Natalie Rice didn’t even try to sleep the night the Russians rumbled into Ukraine. She, along with most Ukrainians, had believed that Vladimir Putin’s posturing was just high-stakes saber-rattling that wouldn’t result in a full-blown invasion, so she could hardly believe what she was seeing when the tanks started rolling.
Disbelief turned to horror as familiar landscapes were reduced to rubble by Russian missiles.
“Although we’d read so many reports that it was coming, many people believed such a thing would never take place. Russia and Ukraine have so many ties and so much in common. They are connected through family – a quarter of all Russians have relatives in Ukraine and half of all Ukrainians are related to someone in Russia. They fought World War II together as allies. I was sitting in front of CNN all night long; watching and crying.”
Rice is a product of that Eastern European melting pot, and her family has a history of questioning totalitarian regimes. Her father fled political persecution in Belarus and her great-grandfather was executed by the Stalinist government in 1937, so the images on her TV screen were deeply personal to her. She is from Belarus and Russian is her first language. Her grandmother was Ukrainian and lived near the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam, which the Russians blew up during the early days of the invasion, causing catastrophic flooding downstream on the Dnieper River.
“We used to spend summers there, camping along that beautiful lake. I am one-quarter Ukrainian, and this has been so painful to watch. We are all the same people in that region.”
She was Natalie Manayeva when she came to the U.S. from Russian puppet state Belarus 15 years ago to enter graduate school at the University of Tennessee College of Communications. Since then, she has earned both master’s and doctoral degrees focusing on mass media’s role in the rise of anti-American sentiment in Russia, and she has put that knowledge to use as a researcher with UT’s CCI Research & Innovation Center, funded by a Defense Department grant.
She celebrated her first anniversary as a U.S. citizen this Fourth of July and has been married to Knoxville political consultant Dean Rice for eight years (he was chief of staff to then-county mayor Tim Burchett when they met).
Her father, Belarusian professor and political pollster Oleg Manaev, was already affiliated with UT as a visiting scholar when Natalie arrived in Knoxville. He had been granted political asylum by the U.S. after getting in hot water with the government because his public opinion research didn’t align with the numbers preferred by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, a longtime lackey of Vladimir Putin.
Rice has been shocked by Lukashenko’s language in recent week, as he inserted himself into the widening rift between Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group, the brutal mercenary army that has been the point of Putin’s sword in regional conflicts from Central Africa and the Middle East to Ukraine.
Rice isn’t alone in her views. Most Russia watchers expected Prigozhin’s aborted march to Moscow to come to a quick and terrible conclusion for the man formerly known as “Putin’s chef,” and are surprised that he’s still alive and bragging. Rice, who doesn’t need a translator to understand what Lukashenko is saying, says the disrespect he is showing his Russian overlord would have been unthinkable just weeks ago. She believes that she’s not alone in noticing weaknesses in Russia’s alleged military night – particularly considering the communication between kinfolk across national borders.
“This is supposed to be the second-strongest army in the world? People are realizing just how incapable the Russian army really is – realizing they couldn’t take Ukraine the way they said they would. Putin has been pouring money into the army for the last 15 years, but later we find out that most of that money was stolen.
“That’s one of common characteristics of authoritarian countries – no media. Nobody knows what’s happening there, which makes it an ideal breeding ground for corruption. And that that’s what was happening for many years in the Russian army.”
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.