For the last month, friends and family who know my background as former Moscow correspondent have been asking what I think about the war in Ukraine. I found replying to be difficut — I couldn’t find the words. Then a high school classmate heard that I’d started working with the Red Cross to help Ukrainian refugees as they arrive in Paris. He asked me to write about it for his newsletter. Here’s what I said.
First, I am very grateful to the French Red Cross for giving me this opportunity. Hundreds of Ukrainians fleeing the war are arriving in Paris every day. In the face of such a massive humanitarian disaster, it is a blessing to be able to help, even in a very small way. I don’t speak Ukrainian, but I do speak Russian, and that’s enough to get the job done. So this is how it works. The refugees are passing through four major Paris train stations. So far I’ve worked at three of those stations, all about 10 minutes away from my place by bus. My job is to talk with the Ukrainians as they first arrive, find out what the want to do next and translate for the Red Cross people. Some wish to stay on in Paris, but most are going on to another destination – many to Spain, some to Portugal, Italy or Switzerland, some to other towns in France. Under a European Union plan, the refugees are entitled to an onward train ticket, with the Red Cross providing shelter for those who need an overnight stay and channeling those who wish to remain in Paris to an organization that helps them get the papers needed to reside and work in France. Those arriving are for the most part very calm – I’m tempted to say stoical, given what they’ve been through – and are grateful to find someone who understands them. It’s mainly women and children, but there are men as well, and also quite a few non-Ukrainians who happened to be in Ukraine when the bombs started falling. It’s somewhat chaotic, organization not being France’s strong suit, but one way or another we are managing to provide these desperately unfortunate people with the help they need to wait out the war or start a new life. The vast majority say they want to go back to Ukraine, but only when it’s safe. Most are well educated, Westernized people – people like you and me who suddenly had to uproot themselves due to Putin’s criminal war.
Second, probably because of the five years I spent in Moscow as a journalist, I wasn’t surprised when the psychopath in the Kremlin followed through on his troop buildup along the Ukrainian border by invading a peaceful country that wanted nothing other than the right to exist within its internationally recognized borders. Although Putin said the troops had been sent there merely for exercises, once he started sending blood supplies to the front, in late January, it became clear that he was lying – as the only reason blood would be needed is to treat wounded soldiers, and soldiers don’t get wounded during exercises. What did surprise me is the brutality he has unleashed on Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24. Putin said in a speech just before the invasion that he wanted to restore the Russian empire of tsarist times – i.e. to make Ukraine, and probably also other former Soviet republics that are now independent, part of Russia. If that is the case, why is he blowing the place to smithereens? It is incomprehensible, and the upshot is that the formerly brotherly peoples of Russia and Ukraine have been irreparably alienated from each other. The hatred will persist for decades. Meantime, thanks to the sanctions imposed by the United States, Europe, etc., Russia is finished as a world power. Even if the war ends tomorrow, the Russian economy will not recover as countries look elsewhere for energy supplies, and the enmity Russia has earned as a result of this war will keep it excluded from the world community for a very long time. Those Russians who understand what is happening – artists, intellectuals, scientists, etc. – are already fleeing in droves. It is hard to imagine how average Russians will feel when they finally wake up to the fact that Putin has been lying to them, i.e. that his so-called special military operation is actually a criminal war. However long that takes, Putin has damned them to a hopeless future in a pariah state.
Third, on a more personal note, I’d like to mention how I got involved with Russia in the first place. It’s all the fault of my high school Latin teacher, Mr. Houston. I had no burning desire to learn Latin – my father forced me, saying it would be useful – but Mr. Houston opened a door. Through him I discovered I loved learning languages. I went on to study French and Spanish, then started Russian at UW Madison. When I moved to Paris and became a reporter, it was only a matter of time before someone spotted Russian on my CV and shipped me off to Moscow. Having grown up in Wisconsin in the shadow of a Nike missile base at a time when we had to do Cold War bomb drills at school, going to Russia for the first time was like seeing the dark side of the moon. I spent two and a half years there as a Reuters correspondent during the Gorby era and returned in 1992 as the editor of a small English-language daily. Over time I learned to read between the lines of official pronouncements and gradually gained some insights into the psychology of a people who had been under the sway of first tsars and then corrupt communists for centuries, i.e. enslaved. They often dealt with it via jokes, the need to keep one’s private thoughts hidden from the secret police having given the Russians a finely honed sense of irony. For example, a Soviet citizen is asked by a foreign reporter to explain communism. “It’s very simple,” he replies. “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” The official line was one thing, the truth was something else, and no self-respecting Russian could fail to see both.
Which brings me to a question: Why, after a month of genocidal war, are most Russians still buying into Putin’s lies that his forces are “protecting” Ukrainians? Of course there’s propaganda, but the real answer, to my mind, is linked to Russian history. The Soviet Union was a vast power stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific across 11 time zones. When it collapsed in 1991, Russia found itself amputated from the 14 other former republics of the USSR. At the time, the majority of Russians welcomed the change, which ushered in their first taste of democracy. But the euphoria quickly wore off as they came to grips with their new, lesser status. For example a Russian friend of mine wanted to go to a Latvian beach in 1992, as she had done every summer, and was shocked when the Latvians told her she had to apply for a visa. “But it’s ours,” she complained. Not anymore, the Latvians replied. To understand her mindset, imagine if California suddenly seceded and residents of Wisconsin had to apply for a visa to go there. It would just feel wrong. Well, this feeling of being wronged is so strong among most Russians that they’ve lost their bearings. They want to see Russia restored to its former grandeur, but by backing Putin on Ukraine they are destroying their own nation. That’s the irony – but in this case they just don’t get it. As the death toll rises and the body bags come home, maybe they’ll figure it out and stop supporting this senseless, immoral war. It’s our only hope.