alona believes it may be better for them not to speak for the time being, both to avoid putting Liza at risk and in case Liza “says something bad to us.” She hopes that their friendship will return to normal but suspects it will never be the same. “But it will definitely not change my relationship with her son,” she told me. “It’s not his fault—he is a child.”

Given that this war seems unlikely to reach a swift resolution anytime soon, the question of how long these estrangements will last—and in what form these friendships may return—weighed on the immigrants I spoke with. I was struck by how empathic so many were in explaining that their friends in Russia are victims of an oppressive regime, that they are suffering under international sanctions, that resisting the nonstop drip of state-run misinformation is easier said than done. To some, behavior including unexplained radio silence after decades of friendship and open support of the war was forgivable. One person speculated that because their pro-Russian friend belongs to a marginalized group that has faced intense discrimination in Moscow, outspoken patriotism may be a form of self-protection.

The most intimate saga I’ve watched play out in real time has been among my father’s classmates, most of whom went to elementary through high school together in Moldova and are now scattered across Ukraine, Russia, Israel, and elsewhere in Europe. For years, he has belonged to an active WhatsApp group with more than a dozen other classmates, who frequently share stories, family photos, and jokes. After the war escalated in February, those in Ukraine began posting harrowing updates (“They started bombing at 5:50. We’re drinking our morning coffee. Watching the sky.”). Their messages were largely met with silence from their Russian classmates. Then, in March, a Russian classmate vaguely referenced “the situation,” and a Ukrainian classmate responded, “This isn’t a situation. It’s a shameful war.” Several Ukrainians quietly left the group over what, in my father’s interpretation, was a perceived lack of concern for their families’ safety. Since the Ukrainians’ exit, some Russian members have implored the group to place a moratorium on discussing politics. They say they don’t want to abandon four decades of friendship over differing opinions on the war. The fraught arguments continued even as friends on opposing sides reiterated their love for one another.

My father—who was born in Ukraine, went to school in Moldova, and now lives in Los Angeles—has been a passive observer to all of this, preferring to correspond privately with the member of the group he is closest with. He’s disappointed with his classmates’ support of the war and relieved that things came to a head in the chat. “The fake cheeriness was intolerable,” he told me. He’s been checking on his Ukrainian classmates regularly and has become closer friends with one. Sometimes he tears up sharing her updates, like when she sent him a photo of her baby-faced 20-year-old nephew dressed in army fatigues, cradling a rifle. A couple of years after graduating high school, he is serving in the Ukrainian army, as is his father. Seeing this photo after spending several hours reading my father’s Russian classmates’ pro-war messages left me feeling dejected. “Their opinions aren’t the ones that matter,” my father told me. This was an assertion I’d heard several times by then—that any individual civilian’s support or opposition to the war would not meaningfully affect its outcome.

When I asked the post-Soviet immigrants I spoke with how these conflicts with friends have made them feel, I was often met with a similar sentiment: The strain on their friendships is heavy but pales in comparison with what the war has taken from so many. They hesitated to center their experience of the war from a position of safety. But it is clear that the war has wrought astonishing pain across multiple axes for those living in the diaspora. They spend their days waiting for proof of life from their loved ones and their nights glued to Ukrainian news broadcasts. They watch as their childhood apartments, their schools, the hospitals where they were born, the cemeteries where their grandparents are buried are destroyed. Some are also navigating clashes with family members who support the war.

After several of my father’s Ukrainian classmates left the group chat, one of his Russian classmates wrote, “This is our shared tragedy … We each have our right to our own view of the situation. It’s better to be silent than to fight.” If, like me, you read two months’ worth of WhatsApp messages with this tenor, you might wonder why, given their intensely personal stake in the welfare of the Ukrainian people, so many of the immigrants I spoke with expressed a desire to maintain intimate friendships with those who support the war. How can they stomach that their friends may view the death and displacement of Ukrainian civilians—including people they know and love—as collateral damage? For some, once the initial shock wore off, a creeping sense of inevitability set in. That their friends might be ambivalent, apathetic, or staunchly in support of the war was a foregone conclusion informed by their belief that the minds of those living in Russia are not free. The people I spoke with judge these friends, but they also pity them. Having survived the state-sanctioned violence and repression of the former Soviet Union, many people I talked with know what it’s like to live in fear, cut off from the rest of the world.

Which friendships are worth fighting for is always a personal decision. But some of the many tragic and alienating effects of war are these kind of schisms among lifelong friends who had managed to remain close against the odds. Ultimately, even the friends who want to stay connected will have to grapple with this question: How do you move forward when you cannot agree upon the same reality?