Two weeks before Putin started his war against Ukraine, I was in Sri Lanka, a cheap tourist destination that was open to Russians during the pandemic. It was our first vacation in a long time. Of course, I couldn’t tear myself away from the news of 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 concern grew, I kept asking my acquaintances in government: Will there be a war? All answered no: a war would benefit no one. When Putin actually sent troops, these people were initially shocked and confused. Now many of them believe his claim that war was inevitable and are threatening to retaliate against the damn West for its sanctions.
When war broke out, my partner and I gave up our return plane 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. It took me some time to think about giving up journalism, which I had dreamed of since childhood. In Russia, Covid-19 had been a convenient pretext for the state to completely disengage from society and shut down what remains of the independent media. The authorities replaced them with a system of call centers in the regions to handle questions and feedback from the population. They gave them a ridiculous name (Regional Control Centers) and just as ridiculously spent billions of rubles on them.
Over the past 18 months, one friend after another of mine has been declared an enemy of the people, a “foreign agent.” Authorities began restricting their activities under threat of criminal prosecution, a virtual ban on the entire journalistic profession. It was horrifying to realize that half my life had gone down the drain, that my arduous efforts to rebuild my reputation from scratch had all been in vain.
As the risks for journalists increased daily, freedom of expression dwindled and people heeded the endlessly pounding message that citizens should not take part in the country’s political life and mind their own business. I saw no point in continuing. This decision was very difficult. It felt like a part of me was dying.
What can I do? How can I personally help? These questions have bothered me ever since Putin announced on the fourth day of the war that he was preparing Russian nuclear weapons, and it became clear that this was definitely not going to end anytime soon and would only get worse.
In the first week of the war, Russian society was not yet cut off from the rest of the world, being voluntarily and compulsorily locked up in the largest cage in the world. Because Putin presented the war as a “special operation” and did not warn the public or those close to him about his plans, the state propaganda machine was taken by surprise.
The country’s most popular artists expressed shock, horror and condemned the war. Anti-war petitions immediately collected hundreds of thousands of signatures, large numbers of people from different professions signed open letters, and the bravest took to the streets to protest; they were few, but they were there. It seemed that at least half of Russian society did not support the war and the other half could still influence it. There was real, if limited, hope.
But I’ve lived my entire adult life under Putin – I turned 30 this year – so I knew the authorities would very quickly put an end to all this and silence and punish those who spoke up. I knew that in a few days the independent media would be disbanded, my friends would be unemployed (at best) and society would consume nothing but 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 in a stuffy hotel room 4,000 miles from home I would start making my own media, albeit on a small scale? But what else can I do, how can I help here and now?
The Putin regime does nothing as effectively as destroying what others have built and driving its people to the places assigned to them by the regime. After the first week of the war, whatever was left of the free Russian media was blocked, shut down, expelled from the country. Foreign journalists were threatened with jail for spreading “fake news” about the actions of the Russian army. The same freshly passed law silenced dissident artists, celebrities, ordinary citizens – everyone. The cell is closed, all that remains is deafening silence, broken only by a few publications that have been sent abroad.
Within days, my friends and colleagues were shooting out in all directions in panic, like ants running off 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 homeland again? When will they see their loved ones and friends? will do you see them? I compare each of my experiences to how I imagine people feeling when attacked by Putin’s army. My colleagues and friends from Ukraine hide in air raid shelters, leave their homes and head into the unknown. I first burst into tears when a close friend who lives in Kyiv told me at the start of the war that she couldn’t bear to leave her home to look at all the items she had lovingly decorated with, not knowing if she would ever live there again.
Now I’m far from home but I don’t really know if this house still exists. I remember the last two years in Russia: how a rustle in the hallway or a knock on the door when I wasn’t expecting anyone made me shudder. Paranoia grew, especially when my colleague Ivan Safronov was arrested. Because of his work as a military journalist, he was accused of high treason. From today’s perspective, his persecution, like many other absurd events of the past two years, seems strangely logical.
On the other hand, I don’t think I can ever feel safe anywhere. My situation is very special. I’m Azerbaijani by ethnicity, not Russian, but I was born and raised in Moscow. My childhood and adolescence were in the 1990s and 2000s and during those years I was bullied because of my ethnicity. The Russian language has some very uncomfortable words for people from the Caucasian republics.
What could a child do? I’ve tried to conform, to get my peers to accept me, and through that trauma I’ve gained a terrible wealth of experience and skills. I respected the world of educated people, into which study and hard work could take me refuge, a world where there was no place for divisions based on skin color and nose shape.
Now I find myself in a paradoxical situation: for most of my life I have 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 a passer-by realizes that I’m from Russia and assumes that I support the war? How can I convince them that I am one of the normal people opposed to Putin’s actions, someone who could be their friend?
Maybe I’m destined to be a foreigner everywhere. But maybe my difference is also my strength. The identity suppressed and discriminated against by the Russian state pulled me out of the swamp. I’ve been writing articles for a month. Although my profession was destroyed in my homeland, the Russian state failed to take it away from me. The work helps me to deal with the fear and not to lose myself completely.
When I see the footage of Bucha, I shudder 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 that the Russian security forces and military are capable of anything. But without the independent journalists from around the world now working in Ukraine, we would not have learned 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 who speak the truth to the world.
Farida Rustamova is a journalist and has worked for BBC News Russian, Meduza and TV Rain. Your Faridaily newsletter is available on Substack
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https://www.ft.com/content/e92823af-aa1f-4bd9-a28c-641162b95be4 The diary of a Russian journalist in exile: “How can I help here and now?”