RICHMOND, Va. -- As Russia widens its attacks in the weeks-long invasion of Ukraine, a Richmond woman who emigrated from Russia in 2009, is urging Americans to understand how pervasive propaganda is in Russia.
Elena Bobkova said with media under total state control, the vast majority of Russia believes their soldiers are liberating Ukraine from neo-Nazis and America.
“It’s an insane feeling when you’re going to the café or the gym, and you’re hearing the news and you’re Russian,” said Bobkova.
She said Russian president Vladimir Putin has taken advantage of Western confusion over his motives for decades.
“Do you see what happened? He took over Crimea [in 2014], and Georgia [in 2008] before that, so what happened?” Bobkova asked. “Everyone ‘expressed concern.’ Yeah, that’s all. So he decided, why I can go further.”
Bobkova said she and her family left Russia because corruption and repression meant the promise of post-Soviet freedom would never be fulfilled.
“We didn’t expect it what it is now, honestly, so it’s not even close to that, but even at the time, it was pretty bad, and we decided to choose a country for permanent residency,” said Bobkova.
The tax lawyer and her husband and son settled in Australia before moving to Central Virginia in 2016 when her husband, an IT security specialist, was transferred to Richmond. She said the Putin regime has only become more authoritarian in the decade that followed.
“Now it’s no protest, you know that people cannot go outside, they cannot gather more than four people; they will be arrested,” Bobkova said. “You cannot even pull out a sheet of white paper- you will be arrested right away. It doesn’t matter if there’s something on this paper or not.”
Bobkova contacted CBS 6 because she said Americans don’t understand that the Russian government’s tight grip on information means three-quarters of Russians believe the invasion of Ukraine is a necessary rescue of that country from American tyranny.
“The United States make Ukraine fascist, Nazist, government country, who are torturing Russian citizens in Ukraine,” said Bobkova. “They truly believe in this because they showing all these pictures, all this video, but they’re saying absolutely the opposite, a lie.”
She said even bad news about Russian setbacks and casualties in Ukraine won’t change opinion because Putin’s propaganda is fed to a citizenry with nowhere else to turn. The United Nations has reported hundreds of civilians have been killed in indiscriminate bombings in Ukraine.
“They now don’t have access to Facebook, to Instagram, because the Russian government blocked everything – BBC, CNN- all sources of information. Russian people see the pictures where it is the US bombing Ukraine," she said.
Bobkova said the war in Ukraine has exposed an unbridgeable generational divide in Russia that she encounters every time she talks to her elderly parents there.
“They’re listening to Putin propaganda and I’m desperately trying to explain them and my mom keeps saying, yeah, yeah, they’re bombing, it’s Americans,” she said.
In the meantime, she said her younger friends and family back home remain at risk.
“We have had sleepless nights for two weeks trying to help Russian friends run away from the country because there will probably be martial law and they will have to go to the war that they didn’t choose," she said.
Bobkova also said for sanctions to have any serious impact they must target Russia’s super-rich, the so-called oligarchs who seized control of, or were given, vast state assets when the Soviet Union dissolved thirty years ago. That means luxury brands have to get on board.
“I didn’t hear anything from Cartier, Ferrari. Russian oligarchs, they’re not driving Fords,” Bobkova said. “I’m sorry, they aren’t wearing H&M.”