The Toraja people in Southern Sulawesi, Indonesia, are famous for their elaborate funeral rites. Not only do they tend to mummify the deceased — they also store coffins in caves carved up on rocky cliffs and place a wooden effigy of the departed, called Tau tau, to guard the burial site. Spooky.
When the world gets closer, we help you see farther
Sisters Rante and Satu Vodich fled Russia because they could no longer bear to live under Putin — but their mother believes state propaganda about the war. Her daughters are building a new life for themselves in Georgia.
TBILISI — On a gloomy afternoon in May, Rante Vodich gets the keys to her new home. A week earlier, the 27-year-old found this wooden shed in Tbilisi, with a corrugated iron roof and ramshackle bathroom. The shed next door houses an old bed covered in dust. Vodich refers to the place as a “studio” and pays $300 per month in rent. She says finding the studio is the best thing that’s happened to her since she came to Georgia. It is her hope for the future.
Her younger sister Satu Vodich is around 400 kilometers further west, in the city of Batumi on Georgia’s Black Sea coast, surrounded by Russian tourists, Ukrainian flags, skyscrapers with sea views and the run-down homes of local residents.
Like her sister, she recently moved to Tbilisi, but she is visiting a friend in Batumi and trying to relax for a while before she decides how to move forward with her life. She tried to stick it out in her homeland, remaining hopeful, but a month ago she followed her sister to Georgia. She is still struggling with her decision and wonders what her life will look like now. When she first arrived, she says she was drinking a lot, but she is gradually starting to feel better.
Silence of a dictatorship
Both sisters fled their homeland after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. Like hundreds of thousands of their fellow Russians, they could no longer tolerate their president and his actions. And like hundreds of thousands of others, they are faced with an uncertain future. Their homeland has been transformed into a dictatorship, where dissenting voices are brutally silenced. They have not been welcomed with open arms in Georgia and their money is running out. So far, there has been no aid or support forthcoming from Europe.
Rante Vodich is a graphic designer. She is fearless, a woman who sits on the railing of a sixteenth-floor balcony, swinging her feet over the void, her shoulder-length brown hair tousled by the wind.
Satu Vodich, one year younger, is a nursery school teacher with dyed pink hair. She is struggling with the state of the world, and with herself. She speaks softly but she is tough and doesn’t give up easily.
Their mother lives near Moscow and is a supporter of Putin’s. Whenever the sisters have spoken to her over the past few months, they’ve got the impression that she is recycling slogans lifted straight from the Russian state propaganda that she consumes for hours every day on TV and the internet.
To protect the sisters, in case they ever return to Russia, and to protect their mother, we have used pseudonyms in this article, but they supplied their real names.
What the Kremlin says
The story of the Vodich family is a common one in Russia: One side believes Putin is a dictator who is destroying their country, while the other believes the propaganda churned out by the state. It is becoming increasingly difficult to have a dialogue between the two sides. The atmosphere in Russia is so tense that some fear there may be a civil war.
Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Rante and Satu did not always agree with their mother, but they got on well. Since the war started, the sisters say that has become increasingly difficult.
The older sister, Rante, has cut down contact with her mother to the bare minimum, while Satu has decided to try and fight for her mother, to convince her that she is being fed propaganda.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on the morning of February 24, Satu was still in bed in her Moscow apartment. She woke up, opened her Telegram messenger app and read that Russia had fired missiles into Ukraine. She started crying and couldn’t put her phone down. She read and read, as she brushed her teeth, washed, ate breakfast and spoke to friends. She read and she cried. That is what she remembers of that day.
At first she didn’t hear anything from her mother, and she didn’t get in touch herself because she was afraid of what her mother might say. That evening, she composed a careful message: “Mama, how are you? I’ve felt awful all day.”
Our lives are going to get so much worse.
Her mother is 70 years old and fairly reclusive. Since her husband died ten years ago, she has lived in her dacha around two hours away from Moscow. She owns a few apartments in Moscow, which she rents out.
Her mother replied, “Yes, I am also finding it difficult. But it’s better now. Try to relax, darling. Good night!”
After three days, Satu overcame her fear and wrote a message telling her mother what she really thought. “It’s crazy, shelling Kyiv and starting a war. I’m afraid that you might support it, even a little bit. That would make me so unbelievably angry and sad.”
Her mother replied: “The West has driven Ukraine into a trap and stirred it up against Russia. I am very worried and sad about what is happening. But I think that something terrible must have happened. I just don’t yet know what.”
Satu wrote: “I have been crying for three days and don’t know what to do with myself, because I can’t even conceive of something so terrible and meaningless. I want to leave, but I don’t know where to go. Our lives are going to get so much worse.”
Her mother replied: “Let’s see what happens.”
Officially there is no war
Throughout February 2022, Satu went to work at the nursery school as usual. She was not allowed to talk to the children about the war, because officially there was no war. Sometimes, when she felt overwhelmed with despair, she went to the toilet to cry in secret.
Rante gathered her friends together in Moscow. She felt compelled to do something, even if that meant putting herself in danger. A year earlier, she had been arrested at a demonstration against the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and since then, police officers had turned up at her apartment every month to check on her, often at night.
Now she took to the streets again. It was the only way she could think to express her anger and sense of powerlessness. Her sister came with her. She was also arrested and fined 10,000 roubles – the equivalent of 150 euros, around a fifth of the average monthly income in Russia.
New laws were being introduced almost every day. Within a few weeks, Russia had been transformed from an autocratic regime into a dictatorship.
Since the invasion, censorship has been stepped up. Critics of the “special operation,” as the war is officially referred to, risk up to fifteen years in prison. The last remaining independent media networks based in Russia were gradually shut down and more than 180 news sites have been blocked. Access to Facebook and Instagram has been shut off, and Facebook’s parent company Meta has even been designated an extremist organisation. The only people who can access independent news are those who are tech-savvy and know how to connect to the internet via a secure server that masks their location.
Satu and Rante's mother has no idea how to do that. In the early days of the war, her daughters thought she seemed frightened and confused. But soon they felt they were watching on hopelessly as state propaganda shaped her thinking.
On 3 March 2022, Satu’s mother wrote to her, “I want to tell you what I heard yesterday: On 26 February the Ukrainian army planned to launch an offensive in the Donbas to reach Russian territory. That’s the reality. If Russia hadn’t acted, the war would have come to Russia, and that would have been frightening. In such a difficult situation, we have to stick together. We must not allow ourselves to be divided. The situation is obviously becoming difficult.”
Rante started collecting information about the war: How many civilians had died, how many Russian soldiers had been killed, how many had been taken prisoner. She put together a document that could be accessed via a digital code, which she printed out on stickers with anti-war slogans. She went around Moscow at night with friends and stuck them on walls, park benches and bus stops.
One of the friends, a documentary maker who had filmed Rante and her friends distributing the stickers around the city, was arrested and the footage seized. When he was released, he sent a message to everyone involved. His friends managed to secure him a flight out and he made it to Uzbekistan. It seems that information about his arrest had not reached the border officials.
Rante hurriedly packed a few things into her car and drove with friends towards the Caucasus, a two-day journey over snow-capped mountains. She didn’t know whether she would be picked up by border officials, as her details were already in their system. She made it across the border.
Pro-Russian "Z" symbol
Family roots in Ukraine
Satu was still hopeful that she could stay in Moscow and make a difference to her homeland. She continued to go to demonstrations, saying she didn’t care if she was arrested. She couldn’t think about anything other than the war. It was also her war, her family’s war.
Her father was born and grew up near Kyiv. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he moved to Moscow with his wife, but the family still went on holiday to Kyiv every summer. Rante and Satu swam in rivers, ran barefoot through pine forests and played with their dog in the garden outside their dacha. They learned to drive on dirt roads, in their uncle’s old Ford. Those summer holidays are among their most treasured memories.
In Tbilisi, older sister Rante shows us photos from those days. As she scrolls through them on her phone, there are tears in her eyes.
After the Orange Revolution in 2004, her father and uncle began to argue. Her father called his brother a nationalist. He wanted Ukraine to remain closely linked to Russia rather than turning to the West. Rante and Satu say even back then, their parents got most of their news from Russian state TV.
Now their uncle is a soldier in the Ukrainian army. Sometimes he sends them photos of himself in uniform, holding a Kalashnikov, an olive-green handkerchief over his nose and mouth.
When their father died, their mother became depressed. Shortly afterwards, when Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, she – along with many other Russians — became cut off from the rest of the world. The rouble was weak and travelling abroad was not affordable. Their mother began spending a lot of time at home, in front of the TV. Her daughters say she started to see people from other countries as enemies who wanted to destroy Russia.
The Bucha massacre — a watershed moment
On 3 April, as the rest of the world was waking up to news of the massacre in Bucha, Satu was lying in bed in Moscow, enjoying that delicious moment before she was fully awake, before she remembered everything that was going on. Then, like every morning, she reached for her phone and opened Telegram.
She read that after the Russian army had withdrawn from Bucha, the bodies of many civilians had been discovered. Using a VPN to access the internet, she went onto the BBC and other European news sites, Ukrainian channels and the independent Russian portal Meduza. She looked at lots of different sources, to be sure of what was happening.
She looked at photos of the bodies, read eyewitness reports. She sent her mother a message.
“Have you seen what the Russian army did in Bucha? War leads to senseless cruelty.”
Her mother replied: “I don’t know exactly what happened there. No one knows what is true and what is fake. I think we should concentrate on helping people.”
She believed that her country needed who were not deceived by the state’s lies.
Satu says she got so angry that she could hardly contain herself. She had tried for so long, arguing with her mother for hours at a time. She had shown her proof that Russian state TV was feeding her lies. She had sent her photos and videos, and told her about demonstrations she’d taken part in, how badly the police had treated protesters, how trials had lasted around five minutes because they were a foregone conclusion. She had done everything she could to show her mother that she was being manipulated. Sometimes she thought she was getting through to her. But a few days later, everything would be back to square one.
After the Bucha massacre, Satu couldn’t take it any more. She was exhausted and decided to leave Russia. She believed that her country needed people like her, people who were not deceived by the state’s lies, but she felt it was hopeless. She couldn’t change anything. She couldn’t even convince her own mother. So she booked a flight to Tbilisi, with a stopover in Minsk.
She had to wait two weeks to fly out, because so many Russians were leaving. When she arrived in Tbilisi, she felt guilty, cowardly. But she told herself she had a right to live her own life, that she couldn’t save Russia.
"Understanding the news may make her ill"
The Vodich family is separated by more than just physical distance. The sisters live in Tbilisi, where each day is a struggle. Their mother has moved back to her dacha near Moscow, with only her phone for company. Sometimes they send photos back and forth, or exchange a few words.
On 5 April 2022, their mother wrote to Satu: “Russia is not at war with Ukraine, but with the West, represented by the NATO states. It is fighting for its existence, like it did in 1941–1945, when the Soviet Union was at war with all of Europe. I feel so sorry for the people in Ukraine, they need help. But the reason is the global conflict between Russia and the West. I am very sad about what is happening, but I see it differently. And I love you very much and wish you every happiness.”
Satu says she sometimes thinks it’s better for her mother if she believes the propaganda. “She’s old. Sometimes I’m happy that she doesn’t understand everything. It would be so stressful for her. Maybe it would make her ill.”
Satu has given up arguing with her. Now she simply tries to remain in touch. She asks how she is, and her mother replies that she’s well. Me too, writes Satu. That’s good, her mother responds.
Rante would like to take her mother away from Moscow and show her how beautiful it is abroad. Maybe then she would understand that the West is not the enemy. She tells her mother again and again that she should get a new passport.
But her mother does not want to leave the dacha. Her daughter says she knows that, but she can’t give up hope.
- The Edge Of Totalitarianism, Why Putin Went Easy On Marina ... ›
- The Putin Method: How He's Built His Popularity, And The Risks Of ... ›
- Is Masha And The Bear Russian Propaganda, Cartoon-Style ... ›