KHARKIV, Ukraine—The missile shattered the stained glass windows of Father Vasyl Ivanchuk’s church in early March, peppering the walls with shrapnel and smashing golden candelabra.
Father Vasyl sent photos of the damage to his brother Iosif, a priest at a parish near Moscow, denouncing the latest Russian strike.
Father Iosif called and asked how he knew it was the Russians, not the Ukrainians, who were responsible.
“This is just what war is like,” he said.
Vasyl hung up and began crying. He didn’t speak with his brother for the following two months.
The friction between the brothers—who were born in western Ukraine and grew up speaking Ukrainian—is a microcosm of rifts affecting many Ukrainian and Russian families. For 59-year-old Iosif, who moved to Russia in 1989, the conflict is a just war to take back historically Russian lands. For the younger Vasyl, who stayed in Ukraine, it is a barbaric crime propped up by the Kremlin’s lies.
Russia and Ukraine have historical and cultural ties stretching back centuries, and some 20 million Ukrainians have relatives in Russia. Many of those Ukrainians live in cities that have been targeted by Russian missiles and are the scene of atrocities by Russian soldiers.
But in Russia, TV propaganda backed by officials and the powerful Orthodox Church has convinced many that the invasion is a mission to prise Ukraine from the West’s grasp and liberate its Russian-speaking population.
The two parallel realities have helped create a gulf between siblings, between parents and children, and between husbands and wives.
“There’s so much information out there about what Russia’s army is doing and how much pain it has caused Ukraine, and still Russians deny this,” said Russian film director Andrei Loshak. “Putin’s propaganda fuels a thirst for revanchism. He could have avoided pressing those buttons—but he did, and very successfully.”
Mr. Loshak’s 2022 film “Broken Ties,” which profiles Ukrainians and Russians estranged from Russia-based relatives, has been viewed more than 1.8 million times on YouTube. Mr. Loshak, who left Moscow for Tbilisi, Georgia, one week into the war, has himself drifted apart from a cousin whom he spent his childhood with and who now backs the war.
“These are my native people, people I grew up with, people whose strengths and weaknesses I know so well,” Mr. Loshak said of Russians who justify the invasion. “Seeing how quickly they can divide people into us and them, how quickly they can become supporters of violence, is a traumatic realization for me as a Russian.”
The Ivanchuk brothers both served in the Soviet army in the waning years of the Soviet Union, both lived in Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine as students, and both became priests at a time of spiritual revival as the atheist communist empire crumbled.
But while Vasyl came away from military service believing that dysfunction in Moscow’s army reflected a society coming apart at the seams, Iosif recalls a Russian-speaking camaraderie later shattered by the Soviet collapse that tore Ukraine from Russia and allowed the West to take advantage. He calls himself Russian and praises the new churches built under President Vladimir Putin’s rule as evidence that Russia holds the moral high ground.
“The chaos that is happening in Ukraine is God’s retribution,” he says. “They are trying to purge part of their population, and constantly place our country in the crosshairs.” He says deaths of Ukrainian civilians are a regrettable side effect of Russian attacks on military objects, and believes Vasyl isn’t getting the full picture.
Many of his own views—about a fascist government in Kyiv waging “genocide” against inhabitants of eastern Ukraine—reflect the narrative promoted on Russian state TV, which he consumes alongside Ukrainian news sources.
Vasyl says he finds it hard to understand why Iosif denies Russian aggression when he has seen the footage of Kharkiv’s destruction that Vasyl sends him over WhatsApp. Moreover, two of Iosif’s sons lost jobs as managers at McDonald’s after the U.S. fast-food chain withdrew from Russia, though they were later reinstated when it reopened under a different name.
“I tell him: You have a smartphone, you have Telegram, you have alternative sources of information,” Vasyl said. He and his siblings describe Iosif as a kind father and community member, who has welcomed refugees from eastern Ukraine into his church.
But for Iosif, the grim footage sent by his brother has become too much to bear. “I don’t always look at it, if I’m honest,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just too difficult.” He said he prays for his brother and for the war to end, but believes it was the inevitable result of Ukraine’s actions.
On May 29, Vasyl’s birthday, Iosif called for the first time since the attack on Vasyl’s church. He listened silently for around 20 minutes, and when Vasyl asked about his children, Iosif sighed and said they were out of work. “After three months of war he began to understand just a little about what is really happening,” Vasyl said.
Later, when Russia conducted sham referendums in occupied parts of Ukraine last month and declared almost unanimous support there for annexation by Russia, Iosif said Russia had to respect the wishes of local residents.
When Mr. Putin announced a military mobilization on Sept. 21 and tens of thousands across Russia were drafted for the war in Ukraine, the father of six said he would be proud if one of his three sons signed up to fight. “The country must be defended,” he said.
As the two brothers drifted apart, the war began to personally affect their family. They lost their older brother Bohdan, a priest who died of a brain hemorrhage not long after being forced to flee his home north of Kharkiv when his town came under Russian occupation.
Their sister Maria Yablokova, who works as a nurse in Estonia and aids Ukrainian refugees, urged Vasyl to stop speaking with Iosif. “I didn’t want arguments,” she said in a phone interview.
In May, the Ukrainian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, that both Vasyl and Iosif’s parishes belong to, severed ties with Moscow. Vasyl backed the decision, writing in a letter to the head priest of the Kharkiv region that the war had left many of his parishioners without homes and exacted a huge toll on their lives.
By then, Vasyl had repaired his church and resumed services. With help from local residents, some of whom took shelter in the church’s basement during the March attack, he boarded up the windows, cleaned up the debris and replaced doors that had been thrown off their hinges by the blast.
A 30-year-old parishioner who helped with the cleanup effort was walking in a park in late May when the blast wave from another Russian missile strike tore his five-month-old child from his hands, killing both instantly. Vasyl presided over his funeral.