Julia Reed in Moscow -
Et tu, Ukraine?
To many Russians, and certainly to most Russian politicians, the issue of Ukraine seems as touchy as the subject of teenagers leaving the nest feels to some parents: what’s wrong with their home? Aren’t they happy with their parents? Why now, at this inappropriate moment? It seems so unfair and they so ungrateful. How dare the kids prefer the company of their new friends and not even calling except when they need money?
It may be hard for an outside party to appreciate Russia’s sensitivity when it comes to Ukraine’s decision to abandon the Customs Union with Russia in order to sign a free trade and association treaty with the EU. To Russians it feels like a betrayal, the end of a special relationship that has lasted centuries.
A great number of Russians have Ukrainian roots and still have family in Ukraine – and vice versa. There are strong cultural, religious and emotional ties between the two countries. And what’s more, quite a few Russians do not see Ukraine as an independent state in its own right but as a “junior” sibling in the Slavic brotherhood of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, who is rebelling under the influence of its cunning and calculating new friends, the US and EU. The Crimea, in particular, is seen as Russian territory, given away by former Soviet major domo Nikita Khrushchev on a whim at the end of a drinking session. Seeing Ukraine leave is hard for Russians to swallow.
The annexation of Crimea in March (supported by the Twitter hashtag #Crimeaisours) is seen as moral restitution of a wrong committed in another era when leaders could not even envisage the possibility of Soviet dis-Union, let alone fragmentation.
So emotions are high and further inflamed by Russian TV, which is fuelling the tension by running stories of how the rights of Russians in Ukraine are being violated and how "new fascists" in the face of the Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, also known as the Right Sector or banderovtsi, have now come to power to burn Russian homes and kill innocent Russians. The effect on ordinary Russians is to lead some to volunteer to fight in Ukraine, while others collect humanitarian aid and money at stalls outside of Moscow shopping centres for the rebellious Donbass region.
Russians in support of East Ukraine do not mind the sanctions imposed by the West nor the reciprocal food sanctions imposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, which ironically have probably had a bigger impact on the average Russian than anything Brussels or Washington could organise.
“How dare they impose sanctions on Russia? Why do the States and the EU think they are allowed to rule the world?” fumed Lyubov Petrova, 36, a manager in a souvenir-making company.
“I didn’t eat oysters and expensive cheeses, I prefer to buy local food anyway. I’m not going to swallow my pride for mozzarella,” smiled Mikhail Loktev, 39, a marketing manager in a chain selling carpets.
“When I was growing up after the war, we lived very modestly. I’m used to a simple and austere life. It’s the younger generation who are going to suffer. They have been spoiled by trips abroad and Western goods. I do not need very much, I will survive. I support the course of my state,” says Galina Mitroshkina, 63, a pensioner.
Solidarity with Ukraine or “March of the Traitors”?
Feeding public support for the current Russian ideology of relying on internal resources, rejecting global liberal values and replacing them with the “Russian world,” uniting ethnic Russians of East Ukraine with "the mainland" to create Novorossiya are the heavy-handed state propaganda, burgeoning censorship, and a fragile and fragmented opposition movement.
But there is a minority of Russians who do not support the annexing of Crimea or the pro-Russian separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. They are widely seen as traitors of Russian national interests, as suckers to the West.
Not surprisingly the state media commonly airs prime time documentaries on TV exposing the "secret-dealings and motives" of these prominent "quislings" who have failed Russia by showing open support of Ukraine and branded "friends of the junta."
Not surprisingly the state-run media was silent about a Peace March held on September 21 in Moscow to allow ordinary Russians who oppose Russia's actions in Ukraine to show some solidarity with the new government in Kyiv.
An officially authorised March gathered an estimated 30,000 people – a large demonstration by recent standards. Despite the general feeling that the opposition movement has faded away in the face of the tsunami of nationalism that Putin has successfully harnessed, this was about the same size protest as the first big anti-Putin protest in December 2011, following flawed parliamentary elections.
Prior to the event, I spoke to one of its key organisers, Serge Sharov-Delaunay, 58, a historian, an architect and a restorer. A descendant of a Napoleonic soldier who was wounded during the siege of Moscow in 1812 and left behind in a hospital by the defeated French army, Sharov-Delaunay sees himself as following the footsteps of his Soviet dissident relative, Vadim Delaunay, who was one of the seven dissidents that took part in a well-known protest on Red Square on August 25, 1968, following the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet tanks in attempt to supress the Prague Spring.
“It is important to show the people of Ukraine our solidarity, that not all Russians are pro-war," said Sharov-Delaunay. "It’s also important for us and the government to see that opposition to the current regime is not that small. We are expecting great numbers to attend and not just in Moscow and St Petersburg.”
“I was only 12 when Vadim went to that protest on Red Square [in 1968]. I knew nothing about it. But I always knew that my family was different, they didn’t support the Soviet regime, out circle of friends were mainly dissidents. For a protest that lasted no longer than a few minutes, Vadim got three years in a camp in Tyumen. I decided not to join the Komsomol (the youth Communist organisation) because of what happened to my cousin.” Vadim Delaunay and his dissident wife left the country in 1975 and in 1983 Vadim died in Paris.
Sharov-Delaunay, in turn, has become well known for his affiliation with the "Case of the 6th of May," which saw protestors on that date in 2012 given long prison sentences. Sharov-Delaunay has organized an extensive publicity campaign in order to encourage scrutiny of the trials of the protesters jailed after that anti-government protest on Bolotnaya square turned violent. Since then, he has been an eloquent opponent of state policies and a voice in support of freedom of speech and a fair court system in Russia.
“As for the March of Solidarity, I have no doubt that most Russians are against the war with Ukraine and this sentiment will grow once our soldiers start coming back to Russia in coffins. They’ve started coming already and so far the media largely managed to keep it quiet, but they won’t be able to continue if the casualties begin to mount. I have no doubt that the current policies of our government are not sustainable in today’s world. They will not be able to re-create the Soviet Union in the 21st century,” asserts Sharov-Delaunay.
The voice of Sharov-Delaunay is echoed by an ordinary Muscovite I met on the March on September 21: “I came today to show my disagreement with what is going on in the only way I can. I try to take part in as many protests as I can, if only they are deemed to be legal. The government needs to know that people have an alternative opinion,” comments Ekaterina Parkhomova, 41.
Following the protest, I asked a friend living in Ukraine to comment on how she feels about such displays of solidarity. “I was born in Lviv, but live in Dnepropetrovsk. Russian is mainly spoken in this city, but I’ve always considered myself Ukrainian, even though I speak both languages. It’s a lie that Russians have been suppressed in Ukraine. There are a great number of Russian schools in the city. The ethnic problem is manufactured by propaganda. We are very tired of the war. And to me this march is great support. It feels good to be united with the people of Russia even though Russian TV has been turned off here for about a month now.”
Despite the peace march having failed to gather the 100,000 people that were hoped for by the organizers, it clearly showed a strong feeling of opposition by active young Russians to the policies of isolation and generally to war with Ukraine. It was also the first march where several democratic Russian opposition parties have come together as organizers with similar slogans.
The march, whose participants were primarily people in their 40s and younger, was aimed mainly at showing solidarity with Ukraine and did not have any political demands except for “Stop the War!” Yet, it showed a growing public dissatisfaction with the current regime and its attempt to re-create human values and re-draw borders. Despite record presidential approval ratings, there is a growing appetite for global, and European in particular, integration amongst the young and educated members of Russian society.
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