Russia-based British writer on the war: It felt like all of Dostoyevsky's little devils had been released from their bottle

Bucha, Ukraine

Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine has put millions of people on the move, refugees fleeing from Ukraine to save their lives and others fleeing from Russia for fear of what the country may turn into in the months and years to come. A British writer based in a city in southern Russia told Radio Prague International how the war turned his life upside down and made him seek refuge in Armenia. Fearing for the safety of those he left behind, he agreed to speak to Daniel Ordonez of RPI’s Spanish section under the pseudonym Robert Ginzburg. 

“That day we woke up and nobody expected that the Russians would invade. Nobody expected that Putin would do this. None of my Russian friends did. All of them told me to stop watching the English news, that it was rubbish, just British propaganda, Putin was not crazy…Ukrainians were their brothers, all of that. And then you woke up on the 24th to hear this speech that Putin made – only a dictator makes speeches this long. It had started. And it was a complete change of atmosphere, a change of temperature. But, whatever I say about Russia, you cannot compare it with Ukraine because being on the side of the border that is throwing the bombs is very different from being on the side that is receiving them. Still, people were in shock and from that time on it felt like all of Dostoyevsky's little devils had been released from their bottle. In the first two or three days we talked a lot –there was a kind of hysteria almost, and then the government brought in these laws that you could be sent to prison for introducing “fake news” which was their way of saying –“don’t even think about telling the truth.

Photo: Igor Budykin,  Radio Prague International

“We got my daughter out very quickly and it is not a question of whether I’ve done the right thing because it is clear that there was nothing else to be done. Nothing that has happened in the last four of five weeks makes me feel that my daughter had a future there or could have grown up there. “

But before that everything was all right?

“Oh yes, I loved the people, I had really put down roots there. I had two cats, a lovely flat – I hadn’t bought it, Thank God – but I had collected art, furniture, would pick up my daughter every day and make her lunch. I had an improving employment situation and a growing group of nice acquaintances. I absolutely loved the city, but I am coming to the conclusion that it has just stopped existing and it won’t exist again because you cannot “un-know” what you have discovered over the last five or six weeks and I feel that a slight gulf has opened up between me and Russia that was not there before.”

Why couldn’t you stay? There was no danger.

“That’s quite true. I could have stayed. I was getting up each morning wondering whether to stay or to leave and then on a bus one day I saw an English-language paper with a headline saying martial law was about to be brought in. Now if you are a foreigner from a hostile country – not an enemy country but certainly not a country that was friendly to Russia at that moment – you have a real problem if martial law comes in, because one of the offshoots or martial law is internment of foreign nationals. And I thought - Well, I am not going to be of any use to anybody if I have to go and sit in some prison or whatever you call it for the duration of this war. So at that point I really wanted to get out. Well, martial law didn’t come in, but then the British Embassy said we are telling all our citizens to get out now. So I called the embassy and said –is this for real? And they said, yes, you should make your exit by the nearest convenient route. It is so creepy when you are told that. At the same time, these were all these rumours about the borders closing, about airlines cancelling planes and you felt like this hand was tightening around you. And you just wanted to get out before the doors closed, basically.”

What was the mood like among ordinary people?

Photo: Zachery Perkins,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 2.0

“Well, one or two people [I know] became quite enthusiastic about the war and they were often people that I liked but now they were big war enthusiasts and that was extremely difficult. A few people just didn’t want to talk about it. You find that unless you are being bombed life goes on in some way ,because people want to go on living their lives. So there was that.”

Before the invasion – do you remember people speaking out openly against Putin?

“In Russia you never discuss politics. You can discuss anything except politics and religion and that suited me fine, because at the time I was far more angry about things that were happening in Britain. So, you didn’t talk about Putin. You really didn’t. And that is why all this has happened. Nobody knew what was happening in other people’s heads and clearly something awful was happening. It is like a big pustule has burst now and it must have been there before.”

So in your opinion how much support does Putin have?

“I think he has a lot of support right now –because in wartime it happens– I don’t know whether all nations do this, but in Russia that’s so. There’s this famous actor called Sergei Bodrov in a film called Brat [Brother] and there’s an interview with him that they play on Russian TV al lot where he says –“You must never say anything bad about your country in wartime, whatever you think, you have to support it”. There’s so much propaganda –they are just being fed this diet of propaganda where this is “ a defensive war, not an aggressive war and they are going in to deliver the Ukrainian people from their fascist government” –that’s all they keep hearing. The only people who I am able to communicate with at the moment are either very anti-war and they have to speak very, very carefully and very quietly or people who are not watching the news in an effort to retain some sense of normality. You might disprove of that and I can kind of understand it.”

Do you know Russian people who have left the country because of the war?

Yerevan,  Armenia | Photo: Serouj Ourishian,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“I have bumped into some in Yerevan. That has been strange, bumping into people that I knew. Yes, a lot of people are leaving. A lot of IT people are leaving because all their clients are dropping them. I spoke to an IT worker who caught a plane from Moscow to Yerevan and he said the whole plane was just IT workers. I don’t personally know any journalists who have had to leave, but I know that a huge amount of them have.”

I heard that celebrities are leaving too – the singer Zemfira for instance…

“Yes, I know that Zemfira deleted all of her songs on YouTube apart from one about lies –she left that one there as her comment on what was happening.”

She left for Paris, I heard and Ala Pugacheva reportedly left as well…

“Yes, it sounds lovely doesn’t it to run away from Russia and go and live in Paris, but it doesn’t mean you are not hugely homesick and incredibly sad about what has happened to your country. I feel it and it is not even my country. I feel homesick. I miss the city and I’d love to go back, but there is no going back. That city will not exist again in the way it did then.”

What do you think is going to happen in one year or five years in Russia and Ukraine? This may be a stupid question….

“No, it is not a stupid question – it is what everyone is thinking about. On the one hand, you think –there’s no way Putin can survive this. His reputation is so low now and getting lower and sooner or later he will be charged with war crimes –even though he will probably not stand trial. And the other part of me – the pessimist – says –they’ve got nuclear weapons. I don’t know what will happen. Some days I get up and I think the country is not even going to exist anymore in five years’ time.

Kramatorsk massacre | Photo: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine/Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 4.0 DEED

“I travelled extensively across Russia in 2018, trying to understand this country and work out why it doesn’t get good governments –tolerant, liberal governments.  I travelled from Moscow to Baikal which is a huge journey and with the size of it you start to feel that you cannot govern this large country without a – I don’t want to say “strong hand” because it sounds like a good thing then– but without this repressive centralized control. If that’s the case, maybe the country’s just too big and maybe people will come to that conclusion. Maybe to get a modern government in Russia it will have to be broken up in some way. I never could imagine saying this or wanting it, but the last months have been weird. If you’d told me a year ago maybe the country should be broken up, I’d say you were mad, because I am quite a Russophile, but I don’t know what else you’d do. So that could happen, but I don’t know. It depends on A: whether they replace Putin and B: whether they replace him with someone even worse. I have Russian friends who are worried that Kadyrov is next in line.

God help them if it is Kadyrov. I mean, God help them now, but if it is Kadyrov, can you imagine!”

That is why I asked you about the public support for Putin. I lived in Russia long ago and he had a lot of real support back then….or so it seemed.

“Well, if you look at it, a lot of that support is because of the 90’s and because of Yeltsin, because of crime, because of inflation and all those things. The word they use is “stabilnost” (stability), they say Putin gave them “stabilnost” and that he cleaned up the oligarchs and so on. I have a friend in the city who when she was a child in the 90s her parents would buy meat and the only meat they could afford was meat you would have to pick the feathers and claws out of – the cheapest chicken meat. Well, she’s just bought her own apartment. So she is one of Putin’s supporters. But there are a lot of middle class people who did not have to struggle in the 90s and who do not have this sense of loyalty to him I think.”

You are a refugee now – do you feel like a refugee?

“Nobody feels like a refugee if they have a roof over their heads and are on their own. So it seems weird to say I am a refugee, because I managed to rent a flat for a month and I am not worried about where the next meal is coming from. But I am a refugee in that I have had to leave most of my possessions behind and I can’t go back – so in that way I am a refugee.”

Why did you chose Armenia?

“It would take my cats. I heard it was a tolerant country about taking cats in and that they wouldn’t worry too much about vaccinations. Also – why not? I knew a lot of Armenians in Russia and they always intrigued me because I couldn’t get a grip on their culture so I thought – why not? I don’t know if I will stay here – I suspect I will go to Georgia.”

What are your plans now?

“I don’t know. I am living month-by-month. Because if you’ve had this sense of the future extending and things growing and building ( I was just about to get a lecturing job at the university) and you have this sense of moving along a track and that track just goes into a brick wall –you don’t really know after that. I will carry on writing articles, probably.”

Many people in the Western world feel that Ukraine is fighting for all of us. We certainly do here in the Czech Republic…

“Well, the Czechs know what it is like, don’t they, to lose their freedom - because of the Prague Spring. And it is very interesting that they are the first country that’s given tanks to Ukraine. What’s funny is that when I see what’s happening in Ukraine at the moment, I think far more about Hungary in 1956 and that’s why it is such an irony that Orban is being so completely useless and divisive and speaking about Zelensky as an enemy.

“But I can see that the Czechs are thinking back to 1968 and that they feel sympathy. I don’t know why Orban doesn’t. He has used that revolution often enough to score political points. You would expect him to have some sympathy with Zelensky.

“But I think of the Czechs and 1968 as being a different thing slightly – I don’t think there has been this flowering of creativity that you had in Czechoslovakia in 1960s, because when I think of Prague Spring I think of this explosion of theatre and cinema and jazz and literature. I don’t think we have seen that coming out of Ukraine, but I may be wrong, maybe I just don’t know about them. But the Czechs have been extremely decent as far as I can see throughout this crisis.”

Robert Ginzburg wrote a moving story about how the war shattered his dreams for the online journal, Quillette, titled “An Englishman in Russia Bids His Daughter Farewell”.

Author: Daniel Ordóñez
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