Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Remembering Vladimir Putin as a boy

Mina Moiseevna Yuditskaya, Putin's former German teacher, recounts her experiences with the most powerful man in Russia.

In the late 1960s, Mina Moiseevna Yuditskaya was working at a secondary school in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, where she taught a “sporty”, soft-spoken teenage boy “with a shy smile” and tousled blond hair. Four decades later, the then 84-year-old resident of central Tel Aviv met her former pupil again, this time in Jerusalem: she a retired employee of the Israeli air force, he the most powerful man in Russia.

It was at the end of the 1990s, watching TV in her living room, that Yuditskaya first caught a glimpse of a boy she once knew. “I saw [President] Yeltsin,” she told me recently, speaking in her native Russian, “and to the side of him was Putin. I ran up to the television to get a closer look.”

Yuditskaya began following the progress of her former student, to whom she had taught German, as he rose through the ranks, becoming prime minister and president of Russia twice over. One morning, she noticed an article in the newspaper about a forthcoming visit to Israel.

“I took the newspaper and went to the [Russian] embassy. The consul asked me: ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘I want to see him, from a distance. Only from a distance.’”

Instead, a car whisked her to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. There, amid a crowd of Soviet war heroes, the Russian president approached Yuditskaya and invited her to tea. “He told me: ‘Mina Moiseevna, I’m now bald,’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Yes, I see that.’ I started asking him about the past. He asked me about the future.

“‘How do you remember me?’ I said, expecting him to say fifochka, the Russian word for a young woman who takes great care of her appearance and clothes. Instead, after a pause, he replied: ‘Honest, fair, kind.’ He said those three words. I was very moved.”

Putin introduced his former teacher to the then Israeli president, Moshe Katsav. “Katsav asked me what Putin was like in school,” Yuditskaya told me. “I gave him a thumbs-up to say that he was excellent.”

Some weeks after their encounter, a representative from the Russian embassy visited Yuditskaya, announcing that the president had decided to buy her a flat. “‘Why?’ I asked. ‘I already have one.’” She was shown two properties in Tel Aviv, and chose the smaller of the two, where our interview took place. It’s a cosy, one-bedroom apartment, with pink and orange walls, decorated with souvenirs from her extensive travels. There are glamorous black-and-white portraits of Yuditskaya, now 93, as a young woman.

“I told him that all I need is to be close to the bus stop, the doctor and the market,” she explained in an interview with the Israeli news website Ynet.

She said she no longer misses St Petersburg. “At first, I felt a great nostalgia. I would stand on my balcony and look in the direction of Leningrad. But now, all I feel is sadness.”

Yuditskaya, who was born in Ukraine and left the USSR for Israel in the 1970s, insisted that she does not follow Russian politics but said she listens to all of Putin’s speeches on TV. “Molodets, molodets!” she said, praising him, noting that he has an excellent memory. “He doesn’t read his speeches like Medvedev,” she joked.

And yet, for all her gains, she said that ultimately the meeting provoked a feeling of melancholy in her. “It was so sad to look at him,” she said. “I thought, ‘He was just a boy . . . and I was a young woman. And now the boy is grown up and I’m so old.’ I didn’t feel happiness or pride. I drifted back into the past.” 

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

Getty
Show Hide image

“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.