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Putin; War; Eastern Ukraine; MH17; Syria: probably the most common words used by our media when talking about Russia. Its recent military expansion and actions on the international stage have certainly helped to fuel this dangerous image. One would expect then, upon visiting the country, to find a veritable hive of soldiers and armaments, being readied to invade Eastern Europe.
Of course, Russia is a big country with many places to hide an army, however, when you visit ‘Ростов-на-Дону’, you will surely come across a hint of the aforementioned busy bees. This city, positioned only 60 miles (small by Russian standards) from the Eastern Ukrainian border, was: the first refuge of Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted Ukrainian President, when extracted by Russian Special Forces. It was also the hospital to a Donetsk rebel leader after an assassination attempt; and is home to the largest military base in the area, allegedly providing support to the rebels to their West.
Instead you find nothing, or rather, normal life. I stayed in this city twice last year, totaling two and a half months in Russia’s South-West. It is often easy to forget, now that as a nation we are once again supposed to be gripped by the fear of the Russian bear, that on the other side of the growing East-West divide live a people, dealing with the same tediousness of daily life as you and me.
The closest I came to the conflict, both spatially and figuratively, was upon visiting ‘Тамань’, a town separated from Crimea by only the 7 miles of the Kerch Strait. A convoy of cars with horns passed us with horns blaring, carrying the black, blue and red flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic. Apart from this, I know of only one other event, which I will mention later, that hinted to the battles across the border. Otherwise, the locals did not preoccupy themselves with a war that is not theirs; they have lives to live.
There is undeniably an anti-Ukrainian sentiment, drilled into them by the media, just as our feelings are often governed by what we are shown here. But these people are performing a (not very fun) balancing act. On one hand, what they hear from State news, the desire for Russia to be strong again, an aching for their lost Empire. On the other, a tumbling economy, in which war uses precious money during a time of raised prices, and, especially near Rostov, the family connections to Ukraine. They support the ‘сильная рука’ (iron fist) of Putin, so common in Russian leaders bringing greatness, yet are acutely aware he is also responsible for their current predicament.
To put it simply, behind the government’s posturing, there is a population of intelligent, compassionate human beings. People who I saw emptying their wardrobes, when they have so little, to provide clothes for the displaced families of Eastern Ukraine. Individuals who expressed only shock and empathy in the hours after the shooting down of MH17 only 25 miles from the border (the other event for which I was present that reminds of the nearby conflict). And an adoptive mother who fed me far too much of Russia’s extremely tasty cuisine: simple but delicious.
My time in Russia was marked by these lovely people and the fun experiences I had, from living history in an old Cossack village to swimming with wild dolphins in the warmth of the Black Sea, not by a cold Eastern giant we are made to distrust. The Russian Bear? More like Мишка – a protective, hard-wearing exterior, but at the heart, an endearing softness.
(The writer is sitting in the cloth in the centre. It is in Атамань, an old Cossack town, during a wedding festival. The tradition is that all entering the house must be swung in this cloth and then drink a shot of a home-made spirit.)
Written By: Alexander Caves
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham