A Final Message From Moscow
A Final Message from Moscow
When Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine on 24th February 2022. I was inundated with messages concerned about the welfare of my son James. These came from both online sources and offline/real world. The good news is that I drove to Stansted airport on the morning of Monday 9th May to collect him and he is finally home, safe and well. It may be that fate was at hand as this is the day of the big military parade that honours a Russian victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. This is Den Pobedy that celebrates Russian military glory at the end of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War.
I was touched that so many people were worried about him. Of course, I had my own concerns but decided not to wallow and, instead, stay positive. Despite various conversations and appeals for him to come home, he chose to stay for a further few months. He has been teaching English to students at a private school in Moscow since February 2020. Having been in Russia for approaching two and a half years, James didn’t feel threated by what was unfolding. He has a wandering soul and is dogmatic when he decides he wants to do something. When asked why he wanted to stay on, he cited “perfecting his Russian and getting to know some people better.” He speaks Russian fluently these days and has friends along with a girlfriend who originates from Belarus. He had applied for his visa to be extended which, it duly was. He sent me a copy on 1st March which confirmed that he could stay until 1st June 2022. I had mixed feelings when I saw it.
The plan from day one had been to go and visit him in his Moscow flat. He had sent images of Moscow via social media and it was a vision of skyscrapers and rows of yellow cabs. You could be forgiven for thinking it was a cityscape of New York rather than Moscow. His accommodation was about eight miles out from the city centre and probably closer to the perception most have of Russia i.e. bleak tower blocks and trams.
Having just started teaching in February along came the first lockdown on 23rd March 2020. And so started the ongoing saga of the Coronavirus Pandemic. A combination of on/off travel restrictions and, just when the coast seemed to be clear this year, Putin’s decision to go ahead with his “special military operation” in Ukraine then this is the first time I have seen him other than via Zoom etc. in nearly two and a half years.
It was ironic that his hand was forced in April by the company that employs him. Like so many other organisations, this one decided it wanted to sever ties with Russia and instructed its teachers to give notice to leave at their schools and book flights home by a given date. As with many things, this wasn’t straight for forward with the effects of Sanctions resulting in no direct flights from Moscow to the UK.
Like a John Candy-wrapped Steve Martin in the movie “Planes, trains and automobiles”, James had to negotiate a route that consisted of a flight from Moscow to Istanbul, Turkey and then a further plane from Turkey to London. Door-to-door he was staring down the barrel of a fourteen hour journey encompassing 3,300 miles. With workarounds like this available, it makes you wonder what the point of flight embargoes is at all. He did ask me to help with the itinerary and sorting planes and times but, luckily, I had someone far more able available in the guise of my twenty-something daughter who organised everything and even paid for the flights for him. During his trip back, there was a worry that he might be taken to one side by customs and grilled about his motives for leaving Mother Russia. Needless to say, this is exactly what happened and as the clock ticked down to his flight boarding, he underwent an interrogation as to his reasons for being in Russia. It wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that he could be accused of being a spy despite any allegation being unfounded. He was finally released after nearly thirty minutes of questioning, all the time telling me how angry he was getting via messenger. There I was telling him to stay calm. And….breathe...
Russo-UK relations have been frosty ever since the poisoning of former Russian military office Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury on 4th March 2018. With the UK and Boris Johnson, in particular, being so vocal in criticising the Russian government since the conflict in Ukraine began then we have reached the point where chat shows on Russian television openly discuss launching a nuclear attack against the UK with their state-of-the-art Satan II long-range missiles.
With my son it’s a never-ending drama of one kind or another. Just as I was about to set off for the airport on Sunday evening I received a message on my phone in block capitals which said “DO NOT COME TO THE AIRPORT”. The connecting flight he was due to catch had left without him. The airline duly paid for overnight hotel accommodation and a meal so he got a free night in Turkey. This wasn’t so good for my blood pressure, though. I guess if you are going to be stranded there are far worse places than Istanbul.
Having my son based in Moscow has given me an unusual perspective on things. You do see very clear evidence of media bias in the reporting of the conflict. This is evident both in news coverage in the West and in Russia. Every story you see or read from our own media paints Ukrainian soldiers as blameless heroes. This is unlikely to be completely true. War does strange things to soldiers and invariably leads to unconscionable crimes committed in the heat of battle. In Russia, all of the independent media has closed down since the start of the conflict leaving Russian citizens exposed to State media and even more vulnerable to propaganda. I did see one shocking example of this when an ITN bulletin showed vans with the Z symbol on the side giving out supplies in Mariupol including bread to the remaining people in the city. The commentary talked about it being a humanitarian operation. This was in stark contrast to the apparent reality of relentless bombing and constant military assaults. It did appear that this peaceful representation was intended to mislead Russian viewers. Television is important in Russia with a high percentage of the population watching and is seen as an ideal way to “educate and inform” citizens.
So with James being more Russian than British these days, speaking the language fluently and thinking like a twenty-six year-old Muscovite, you could be forgiven for thinking that he might sympathise with the validity of the campaign in Ukraine. (He never did get as far as buying one of those furry hats with ear flaps, though. Too expensive, apparently.) You would be wrong and, despite opinion polls suggesting 70% of Russians back the invasion, the truth is that only people agreeing with the State tend to reply to surveys. Those that don’t are often ostracised and there have been cases, amongst others, of piles of manure being left on doorsteps and salacious graffiti daubed on the homes of those classed as “dissidents”. Many Russians believe the war to be “stupid” and are often sceptical when it comes to their government. The take up rate re Covid vaccines was low across the Russian State for this reason (*c.40%).
You will have read about the attempts by the Russian government to regulate online content. In China, websites are heavily censored by the state and it looks like things are going that way in Russia today. However, the flaw in this is that this can be bypassed by using a VPN connection. Similarly, when Netflix announced it was no longer supporting users in Russia, anyone with VPN could simply use a proxy server, for example, In Spain and continue viewing. My lad’s girlfriend has friends who are soldiers in the Ukrainian forces and gets sent footage to her mobile phone from the war zone.
People in Russia are better informed that you would imagine but with a recent law passed by Parliament means a sentence of up to fifteen years in prison for anyone convicted of “misrepresenting” the conflict in Ukraine (for example, by referring to it as a “war”) then it’s a difficult subject to discuss openly. I have had my own concerns about being vocal about what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine. I wrote an allegory soon after the conflagration started but never published it due to worries about what could be traced back. Ultimately, I didn’t want to be found to be criticising a regime that could make things very difficult for my son whilst he is still in the country. As a result, I have been circumspect in any comments left online. (see recent programme on BBC2 **“Navalny” for how things can work in Russia)
So I asked my son what the children he taught thought about him going back to the UK. He had been teaching an age range from 5 to 18. I was particularly interested to know what the little ones thought. He replied that they thought he was better off going back home rather than staying in Russia. It breaks my heart to think of the futures taken away from children by the acts of those meant to be leading them and improving the lives of the people. The demand to learn English as a second language is massive with many wanting to better themselves by going to work in other countries. With Russia and Belarus now having borderline pariah status, there is little appetite for any connection with Russian citizens at all as we have seen in the world of sport.
Putin’s motives are easy to over simplify. The break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s left a loose end that could always be picked up later. There was a four part documentary shown on BBC4 recently called ***“Putin, Russian and the West.” This is an enlightening series that gives an insight into Putin himself and the geo-politics since his appointment as Prime Minister in 1999. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 should have been a warning sign that Russia was looking to expand its territory and potentially reclaim former Soviet States The West chose to ignore this and with intricate, economic ties based mainly on gas supplies, there seemed to be an attitude that Russia could not have imperialist motives in a day and age where war was restricted to countries outside of Europe. In hindsight, this was a mistake. Russia’s military project now appears to have changed from a lightning strike ending in replacing the government with a puppet regime to a war of attrition that results in a land bridge along the Eastern side of Ukraine linking Russia to Crimea and, potentially, Transnistria in Moldova. Another security concern amongst the ruling elite revolves around countering the expansion of NATO. There is a paranoia that American military influence is now right on the Russian doorstep with countries such as Poland, Estonia and Latvia all members. The small circle of advisers that Putin relies on appear to see this as an insidious threat that requires intervention.
The West is throwing everything it can at the Russian Federation to counter its attempt to bring Ukraine within its sphere of influence. Economic sanctions and the provision of arms have had mixed results. The former has had a profound effect on the economy but in terms of turning public opinion against its leadership, it can be argued that this is causing a siege mentality instead with growing anti-West sentiment. There’s nothing more profound than the perpetual fuelling of fears of invasion by hostile forces from outside of Russia. This has been a tool in Putin’s armoury for years and it continues to be now. My lad still gets to buy his junk food at Burger King as it is franchised and reports of difficulties buying staples like sugar and pasta are over stated. I guess it’s the old adage “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Is disaffecting a population the right tactic or will it play into the ruling elite’s hands?
So what of the future? Well, once reacclimatised, there’s a long list of things for my son to get on with. He needs to pass his driving test having taken lessons when he was in the UK previously, get a job and find somewhere to live eventually. In terms of the Russia he has left behind…well…it’s a mess. The economy is forecast to contract by 20% this year, two million people are expected to lose their jobs and a toxic mix of high inflation and currency issues means life will be difficult for many ordinary Russians. Regime change appears unlikely at the moment but the odds of that happening will increase the longer the fallout out from this war hurts so many people. Needless to say, my thoughts are with the Ukrainian people, in particular. With thousands dead already, entire villages, towns and cities destroyed and an economy brought to its knees, it’s a relentlessly grim picture.
For anyone that read my poem “A Message From Moscow” then you may have realised that this was as much a plea for my son to return as it was a literary piece. I wasn’t sure how he would react but he did like it albeit it didn’t change his mind about staying. I guess that’s the power of writing at times – the ability to share feelings both good and bad. I hope that peace prevails in Ukraine very soon.
Photo is my own. It’s a pic of me collecting James at Stansted.