“They’re destroying our future!”
In the golden glow of a crisp, Lisbon afternoon, I stroll to the coffee kiosk in the little park by my house to catch up on the business news in the Portuguese press in order to compile a newsletter roundup for the following day.
While sitting nursing a coffee, doom scrolling through the latest horrors to emerge from Ukraine, I hear familiar Russian voices. I stop, listen and glance up. Immediately I feel a sense of anger. I know this feeling is illogical, because the young, petty women who own these voices almost certainly have nothing directly to do with this war.
But I pause, and reflect for a moment. Questions flood my mind. How have they been affected by this disastrous war? Are they even Russian, or perhaps one is Ukrainian and the other Russian? Why are they in Portugal? Do they live here? (After all there is a sizeable Ukraine community here, and far fewer Russians) Perhaps, they are refugees. My natural journalistic curiosity came into play. I had to find out.
“Excuse me, I noticed you were speaking Russian. Do you speak English?” They both nodded warily. I introduce myself and explain that I want to interview them without judgement or partiality about what they think of the war in Ukraine, and how it has affected them, if at all.
“They look at me somewhat reserved and baffled. I explain that I used to live in Russia and studied Russian and Soviet Studies at university. The surprise and distrust melts away and they agree. One, a fair-haired Russian called Marina, who freely admits that she and her husband are self-imposed refugees, is somewhat distracted, her eyes hawkishly following a small blond toddler running around on the green.
Marina (in photograph) explains she comes from the Russian enclave Kaliningrad (formerly Konigsberg, East Prussia prior to World War II).
Marina is a photographer, born and bred in the enclave. She says she and her Ukrainian husband — originally from Kiev – woke up to discover Russia was at war. Her husband told her Russia was at war on the first day of the invasion as tanks and armoured vehicles rolled over the Russian border. “I didn’t believe it and told him he’d had a bad dream and that he should come back to bed”.
Marina and her husband had originally decided to settle and live in the enclave city region sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania as it was “near to Western Europe, and not that far from Kiev” where her husband has family. They had recently bought an apartment in Kaliningrad which they were renovating.
“After the annexation of Crimea in 2014 the good neighbourly relations between Ukranians and Russians soured and there was a hatred on the Ukrainian side because of the annexation”, she explains, adding that things hadn’t changed for the Russians, but clearly had for the Ukrainians who were suffering the consequences.
Marina says she and her husband were really scared, packed their bags, and together with their baby left with what they could manage to carry. She says Vladimir Putin is a madman. When I put it to her that Putin still has a high approval rate in Russia among samples of citizens surveyed in opinion polls she balks. “Cause they are scared. Nobody likes Vladimir Putin really in Russia. Certainly not the young people. We don’t have fair polls and elections. They are fixed. We don’t even have an effective opposition. We’ve never had fair elections, ever. They stuff the voting boxes with fake ballot forms and people have filmed this happening on their smart phones,” she says.
Marina points out that there is no real rule of law in Russia.”You can be arrested and sent to jail without a formal trial and conviction which makes the population scared. If you criticise the Russian Orthodox Church you can be arrested and sent to jail. There is no public freedom of expression” she asserts. “Particularly on social media, you cannot express any negative opinion, criticism or joke about the government or the church for risk of reprisals. They monitor everything”, she adds.
Marina explains that the situation in Russia today is a strange hybrid between Soviet times and the Tsarist period (1613-1917) with a coalition between the State and the Church.
Hanna* (see footnote), her friend here in Portugal who is from Belarus, mourns the current situation of her country which she says is nothing moire than a “puppet state of Russia”.
She left her native country seven years ago (2015) at the age of 19 after her family, who owned a string of shops selling western clothes, was routinely pilfered by corrupt administrative officials and mafia groups asking for ‘protection’ money.
From 2011 when Hanna was growing up, Belarus suffered a severe economic crisis after the Lukashenko government centralised control of the economy. Inflation skyrocketed to 108.7% and a currency black market was created making recovery difficult. Hanna says that Alexander Lukashenko is not her country’s legitimate president as he was never voted in by the people.
Initially, she went to the US before moving to Lisbon in the summer. “I’m 26 years old now and for the whole of my life we have had the same president (Lukashenko) that no one really elected. When I turned 18 and could vote I was against this man in power, yet he supposedly won 96% of the vote in a rigged election that none of my friends voted for”.
“We have a joke in Belarus: ‘On a ship there are 10 people. They are deciding who is going to be the captain. So Lukashenko won with 20 votes’”.
I discover another one too in the same vein. “Aleksandr Grigorievich, I’ve got two pieces of news for you, good and bad. Which one should I begin with?
“The good one”, says Lukashenko.
“You’ve been elected president”.
“Okay, and what’s the bad one?”
“No one has voted for you”.
They are humorous if black illustrations that reveal the stark and unfortunate reality of the former Soviet socialist republic today.
I ask Hanna if she will ever return to Belarus to live, her answer is very definite. “For now it is very dangerous for me. She says she is currently working for the US government in an online job. She has lived and studied abroad for some time, and attended a Lithuanian university (European Humanities University (EHU) in Vilnius. “This university is against the Belarus leader and just my being a student there and my studies puts me at risk if I go back”, she explains, adding “they know who the students are that attended this university and they don’t want them back”.
Hanna says that the top leaders in Belarus are scared of citizens who have travelled and lived overseas because they don’t want them to learn the truth. “Young people who use the internet and social media, who don’t just watch Belarus TV (which is all state-controlled), who travel and have spent time abroad are all a threat. They are scared of people like us and my whole family, including my sister and her husband can’t now go back”.
I ask the girls if Russia has a point over the question of NATO expansion. After all, Ukraine was used as a gateway of invasion by both Napoleon, and later Hitler. She thinks not. She says its all about politics and power and not wanting a neighbouring state becoming affluent and successful for fear that the Russians on the other side of the border will realise there is a different standard of living and that their own people have been robbed.
“These people think they are gods, when in fact they belong in an psychiatric institution. It’s not about money, they already have that. It’s about power. “They are the richest people in the world and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, says Marina.
“I can tell you the realties of what has happened to our lives now in Russia and for us here. We don’t have sufficient money for food and clothes, our cars are too expensive to fix, our bank accounts are blocked and we have no money.
I and my friends are the same refugees as the Ukrainians. We all ran from the war. I feel sorry for them, for their cities. Nobody wanted this war, nobody wanted these deaths. Yes, in Russia we don’t have bombs falling on our cities, but our economy is wrecked, all western goods are gone, no social media, no PayPal. It’s like going back to Soviet times”, explains Marina in frustration.
Marina looks at me with a sense of urgency. “Tell your readers that most Russians don’t want this war. They are destroying our future and the dreams of an entire generation. I can’t remember the last time there was good news in Russia. Small businesses are cutting back or closing, the economy is down and that was even before this invasion”.
Marina says that one day someone can take your business. It does’t matter if the business is big or small. They use laws against traders and confiscate goods on ridiculous pretexts and every year businesses have to pay an amount of money, an “insurance” so they don’t come and steal your merchandise.
Marina stresses that all of the countries in the region have this corruption problem, not just Belarus and Russia. “My father had his own business, and one day “officials” came and told him he was “making too much money”. So they took half of the business. It was legal and my family couldn’t do anything”.
As I took my leave of these two girls, it suddenly dawned on me how little changes in Eastern Europe and just how endemic corruption is in nationalist and autocratic kleptocracies in that part of the world. Tolstoy once said a people deserves the leaders it gets. The question is and always has been why don’t they rise up and throw over such oppression and thievery. Perhaps part of the answer lies in passive fatalism. In this they share something, although on a different scale, with the Portuguese who moan and complain but do nothing about corruption and simply state “What can we do? It’s what we have”. (É o que nos temos)
In Russia they have a similar saying which sums up this nonchalant, hopeless attitude to positive change. “It’s a long way to God, but even further to the Tsar”.
*For security reasons Essential Business was asked not to publish an image of Hanna for fear of possible reprisals to family members in Belarus.