Propaganda, Death and Sanctions: A Bay Area Russian Teen Reflects on the War in Ukraine


Image by geralt via Pixabay.

Sixteen-year-old East Bay resident Anita Ratna Gautam knows what it’s like living in Vladimir Putin’s Russia – because she did it for the first 12 years of her life.

“Since I was born, Putin has been in rule,” she said.

Gautam, who moved to the U.S. from Russia in the summer of 2018, has watched the upheaval and destruction of Ukraine with sadness, seeing the ripple effects spread across the world. Here, the U.S. faces skyrocketing gas prices, while closer to her former home, millions are reeling in a humanitarian crisis as Putin continues to launch attacks that have left city blocks in rubble and thousands of people dead.

From her vantage point in the Bay Area, Gautam is able to view the conflict through different lenses. Whereas Russian news has tended to lean toward “propaganda,” portraying the U.S. as a “weird, exotic country,” she said, American news outlets have also bent translations of Putin’s speeches.

Gautam cited the February 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv’s Maidan Square, which led to the overthrow of Ukraine’s Russia-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, as the real starting point of the conflict.

“It’s the history connections. We’re always going to be mindful of it,” Gautam said. At the same time, she added, “[the] Ukrainian people are very patriotic.”

Gautam said she fears that the exodus of international companies from Russia, like Sephora and Disney, will create a sort of cultural desert. “We’re literally going to become the next North Korea.”

She admitted Russians have not been “politically motivated” due to the more than two decades of Putin’s rule. “Democracy is different in every country,” said Gautam, who recalled that among  the people she knew while living in Moscow, it was primarily the older population that voted for the president.

Calling the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “one of the most powerful things ever,” Gautam said it’s NATO’s proximity to Russia – especially should Ukraine join the organization – that worries Putin. She feared Ukraine’s request for a no-fly zone would be “nearly impossible” to accomplish, as it would likely require U.S. involvement in the Russo-Ukrainian war.

In recent weeks, Gautam has been struck by how quickly Russian money has lost its worth, as the value of the ruble plummed this month to less than one penny.

Meanwhile, she said she has been doing some of her own research, like following a Florida college student who is tracking and publishing the locations of Russian oligarch-owned jets.

Gautam spoke of the possible “thousands” of prisoners languishing in Russian jails for protesting the war, and of the “Z” markings that have been spotted around the areas where Russians have fought – a pro-Russian wartime symbol with unclear military origins.

After watching speeches by both Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden, like his State of the Union address, Gautam has a sober outlook.

“If this turns into a nuclear war,” Gautam said, “there’s no winners.”