The war in Ukraine is starting to creep into everyone’s households and that will only continue. It has walked into mine already. Elina Ribakova, deputy chief economist with the Institute of International Finance (IIF), a frequent guest on bne IntelliNews podcasts and highly respected Russian expert, turned up here in Berlin over the weekend from Washington DC.
She has been on the phone for the last week trying to persuade her grandmother to leave her town in eastern Ukraine, just south of Kharkiv near the Russian border, and finally succeed in persuading her to get into a car and go.
Stories of civilians fleeing the fighting are now pouring out of Ukraine as 1.5mn have already left, but this time I got to help a little. There were six people in the Elina’s party in the end, three adults including her cousin and their children aged six, 12 and 16. The 12-year old is special needs and in a wheelchair.
Elina’s story is typical of Eastern Europe and why this war is so senseless. Her mother was Ukrainian but the family worked and lived in Moscow, but Elina herself was born and raised in Latvia and holds a Latvian passport (and now a US one). However, she still has a granny, cousins and an uncle in Ukraine.
From Berlin she has been trying to organise the rescue of her family. They drove to the Romanian border and crossed it yesterday where a family friend in Romania picked them up and put them up for a day. From there they will fly to Vienna where they have to overnight before flying on to Riga where Elina has an empty apartment; her father was living there but died earlier this year and she has not done anything with the flat yet.
I got roped in as Elina had no friends in Vienna and was trying to find the family a place to stay. As it happens I have a good friend there married to a Russian and put in a call. The reaction was heartwarming as my friend’s wife called around the Russian community in Vienna. The reaction to the plea for help was almost immediate and unrestrained. In less than hour an apartment was found and a mini-van that could cope with the wheelchair for the 12-year booked to meet them at the airport.
The Russian community in Vienna is as appalled by what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing to Ukraine as any westerners – more so – and more than happy to do anything they can to help the victims of this unprovoked war get out and to safety.
It is one of the less known qualities of the Russian people: their overwhelming sense of hospitality. I have been on the receiving end of this many times during my extensive travels around Russia and it is one of their most endearing and admirable qualities, the warmth of the reception you get if you are a guest. Russians can come across as cold and rude if you are not a guest, but that changes immediately and drastically if you are (and usually descends into a big drinking session and a huge meal, ending with you getting wasted on several bottles of vodka).
Elina’s family will arrive in Riga on Friday to an apartment and more help as she has many friends there to care for her relatives. There are many Belarusian refugees in Riga too, including Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who lives there permanently.
Then what? No one knows. The first plan is to sit out the fighting and hope the war ends quickly with minimum damage. However, it could easily drag on for months and if the destruction is massive, which is likely in that case, even if their houses are not destroyed the economy will be. A quarter of Ukraine’s population has already left the country to look for work in places like Poland, but these refugees may not have the option of going back even if the fighting is over as there will be no way to make a living for the foreseeable future.
Everyone’s lives have been thrown into turmoil and even if this ends quickly the aftershocks are going to persist for much longer.