I really didn’t think I would be going to Russia this summer. Being Ukrainian, I had dispelled the notion as a betrayal of my country years ago when someone had suggested the idea. To be clear, although my family and I have been living in Sweden for the last 19 years (I am a Swedish citizen and consider myself Swedish), I was born in Ukraine to Ukrainian parents, and the first two languages I learned were Ukrainian and Russian. One of the most formative experiences of my life, which is crucial to understanding my opinions of Russia, is the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014. The revolution began as a series of protests in reaction to police brutality against student demonstrators, but expanded into a broader and more intense expression of discontent with, among other things, the government’s rampant corruption. The protests culminated in late February when riot police, armed with assault and sniper rifles, opened fire on protesters, killing dozens. Protests only continued, and after President Yanukovych fled to Russia (where he remains to this day), the demonstrators and leaders of opposition parties began organising an interim government. My family and I followed these events closely, watching news about the protests after work or school, day in, day out, from November to February. As the new interim government was headless and in the midst of a constitutional crisis, troops who lacked any identifying markers of their unit or country but who were well-equipped and armed to the teeth took over administrative buildings in Crimea. This was followed by a referendum calling for Crimea’s ’re-unification’ with Russia, which was carried out in late March – a move recognised as legitimate by only a small handful of countries, and considered an annexation by all others. Many suspected then that the troops were Russian, and though the Russian government denied this initially, they eventually admitted the troops were in fact Russian special forces. My family and I followed this attentively as well. Consequently, I’m not exactly what someone could call a fan of Russia.
But after having spent last summer doing nothing at home in Sweden, I resolved that I wouldn’t allow my mind to be so whittled by boredom again, and my parents suggested that I join a summer course in St. Petersburg. My parents argued that I could learn more about how people lived there and gain a deeper understanding into why relations had soured so much between Russia and the West. My knee-jerk reaction was to say no, but after some discussion I cautiously agreed. And my parents were certainly right. The conversations I had with people taught me a lot, making it one of the most interesting trips of my life. I didn’t go around looking to argue with every Russian I came across, but I also felt that if I didn’t get my hands at least a little bit dirty the trip would’ve been a wasted opportunity.
After having arrived at Pulkovo airport, I was picked up by Masha (one of my mum’s best friends from her university days in St. Petersburg), who drove me to her home in Vsevolozhsk, a suburb of St. Petersburg. There I was greeted by three middle-aged men in tracksuits trying out their new grill, as well as a quite fat (but very friendly) Scotch terrier called Richard. We were having shashlykfor dinner when one of the men asked me, ”Is it true what they’re telling us about what’s happening in Ukraine? That Ukrainians don’t like Russia?”. I responded that this was generally true. Then, completely sincerely and without a shred of irony, he asked, ”Why d’you think that is?”. The question threw me off; I wanted to ask him if he was just playing dumb, but it being my very first night in Russia, I decided to avoid what would have been an admittedly rude comment, so I said that it probably has something to do with Crimea and the Donbas. He shrugged the response off. The three men then continued their conversation about how unfairly Russia is portrayed as an ”aggressor” in the West, while I sat awkwardly between them.
I was not surprised by this first encounter, but it still frustrated me that the man didn’t seem to know why things had gotten so bad, nor the role of Crimea as a political stressor. The next conversation I had on the topic was with an intern assisting the summer course I was partaking in. She told me that most Russians definitely considered Crimea rightfully Russian, but that people were increasingly beginning to doubt the prudence of ”reunification” after Western sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions had weakened the economy and restricted access to European foodstuffs. I told her that for myself (and for many Ukrainians), what mattered wasn’t so much Crimea’s ’Russian-ness’ as much as the fact that Crimea’s ”reunification” with Russia was achieved through a military intervention and annexation. She seemed surprised at my statement: ”But it wasn’t a military intervention. Those were local self-organised militia”. I was flustered: ”where would these militias get the equipment and honed tactics that not even regular army units have?”, I asked her. ”Putin himself admitted later that they were Russian special forces. I don’t think the Russian media has been entirely truthful”. To this she simply responded that Western media is just as biased. Feeling that I wasn’t getting anywhere with her, I amicably ended the conversation and said that we would just have to agree to disagree.
The last and best conversation I had was with Vika, the girlfriend of Masha’s son, Stas. On my last night in Russia she asked me if I liked the trip and considered returning. I said that I really liked St. Petersburg, and that I’d love to come back, but that it would depend on the political situation. She seemed confused: ”What political situation?”. I explained the situation in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine while recounting my earlier ambivalence about coming to Russia. She had up until this point thought that I was simply a Swede of Ukrainian origin who was apolitical and wanted to visit Russia; she was surprised to learn how strongly I felt Ukrainian (in spite of being a Swedish citizen and feeling Sweden to be my home). At a certain point I asked her if it was ok that we were talking about this, because I know that talking politics constantly can be exhausting, but she interjected, ”No, no! I want to know about this! I just couldn’t believe it before having spoken with you”. I told her about the EU Association Agreement which Yanukovych eventually rejected, the Euromaidan protests, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s role in organising and supplying (and at times directly leading and participating in) the insurgency in Ukraine’s east, and the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by a Russian-supplied anti-air system. She asked what Russia should have done when Ukraine was turning away from its ”brother nation” in favour of the EU. She thought a fascist government which had come to power after the revolution had banned the Russian language, and that Crimea’s secession to Russia was entirely voluntary. I assured her that if any of that were true, there really would be a civil war in Ukraine. Stas chided her for not knowing these things, but it was clear to me that hers wasn’t a concious decision to avoid the little opposition media there is in Russia; she hadn’t even thought of it. She was apolitical because there was no point to politics in Russia – there was nothing that could be done. Given the degree to which the Russian state had co-opted and marginalised opposition politics and dominated public discourse, I couldn’t blame her. But I was hopeful by the end of the two hour-long conversation; she was open to everything that I was saying, and I felt genuine progress was being made.
These weren’t my only conversations; I had an opportunity to speak to others who were more aware of the political situation and dissatisfied with it. But I felt that it was through opposing dialogue that I learned the most. My message isn’t that if we all just hold hands and sing kumbaya the world’s problems will be solved. The current situation is unlikely to change as long as the Russian state maintains its indomitable grip over the media; as long is it is illegal to insult Putin or the state and to use the word ’annexation’ with regards to Crimea. The lesson I gleaned from all this is that we should make a greater effort to form personal connections with individuals from societies or sub-sections of our own society we disagree with, because when we don’t it’s easy to treat a difference of opinion as an instrinsic moral flaw rather than a social issue subject to change. I’d certainly suggest this to some Ukrainians I know who seem to think that Russians are inherently (even genetically) more prone to being gullible and believing in propaganda. And this doesn’t necessarily entail a retreat to an extreme form of moral relativism whereby your argument can’t be any more valid than another. For the most part, the attitude I encountered in Russia wasn’t aggressive or uncompromising; the sentiment wasn’t so much ”I hate Ukrainians and the West” as much as ”Why are Ukrainians so angry with Russia?”, and though I found this unawareness a bit comical and naïve, it’s also a position that’s much easier to talk to. Had I not talked to these people I never would have understood why they believe the things they do, and vice versa. And ultimately, I like to think that I have good friends in people like Masha, Stas, and Vika.