Last week I received a farewell letter from a friend, a Muscovite who I will call “Lena”. We will probably never see each other again, she wrote, so I just want you to know two things: First, that I love you very much. And second, that there are a lot of us here who never wanted this.
A week earlier, Russia had invaded Ukraine, unleashing the largest military assault on a European country since the second world war. The west responded with a fusillade of sanctions to isolate Russia and cripple its economy. Lena and her friends, a band of liberal intellectuals, found their lives turned upside down.
Since the start of the invasion, international attention has rightly focused on the plight of Ukrainians caught up in the war: the inhabitants of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol subjected to remorseless Russian shelling. Aid groups describe siege tactics of almost medieval barbarity. Some 2mn have fled.
Yet Vladimir Putin is also waging war against his own people — at least the minority who have always hated him. This embattled group of pro-western Russians are collateral damage. They risk disappearing behind a new iron curtain that could cut them off from the world for good.
“I grew up in the Soviet Union and only ever wanted to live a normal life — to work . . . travel, drink delicious wine,” Lena wrote, in the 150-word message, bashed out on Facebook. “God knows, these weren’t exactly wild aspirations. But even they have now been taken from me . . . I watch, rigid with fear and shame, as my world collapses and rockets land on Kyiv . . . Where did we go wrong? Is it our fault? I just don’t know.”
She was writing as rumours swirled in Moscow that the Kremlin was poised to declare martial law and close Russia’s borders. A new law came into force threatening jail terms of up to 15 years for spreading “fake news”. That triggered a sudden exodus of both Russian and foreign journalists, terrified of ending up in prison for reporting the truth.
There were other fears, too — that the government would soon start conscripting all men of fighting age. Lena’s friends were frantically trying to send their sons to safety, to Georgia, Latvia, Istanbul. She said she couldn’t leave: how could she abandon her elderly mother? And her children and grandchildren didn’t have the necessary papers. If she couldn’t take them with her, she wouldn’t go.
I’ve known Lena for more than 30 years. We met in Moscow in 1991, when the Soviet Union still existed, and quickly became close friends. She is typical of her generation: a lively, intelligent, curious person who grew up under Communism and was determined to exploit the freedoms democracy brought. She travelled widely, expanding her world, which now seems to be narrowing again to a vanishing point. “It’s pure Orwell,” she wrote.
Another friend, let’s call him “Dima”, has fled to western Europe. A successful businessman who built up a thriving service company in 1990s Moscow, he says he’ll never go back now. His firm’s money, and that of its customers, is stuck in banks under sanctions; it can’t service its debts, and it will probably have to declare bankruptcy.
“I’ve lost everything and have to start my life here from scratch,” he wrote to me. Dima says he’s in favour of sanctions and is prepared to pay a personal price to see Putin punished. But he adds that they’re a double-edged sword, causing the most hurt for the 20 per cent of Russians who were always against Putin.
“It’s the Europeanised Russians, the ones who constantly travelled to Europe, used Spotify and watched Netflix who are suffering most,” he says of the wave of corporate boycotts that are stripping Russia of many of the trappings of 21st-century life. “The hardcore Putin voters don’t even know what Netflix is.”
Covering the war from Lviv in the west of Ukraine, I struggle to describe the horrors this war is conjuring up. But in the back of my mind I find myself constantly worrying about my Moscow friends — especially Lena and her family — and the catastrophe they face.
“You know, I’m not the kind of person who is prone to panic,” she wrote to me. “But what’s strange is that these days I feel sick, all the time. It’s like I’m in a nightmare. And I can’t wake up.”