I have been a Russophile for as long as I can remember. Or, to put it more exactly, since I was eight years old, when I attended a school play performance of Gogol’s The Government Inspector. I loved Gogol’s sense of humour, the long names with their patronymics—Maria Antonovna, Anton Antonovich—even the word “ruble.” Later, I watched Dr. Zhivago on a rainy Sunday afternoon, learnt a little Russian history at school, and started reading Russian literature. I remember the blast of passages from The Brothers Karamazov, Prince Andrei’s death in War and Peace, and the green, wide open mountains (you could almost smell the dew) in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.
Born in 1970, I was part of the last generation to reach adulthood before the Cold War ended, and though Russian culture was a part of my life, the Russian people were not. At the age of 26, I moved to the Baltic State of Estonia, and I was seeing Cyrillic signs on the building and hearing Russian spoken around me. I was meeting real Russian people who were angry about the loss of their Empire, and bitter to find themselves suddenly a minority in a country which had abruptly seceded from the USSR. But I also found that such people were invariably generous and happy to discuss literature and answer my questions over a cup of black tea.
That was 25 years ago, and in the intervening years, Russia and its culture consumed my adult life. I became interested in other post-Soviet countries—Hungary, Romania, Estonia—but as they say in Hungary, “When it rains in Moscow, the umbrellas go up in Budapest.” Everything in this region, like it or not, begins and ends with Russia. Not a week has gone by when I haven't tried to understand it better. I can speak Russian now, I converted to Russia’s Orthodox church, and I have a half-Russian daughter who knows barely a word of English. What was once so distant and unfamiliar has become a part of my daily life and, in my child, a part of my family too. I often said while I was living there that the Russians did not feel like a foreign people to me, and that in my Southern Russian city I felt, to a great extent, that I was among my own. I continued to feel that way until the early morning of February 24th, 2022, when a chasm suddenly opened up, perhaps permanently.
The chasm didn’t open up with everyone. Many Russians I knew were as shocked by the outbreak of war as I was. Until the day before, as Russian soldiers and materiel gathered ominously on the borders and diplomats flew back and forth, many Russians continued to tell me—and themselves—that there was no chance Russia would attack Ukraine. Ukrainians are a brother nation, they said. Did I think Putin had lost his mind? One colleague remarked, with a note of pity, that I should stop reading the English papers which peddled such lies. I believed these reassurances because I wanted to believe them. My child was growing up in Russia and I had made a life there. It was only in the last few days, as Putin held his grotesque council of ministers and began ranting incoherently about Ukrainian statehood, that (to paraphrase Auden) my “clever hopes” began to expire.
Since leaving the country shortly after the invasion began, I’ve had many conversations with Russian friends and colleagues. Some of them—the majority of my acquaintances, in fact—are trying to forget that all this is happening. Some are candid about their objections to Putin’s war and their desire to leave, but they are careful to use encrypted apps to say so. Some have already left, unable to see a future in Russia. Others are unable to leave because the web of connections is too strong, or because they cannot come up with a way of earning an income abroad.
After I resigned from my university teaching job, dismayed by the abject support the profession was offering the regime and its war effort, I heard from two colleagues. As a foreigner, I had the luxury of resigning, without repercussions. They did not. Their comments revealed a reluctance to condemn the war, and they are far from atypical. One of them, upon reading my letter of resignation and its implied criticism of Russian policy, remarked that it was really sad that “we are in this hostage situation when we are forced to make these difficult decisions” and that “the sooner everything settles down the better.” She said she wished that the current situation “wasn’t our reality” and that it was “unbearable.” The other colleague said that she hoped we could work together again in happier times. But then they both slipped in mentions of the Donbas, the region Putin is ostensibly defending and which has been in a state of frozen war with the Ukrainian government since 2014.
Their Donbas students (and mine), they explained, were “used to the view of ruined houses,” but self-righteous Europeans hadn’t given a damn about them. Another colleague elaborated that I should be super-sensitive in my letter of farewell to my Donbas students, and take care not to “hurt them”: “many of them are here as refugees and their [Russian] brothers are defending Donbas from extermination by the Ukrainian army.” It was an appeal to my emotions, which carried a barely suppressed resentment that I was presuming to take the moral high ground.
I was a hypocrite, my colleagues implied. Why did I care so much about Russians killing Ukrainians, and not Ukrainians killing Russians? Only the previous day, one of them said, a Donbas student had told her that a Ukrainian shell had fallen on the city of Donetsk, killing 21 people. I had the sense that rhetorical points were being scored. Undoubtedly, some of what my colleagues said was true. In 2014, Human Rights Watch reported that unguided Grad rockets were being used by the Ukrainian army in populated areas with appalling results. An Amnesty report published last year found that pro-government and Russian separatist forces were both employing torture.
Arguments like these were used to undermine those who attacked the invasion. The Russian regime is still calling this a defensive war, waged to protect our Donbas “brothers” from “genocide,” and many Russians have now convinced themselves that it is true. But my colleagues’ words implied a double standard that does not exist. First, because the Donbas war was instigated in 2014 by Russia—Russian army veteran Igor Strelkov claimed he had “pulled the trigger”—and has been largely Russian funded. Weaponry was supplied by the Kremlin, and the ersatz Republics were often staffed at the highest level by Russian—not Donbas Ukrainian—citizens. Numerous reports emerged of Russians crossing the border into Ukraine to provide military and political assistance. This was not a spontaneous local rebellion, but a put-up job, and the Kremlin therefore deserves to shoulder much of the blame for the deaths incurred since.
And yet, the Donbas rebellions remained, legally, an internal matter for the new Ukrainian government—a government supported by the West. One could agree that the Western press’s neglect of Donbas citizens was a sign of bias. But in January 2021, the United Nations estimated that approximately 13,000 people had been killed in the Donbas in five years, about 4,000 of whom were fighting on the Ukrainian side. With whom were the West supposed to sympathise and why?
Nor is there any equivalence between Ukrainian attacks on the Donbas and Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The former, however violent, were the response of a country’s democratically elected authorities to its own rebellion. The latter is the brutal and illegal entry of one sovereign country by another. A better analogy is provided by Chechnya, the Russian region in the North Caucasus, whose declaration of independence in the 1990s led to two Russian-Chechen wars. The human rights organisation Memorial estimates that somewhere between 70,000 and over 200,000 civilians died in these conflicts. This too was an internal matter, and after September 11th, 2001, it received scant attention—much to Russia’s relief—from the international community. But my colleagues didn’t refer to this.
Years and numbers are important at a time when the words “extermination” and “genocide” are being tossed about in defence of the Russian invasion. Of those 13,000 deaths in the Donbas, the UN estimated that 3,393 were civilians in a region with approximately six million inhabitants. The proportion of civilian deaths among total casualties has fallen year on year, from about 33–34 percent in 2014, to four or five percent in 2019–2021. If this is an “extermination” or a “genocide,” it is being carried out by people who could use some extra training in those dark arts. To kill 0.07 percent of a region’s civilian inhabitants over a seven-year period is a terrible thing, but it is not genocide.
Meanwhile, thousands have died within the first month of Putin’s 2022 invasion. Many of the dead are Ukrainian civilians and poorly trained 18-year-old Russian soldiers, whose surviving relatives are now bereft. Who, one wonders, has been avenged or vindicated here? As Russian military attentions turn this month to the Lugansk and Donetsk regions and we await the concomitant bloodbath, who has been saved? A Ukrainian shell falling on the Donbas and killing 21 people is a tragedy, and that tragedy is now being repeated—minute by minute, hour by hour—across Ukraine by the Russian army. My colleague’s comment was, if nothing else, a fascinating example of how people attempt to achieve a kind of moral balance within themselves when their country is perilously close to being formally accused of war crimes.
My colleagues both spoke about media coverage. One told me that she was far more likely to believe her Donbas students than the Western media; the other that she didn’t trust the mass-media in general and that, when it came to Ukrainians and Russians, “both parties are to blame.” Each seemed to hint at some equivalence between Russian and Western media. But, while it is true that Western newspapers have their biases and particular forms of dishonesty, they are independently owned and free of government editorial control. They contain a range of opinions on the Ukrainian war and, most importantly, journalists don’t get thrown into prison for up to 15 years for disagreeing with it.
During the bitterly contested Iraq war, much Western press coverage was vehemently critical of the British and UK governments, and no journalist went to jail as a result. And nobody insisted that the foreign press use only information provided by the War Office PR department as has happened in Russia. In February 2003, a vast anti-war demonstration was held in London and attended by at least a million people. Although it failed to prevent the invasion, no one was arrested for objecting to state policy. When atrocities were committed by US or UK servicemen, we did not suggest that the Iraqis were “doing it to themselves” to gain sympathy. Indeed, in a well-known case, a set of pictures allegedly showing UK servicemen abusing an Iraqi prisoner did turn out to be a hoax, but this contradicted the average UK citizen’s assumptions, rather than confirming them—many Westerners were ready to believe the worst of their own side, and distrusted government assurances to the contrary.
Russia is, at least on the surface of things, different in this respect, and the proposed equivalences are again false, no matter how comforting to the Russian conscience they may be. From the older generation of Russians, I have heard the words “Nazis” and “Fascists” used to describe the Ukrainian people, often with considerable indignation. Putin has called his “special military operation” a “denazification” of Ukraine and many seem willing to accept this rationale on trust. The problem is that, as a military aim, “denazification” is unquantifiable and therefore meaningless as a measure of success or failure. And when considering Putin’s self-serving accusations of fascism, it’s worth looking at the numbers.
In Ukraine’s 2019 elections, the far-Right—a coalition of parties—mustered barely two percent of the vote. Hungary’s far-Right party, Jobbik, received 20 percent of the vote the year before, in a country with which Vladimir Putin is happy to do business. The Azov regiment still uses a Wolfsangel emblem, and although commentators question how fascist the regiment is now, it has undeniably extremist roots. Yet it has at most 2,500 members (a more realistic estimate is 900) and remains a fringe. Ukraine certainly has its share of extremists within its borders—which country does not?—but there is a lot more evidence against mainstream Nazism in Ukraine than there is for it. Though hardly a trailblazer for LGBT rights, press freedom, or democracy, Ukraine scores significantly—and consistently—higher on all these global indexes than Russia.
Interestingly, those who throw the word “Nazi” at the Ukrainian people rarely, if ever, define what a Nazi actually is. This may be largely because the charges would then crumble and might even rebound on the Russian regime, which has its own Nazi-affiliated organisations like the Wagner Group and the Rusich unit. As I gazed at the waving flags and heard the cries of “Rossiya!” at Putin’s rally a few weeks ago, and as I watched dissenters being arrested as Putin spoke of a “self-cleansing” Russian society, accusations of “fascism” suddenly looked and sounded a lot like projection.
Seeing these lies and double standards at work recalls the words of Joseph Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. … It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” Terms like “denazification” are the foundational lies upon which Putin’s Ukrainian bloodbath rests. Many Russians I know have responded by striving to avoid contact with these falsehoods. They have stopped watching the news and reading the papers, and have little idea anymore what exactly is happening in Ukraine or the world beyond. “I’ve just blocked the information flow,” one woman told me frankly. “I have to think of my mental health.” For this, I know, some will judge them harshly.
The same woman told me that her friends abroad—foreign and Russian—had cut her off for not taking sides or denouncing her government: “Why should I apologise for things I haven’t done, for a government I never voted for or supported?” Her ex-friends, however, don’t see it that way. What moral right does she have to look away and to prioritise her mental health when outrages like the shelling of Kramatorsk railway station are happening in her name? On this matter, I have argued with myself at length. Ignoring the news is not a freedom available to people in Ukraine—the news has found them whether they like it or not. But that is no reason not to enjoy that freedom where it does exist. When faced with two evils—filling your head with propaganda or atrocities you can do nothing about—it is understandable that some Russians will choose neither.
Inevitably, though, this retreat from the world into private life will only make the job of the Russian regime easier. A blind eye, at least for the moment, suits Putin and his ministers just fine. But people outside are already beginning to ask why Russians are not rising in protest against them. “We did it in Poland,” a Poznan friend told me. “Ukraine did it in 2004 and 2014. Even Belarus had a try. What is wrong with the Russians?” Many of us—even lifelong Russophiles—are growing impatient with Russian passivity, fatalism, detachment, cliches about the “Russian soul,” and that fabled Russian need for a tough and powerful Tsar. Are these proclivities defensible any longer, when other nations are paying such a high price for them?
Refraining from judgement is difficult in wartime. Even now, rereading my colleagues’ emails, I don’t know whether they meant the things they said or were just covering themselves out of fear. They may have felt, as we all felt in those first days of cranked-up propaganda and hastily introduced new laws, that a terrifying machine was bearing down on them, and that they could either ride it or be ground under its treads. In such moments, it’s not a matter of choosing your response: you open your mouth and the prescribed words tumble out, just as they tumble out of the mouths of those around us.
In the days after February 24th, as censorship laws were introduced to suppress “fake news” (or, more accurately “inconvenient truths”), I remember the chill that descended on everyone. A friend delivered an innocuous speech at a christening party and said that he hoped the child would grow up in a world of peace, free to sample all that life has to offer. Halfway through he noticed a woman filming him. It was probably just a relative recording a family memory, but he went home in a panic. Had he inadvertently made anti-war remarks by talking about peace? Could “all that life has to offer” be construed as an attack on Putin’s actions that had brought punishing Western sanctions and curtailments on travel? My friend is still at large, so it was probably paranoia. But it was a paranoia that afflicted us all there.
Now I am in a foreign country. I have the luxury of writing and saying things which my Russian friends do not, and the luxury of seeing some of my words published without immediate danger to my dearest. I feel an inexplicable guilt for leaving Russia. God knows, I have read about Eastern European purges, terror, and mass-madness often enough—why am I content to let these always be things that happen to others, rather than experiencing them myself?
It's a sunny Sunday morning where I am. In the old days, in my Southern Russian city, I would be getting up, making my daughter toast and jam for breakfast, bickering with her about the cartoons she was watching, and going out to the market for cheese and honey. I miss my daughter. She is living in a foreign country now, far away. But I also miss the Russian people and the city in which I lived for so many years—its brick houses, ramshackle courtyards, its overcast skies, its smells.
Sometimes my exile from all this seems temporary, and sometimes it feels permanent. Increasingly, I feel I am missing a place and people that no longer exist, just as an earlier self—a more accepting, uncritical version of me—has also gone forever. We all stopped existing in the early hours of February 24th, 2022. And none of us—at least for the foreseeable future—has much chance of existing again.