Witnesses Against War #17: Writer, St. Petersburg

4 July 2022 [updated 29 July 2022]

Source: Witnesses Against War

Witnesses Against War is an anonymous international group of journalists, writers, historians and translators, who live in Moscow and London. For reasons of security, their project is anonymous. In addition to the above websiste, you can also find them on Instagram  and Telegram.

When war broke out I felt shock and fear. I felt sick for all the people in Ukraine being hit by bombs, nervous because of the nastiness of it, and crushed because our family’s small future in Russia looked as if it were finished.

Day after horrible day went on. Vile war crimes shouted out at me from BBC radio and newspapers. Bucha was a point where things felt particularly bad. No light at all.

My daughter is too small to be affected and I don’t talk about it much in front of her. At first she watched a lot of cartoons as my husband and I discussed the situation in the kitchen night after night. Now we discuss things less, because there is not so much to say. It is all overwhelmingly bleak.

My daughter’s life at nursery is jolly and politics-free, and I am glad of that, but feel my stomach churn every time I hear reports about children under fire. I don’t think you have to be a mother to feel upset by those, though.

The atmosphere here is mixed. Some days it feels as if the war is invisible. Other days you see a Z sign in the metro and the war is right there. It’s hard to say, because people here don’t advertise their feelings, people don’t talk about their troubles much outside the home. But I think I feel an undercurrent of tension. It’s there, every day, and I think that even those who try not to notice it aren’t able to ignore it completely. It’s a whispering stream, not a sea. Bubbling on underneath our lives, persistent and certain.

I know that people often won’t say what they really think unless you spend hours and days talking with them, and even then, things are held back. Some people are definitely in favour of the war. Others sound depressed, not strongly against but not in favour, saying that they don’t have any power over what happens. I think there are quite a lot of people like that, who feel helpless, resigned, and detached from politics, who might not express the nuance of that in surveys and vox pops. Some people help Ukrainians as much as they can, but often don’t discuss it publicly. Better not to.

I don’t have any close friends who are pro-war. Maybe a couple of elderly relatives, though they say contradictory things. I couldn’t sit and drink coffee with people who are in favour now, it’s too much, to say the least.

At the same time, I sometimes ask people I don’t know, in a museum or church or café, what they think. I try to detach myself and listen. Old reporting habits. It is still incredible to me what people believe and I often think about what it must have been like in Germany in the 1940s. It also helps me to listen to the longer radio programmes, the ones that go deeper. I feel reassured that people are trying to tell the world what is happening and not just shout, to carefully uncover the detail.

I understand that people here often want to limit their intake of news. Some have stopped listening to or reading news altogether, but I would find that impossible.

It is strange not being able to talk about the war, not to mention it on social media, email, or the phone. I reported on the second Chechen war, which began in 1999, and talking about it was fine, up to a point. You could help people there without too many problems. Now we have this great silence.

It saddens me that the Chechens were not given the same help and moral support as Ukrainians are now. It breaks my heart to think how there was never a sign at Heathrow welcoming Chechens to the UK. In Moscow, few showed much empathy or went out of their way to help. I’m not interested in criticising – not at all – but it breaks my heart, I cannot lie…

I think there would be more reaction to the war in Russia if a lot of young men from Moscow and St Petersburg were getting killed there, but they’re not – it’s mostly men from remote regions like Buryatia. The big cities don’t feel it and no one forces them to feel it.

Around a month after war broke out, my mother died. It was not unexpected but I hadn’t been able to see her except once during the Covid pandemic, and I couldn’t help her in her last months. After she died I had migraines solidly for two weeks and my daughter had a tummy bug so needed a lot of care. But I knew it was still easy compared with what people were coping with in Ukraine. No medicines, no safety.

We have become more used to the war now. But I have seen war and want it to end, more than anything. I have been in hospitals where children have 80 percent burns after bombs have gone off. I know compromises should not be made, but still, I long for any kind of ceasefire so people are not hurt or killed. I cannot see it coming soon, but I hope and wish for it every day. I wish hard.

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