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Understanding the Russian Story

Interviews collected by Dario De Quarti

Interview(s) collected by Dario De Quarti

In order to protect the identities of the interviewees, The Graduate Press has decided to keep them anonymous and use plural pronouns.

– Can we begin with this statement ?

–  Yes, sure.

– On behalf of many Russians, we feel deeply sorry for Ukraine and its citizens. We are extremely frightened and ashamed too. We do not support in any way what is currently happening. We neither want to make excuses or justify ourselves. We simply want to share from the Russian perspective the geopolitical and historical patterns that led to this conflict as well as the consequences for Russia.”

When a war1 erupts, there are always different sides to the story. They do not contradict each other, but rather they complement our understanding of the escalation. It is nearly impossible to understand a conflict without listening to the side of the country that has been labelled “the aggressor”, even if it can be painful to do so. In order to provide our readers a broader understanding of the current Russian attack on Ukraine, we interviewed some of the young Russians living in Europe.2 Because of several laws in place that could put their lives in danger, we have chosen to limit sharing any information that could be used to identify our interviewees, and they remain anonymous in this article.

“The first thing which needs to be understood is that there is a generational gap between youth and elders. The older generations are still traumatised by the fall of the Soviet Union, when they lost everything. This traumatic experience was never psychologically processed. Russia is extremely difficult to understand, and one big problem is that the West uses their European perception to describe Russia, which is not accurate. Overall, no Russian supports the idea of what is happening right now. But the older generations understand better why we came to this point, maybe.”

An unexpected war ?

For me, a European student living in the innocence of my Western media sources, this attack on Ukraine felt somehow unexpected. “For Russians, it was very expected. Ukraine is a very sensitive topic: many Russians have Ukrainian roots, relatives or friends. There was a narrative used by the Kremlin propaganda that Ukrainians were discriminating Russians, which found a lot of support among the Russian society, and which is extremely painful”. 

Along these lines one interviewee argued: “There were some nationalistic movements emerging in Ukraine. For example, the parades of May 9th, which are very important in post-Soviet countries, were forbidden.3 Streets were renamed, from a war hero to a Ukrainian person. But once again, we are really sorry for and to Ukrainians. They are the ones suffering right now, we understand this. We are culturally really closely linked countries. We still think that Russian and Ukrainian are brothers, we always call each other like this, together with Belarus, before 2014 at least.”. 

Another interviewee added: “It is just so upsetting that before 2014 we all (Russians, Ukrainians, Belarus) were tightly linked throughout history and no one questioned that within those countries and no one condemned that. Then there was a shift happening in Ukraine and suddenly we feel like our joint history has been rewritten. And it does get portrayed in this rewritten way in Western media as well. Although it is undeniable that our countries have been linked throughout centuries very closely. A lot of Russians feel upset that after 20144 Ukrainians seem to want to just erase this joint history.”

Other interviewees saw the main root of the conflict elsewhere. 

“In fact there is a broader geopolitical story that has to do with two entities: the European Union and NATO”. 

“About the European Union, the major point is that European leaders never wanted to come closer to Russia. Russia always dreamt of being part of Europe, ever since Yekaterina the Great. So, rejection after rejection, Russia felt discriminated against. When Russia saw that Europe wanted to get closer to Ukraine, while not approaching Russia simultaneously, they felt offended. It is like if you want to be friends with someone, but they choose to be friends with your perceived little brother and not you. This is the feeling that prevailed in Russia and most importantly among the government. But Europeans are not even aware of it. Russia has a very deeply rooted complex of being rejected by Europe. So if Europe moves closer to the ‘little brother’ Ukraine, Russia feels offended.”

“About NATO, they also teased Putin a lot. Following the Russian security concerns, Russia needed a buffer, neutral states between Russia and the West, that would be essential to guarantee peace for both. When Putin saw that Ukraine could be part of NATO, he felt that NATO’s nuclear power was close to the Russian border. Just think about what would happen if nuclear bombs would have been stationed in Mexico, Cuba or Canada in a hostile direction toward the US. The conflict in Ukraine looks like a proxy war of the Cold War period. I believe Europeans forget that NATO is a military alliance that always perceived Russia with hostility, branded Russia as a dark enemy, because of its Soviet past. There was no effort done by European leaders and the US to change their perspective since the Soviet Union fell. After the attack on Ukraine, Biden said he is not sending troops to Ukraine because it will lead to a direct conflict between NATO and Russia which can escalate into a nuclear war. However, more specific and written guarantees concerning the neutral status of Ukraine and NATO military bases with nuclear arms in Europe are needed for the Kremlin to deescalate the situation.”

Ukraine under attack

At this moment, I [the interviewer, Dario] felt uncomfortable because the whole conversation was about the European Union and NATO. But the war is in Ukraine. The bombs are in Ukraine. The deaths are in Ukraine. So it surprised me that these conversations seemed to contextualise the relationship between Russians and Ukranians in practically familial terms (‘little brother’), and not in oppositional terms. While the two countries may now be in opposition to each other, their complicated history also means that many Russians have Ukrainian friends, relatives or even parents, thus providing them with a different understanding of their inter-country relationships.

So, Putin’s attack on Russia can be described as a political signal. But does he want to invade to integrate Ukraine with the Russian Federation, as some are claiming ?

“No, he does not want this. Probably he will want to get Donbass, and maybe to change Ukraine’s leaders, but it would not make sense to integrate Ukraine to Russia. The theory that Putin will build back the Soviet Union has no rational grounds. […] Every additional part of the territory is a cost, look just at Crimea : Russia had to spend a lot when Ukraine cut access to water to Crimea. It is very expensive to maintain a certain geopolitical situation”. 

A nuclear war ?

 “Putin attacked now because he felt that he got enough teasers from the EU and NATO. If, in the future, he understands that he will not get what he wants, or he might be isolated, we do not know what he will do. The fears of a nuclear strike are very present in Russia right now.”  

This scenario seems to be very realistic for Russians. “Nuclear strikes are possible, we pray not to. But this is possible. For the first time in our lives, the fear of a nuclear war is really there. And the fear of Russians is bigger than the fear of Europeans, because they saw Putin from the inside.[…] Still, as of today, It would be too extreme. There are so many ways to achieve your goals, why would you go for the last one ? We all remember Chernobyl, it had consequences everywhere”.

Do our leaders understand the nuclear threat ? “Biden knows. He is a “cold war guy”. Merkel was too, but current European leaders are not. We are so scared that Europe could make an emotional decision [like accepting Ukraine in the EU right now] that would have grave consequences. Biden understood it very quickly. Europe did not, and even if this is an unpopular opinion, I feel that Europe is not de-escalating this war but rather fueling it”.

The reaction in Russia

One interviewee started rather distressed: “My main reason to give this interview is that I wanted to communicate to people what is happening inside Russia and tell the hidden angle of this tragedy: another tragedy, namely that my country will descend into Stalinism, into a really dark time.” 

“Inside Russia, most of the population is against war. Artists, doctors, scientists, people from all fields and areas are signing different petitions. One general petition against the war became one of the largest petitions ever signed on change.org with over a million signatures and still growing. We are upset when we read that Russians are not protesting. They are. They are vehemently. Unfortunately, Europeans do not know what it means for Russians to take the street. 13’000 people in twelve days have already been arrested for protesting. It can lead up to very long sentences of real prison. Police are also extremely brutal in Russia. The Russian government passed two draconian and really Stalinistic laws in the last two days: one prohibiting “support to foreign governments” (whatever that means) punishing it with up to 20 years of prison, one prohibiting to spread “fake news” about the war punishing it with up to 15 years of prison. Furthermore, there are rumours of another in planning charging “foreign relations” with state treason (a law we saw during Stalin). On March 2nd, the Russian government shutdown the last oppositional media outlets. They are blocking websites, persecuting oppositionals and still Russian people are protesting and sharing news and showing their disagreement.Other people are fleeing the country, but apparently, there have been reports that the Russian border controls do not let them leave. And Putin is using the conflict and the sanctions to tighten his grip on the country and persecute those who have alternative points of views. Which is something I would really like the European and Western readers to understand. Sanctions do not only harm the economy and Putin, they help him tighten control over Russia and persecute diverging opinions. In a way the sanctions kill the last little bit of liberal Russia we had tried to preserve.

Another interviewee continued “Unprecedented sanctions have been taken towards Russia and Russians. It is evident that our economy will collapse, but our leaders will be less impacted, normal citizens will be impacted far more. The Russian economy was already not doing well before the war.”

However, in the future, the impact of the sanctions could materialise differently : “Maybe the sanctions will have such a strong effect on the living conditions that citizens will actually risk protesting in mass. With the cut from SWIFT, our currency has already devalued a lot.”

But for now, the situation is different : “It is scary to see that Putin uses this situation to tighten the control of free speech, free movement and everything. And the sanctions help him do that.  […] Either, at some point, there are mass protests, which is unlikely, either we have two scenarios. The first one is a descent to Stalinism, or an internal military coup, which is also unlikely. People in Germany could not overthrow Hitler, Stalin in the Soviet Union…now it is the same for Putin.”

Another opinion on sanctions prevalent in the country is that “The United States has conducted many similar military interventions and have never been sanctioned. I can just quote Syria, Iraq, Libya. They were even portrayed as a liberation power. Why are Russians portrayed so differently? People think that all Russians are responsible for the war since they are not protesting. But this would mean that all Americans were responsible for Iraq?”

– Can we conclude with another statement?

– Yes, sure.

– We feel a mix of shame, helplessness, guilt and despair. One of the worst sanctions for us is not economic, it is moral. Coming from a country which is an aggressor is hard, because we will of course not get any understanding, or will to understand. There is also a lot of Russophobia coming now, especially in Europe. […]And again, from the Ukrainian side we understand it, no questions asked, it is more the Europeans who worry us. None of us wanted this to happen. We want peace for our Slavic brothers.”

“You never actually expect a war to happen. It was still hard to believe. From a very young age, Russian schools teach you what happened during World War II, and how it should not happen again. And then your government does the same thing you were told not to let happen.[…] 

Whereas Ukrainians told us that the scar would be too profound to ever heal, one interviewee summarised the roots of the conflict with “that in the head of the older generation Ukraine is still a ‘brother’. The conflict does steam to a huge part from the fact that the fall of the Soviet Union has never been processed in Russia or other post soviet countries and that among the older people and the people currently in power in Russia the view prevails that Ukraine is a brotherly nation who wants to be together. Older people in Russia, including those in power, have a “Soviet – nostalgia” view and never understood or believed Ukraine’s wish to ‘part ways’ or head in a different direction. On the other hand Ukraine took the opposite approach of “Soviet – denial/erasure”, by trying to deny or minimise any connections to Russia and erasing everything from the Soviet Union (as seen in the legal package of the “decommunization laws” prohibiting soviet symbolism, statues etc. and paralleling the Soviet Union to Nazi-Germany). This is tragic to the utmost extent and very difficult to work with for the time being. We just hope that a generational change and a full processing of the Soviet Union from both sides will bring political change. It is anyway up to our generation in the future to repair what the government has destroyed with this action and to educate future generations. Even if in the current regime and darkening political climate this seems increasingly difficult we have to keep hope that our chance will come.”

Monsters of the past might reappear as dangers of the present. Examining the narrative of Russian older generations seems key to understanding the roots of Putin’s attack. While our interviewees did not seem to take these narratives at face value, and have been constantly engaging and questioning them, this may no longer be easy. In a context where Russia is  now more isolated than ever from the rest of the World, it will not be simple to turn away from the information broadcasted by the state media. As of today, the gap is wide between the two sides. However, what should probably matter to all of us is that neither side endorses this invasion : war is never an option.

  1. Due to a recent law in Russia prohibiting calling the invasion of Ukraine a “war”, interviewees had to use other words.
  2.  It is to preserve their anonymity that information that relates to their identity and location are not disclosed.
  3.  The source shows that these parades were not forbidden, but that there had been a rebranding of the celebration as  the Victory of Europe over Nazism, in place of the Victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany.  Part of the rebranding also forbade the use of Soviet symbolism, a move perceived as aggressive by some Russian people. 
  4. 2014 is significant here due to various events that happened in the country, such as Petro Poroshenko becoming the President of Ukraine, Euromaidan and the annexation of Crimea by Russia, among other events.

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