Marina and Mike Stiranka at their home with their dog Gus in Edmonds. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Marina and Mike Stiranka at their home with their dog Gus in Edmonds. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘Victims of the same lie’: War frays Edmonds couple’s family ties

Marina is from Russia. Mike is from Ukraine. Both rebuke Russian propaganda, but some loved ones back home believe it.

EDMONDS — Mike Stiranka knows Russian state TV peddles in propaganda. He knows it’s fueling the violent attack on his home country, Ukraine.

Still, he spends hours watching it, perched on the edge of a plush couch upstairs in his Edmonds home.

His loved ones in Russia don’t believe him when he says their government is brutally invading Ukraine, targeting civilians and sparking a massive refugee crisis. He’s trying to wrap his head around it.

Headlines roll across the screen:

“PUTIN: WEST’S EFFORTS TO PRESERVE DOMINATION OF WORLD SLIPPING AWAY.”

“PUTIN: WEST WANTS TO DISMEMBER AND CANCEL RUSSIA, BAN RUSSIAN CULTURE.”

Mike is from the Ukrainian city of Lviv. His wife, Marina, grew up on the Russian island Sakhalin.

These days, they’re watching in horror as President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine tightens its chokehold on the Russian people, justifies a violent assault against Ukraine and rips apart international families like theirs. On Friday, Russia launched missile strikes near Mike’s hometown.

Watching the state-sanctioned “news” sheds light on Mike’s reality.

“We’re all victims here of the same lie,” he told The Daily Herald.

After the couple advocated against the war on social media and at local rallies, their close friends and family in Russia have cut ties.

“My own mom, she’s not talking to me,” Marina said. “I’m not even mad. I’m frustrated, you know? Because I want to make them see the truth.”

Mike and Marina consider their friends in Moscow to be family. But those same people now deny bombings the rest of the world is bearing witness to. Even as Mike checks in with his cousin and friends in Lviv, who are watching Russian forces expand their assault westward, his friends in Russia call the invasion a “special operation,” convinced that civilians are welcoming Russian forces and finally getting liberated from neo-Nazis.

The closeness of the countries, as well as the cultural and familial ties that defy borders, make the war even more upsetting, Marina said.

“It’s like shooting your brothers,” she said. “Our people, we are very much connected. We have almost the same language, listen to the same songs. We eat the same food, celebrate the same holidays.”

Putin’s siege is marching into its fourth week, and the civilian toll is growing.

This week, Mike’s hometown set out 109 empty strollers to symbolize the number of Ukrainian children who have died so far in the war; a Mariupol theater marked with the word “children” was bombed; and hundreds of civilians have been reported dead in Russia’s attack on Kharkiv.

Staring at the TV, Mike rattled off claims being propagated on Russian state television. One piece of disinformation suggests Ukrainian forces are developing bio-weapons specifically targeting Russian DNA.

“How do you do that?” he said. “We’re like 100% identical to you.”

Now, the couple is on their way to help Ukrainian refugees escaping to the Czech Republic. Marina leaves on Sunday. She’s taking a break from her job at the Mukilteo School District to work with humanitarian missionaries. The goal is to help relocate, house, feed and otherwise assist Ukrainian refugees coming through Poland.

Mike will take her place in a month.

What exactly will they be doing?

“Whatever they tell us to do,” Mike said.

Besides helping those escaping Mike’s home country, the couple hopes their personal stories will make it harder for their loved ones to deny what’s going on in Ukraine.

“Just maybe (Marina) can relay those stories to her friends and family back home and be like, ‘Yeah, you’re watching TV, but I am literally talking to the people who just came from there,’” Mike said.

The duo started a Telegram channel to send updates and stories back to Russia. In the thread, they’ve posted photos of themselves wearing the other’s national flag and pictures from a recent anti-war rally, as well as an online fundraiser to help pay for clothes, medical supplies and other materials to help refugees.

The Stirankas are just one example of the ripple effects the war is having across the globe.

The attack by Russia has inspired rallies in the area and sparked fear in those with loved ones back in Ukraine. Local businesses and governments are expressing their support for the country as Gov. Jay Inslee pushes for Washington to cut ties with Russian companies.

Mike left Lviv at 12 years old. As the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse, his father, then an auto mechanic, moved the family to Arizona. There, a Ukrainian church sponsored them.

Marina was born and raised in Sakhalin. After the Soviet Union dissolved, she said, Russian politicians including some in her family were wrapped up in criminal gangs. She wanted out, and left for Hawaii.

In 1999, while studying computer science at Hawai‘i Pacific University, she met Mike, who was in the U.S. Navy.

“It was kind of a rushed marriage,” she said. Her student Visa was expiring, and the duo wanted to stay together. “We don’t regret it.”

Now with two kids, they raise chickens in the backyard and dote on their dogs Gus and Paris. The Stirankas planned to return to Moscow this summer to visit friends.

But after speaking out against the war, Mike and Marina say they likely won’t return to Russia for a long time. The Kremlin is clamping down on internal dissent, with Putin this week likening opponents to “gnats,” “scum” and “traitors.”

According to human rights group OVD-Info, nearly 15,000 Russians have been arrested since Feb. 24 for protesting or criticizing war.

“My Visa got approved today,” Mike said. “Great. Maybe I’ll frame it.”

Marina said her sister, Galina, knows Russia is invading its neighbor, but is afraid to say so, even over a private FaceTime call from Sakhalin. Instead, she writes down her thoughts and holds the paper up to the camera.

At one point, Mike considered returning to Ukraine and volunteering, potentially with the Ukrainian Coast Guard. But he thought about who might be on the opposite end of his gun.

“We have friends in Moscow who have kids of military age,” he said. His own daughter is around the same age, a college freshman. And a Russian friend’s son fighting for Russia is apparently confused and scared. “I’m not going to fire at that kid. Are you kidding me?”

Mike said he’s still “fantasizing” about seeing his Russian friends again. In those fantasies, they’ve realized the truth about the war. They meet again and hug.

“At some point, it’ll be over,” Marina said. “And then you realize what you supported. It’s going to be a burden to live with … and I don’t want my friends and family to go through that.”

Claudia Yaw: 425-339-3449; claudia.yaw@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @yawclaudia.

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