A number of years ago I made my first of many visits to Russia. At the time my ability to speak Russian was limited, but after landing in St Petersburg I had managed to negotiate customs and find my way to the nearest Metro station. I was heading to a city called Petrozavodsk, a city I now call home for six months of every year, which is about eight hours north of St Petersburg when travelling by train. It was getting late and my train wouldn’t leave until the early hours of the morning. I had decided just to head straight to the train station and rough it for the rest of the night, being Scottish I guess I grudged the idea of paying for a hotel bed that I would only get a few hours use from.
Unfortunately I managed to get off the Metro at the wrong station. I had wandered about for a bit trying to find the train station before I realised my mistake, and by now the Metro was closed for the night. Having checked the station guide I realised I had got off one station early and so opted just to walk to the next one. This I soon found out wasn’t as straightforward as I had imagined. The first obstacle was that unlike in Glasgow or London where underground stations are relatively close together making it easy to walk between successive ones, in St Petersburg it can be literally miles to the next one. A more substantial obstacle however was the Neva, the great river on which St Petersburg is built. The station I had disembarked at was, by Sod’s Law, on the opposite side of the Neva from where I was headed. In a large and modern city like St Petersburg this wouldn’t normally pose a problem, bridges are a normal part of the infrastructure. It is a nightly occurrence in the old imperial capital, however, for the bridges to be raised in order for ships to travel up and down the river. I had managed to reach the Neva just as the bridge was being raised. With no way round it I found a nearby bench and settled down with my suitcase for a cold wait, it was March and temperatures were still below zero.
And so belatedly I’m reaching the point of my story. While shivering away on that bench I attracted the attention of a rough looking local. Between his broken English and my pidgin Russian we managed to exchange the following personal details: that I was from Scotland and was visiting Russia for the first time, that he was homeless but in Soviet times had lived in a “Khrushchyovka”. I later found out that “Khrushchyovka” is the name given to a kind of apartment block, one which tends to be long and thin and generally not as tall as other Soviet housing blocks, and which were built when the Soviet Union was led by the Ukrainian Nikita Khrushchev. During the conversation he had offered me a can of beer which I had tried to refuse but he insisted until I accepted it. It was all he had with him so I had been reluctant to take it from him. It had occurred to me that it probably wasn’t just his last beer, there was a very good chance that, apart from the clothes he was wearing, it was his only possession in the whole world. The beer was an extra strong variety of some Russian brand, probably their equivalent of a “can of super”. It tasted like nothing else I’ve ever tasted, and I don’t mean that in a good way, but after drinking it I didn’t notice the cold anymore. His reasons for acting this way were simple, he gave me his can because he saw me shivering and because I was a visitor to his country and he wanted me to feel welcome. When the bridges finally came down again he walked with me to ensure I found my way this time, we made what conversation we could and said goodbye at the train station.
Reflecting on this encounter, I would come to realise that this stranger whom I met on the banks of the Neva was the personification of two lessons I have learned gradually over the course of my life. The first is that if you ever need to ask someone for help, ask the poor people. They are the ones who will help you. The rich don’t care about us or our problems. The second is that the Russian people are among the friendliest and most hospitable on the planet. Far from the xenophobic racist thuggish backward people that the Western media portrays them as, most Russian’s are literally delighted to meet foreigners and are proud to have any foreigners living in their community. My employers in Petrozavodsk even use the fact that they have a Scottish person working for them in their advertisements for the company!
This second lesson seems important now given the current situation in Ukraine, which is why I wanted to share it with you. The USA, having used oligarchs friendly to them, have successfully staged a coup in Kiev and inserted a puppet government with notions of joining the EU and NATO. When the current crisis started in the east of Ukraine early last year the Western media barely touched it, any coverage was sparse and half interested. It was like they thought it would all just go away and they could get on with celebrating the USA’s victory of regime change in Kiev. They simply had no idea of the extent to which the events in Kiev shook and traumatised the east of the country.
The media’s interest was aroused though when the self defence militias (as they were called at the time) started occupying government buildings and then whole towns and cities, but their focus lacked any real depth. They never spoke about the demographic make-up of Ukraine, the two countries in one scenario, the history of the current borders. There was no examination conducted of the background to the occupations, no reasons were offered. Even when referendums were called and massive voter turnouts displayed overwhelming support for ending Kiev rule, the western media still failed to give any in-depth analysis of what was happening in Novorossiya. That this was a grassroots and thoroughly local (at least to begin with) movement which arose spontaneously in reaction to the Kiev coup was never mentioned.
And it had to be like this. The West couldn’t admit that the militias were locals. To give recognition to the fact that there was massive public support for the militias in Eastern Ukraine would have weakened the case for Western support to Kiev, support we were told which was to “protect the territorial integrity” of Ukraine. (Never mind that the West has never really gave a toss about territorial integrity before, remember what they’ve done to Palestine? Or Yugoslavia? Or Ireland?) So what could they do? A familiar response, they lied.
The lie of “It’s the Russians!” has been used ever since. Of course, it is verging on inconceivable that Russia hasn’t found itself involved in this mess somehow, and they almost certainly are providing help of some degree or another to the militants in the east. But that has never been the real issue for those on the ground in Eastern Ukraine. They saw their government overthrown with the help of a foreign country, they saw an openly Fascist regime come to power, they saw their political parties banned, they saw themselves relegated to second class citizens in the eyes of the law (sub-human according to some of the new regime). So they did what any self respecting people would do; they rose up, threw off the oppressive regime and demanded self determination.
Our media will never tell this side of the story. The “Russia factor” is hard at work; it is a believable lie, one that is very effective on Western audiences who have been primed to see Russia as the enemy. That is why my encounter with the Russian on the banks of the Neva is so important to me. It is symbolic of the Russian character, the true Russian character of warmth, friendship and generosity. It is far removed from the image of Russians we are bombarded with through our TV screens and in our media. If everyone could see Russians this way I firmly believe there would be no appetite in the West for our governments’ reckless support of Kiev.
By portraying Russians as the evil enemy it deflects attention, and when attention is elsewhere those who would do evil will quite happily get on with doing it. That evil, as I write this, is killing innocent people in a long drawn out conflict which should never had happened in the first place. The Geneva Convention sets out in law a peoples’ right to self-determination. Referenda in the disputed regions made evident that there was an overwhelming demand for self determination. Kiev and the West cried that the referenda were not legitimate. That may be the case, but what is the correct response to illegitimate referenda? For me, the answer is to at the earliest possible opportunity conduct “legitimate” ones. Kiev’s response, which has been fully supported by the West, was to drop bombs on the civilian population of Eastern Ukraine and they continue to do so. They can do so because we are primed to see ethnic Russians as a backward savage people, and no one ever challenges their governments for punishing savage backward people.
There is an old Russian proverb, последнюю рубаху отдаст, which translates roughly as “will give you the last shirt one has”. It captures perfectly the character of the stranger I met on my first night in Russia, but it also captures the wider Russian spirit of generosity, their willingness to give help where required whatever the circumstances. Perhaps we could show the same generosity, by refusing to accept the image of Russians fed to us by the media, by seeing the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine as real people in need of support, and by demanding that our governments cease enabling Kiev’s vindictive and bloody assault on these regions.