War in Ukraine splits NZs Russian expat community: anger, shame, pride in the mix

Russians in New Zealand say they are being seen as villains since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The war has clearly divided the Russian diaspora in the country. Not everyone supports Putin; many feel anger and shame, but those who support the war continue to regard their country’s leader as their hero.

Human resources manager Victoria Tishko, 41, who moved to New Zealand five years ago said she grew up in Russia with “zero interest in politics”.

But the war has forced her to “open her eyes” and “take a stand”, and she now plays an active part with other Russian locals in protesting the Ukraine war.

“I know by doing this I could get into trouble when I travel back to Russia, and I still have family there,” she said.

“But I will feel like I have blood on my hands if I did nothing.”

Tishko’s grandfather is Ukrainian and she describes herself as a quarter Ukrainian.

“Ukraine is part of greater Russia, we are not neighbours, but family. I feel extreme anger and shame at what Russia is doing to Ukraine, I can’t believe how a brother can do that to his own brother,” Tishko said.

“I am determined to do whatever I can to help Ukraine and to show the world that not all Russians support Putin.”

But Tishko acknowledged the Russian diaspora in New Zealand is hugely divided.

Members of the Russian community moved here at different times, from different places and came for different reasons – and these often shaped how they view the war.

Originally from Khabarovsk, Olga Ovsyannikova moved to New Zealand 10 years ago when she was in her 20s.

A police officer in Russia, Ovsyannikova said she remains proud to be Russian.

She believes Western media reports about the war are misleading and wrong.

“In Russia, it is called liberation mission, not war.”

Ovsyannikova felt what Russia is doing was no different to what the Germans did in other wars and how Americans killed millions through “their missions”.

“Someone here asked me how I feel to be Russian now, and I asked him how he felt to be Kiwi,” she said.

“He said ‘proud’, and my answer was so am I.”

Ovsyannikova said she regarded Putin the same way she did Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

“They are both leaders of countries and they both will do what is best for their countries. Who am I to judge,” she said.

Another member of the local Russian diaspora who did not want to be identified told the Herald he lauded Putin for starting the war as it was “the only way to make Russia powerful again”.

“Russia was a great country and Vladimir Putin is my hero for wanting to bring back that greatness,” he said.

Here in New Zealand, several pro-Russian social media groups exist posting Russian propaganda of bio weapons and Nazis in Ukraine to justify the invasion and killings.

There are many communities spreading pro-Kremlin messaging here, including on Facebook and the social media app Telegram.

But anti-war University of Auckland academic Elena Nikiforova, 48, said she still finds it hard to comprehend the Russian attack.

“Never in my wildest imagination did I think that this war in Ukraine could ever happen, I was telling everyone who asked me, that Putin was just bluffing and using the war threats for negotiations with the Nato,” she said.

Originally from St Petersburg, she came to New Zealand in January 2000 and now holds both Russian and New Zealand citizenship.

“My family still lives in St Petersburg, so I am worried about what the impact of the global sanctions will have on them.”

Nikiforova attends protests here against the Ukraine war, and says she has made many local Ukrainian friends in the process.

“I have been supporting Ukraine since their revolution in 2014, when the people rebelled against their corrupted government of president Yanukovich, and forced him to resign,” she said.

Nikiforova said Putin’s personality had “evolved” over the more than 20 years he has been in power.

“He started as a pragmatic businessman, who was mainly interested in accumulating wealth and enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle,” she said.

“The Putin that we see now is not acting rationally and pragmatically. He has evolved into a man who believes that he has a higher mission to fulfil: to ‘make Russia great again’.”

Nikoforova remembered clearly when she first heard about the war – she was out at Botany Mall waiting for her son to finish his haircut when she read it on Facebook.

“I thought to myself that it was obviously fake news… then I saw another post alike, and another one… I opened Google and checked the official media,” she said.

“I suddenly felt sick to my stomach, it was like a feeling of sudden grief, as if I just learned that someone close to me had died. The whole world around me suddenly seemed “illusional”, as if I did not belong to this happy space any more.”

Nikoforova said as a Russian now, she felt “deep shame and deep grief”.

“Shame for my homeland, thoughts that we all collectively could have done more for our homeland to prevent it. Grief for the Ukrainians and for all of us,” she said.

Nikoforova said the future was uncertain as Western sanctions begin to bite and Russia would be devastated economically, and there could be another revolution.

“There could be any scenario, from a nuclear strike, to chemical weapons attack, or assassination of Ukrainian president and taking over Kyiv, or cutting off a piece of the East Ukraine and dividing the country into two countries – East and West,” she said.

“Whatever it is, the scenarios for the future are all bad.”

Nikoforva is involved with the Russians against the war group in Auckland and has been involved in organising social networks, weekly protests and fundraising initiatives to help Ukraine.

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