In the picture, Anastasaia and Elizaveta Grigoryeva’s father is faintly smiling, smartly dressed from head to toe in military uniform and holding a puppy to the camera.
It is an image of their father no longer recognizable to the 18-year-old twin sisters — not since he left to fight in Ukraine six months ago and returned a “broken man.”
“He was there for the most intense fighting, under shelling, everything,” Elizaveta Grigoryeva said.
“He says himself, being shelled for six hours will change a man, and so many deaths. He needs medical help,” she said.
The psychological scars her father has brought home from the battlefield has built pressure on a family already at odds over whether the conflict is justified.
Their story points to a broader issue, one uncomfortable for the Kremlin — that fighting in Ukraine is taking a harsh toll at home and tearing apart some families. Elizaveta Grigoryeva believes many more veterans would return traumatized.
The sisters, who are staunchly opposed to the military intervention in Ukraine, live in Pskov near Russia’s border with Estonia.
The medieval city of about 200,000 people is also home to the 76th Guards Air Assault Division — their father’s paratrooper unit.
In January, the father told his daughters he was leaving just for a few days for military drills in Belarus. He would not return for six months.
His unit took part in the calamitous assault for Kyiv that ended with Russia’s withdrawal from northern Ukraine in March.
Investigative journalists have placed the unit around that time near the Ukrainian town of Bucha, where Kyiv and international investigators have accused Russian forces of executing civilians.
Russia denies harming civilians, but Anastasia and Elizaveta Grigoryeva wonder if their father could have somehow been involved.
“He says he didn’t kill anyone,” Elizaveta Grigoryeva said.
“But war is a crime in and of itself,” Anastasia Grigoryeva replies.
“Yeah, so, supporting or taking part in the war is already a crime,” Elizaveta Grigoryeva concluded.
The sisters were shocked when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the military invention, and in early March took to the streets, carrying signs that read: “Peace in Ukraine, Freedom in Russia.”
Turnout was low at the protest in Pskov and the sisters were immediately detained.
They were threatened with jail time by police, but eventually released. Instead they were ordered to pay a fine equivalent to about 330 euros (US$336) for “organizing” an illegal gathering.
While Anastasia and Elizaveta Grigoryeva were entangled in legal problems at home, their father’s well-being was deteriorating.
The 43-year-old soldier in May asked his family to start the administrative process needed to return him from the front.
He left the battlefield “for health reasons” in mid-June and is now going through the procedure to be discharged from the army after about 20 years of service.
“That much stress has changed how he sees the world. He lost comrades. He saw corpses everywhere,” Elizaveta Grigoryeva said.
New legislation introduced in Russia against maligning the military means he could face jail time if he speaks publicly about his experiences in Ukraine, but in the privacy of his home in the countryside, his daughters said he spoke openly about what he witnessed.
However, they said that he sometimes becomes aggressive, and the three fight regularly. He is not seeking psychological help.
The girls left the family home last month after the situation there had become untenable.
A women’s rights organization helped them find an apartment to live in and they are partly living off money they gathered from a crowdfunding campaign for their fine.
Still, they do not want to break ties entirely with their family.
“We love our father. We’re not going to reject our own family,” Elizaveta Grigoryeva said.
But she and her sister said that they avoid speaking about the conflict with their father and 38-year-old mother.
Unlike their parents — who like many Russians of their generation stay clear of politics — the sisters are still politically active and became interested in politics from an early age.
They said they had been drawn in by the sleek video investigations and political statements of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who is serving a prison sentence for fraud.
The sisters said that they have no intention of halting their political activism, despite their parents’ disapproval.
They are “absolutely not afraid” of being imprisoned and even admire “the strength” of the Ukrainian people, who they say are facing extreme violence.
“We’re liberal,” Elizaveta Grigoryeva said. “We criticize the government. We need to build democracy at home.”
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