Two weeks before Putin launched his war against Ukraine, I was in Sri Lanka, an inexpensive tourist destination open for Russians during the pandemic. It was our first holiday in a long time. Of course, I couldn’t tear myself away from the news about Russia and Ukraine, even on the shores of the beautiful blue ocean, such a contrast to the madness happening thousands of miles away.
As my anxiety deepened, I kept on asking my acquaintances in government: will there be a war? Everyone answered no: a war wouldn’t be beneficial to anyone. When Putin did send in troops, these people were initially shocked and bewildered. Now many of them believe his assertion that the war was inevitable, and threaten to take revenge on the damned west for its sanctions.
When war broke out, my partner and I surrendered our return tickets to Moscow and found ourselves in the middle of South Asia, not knowing what to do next.
Six months ago, I decided to take a break. I needed some time to think about whether to leave journalism, which I had dreamt of working in since childhood. In Russia, Covid-19 had been a convenient pretext for the state to detach itself from society completely and shut down what was left of the independent media. The authorities replaced them with a system of call centres in the regions to handle questions and feedback from the population. They gave them a ridiculous name (Regional Control Centres) and, equally ridiculously, spent billions of roubles on them.
For the past 18 months, one after another of my friends has been designated an enemy of the people, a “foreign agent”. The authorities began to limit their activities under threat of criminal prosecution, a de facto ban on the entire profession of journalism. It was awful to realise that half my life had gone down the drain, that my painstaking efforts to build my reputation from scratch were all in vain.
As the risks for journalists grew daily, freedom of speech withered, and people obeyed the endless hammering message that citizens should not participate in the country’s political life, but attend to their own affairs. I couldn’t see the point in continuing. That decision was a very hard one. It felt like a part of me was dying.
What can I do? How can I help personally? These questions have been on my mind since Putin announced on the fourth day of the war that he was preparing Russian nuclear weapons, and it became clear that this would definitely not end quickly and things would only get worse.
During the first week of the war, Russian society was not yet cut off from the rest of the world, locked up voluntarily-compulsorily in the largest cage on earth. Because Putin presented the war as a “special operation”, and didn’t warn the public or even those close to him what he was about to do, the state propaganda machine was caught unawares.
The most popular artists in the country expressed shock and horror at the war and condemned it. Antiwar petitions instantly amassed hundreds of thousands of signatures, huge numbers of people from different professions signed open letters, and the most courageous ones went out to protest on the street; they were few, but they were there. It seemed that at least half of Russian society didn’t support the war and could still influence the other half. That gave real, albeit limited, hope.
But I’ve lived my entire adult life under Putin — I turned 30 this year — so I knew that the authorities would very quickly put a stop to all this, silencing and punishing those who spoke out. I knew that in a matter of days the independent media would be quashed, my friends would (at best) be out of work, and society would be left to consume only propaganda.
Almost by themselves, my hands began to write the first article for my newsletter. I thought I could use my sources and knowledge to explain what is really going on in Russia, at a time when less and less is known about it. Did I ever imagine that I would start making my own media, albeit on a small scale, in a musty hotel room 6,500km from home? But what else can I do, how else can I help here and now?
The Putin regime does nothing quite so effectively as destroying what others have built, driving its people into the places allotted to them by the regime. After the first week of war, all that remained of the free Russian media was blocked, closed, forced out of the country. Foreign journalists were threatened with jail for spreading “fake news” about the Russian army’s actions. The same freshly adopted law silenced dissenting artists, celebrities, ordinary citizens — everyone. The cell is closed and all that remains is deafening silence, broken only by a couple of publications that have relocated entirely abroad.
Over a few days, my friends and colleagues shot off in panic in all directions, like ants running from a smashed anthill. When will I see them all next, I wondered? And then, immediately, other thoughts. When will the people who fled Ukraine see their homes again? When will they see their loved ones and friends? Will they see them? I check my every experience against what I imagine the people attacked by Putin’s army feel. My colleagues and friends from Ukraine are hiding in bomb shelters, leaving their homes, heading for the unknown. I burst into tears for the first time when a close friend who lives in Kyiv told me at the beginning of the war that she couldn’t bear to look at her home as she was leaving it, at all the objects she had lovingly decorated it with, not knowing if she would ever live there again.
Now I’m far from home, but I don’t really know if that home still exists. I remember the past two years in Russia: how a rustling in the hallway or a knock at the door when I wasn’t expecting anyone made me shudder. The paranoia increased, especially when my colleague Ivan Safronov was imprisoned. He was accused of treason for his work as a military journalist. From today’s perspective, his persecution, like many other absurd events of the past two years, seems oddly logical.
On the other hand, I don’t think I can ever feel safe anywhere. My situation is very specific. By ethnicity I am Azerbaijani, not Russian, but I was born in Moscow and grew up there. My childhood and adolescence were in the 1990s and 2000s, and throughout those years I was bullied because of my ethnicity. The Russian language has some very nasty words for people from the Caucasian republics.
What could a child do? I tried to adapt, to get my peers to accept me, and through this trauma I gained a terrible wealth of experience and skill. I respected the world of educated people, into which I managed to escape through study and hard work, a world in which there was no place for division by skin colour and nose shape.
Now, I find myself in a paradoxical situation: for most of my life I’ve had to fight xenophobia and prove that I, too, belong to Russian society. But today, when I speak Russian on the street, I think: what if some passer-by can tell I’m from Russia and assumes I support the war? How can I convince them that I’m one of the normal people who’s against Putin’s actions, someone who could be their friend?
Perhaps I’m fated to be a foreigner everywhere. But perhaps my differentness is my strength, too. The identity that was suppressed and discriminated against by the Russian state has pulled me from the mire. For a month now, I’ve been writing articles. Despite destroying my profession in my homeland, the Russian state has not succeeded in taking that from me. Work helps me cope with the anxiety and not lose myself completely.
Seeing the footage from Bucha makes me shiver with horror, but I’m not surprised: after Chechnya, Beslan and Nord-Ost, after the Kursk, the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the downing of Boeing MH17, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, I know the Russian security forces and military are capable of anything. Yet without the independent journalists from around the world now working in Ukraine, we would not have learnt the truth about Bucha. I am overcome with horror, disgust and anger at what is happening. At the same time, I rejoice in my colleagues, for telling the world the truth.
Farida Rustamova is a journalist who has worked for BBC News Russian, Meduza and TV Rain. Her Faridaily newsletter is available on Substack
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