• Reportages
  • 18. March 2022

Letter From Yekaterinburg: We should have left when it was still possible

"We don't leave ours behind," reads the billboard with the Z, a symbol of Russian invasion in Ukraine / Source: Evenswire /
"We don't leave ours behind," reads the billboard with the Z, a symbol of Russian invasion in Ukraine / Source: Evenswire /
Vojtěch Boháč
“What’s the atmosphere in Russia like now? It’s pretty hard to figure out, because most people we know are against what’s happening,” my friend writes from Yekaterinburg. We met when I studied in Russia and have stayed in touch.

I know I live in some kind of bubble, in which people think more or less like I do. And I can’t even imagine what others think or how most Russians see things.” The friend’s letter of 7 March tries to answer the question of how it feels to be a member of the large group of people who have never sympathized with or supported the Putin regime but for various reasons haven’t been hard-core participants in anti-regime protests.

I can judge what’s happening with society by what my relatives do. At the beginning, my mother read Meduza [an independent, Russian-language news site based in Latvia]We agreed on things, and she grasped everything. But recently she announced that she’s started to believe state television. Information appeared about the bombing of residential buildings in Kharkiv, and she simply refused to believe that our people would shoot at residential buildings. So she thinks that what they write on Meduza must be fake, and Ukrainians probably are doing it themselves, or NATO’s doing it, or who the hell knows. Her take is that our people wouldn’t be capable of doing something like that.

On the other hand I don’t know how to approach her now, because it’s obviously a defensive reaction, when the brain doesn’t allow her and many others to believe something that’s too awful. If a person for years thought that it wasn’t good here but at the same time wasn’t so bad, and suddenly this appears in front of him, that’s a crazy assault on the psyche. I see this self-defense reaction in many people, when they say it’s too awful to be true.

Of course, the scariest thing now is the disgusting letter Z, which really looks like a swastika; that really sucks. We thought it was a paid thing, maybe we’d see it in some unlikely places, but we didn’t expect it to reach ordinary people. Today we saw a boy in a broken Zhiguli that had the letter Z attached to the hood with construction tape. He looked super pleased, clearly happy with himself that he did that.

But what I find especially weird now is people who act like nothing’s happening. They see some news that’s not too pleasant, but they say “well, it’s not important.” Maybe they swear a little to themselves, but they keep doing their thing. The strangest thing about all this is that maybe you wake up in the morning and first look at the Instagram stories from all your acquaintances in Ukraine so you can find out how they survived another night and if they’re still alive at all. And then you have breakfast and during that watch a video on how to survive a nuclear explosion. After a while you get on the bus and people around you talk about ordinary things; they say that maybe something is more expensive now but “well, hopefully it’s not for long.” And they keep talking about regular things, like going for a manicure. It seems my friends and I are living in our own universe, which doesn’t come in contact at all with the rest of Russia.

Pressure From Three Sides

It’s an especially fun time in Russia now, because everything is gradually disappearing; we won’t even have Coca-Cola. Or, you’re not even surprised to find out that we’ve been disconnected from Mastercard and Visa. Something that would have been completely unrealistic news, now is just one of thousands of such things a day, and you don’t even pay much attention to it anymore. Because the pressure is coming from many sides at the same time.

Foreign companies are leaving. Then there’s pressure by the government, which is shutting down even slightly independent websites; even TikTok is done; and they’re shutting down radio stations. There are new laws that soon won’t allow us to think in any other way than what the government wants. Until now you knew you could share some things online, and some things not. But now you’re starting to wonder if you can like somebody’s post or if it’ll be considered disseminating false information about the “special operation” in the west, for which you’ll spend up to 15 years behind bars.

So ordinary Russians, especially those who switch their brains on at least a little bit, now are under pressure from two sides. It probably won’t have a very good effect on our mental state, but we’re trying to behave as normally as possible so our daughter doesn’t see that we’re in such deep shit.

At first, I wanted the world to saddle us with as many sanctions as possible, because poverty and the minor and major problems that go with it are a price we’re willing to pay for not having a war. That they’ll leave Ukraine alone, that people will stop dying. But now I’m not sure how seriously it has affected the oligarchs, Putin’s immediate vicinity, and the people who have some real influence.

Because of the Visa and Mastercard limitations, people who left Russia in a hurry and had only let’s say $500 on their cards are suffering now. They won’t be able to withdraw even that money. Or people who live abroad and send money to sick parents. These elderly people will stay in Russia without the means to live. I don’t know if this is what’s helping stop the war and how much it affects those who are making decisions about the war.

Of course there’s also pressure from a third side – the Europeans who write to us every day. They write and ask why we don’t take to the streets, why we tolerate all this, why we don’t take Putin down. This of course adds to the “optimism” – how terrible we all are.

It probably sounds pretty egocentric when I talk about myself, us, and our problems. Of course, it’s not the worst thing happening in the world right now, but you asked how we are doing. Regarding people in Ukraine, you know more than we do.

Even Grandma Knows the Word ‘Fake’

I tell myself that our propaganda is really working well now. They decided that they’ll show all the videos from Ukraine they can find on the internet and claim that they’re fake. Instead of creating their own fakes, they pretend that they’re investigating and that they’re identifying fakes.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that they’ve really improved their skills. They’re really advanced now; they’re definitely not stupid. They have a very good strategy, which they are likely to continue. A few times I’ve shown my grandmother a video from the internet, and every time she tells me that she’s seen it and that it’s a fake. It’s really crazy that even my grandmother, who is going on 80, knows the word fake. She starts to explain to me that things are like this or that. And I can’t really stop her. If there used to be a “post-truth” era, then now it’s a “post-post-post-post-truth” era. If before it was hard to prove that a fake is a fake, now it’s even more complicated. You have to explain to people that this video really is real, that it’s not a fake. And it’s basically impossible to prove that.

Yes, I understand the feelings of those who are now speaking out against the Russians. But people just don’t understand what it’s like to live here. Some people have already left, but we who have decided to stay basically have no way of influencing anything. And now, in my opinion, people are now switching to more radical types of protests, where there’s at least some minimal chance it’ll change something. But unfortunately, I think such a chance doesn’t exist.

Prisons In Fact Are Inflatable

Damn, I don’t know if the Ukrainians or anyone will really be better off if, besides the fallen Ukrainians, we take to the streets or set ourselves on fire like Irina Slavina. I don’t think it would really help anyone. Putin isn’t interested in the Russian people at all; that’s clear to everyone anyway. In Belarus, it all became evident. At the time, I did tell people to go and protest, that prisons were not inflatable, but it turns out they actually probably are inflatable. And the idea that half the country will go to jail is no dystopia; it’s a reality that Belarus already is very close to. And we’re moving closer to it too.

And one more thing. I don’t know if this really is the case, but it’s said that the letter Z and all those forms of supporting the state are just the result of frustration and dissatisfaction with life. Now, there’s inflation; you almost can’t do anything; you can’t live normally, but taking out your aggression on the government is dangerous. People had held in the anger for a long time, and now there’s a legitimate and supported way to express one’s hatred. A real enemy has finally appeared, to which you can attach all your anger.

You can fulfill this need through the letter Z on a car or maybe somewhere on the internet. And at the same time find some new faith in a country that’s been shitting on people for a long time. But now there’s a chance to feel some sense of commonality with the state. Something like “hey, the state isn’t shitting on the people; it’s saving the unfortunate Russian-speaking population in Ukraine; it’s not indifferent to people.” Even though in reality the whole life of these supporters proves that the state is in fact blowing them off.

Nettle Soup and Potato Peel Bread

I really don’t know how we’re going to live here now. We’re making jokes that we’ll have to hunt pigeons and rats. And that I have to hurry and call my grandmother and ask her for some recipes, because she was born in 1936 and after the war lived in Tatarstan, where people were really hungry. She told me stories about how they made soup from nettles and orache and baked bread from potato peels.

We should have left when it was still possible. We did think about it and planned to do it. Now probably the only option is staying here. We’ll hope that there will be at least some internet, and that you’ll be able to find out something about us.

I feel a bit like it’s my birthday this week, because a lot of friends from all over Europe write to me, ask me how I’m doing, or wish me something. It’s a pretty insane feeling. It really is some kind of nightmare, even though, unlike most people, we knew there would be a war and that it would be bad. But we couldn’t have imagined how very bad it would be.

One of our acquaintances moved to Kyiv a few years ago because she fell in love with the city and the country, but she’s been missing since the first of March and we have no news about her.* When this happens to someone close to you, it’s especially terrifying. She thought she had moved to a free country, but Russia came after her.

Now we just hope that there will be as few victims as possible. We resonate with people who can’t leave Ukraine; it must be terrible.

* On 13 March the author learned that her acquaintance who had moved to Kyiv, Asya Klimova, died during the Russian bombing of the TV tower there.

Translated from Czech and edited by Transitions.