“There’s a Narrative in Russia That You Won’t Hear in the U.S. Media”
What the Russian People are Being Told About the War in Ukraine
With Ukraine under siege from Russia, I thought it would be interesting to get the perspective of Russian rhythmic-gymnast-turned-supermodel Kira Dikhtyar, who has homes in both New York and Moscow. My readers will know Dikhtyar from her feature in “Chasing Ghislaine,” my recent podcast and documentary.
Dikhtyar graduated with a gold academic medal from Moscow State University, where she studied geography and geopolitics. In the wake of a violent sexual assault as a 15-year-old, Dikhtyar has been vocal about her experience and is lobbying the UN to universalize the age of consent. A dual U.S. and Russian citizen, she was in Moscow until last week. On the way to Moscow, she visited relatives in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
I wanted to get Dikhtyar’s take on the war, since the perspective that is perhaps missing from U.S. media coverage is that of Russian citizens. And Dikhtyar is in the relatively rare position of following the media narratives in both Russia and the U.S. She spoke to me from New York. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin is used as target practice along a trench on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near Zolote village, in the Luhansk region, on January 21, 2022. (Photo by ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images)
WARD: When did you leave Russia?
DIKHTYAR: I left Russia on 26 February, which was the third day of the invasion.
WARD: What was the mood in Moscow about that? Were people supporting Putin?
DIKHTYAR: On the 23rd of February, we celebrated a national holiday, the day we call Defender of the Fatherland Day, which is a huge celebration in Russia. I think Putin waited to invade Ukraine until after that. I think he was being strategic with his timing. He wanted for the Olympic games to be over on February 21st and the Russian Olympic team to go back from Beijing with medals to make the Russian people proud of their nation’s sports and military achievements. Then he held the big celebration of the people who defended the motherland.
So then, on the 24th, the invasion began, and I believed, as did most people I knew in Russia, that this was about Donetsk and Luhansk, two republics that used to be part of Ukraine but whose people speak the Russian language and have been fighting for the independence from Ukraine since 2014. They had already declared themselves independent and made the Russian ruble their currency.
So, I personally didn’t realize that Russian troops were going further than Donetsk and Luhansk. I only found out about that on the flight to NYC. Thank God I was lucky enough to make the flight back right before the borders were closed. I am a U.S. citizen and couldn’t wait to go back to my home—NYC. The day before my trip, my credit cards were frozen, so I had to borrow money from my mother to get the required covid test to be on the flight and to pay for the taxi to the airport. Now I can’t even send money to my mother because of the sanctions on my bank, Sberbank, and all the other Russian banks.
WARD: You seem to feel, perhaps, that the idea of invading Donetsk and Luhansk was understandable?
DIKHTYAR: The feeling was that Russia wanted those two states because there they speak the Russian language, not Ukrainian. And when in 2014 the Ukrainian nationalists canceled the Russian language as an official language there, millions of their population suffered. For example, I know students who were growing up in `Russian families’ who didn’t speak Ukrainian, and it was hard for them to pass the exams or get a job.
I’m actually a Crimea native. My grandmother has an apartment there. My mother grew up there, my parents got married in Crimea, and then they moved to Moscow. So, as a native Crimean, I understand why Russia started the Crimean War because it was about the Russian language.
WARD: So you realized when you got to the U.S. that it was more than just Donetsk and Luhansk?
DIKHTYAR: Yes because then I saw U.S. news, which says something completely different from what the Russians are watching.
There’s a narrative in Russia that you won’t hear in the U.S. media. (I don’t take sides, I just want to explain to all your readers what is a Russian “take” on this horrible war.) According to Russian officials, when Biden came to power, Ukraine asked to join NATO. And the message to Russians was this is dangerous because we don’t want nuclear weapons on our border. It’s a huge border! Look at the map and see how big the Russia/Ukraine border is. It’s [almost as big] as the U.S.-Mexican border. According to Russian media and statements of Russian officials (which they obviously don’t show in the West), they explained, This is the reason for invading Ukraine. You don’t want NATO there. This is why, we were told, the Russian military started to bring military forces close to Ukrainian border.
WARD: Since you got here, what has been the effect of the war on you personally so far?
DIKHTYAR: On Monday, I went to the bank to try to send some money to my mother, but Russian banks are under sanction, so I couldn’t wire her anything. We can’t FedEx anything. And now, given that Iceland just closed its airspace, we can’t get in and out of Moscow. Airspace is closed. I just read on internet that U.S. closing airspace as well. So I was lucky to get out. Simply lucky! My mother said to me on the phone today, “Well, we will not see each other for a while.” That’s really serious for the civilians who can’t be connected with their families. I am sure that it will be impossible for Russians to get visas to visit the States and Europe. And in return, Russia reacted by closing air for all flights from Europe to Asia. Russia is huge, and, now, to get to Asia, European airlines have to take a different road much longer on the south from the Russian borders. It will cost a lot for all airlines. So economically it’s horrible for all European airlines, but even worse for civilian Russian people who are isolated. And looks like for a while—like British officials predicted today for ten years! That’s scary!
WARD: How has it impacted your interpersonal reactions with people?
DIKHTYAR: Normally, I am best friends with Ukrainians. The two nations are like sisters! I have a lot of close relatives there in Ukraine. I am messaging my godmother and aunt in Kremenchuk [and the] godmother of my son and very close family members in Kharkov; I have close friends in Kiev. Here in New York, we all are immigrants and helping each other. But a close friend from Kiev really made me cry hysterically in the past few days. It felt to me like they were basically blaming the war on us, Russians. Peaceful people of Russia. Why? It’s not my fault that I was born and raised there. I didn’t br[ing] tanks to Kharkov and Kiev.
We all want to stop the war, but to publicly attack my Head of State when [my] family lives in Russia is impossible! We are in a difficult situation now. Since my family lives in Moscow, why would I turn against Russians? Even [with] myself residing in U.S.A. I am public person and will not put my family there in difficult situation by going against Russian actions.
Let’s try to listen and understand both sides of the table, at least learn about that instead of walking out on Russian foreign minister like diplomats did in Geneva. You don’t have to agree with him, but listen [to] what they have to say for clear understanding [of] the other side! That’s the only possible way we can actually find a peaceful solution; that’s a job of diplomats. I am U.S. citizen; I lived in U.S.A. for more than 12 years now. I am having pretty successful career over here and want to go forward. But what’s wrong about loving your motherland, your roots, your parents? You can love the motherland and not support the war. I am just a woman. I didn’t start this war—why do I have to face such discriminations?
WARD: It’s clear you feel very strongly.
DIKHTYAR: I do. Look what’s going on: there are Ukrainian flags on Instagram; the world is publicly praying for Ukraine against the “Russian Invasion.” Ukraine is a popular country. Everybody is talking about doing business in Ukraine; Hollywood people already thinking how to do business with Ukraine; there’s real estate opportunists. It’s cool to be a Ukrainian now.
But what’s going to happen to Russia? And Russian immigrants here? There are ten million of us here in [the] U.S.A.—legal aliens—[and] even more of us who still don’t have an immigration status. Would we, immigrants from Russia, face sanctions and discrimination? It seems like it, from what I’ve experienced in the past four days. I literally couldn’t sleep.
WARD: Do you know any other Russians in New York who suddenly have got no funds?
DIKHTYAR: I know many people.
I’ve heard that some model agencies will support and hire Ukrainian models but not the Russians. [Note: This could not be confirmed by me. Kelli Walters, the owner of W Talent NYC, said, “I think it would be terribly inappropriate and sad if agencies took out their frustrations on Putin on innocent models.”] I have been advised to say that I was born in Crimea when it was Ukraine. What do you expect?
Let me give you a quick look at the history. Kiev used to be a capital of Russia after Novgorod the Great. [The] country used to be called “Kievskaya Rus”—“Kiev’s Russia”—before Moscow was built in 1147, and, with time, gr[e]w up into new capital of Russia. Russia and Ukraine [have] always been the same country called Russia! We are people who speak the same language, listen to the same music, share the same culture and mentality—for centuries. We fought so many wars together as a one nation. How could two nations with such strong historical, geographical, demographical, economical, [and] cultural ties end up in war?
According to the Russian media, it was a fault of Ukrainian government who decided instead of building strong relationships with the big and more powerful neighbor [of the] Russian Federation, they w[ere] focusing on European Union and NATO and hoping for support of the United States who, just by looking at the map, [were] clearly not so close like Russia. By [Ukraine] joining NATO, it would put Russia in a great risk strategically, and Russia just can’t let this happen with a border close to the size of the border [between] U.S.A. and Mexico.
But let’s not forget, it’s an “informational war.” I personally am, and I am sure many other people [are] already confused what is real and what’s the fake news. Social networks [are] blocking Russian news, so to get the Russian take, I actually had to call my family to tell me what’s they saying over there in Moscow. Well, so far my relatives said that it’s all calm in Moscow regardless of the 30% collapse of Russian ruble (probably only the beginning). But, at the same side, Dmitrii Peskov, Putin’s press-attaché [press secretary], said that sanctions are very serious and [the] Kremlin had meetings with mega-businessmen on the economy under sanctions.
WARD: Well, so Kira, what are you going to do? You have U.S. citizenship at least.
DIKHTYAR: I'm going to hope for a better future. I’m probably going to have to lose my Russian accent—lol—and get the Ukrainian one. The climate dictates some changes.
WARD: What's your mom going to do without the money?
DIKHTYAR: I don't know. Really, it's a shock. I don’t know. But I don’t think I will pretend to be Ukrainian to make a living. I don’t think I should be ashamed of my background. I love this about America. The country that was buil[t] on immigration—they take the best people from all over the world to build the American nation. I will remind my clients and my audience about my U.S. citizenship that I am very proud of.
WARD: Right. Well, let me ask you this. Are you worried about that? You might not see your son for quite some time.
DIKHTYAR: Uh, yes. I'm worried because there are no flights. There is no banking system. I cannot send money to my son anymore; I can’t send FedEx. What’s next? At least we still can call or message each other. Will they take that away?
And it really bothers me that no one in the U.S. is hearing the Russian story. The tech companies have taken out Russian side of the story from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You cannot post in Instagram if you are in Russia —you know what I mean?
It’s really wrong to feel penalized for something that you don’t support, just because you love your country and you speak with a certain accent. I am praying that they will still allow double citizenship between Russia and U.S.A. I replied [in an] interview for [a] Russian network when they asked me to choose between U.S and Russian passport [that] its like to choose between parents and the husband. How can you choose? You don’t choose your parents, but they raised you and you love them like I love my motherland. Again, I am not supporting the war! But nothing is wrong about loving your roots! As an adult, I choose to be the citizen of the United States and will remain living in this country.
I am praying for people in Ukraine, as well as for the Russian soldiers. And of course it would be hard and will take a while to solve the situation because it really went too far. But diplomats and world leaders have to find the solution for this war before we start Third World War. That’s why it’s important to have communication; at least hear—[you] don’t have to accept, but hear—different sides of story to understand the situation better, to have a global approach. The only way to stop the war is to find a diplomatic solution—and, for that, you have to understand both sides—their goals and motivations—[and] analyze reasons why this horrible military conflict happened.