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2 February 2022

Dispatch: Ordinary Russians don’t want war with Ukraine

Despite aggressive rhetoric the internationalist Soviet past — visible in statues and Metro stations — still holds clout.

By Felix Light

MOSCOW – For the last few years, my daily commute in Moscow has taken me down Ukrainsky Boulevard. A quiet, pedestrianised garden street, it radiates out from a statue of Lesya Ukrainka, a poet who lived in what is now western Ukraine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Afterwards, I head down into Kievskaya Metro station, named for the Ukrainian capital and resplendent in gaudy mosaics of wartime Ukrainian peasants welcoming their Red Army liberators with the traditional Slavic gift of bread and salt.

The very definite theme in my part of town (a southwestern district that sits in the general direction of the border) is a hangover from the Nikita Khrushchev period. That was a time when, after the horrors of Stalinism, a Soviet Union fleetingly recharged with previously lost idealism started to take seriously the building of the friendship of peoples.

Khrushchev himself was born a Russian peasant in what is these days a border village, but his years running the Soviet apparatus in Kyiv have led to him being reimagined in Russia as a Ukrainian born and bred. In this brief era of optimism, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviet capital received new restaurants and galleries showcasing the cuisines and cultures of the periphery. Most of it was tasteless and pastiche, but it was a start.

Nowadays, such pieties seem as trite as the rest of the Soviet Union’s unfulfilled promises. I doubt that many of my neighbours on Taras Shevchenko Embankment even notice that their address bears the name of Ukraine’s national poet, a man convicted by the Tsarist secret police for advocating an independent Ukraine. 

[See also: How Kyiv is preparing for Putin]

Even so, with talk of war with Ukraine — until January, still largely the preoccupation of Western observers — now commonplace in Russia too, I find myself wondering whether the remnants of the internationalist Soviet past might still retain a little of their old clout. Perhaps it is the half-remembered ghosts of Marxism-Leninism that inform many Russians’ conviction not that war with Ukraine must not happen, but that it cannot happen.

At a party in December, I got talking to a journalist from a state-aligned outlet. Like many of those who staff Russia’s propaganda media apparatus — on whose broadcasts the wartime collaborationism of some Ukrainian nationalists is routinely inflated into paranoiac fantasies about fascist juntas in Kyiv — he is a committed liberal and supportive of Alexei Navalny, the jailed Kremlin critic. When I asked him whether he thought there might be a war, he looked at me as though I had wondered aloud whether the laws of gravity were made up.

“It’s not even worth thinking about,” he told me. “A war between Russia and Ukraine is literally impossible.”

When I pointed out that such a war had already broken out, cost around 13,000 lives, and smouldered on for almost eight years, he conceded the point but only just. “That,” he said, referring to Crimea and the Donbas, “was a little different.”

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Even in wartime, the residual ties between Russia and Ukraine have lingered. Not so long ago, some years into the post-2014 war I took a train from Moscow’s Kievsky Railway Station (next door to the Kievskaya Metro station). Aboard carriages painted in the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag, blue passports carrying the Ukrainian trident mingled with red Russian ones, embossed with the double-headed imperial eagle. As the train trundled towards Kyiv, it was briefly possible to imagine the war had never begun.

Some years ago, I spent a summer in Voronezh. A prosperous, if largely unremarkable, city on Russia’s southern flank, Voronezh is currently enjoying its moment in the spotlight as one of the premier rallying points for the 100,000 or so Russian troops currently massing on the border with Ukraine, about 100 miles away.

My grasp of the language then limited, I had hoped to escape Anglophone Moscow for what I imagined to be the real Russia, a place that spoke a pure Russian cleansed of foreign imports. In the event, I came away from my stint at Voronezh State University with a curious, semi-Ukrainianised accent. My guttural Russian Gs had softened into Ukrainian Hs; I had picked up local words unknown in Russia, but commonplace on the other side of the border. To Russians, speakers of a language extraordinary in its degree of standardisation and almost bereft, outside the Ukrainian borderlands, of regional accents, I sounded like a comedy yokel. 

[See also: What would a Russian assault on Ukraine look like?]

Perhaps more than any other Russian city, Voronezh bears the scars of the war raging to the south. Cars bearing the plates of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, the unrecognised pro-Russian statelets conjured into being with Moscow’s help, are everywhere in Voronezh. Thousands of refugees from the Donbas have made the city their home, fleeing either in the early days from the Ukrainian army, or later from the bandits who have become presidents and prime ministers in the People’s Republics.

That summer, I made friends with one of the refugees. Sasha, now twenty eight and a newly-minted Russian citizen, had grown up in a bleak industrial city in Luhansk region. In the Maidan revolution in 2014, Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president and a native of Donbas, was chased from office and the new government set about pursuing EU and Nato membership. Sasha, like everyone else he knew, chose Russia. The first vote he ever cast was for the Luhansk People’s Republic’s independence, in a referendum condemned by almost every government on the planet. 

Amid all the war talk this winter, I reconnected with Sasha. I wanted to know what he thought of the new war threatening to once again ravage his hometown. 

Sasha, it turned out, had changed. Life in provincial Russia, where corruption is everywhere and officialdom by turns abusive and indifferent, turned out to be much like that in Ukraine. From admiring Vladimir Putin, he had moved towards the radical opposition. He had wanted to attend last winter’s pro-Navalny marches but sat them out, fearing his newly granted Russian citizenship might be rescinded.

Sasha’s views of Ukraine had changed, too. He laid them out to me one night last month in a lengthy missive over the encrypted messenger service Telegram, which is popular among opposition-minded Russians. Donbas, he was sure, could never go back to Ukraine. Too much had happened for that. But that needn’t mean that some kind neighbourliness was not possible, he mused.

“As a country, Ukraine is a brother, a friend, a neighbour,” wrote Sasha. “No disputes can erase those facts.”

[See also: As Russia masses troops on the border, defiant Ukrainians join new home guard]
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