After Russian Rain (A Postscript from Moscow)
Previous messages from Moscow: https://www.abctales.com/collection/messages-moscow
After Russian Rain (A Postscript from Moscow)
It was on May 9th 2022 that my son’s stay in Russia came to a premature end. Putin’s special military operation in Ukraine was in, what turned out to be, early days and the exodus of people and businesses back to The West was in full flow. I didn’t anticipate writing again about this particular time of my life but I suppose an epilogue might have value in updating readers on both the subsequent fate of my lad and the general situation (as I understand it) re geopolitics post invasion by the Russian Bear.
By way of a brief recap, James was working in a private school in Moscow teaching English to young students. This was a popular option for children at the time, many of whom wanted to have the ability to broaden their horizons by leaving Russia and taking up careers around the world. Everything changed when armed forces crossed the border on 24th February 2022 with what was intended as a rapier thrust at Kyiv. The aim appears to have been swift regime change with a timeframe of just days and weeks. A few months later, the London-based company that co-ordinated supply teachers (including my lad) decided to withdraw resources and any further presence from Russia. Due to sanctions, the only route back involved a connecting flight from Moscow to Istanbul then from Istanbul to London. A late change in flight schedules made it impossible to catch the plane on time in Turkey and James ended up spending an impromptu night in a Turkish hotel paid for by the airline (but adding to the tension surrounding his safe return).
And that was that in terms of teaching. Back in England, my son leveraged qualifications taken whilst in Russia that would give him the chance to forge a career in IT instead. He subsequently landed a job working on a helpdesk for a Japanese based, multi-national logistics firm that has offices a couple of miles away from where we live in Northampton. You could be forgiven for thinking that he lacked commitment in giving up on working in education after only a couple of years. The truth is, it was as much about life experience and the chance to be with his partner from Belarus as it was working with young minds. Either way, he landed on his feet; the corporation that he is involved with values its employees. They are looking after him and he has a career ladder to climb.
You could also be excused for getting lost with the ongoing saga of Ukraine. With the Israel-Hamas war, Houthi rebels firing on shipping near the Red Sea and Iran and Pakistan trading missile strikes, it’s hard to keep up with all of the fighting currently going on. However, in the last few days, Vladimir Putin has given an *interview to US journalist Tucker Carlson in which he goes into copious detail about the reasons behind the military intervention with Russia’s neighbour. Much of it centres on the notion that historically it was an integral part of Russian Statehood and has no right to exist separately. Having already annexed Crimea in 2014, the regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts were declared Russian territories on 30th September 2022 after local referendums returned overwhelming support for rule from Moscow. Most countries around the world refuse to recognise the results of these polls with no external oversight of the process undertaken (and endless accusations of voter fraud). This renders any subsequent peace negotiation fraught as these land grabs will be all but impossible to reverse now unless a new regime comes to power in Russia with a very different take on foreign policy.
The conflagration rumbles on. Reports vary in terms of war dead so far but an overall figure of 500,000 seems feasible according to different sources. Reuters estimated in December 2023 that Russia had lost **315,000 troops or approximately 90% of personnel that would have been involved at the beginning of the conflict. Of course, bare numbers on their own do little to highlight the terrible ravages that have torn families apart and cause sadness and anguish. Allegedly, Putin has told his counterpart Xi in China that his special military operation may take up to 5 years to complete. Russian forces are notorious in having little concern for large losses of life. Russia’s parliament recently voted to raise the maximum age at which men can be conscripted from 27 to 30 drafting further numbers in to serve one year of military service. In March 2023, Putin signed a presidential decree calling up 147,000 people for a spring campaign. A further edict signed in September called up another 130,000. You may remember the images on television a while back of vast numbers of Russian males fleeing the country to avoid being called up for destinations like Sweden, Finland, the Baltic states and even India (Goa has a vibrant sub-population of affluent Russians now).
A couple of weeks ago, my lad travelled by train to London to meet a former teaching colleague he had worked with in Moscow who now works as part of the Biden administration in Washington and was over in the UK on holiday. As they sat and reminisced in a bar near Euston station, it transpired that one of their teenage students they taught had gone on to serve in the army. Sadly, he had been killed seeing action in Ukraine. Chances are that he will be one of many that have suffered the same demise. War kills people. Lots of people.
In the early days of the conflict, it was commonplace for battle images to be captured on mobile phones by Ukrainian soldiers and sent to friends. I don’t know whether that still happens but it makes me think of the times spent talking to my son and partner in his flat via Zoom. I had always intended to visit him in Moscow; then the Pandemic arrived and the rest is history. Katya would laugh at my attempts to speak Russian which extended to privyet (hello), dasvidaniya (goodbye) and Vladivostok (Vladivostok).
On 1st February 2024 the EU green-lighted a further ***€50billion in financial aid for Ukraine. This followed a commitment from Rishi Sunak that the UK would pledge £2.5billion of its own to support Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his country. Accounts in the Press indicate that there has been a severe shortage in the supply of arms for some time with basic items like bullets not being restocked. In the meantime, Russia’s war machine appears to be in full cry with alleged support from Iran, North Korea and China. This has led to an ongoing hybrid combat with a curious, deadly mix of trench warfare (similar to that conducted in World War I) and the extensive use of drones and AI, technology at the cutting edge of the arms race. Within this is an important point – the emergence of an Axis of Power based in the East diametrically opposite and opposed to its ideological enemies in the West. This geo-political fault line is being drawn in increasingly stark detail with the rise and rise of autocratic leaderships subsuming the concept of democracy.
Stranger still is the illusion that somehow, the ideal of democratic principles still has a part to play in Russia. Putin is running for a fifth term as Russia’s president in March elections. There are four candidates set to be on the official ballot – Putin, Vladislav Davankov, Nikolai Kharitonov and Leonid Slutsky. The current leader is expected to secure a further term keeping him in office until 2030 thus becoming the longest-serving ruler of Russia since Joseph Stalin. I made the point to James that surely, sooner or later, Muscovites and Russians in general must become disillusioned with all the deception. His retort was along the lines of “what choice do they have other than to put up with it?” ****An article as recent as last weekend reports a growing economy in Russia with oil sales simply going elsewhere other than those countries involved with economic sanctions. As much as we would love to see a popular uprising, the closest we got to that was the march on Moscow in June 2023 by the leader of the Wagner group. Not long after it was aborted, Yevgeny Prigorzhin and his generals all died in a place crash. Go figure.
In the last few days, ^Boris Nadezhdin has been barred from standing in the ballots following a ruling by the Central Election Committee that he is approximately 5,000 valid signatures short of the 100,000 needed to participate. The controversial candidate is opposed to the war in Ukraine and claims he can garner significant support for his political stance. Sadly, genuine opponents of Putin have been invariably marginalised over the last 24 years with some even killed in the run up to a vote. Of course, ^^Alexey Navalny, the Kremlin’s most well-known and outspoken critic is serving a jail term in a prison sited in the Arctic Circle. His sentence was recently extended to 19 years on charges of extremism and this resulted in a transfer to the harshest grade of incarceration at the IK-3 penal colony in Kharp.
Needless to say, nothing stands still for very long. Regime change looks more likely in the US than Russia with the return of Donald Trump increasingly possible. Voter fatigue with Biden’s leadership was always a distinct possibility in the same way that the electorate will probably want change in the UK later this year. The spectre thrown up at a time when the shadow of the Russian Bear is cast long across Europe is that Trump and Putin seemingly had a good relationship when the contentious American was last in charge. Will this lead to the severing of any further financial support from the US for Ukraine? The Science and Security Board put the ^^^Doomsday Clock at 90 seconds to midnight in 2024 – the closest the hands have even been to oblivion. After all, Putin had been the first leader in many years to use openly menacing rhetoric re the use of his nuclear arsenal when issuing public threats to any country providing military support to Ukraine. On Russian daytime television, a debate threw up a quote that Britain should be wiped out by suitable weapons and that our country would be under water within minutes. Chilling.
Things are moving apace as time moves backwards as far as the nuclear picture goes. It looks like warheads are to be moved from the US to the UK imminently, Russia has housed missiles in Belarus and Iran is on the brink of becoming the 10th nuclear nation of the globe. With an unpredictable, new President in situ in the White House, someone already mooting levies on Chinese goods and goading Russian repercussions for those NATO countries not investing at least 2% of GDP in defence spending, the world may well become yet more unstable in the immediate future. How long will it be before some kind of attack is made on a NATO country where the organisation is put to the ultimate test of its mantra that an assault on one part of the group will be treated as an attack on all members?
As a final addendum, whilst my son and his Belarussian girlfriend kept in touch for a while, they eventually drifted apart and have now lost contact with each other. My lad tried every which way to find a legal route to allow her to move to the UK but the Russian invasion put the tin lid on any chance of a native from that part of the world being allowed to emigrate here. James is currently in Bari spending a week in the Italian sunshine with his current beau. They met online whilst he was in Moscow as part of his side-line of English lessons via MS Teams. She was working and living in London but has since moved back to her homeland due to the expiration of her visa. Luna has been on holiday with us to Wales and Wiltshire. Virtual lessons speaking Russian have been replaced with face to face attempts at Italian. So far I have arrivederci (goodbye), grazie (thank you) and Ford Cortina (Ford Cortina). All with a wafting finger and thumb gesture along with an accent stolen from Gino D’Campo. She always stares at me suitably nonplussed. I am getting there, though. Perseverance.
When I reflect on all of this, of course I worry along with many others about the direction of travel the majority of the planet is moving in. At the same time, I am thankful of living in a relatively tolerant country where views and opinions can be expressed without threat of censure or worse. I have my son back and he is thriving within a flawed but credible economic system compared to others. Democracy and capitalism are the least worst concepts/systems there are. I think, therefore I am. I am allowed to have this thought. Maybe that’s enough.
Image is my lad’s by permission: Moscow at night.