CN: Discussion of war

When Tom* and I sit on Café Nero’s long wooden table, he tells me that he can either tell the truth about what is happening in Russia and testify anonymously, or repeat the propaganda, and be quoted by name. We of course agree to anonymise the interview.

Tom recently left Russia. He is a former MML student, now working for a “large, but non-Russian energy company” implemented in Russia. His company specialises in renewables. Up until a few days ago, he was living and working in Saint Petersburg, vacationing in the Black Forest, and relaxing in the public baths with his Russian colleagues or British friends living in Russia.

Tom is so fond of Russia that, during the COVID pandemic, he stayed in the country, despite his department asking its students to come back. “I thought I would stay in Russia for a very long time,” he tells me. “But to stay in Russia now, is to be tainted. Not to speak up, is to be complicit with the bombing of maternity wards or children or with whatever else Putin decides.”

I ask Tom how he learnt about the invasion. He said that, on 24 February, he opened his Telegram app, and noticed several missed calls. Telegram is an application known for its system of encrypted communications. It is one of the few uncensored means of communication and information remaining in Russia today.

While he was waiting for his friend to call him back, Tom saw “pictures of mushroom clouds on the various Telegrams channels [he] was subscribed to, pictures of things on fire, of explosions.

“When my friend picked up the phone, I said, half-jokingly: ‘Well, mate, I assume the invasion has started.’ And my friend said ‘yeah’. And then the cheery British disposition, the banter, stopped. Because you appreciate that what has happened is so unbelievably awful. I’m very British, I suppose, in the sense that I don’t show my emotions very much. But I was on the verge of tears, thinking of the sheer stupidity of the invasion.”

“When he returned to the office, the security guard greeted him with a cheery: ‘We’re outside Kiev!’”

Tom took the day off. When he returned to the office, the security guard greeted him with a cheery: ‘We’re outside Kiev!’ Tom didn’t know what to answer. “In the office itself, the invasion wasn’t something people were acknowledging. But all my meetings were cancelled, because the upper-management had to draft a strategy to answer the sanctions.”

Tom stayed in Russia for ten days following the invasion of Ukraine. When the Ukrainian envoy to the peace negotiations in Belarus mentioned that Russia might implement martial law, he decided to leave the country. “Martial law means foreigners can be detained in camps. I have a British passport, and Britain is on the list of unfriendly countries. So that is when I decided to leave.”

He tried to find a flight out. He needed to go via ‘Arab countries, or former soviet bloc countries’, given that the European space was closed. Eventually, he manadged to book a ‘horrendously expensive’ flight to Istanbul. In Istanbul, he found hotels packed with both Russians and Ukrainians.

The flight to Istanbul he witnessed reminded him of the flight of “the Whites”, the Russian nationalists that lost the Russian civil war against “the Reds” after the 1917 communist Revolution.

In Istanbul, he dined with two Russian friends he knew, both members of the opposition, both having previously been detained by the Russian state and beaten up by the police. “That is a quite common experience in Russia.”

He said he felt a tiny spark of disappointment witnessing them leave. “They were telling me that they could organise from outside Russia. They could collect money, spread information. I think that, if any change is ever going to happen in Russia, it is going to be because of this war. This war is the biggest tactical blunder Putin has ever made. So people should organise from the inside.”

“I think that, if any change is ever going to happen in Russia, it is going to be because of this war”

“My plan is to go back as soon as I can,” he tells me. I ask him if that means he will go back regardless of the situation in Ukraine. “Well, I’ll go back when the peace is signed,” he specifies. He believes that the war will be over soon, because Russia will run out of money. “But I could be wrong – it could go on forever.”

He says the full impact of the sanctions will be felt in a few weeks. “Supermarkets are going to empty.” As a result of the sanctions, his bank account is frozen. He says he will probably lose his job, because his company relies on the importation of parts from abroad to build wind turbines in Russia. “The pieces come from Siemens in Germany, or other similar Western companies, so, unless my company finds a loophole in the sanctions, it will have to stop its activities.”

I ask him if he heard people discussing the war before he left. He tells me that people have no idea that their country is at war. “When I called my landlady to say I was leaving, she didn’t understand why. I had to tell her it was because of the war, but she didn’t understand.”

When I ask him if he used the word “war”, he says he has fun finding ways around it – so, no, he didn’t actually use the word. “I say ‘recent developments in our brother country Ukraine’ or ‘the special operation in Donbas’ or stuff like that.”

He didn’t expect a war to break out. “They didn’t ramp out the propaganda efforts in the lead up to the invasion. We all expected they would say they found a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, or whatever, and then announce an invasion – but they didn’t prepare the Russians for the idea of war.”

“They must have expected that Ukraine would fall in three or four days. They would not have to make a big deal out of it. They could have called the ‘end of the special operation’ rapidly, without making too many waves.”

I ask Tom about the crackdown on social media apps. “The censorship is bad, but it’s not that bad. My ex-girlfriend, for instance, is not very techy, but she knows how to use a VPN, so she has access to foreign news. And we can talk by Telegram.”

“Young Russians want to leave, go west, get more money and freedom”

I asks him if his ex-girlfriend wants to leave. “Of course she wants to leave,” he answers. “But she doesn’t have enough money. All young people want to leave. Over 50% of Russian people under 30 want to leave. And that percentage is only going to increase. Young people want to leave, go west, get more money and freedom.”

An hour and a bit later, when the interview ends, the night has fallen. The café is almost empty. Tom goes back to the Cambridge college he is staying at for the moment – uncertain of what to do next, or where to go.

*The name has been changed