I've spent a big chunk of my adult life in the former Soviet Union and Russia, including a year as the U.S. Information Agency's Journalist-in-Residence in 1995. As a middle-aged Amerikanka with school-girl Russian, I learned to depend on the kindness of strangers (with apologies to Tennessee Williams) and the importance of turning those strangers into friends. With the current chaos in Russia, I'll be tapping my emails and Facebook posts from those friends to offer some insights into these sad times.
My first blog (and various repostings in social media) have sparked some insightful conversation about how the Russian people are reacting to Putin’s folly. I’ll share some of those thoughts while protecting the identities of my correspondents.
Comment: I'm interested to know how the typical Russian feels about all this. From what I've read, many or most of them are against Russia's actions in Ukraine, and angry with Putin, even if they're afraid to say it publicly. But is that view really representative of most Russians, or only of the English-language news from Russia and of individual Russians on Twitter and Reddit, all of whom are probably more engaged and familiar with the West than most people in the country? The economic sanctions could hurt average Russians very badly, and I wonder if that could be enough to fuel a resurgence of Russian nationalism and harden public opinion more against Western governments. If your life's savings are suddenly wiped out, will you be angry with your own government — or with the governments who imposed the sanctions? By rights Russians "should" be angry with their government whose actions caused other countries to enact these sanctions, but I'm not sure human nature works that way. I guess we'll find out.
My response: You're right that our perceptions of "real" Russian sentiments are colored by the western connections of our Russian friends. To counteract this effect, I depend heavily on the posts of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (rferl.org). When they report that people are protesting in the streets in Ekaterinburg and Tomsk, regional cities to the east, I am even more convinced that unhappiness, even disgust, by ordinary Russians is widespread. Russians fear chaos more than anything, and Putin was always viewed as “steady,” even if you disagreed with his repressive policies. Now they see him acting recklessly against their own interests, and they're frightened.
Comment from a friend in St. Petersburg: Russia's war against Ukraine is a SHAME. This is OUR shame, but unfortunately, our children, generations of very young and unborn Russians, will also have to bear the responsibility for it. We don't want our children to live in an aggressor country to feel ashamed of their army attacking a neighboring independent state. We urge all citizens of Russia to say NO to this war. We do not believe that independent Ukraine is a threat to Russia or any other state. We do not believe in Vladimir Putin's statements that the Ukrainian people are under the power of "Nazis" and need to be "liberated." We demand this war to end!
Comment to this post from a Ukrainian woman: Together with sensible people, we must stop this madman who is washing my country and my people from the face of the Earth. We have no fascists. Ukrainians are killed because they want to live freely, in accordance with democratic values, and not as in 1937, as Russian society lives now.
From my friend in St. Petersburg: My weapon is the word... I am trying to reach out to those possessed by malice and hatred, and I urge their loved ones not to become slaves.
Comment from another Ukrainian: You can hate us (even though we didn't do anything wrong to anybody), but he hates you all too. (Putin does not bring home) the bodies of the dead so that they can be humanly buried, and he threatens to press the nuclear button that will kill you too. He has already condemned you to poverty and isolation, thanks to the sanctions. Nobody in the civilized world wants to deal with Russia
New comment from a Russian: Our military breeds enemies of our country. Who are these Russians who engage in self-destruction, destroying our nation, losing any sense of self-dignity and causing suffering to our neighbors.
Another Russian comment: Darkness has come upon us, and this darkness makes us think about what we can do, and the feeling of helplessness that we must somehow overcome… We are all very sorry that we allowed this to happen. We all feel responsible for what happened. And we must now mobilize and resist this monstrous act
From another Russian: This is not my war. I am hurt and scared for everyone who woke up today to explosions and sirens in the country my country attacked. I don't know how to stop it!
Michelle Carter is the former managing editor of the San Mateo Times. Throughout 1995, she travelled across the 11 time zones of the world’s largest country as the U.S. Information Agency’s Journalist-in-Residence in Russia. She is the author of two books, From Under the Russian Snow (Bedazzled Ink Publishers, 2017) and Children of Chernobyl: Raising Hope From the Ashes (Augsburg, 1993).