I am an Englishman in Southern Russia. For nearly four years I’ve lived here, helping my Russian ex-partner bring up our (now) eight-year-old daughter. At 9 o’clock last night I saw both of them onto a sleeper-train to Moscow. From there they will fly to Italy and the mother’s new boyfriend, perhaps never to return.
The parting was an almost comically clichéd wartime scene—the escape on the night-train, tears, hugs, the heaving suitcases, the conversations through the glass and, finally, the faces disappearing into the distance. The grandmother and I walked back together to our empty flats, silent and sad, neither of us knowing when we would see these two people again. It may be a sentimental motif of wartime, and anyone who has ever wanted to feel they were living in history will, after experiencing a farewell like this, feel that history has finally got their number. It was a scene from a novel I’d read many times and in many variations. I couldn’t help remembering that in those books the child almost never sees the father again. And this time the father is me.
Putin’s rape of Ukraine has destroyed lives that were not part of the calculation—not that this would trouble him a bit. For the last four years, my life has seemed to follow an over-arching narrative—I would continue to live in the Southern Russian city I have come to love, and I would raise my child to adulthood here. I knew she would leave one day—young people generally do. But that moment was a long way away, and for the next few years I would carry on getting up at six each morning, making the 25-minute walk across town, waiting in the hallway of her mother’s house while she finished getting dressed, and then catch the tram to school with her.
My daughter has just started her school (Russians start at seven and she was a year late) and she was already making friends. These would be her companions for the next 10 years: they would go through adolescence and become young adults together. She was about to start swimming lessons and we planned to buy her a guitar. We knew which drama groups she’d go to as a teenager and where we’d buy her birthday cakes. My daughter had developed a crush on the elder son of a local Jewish family with whom we would hang out on the occasional Sunday, and three days a week I waited in a cluster with local mothers to pick her up from school. These were the people my daughter would grow up with, the people I’d continue to see, week in, week out, possibly for the rest of my life.
And then, in the space of a day, this entire world was vaporised. Most eras in one’s life fade slowly, bit by bit, and you adapt to each incremental loss. This one was different. And yet, we are on the Russian side—the safe side—of the Ukrainian border. And one must distinguish here between terror and inconvenience. On the Ukrainian side of the border is terror—the terror of a mouse that sees a mallet bearing down on it, were the Ukrainians not fighting back with such awe-inspiring courage. But it is terror, nonetheless—family members may be lost or maimed, those you love may be arrested or tortured, lives may be disemboweled forever. Your world and everything familiar and dear to you are—literally in some cases—reduced to rubble, and there is nothing but the present minutes and seconds.
On our side of the border, currently, is inconvenience. To have a world you know and love, and to which you have grown accustomed, blown to bits in a matter of hours is—if no one actually dies or is in much danger of doing so—merely inconvenient. But it is difficult to accept even so. A few hours ago, a narrative of hopes and expectations steered your life. It had settled into your psyche and patterns of behaviour so comfortably that you took it for granted. It was the sea you swam in and you knew where the rocks and sunny islands were. We forget how fast it can vanish. Make God laugh, tell him your plans, they say. At least, tell Putin.
We forget, too, how long it will take to accept that it’s never coming back. My daughter and ex-partner are now refugees—it’s possible we’ll never live in the same city again. For adults, it’s easier. By the time you’re middle-aged, you’ve seen your house of cards fall several times. But I fear for my eight-year-old daughter. Her entire blueprint for life and normality have just shattered. She went off last night happy and excited, as though for a summer holiday. I wonder how long it will take to sink in, how completely everything habitual to her, nearly every familiar face or place, is gone.
Why did they leave? And why did they leave with my blessing? There’s no war in this Southern Russian city. The inconvenience of living here at the moment—the biting sanctions, the rising prices, the sudden knowledge you are at violent odds with one or two people you formerly considered friends—is nothing compared to the carnage across the border. But suddenly it didn’t feel safe anymore. Those you terrorise—and Putin’s bloody incursion into Ukraine defines the word—tend to hit back. Indeed, doing so is a sign of life. The point about a war is that it spreads paranoia and makes that paranoia so much more real.
Leaving my child at school each day, walking into shopping centres with her, even standing on a tram, would, I knew, no longer feel safe. The old men and women who guard the doors of public buildings suddenly seemed like an invitation to anyone with a bad agenda. Putin was making threatening comments about media censorship and treason—which can be made to mean anything he wishes—and the rouble was plummeting in value. Airports all over Southern Russia were closing. And our world seemed to be splitting into those who thought Putin’s invasion was a great thing (a reassuringly small minority) and those who were bewildered and appalled.
Even among these, there were subsections—those who’d talk about it (“I feel like I’m living in Hitler’s Germany,” one Russian colleague said), and those who refuse to say anything at all. But, in general, Putin’s war on Ukraine has unleashed a flood of political talk. There is something about fear which, perversely, makes you less afraid. You have less time, perhaps, to be brave and speak your mind. The jokes with which we’ve nervously tried to keep our spirits up over the last few days have been, however incongruous, of much better quality than usual. Faced with the irrational, we’ve raised our game.
Now I’m left behind as my daughter and her mother make their way to Southern Europe. I am, for the first time in four years, alone in the city. Do I stay here, or do I run? I remain poised between the two—planning my work for the next few months, paying my rent, but also getting my cats microchipped, traipsing across town to buy cardboard boxes, trying to find an affordable shipping firm. Other stuff I shall store here if I leave, under the comforting delusion that Putin will self-destruct. That we’ll sweep up the glass of our broken plans and simply start again.
This almost certainly won’t happen. I’m not just alone in this city but must make my own way in life now too. I can no longer use a child as an alibi or a star to steer by. My daughter is gone, off to start a new life in another country. What will bring her back?
This rupture, as much as any other happening now (some unquantifiably worse), is just another act of the bored, pitiless, dismally unimaginative man in the Kremlin. And as I returned from the station last night, knowing that the train was taking my daughter away from me into the unknown, I recalled that quote from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scripture: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”