The photo arrived on my phone with a ping, just as I had claimed my sleeping spot on the Shetland ferry’s crowded seats.
It showed a man’s back, covered in dark bruises that stretched up over his shoulder blades and down the back of his arms.
It was a friend in Ukraine, just back from a mission to rescue wounded soldiers. I hadn’t been sure he would come back at all. There can be no communication from the places he goes into.
What exactly happened, he won’t, or can’t, say. He’ll have to go back and do it again soon. Each time he says he has a bad feeling.
Meanwhile, in Kharkiv my friends live under almost daily bombardment, attacks having stepped up again since I left the city in May. The Russians bomb them around midnight. Just to make sure no one feels safe going to sleep.
This is the reality in the country I’ve just left, the reality for millions of people, and it is not getting better. So many Ukrainians are dying every day. The sheer weight of artillery pounding their positions in the east is terrifying. Every day a new face, a new man, is posted on social media with wishes for “eternal memory”. Soldiers, volunteers, journalists and people just trying to live their lives.
This, the Ukrainians are saying, is the absolute crunch point – right now. Without long-range heavy weaponry in large quantities, Ukraine can be crushed.
And yet it seems that Western interest is fading; sympathy is ebbing. Coming home, I was lectured in the pub on how Ukraine should negotiate, should cede territory; how Ukrainians are being “selfish”; how petrol prices are biting and food crises looming and it’s time for “the war to end”.
I couldn’t agree more that the war should end; I hate war, particularly this one. But I wonder if people really understand the implications of ceding territory. Handing over your land, your own citizens, to an occupying army capable of such brutality. Would we accept this?
The Yale historian Timothy Snyder, among others, has argued that the Kremlin’s intent and actions in Ukraine are genocidal. Vladimir Putin is not just after a bit more land, a bit of “glory” and grain. The quasi-religious, far-right ideology that has spread through Russia like a dark stain holds that the very idea of Ukraine must be destroyed; that the country has no right to exist, it is a mistake, and that even the act of saying “I am Ukrainian” makes someone a “Nazi” who should be either re-educated or executed.
I know this is the Kremlin narrative because before the invasion I was there in Moscow, watching it unfold. I still watch the high-octane, conspiratorial Russian TV, which is under total government control. Recently the hosts have been pondering whether, in fact, Moldova and Poland might be harbouring “Nazis” too. The red flags to indicate Putin has ambitions beyond Ukraine’s borders are all there. This is why Ukrainians say they are fighting for peace and freedom in all of Europe.
To point out these things about Russia is to risk the accusation of “Russophobia”. But I say all this as someone who, since a lucky encounter in high school, spent my whole adult life dreaming of Russia. After falling completely for the language at 15, I became obsessed, learning everything I could about the history and culture, the extraordinary literature. I loved so much about that country, and some of that I also found in Ukraine – they do, after all, have a shared past and culture in some respects and, of course, I can get by in Russian there.
So when I got to go and live in Russia – November last year – this dark, twisted vision had already taken over and, in fact, the warning signs had been there a long time. We in western Europe just weren’t listening, distracted by all that oil and gas. My dream of working for the famous investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta, home to the fearless Anna Politkovskaya who had inspired me so much, was already impossible.
I spent three very cold months in Moscow, watching as society sank into a mire: the TV more hysterical every day, the people I spoke to more adamant that Ukraine was a puppet state of pure evil, about to nuke Moscow, needing to be “dealt with”. Those my age were sane – and despairing of their futures, of their country’s future – but many over-50s and under-30s seemed much more thoroughly indoctrinated. It was heartbreaking, and deeply disturbing, to watch first-hand. It didn’t need to happen, either; Russia once had glimmers of hope, a burst of independent media and activism.
Now, its future is utterly bleak. But before the empire collapses, it will inflict as much damage as possible on the thing it hates the most – the country that got away. Putin and his small inner circle seem to hate Ukraine specifically because it was just starting to shrug off that long legacy of corruption and brutality. Ukraine’s 2014 revolution was an uprising against one of those old grey men who had ruled for so long, stealing their considerable resources and building himself a golden palace.
Russia called it a coup, a fascist takeover. But what was really happening was a young generation took on the challenge of building a state from the bottom up. Right from the beginning of the war (2014, we sometimes forget), these networks of volunteers helped equip a then-meagre army fighting the Russian attack in the east. Without this framework of volunteering and collective action, it’s hard to see how Ukraine would have survived over the past four months.
“Don’t you get annoyed?” I asked one tireless volunteer I’d known for some years. “Don’t you ever think – why should I do all this? Where’s the state?”
“But we are the state”, she shot back. It made me think, for a long time, about the lessons Ukraine – and particularly this generation of protest and resistance – can teach us. It’s not like Ukraine was a perfect country. These activists themselves had problems with police violence and life was marred by a corrupt bureaucracy, a weak state captured by oligarchs. But things were getting better because this generation in particular was working hard, fighting for progress.
Imagine Putin’s horror as Ukraine held free and fair elections and chose someone so far from the elite, so unlike his old grey men. What an example that might set to his citizens, watching from across the border, where elections have been rigged for many, many years now.
One of the most effective tools of authoritarian regimes is disinformation and the spread of conspiracy theories – something the Kremlin is extremely effective at. We’ve all been noticing the effects in our own society for years – from the anti-vax movement to the Syrian war – but I was amazed to hear so much of this when I returned to Scotland. “We’re not getting the real version of events,” people kept telling me.
As ever with conspiracies, it didn’t matter that I’d just returned from Ukraine, that I’d seen things with my own eyes, that I know and can vouch for the utter integrity of countless foreign correspondents for “mainstream” outlets. A sizeable chunk of people have decided that Volodymyr Zelensky is “sinister”, intent on sacrificing his own people; that the West is pursuing a proxy war against Russia; that Russian atrocities are faked.
Trying to argue, in vain, reminded me of my attempts to keep talking to some pro-Putin acquaintances in Moscow. From the first day of the invasion they were unrepentant, bombarding me with propaganda about Syria and the West, about “puppet” Zelensky, an exhausting barrage of drivel. I told them what I was seeing. “You’re lying,” was the response. So I gave up. I think there is still power in reporting, on the ground – in telling people’s stories. Many stories I heard and encounters I had in Ukraine really stuck with me.
On a night train, hot and stuffy, trundling across the country, I met two medics. It was the kind of pure chance the night train can throw up – you never know who will be in the compartment, and sometimes it’s a lot of big, snoring blokes. But this night I was lucky. By the red glow of my headtorch (there was a blackout on the train) we drank the last of a plastic bottle of monastery wine and described what had brought us all here.
One was a foreigner: she’d become a medic at a young age, wanting to help the feminists and socialists of the Rojava revolution in northern Syria. It made sense to her that now, after years of grim war experience, she’d come to help in Ukraine. As she saw it, defending freedom. She’d seen more than I hope I ever will but somehow retained a deep sense of optimism and joy, and certainty in her role.
Her story is one I hope to be able to tell on my next trip.
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