Yorkshire-born Helen Womack spent three decades in Russia working as a reporter for English-language publications. In this guest post, she asks: How do you write about people who have become “the enemy”?
Photo: In happier times: Helen Womack outside the Kremlin, although clouds were on the horizon. Probably taken in the early Putin period, ie early 2000s.
In my career as a journalist, I was to some extent also a diplomat, building bridges between cultures. For 30 years, I reported from Moscow, informing British and Australian readers about Russia, while helping the Russians I met to understand the West.
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, there was much mutual interest, if not a love affair between East and West. Gradually, the relationship became more pragmatic.
But with the war in Ukraine, the bridge to Russia has collapsed completely.
Some Russians are still on my wavelength but most are out of reach now. If before the war, I might have been willing to listen to their grievances, now my patience is at an end. I cannot be an apologist for Putin’s aggression.
Photo: Prepared for work: Helen in two coats and ready to face the elements in Moscow on a typical winter's "very cold day".
The irony is that in denying Ukraine’s existence, Russia has cancelled itself.
With his war, Putin has not only trashed Russia’s reputation as a righteous victor in the Second World War but also killed outside interest in Russian culture. We are not cancelling Tchaikovsky or Chekhov, of course, but what future does Russian culture have? What works of beauty or inspiration can we look forward to after Bucha and Mariupol?
For those who have dedicated their whole lives to the study of Russia, this is a catastrophe. I have a Hungarian friend who teaches Russian. Nobody wants lessons now. She is at a loss, feeling her life’s work is wasted.
Photo: Helen in Suzdal, a historic Russian town founded in approximately AD 1000 which now forms the smallest of the so-called Golden Ring towns. It is home to numerous monuments and architectural treasures
I made my living and my name by writing about ordinary Russians. When I arrived in Moscow in 1985, I saw that many Western journalists still stuck to the diplomatic and expat circuit but I couldn’t do that. Inspired by Hedrick Smith, the American author of The Russians, I went out to meet Russians and even married one.
Through the Yeltsin years, I wrote a column for The Independent called Samotechny Lane, about my neighbours and how they were coping with economic reform. My editor initially had doubts about running such a column.
“Won’t it just be a catalogue of misery?” he said.
But it wasn’t. Although I wrote about pianists-turned-estate agents and astrophysicists selling cat food, it was a celebration of resilience, the human spirit always shining through.
I wrote with love and humour – love for the Russians and self-deprecating jokes about the stupid foreigner (me) at large in this fascinating and mysterious country.
To give you just one example… A character who appeared often in the story was Lyosha, my neighbour Tanya’s son, who was a bit of a tearaway. He and his mates were called the “bad lads”.
At this turbulent time, we were being told not to open our doors to strangers. One very frosty evening, someone rang my doorbell. I looked through the spy hole and saw a rough-looking man in a ginger fur hat. “Phari!” he bellowed. I was not going to open the door to him.
After a couple of hours, it dawned on me that phari is the Russian word for headlamps. Here was a kind neighbour, trying to tell me that I had parked my car and left the headlamps switched on. I rushed downstairs to find that my battery was flat.
The next morning Lyosha and the bad lads were towing my car up and down the street on a rope, trying to get the engine started. Everyone was laughing.
Sadly, there is little to laugh about now.
In 2014, I was blacklisted as a “pathological Russophobe” on an extremist website. A year later, the Foreign Ministry refused to renew my accreditation, not expelling me exactly but making it impossible for me to continue working as a journalist in Russia.
So I came to Budapest, where I reinvented myself and started writing about refugees.
How can I speak about Russians now? Should I do it at all?
I am sorry, of course, for the Russians who are ignorant of history and blinded by propaganda; for those who are lying low because they think they can’t change anything; for those who are afraid.
I have no sympathy for those using casuistry and “whataboutism” to justify the unjustifiable. They will wake one day with a terrible hangover.
That leaves the “true patriots” of whom I can and will speak – those who are in exile, in prison or dead.
The last story I covered before leaving Russia in 2015 was the assassination of the former deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov. He was shot in the back while walking over a bridge within sight of the Kremlin. The killers were caught but as always the mastermind got away with it.
There was a second, less famous victim – one Ivan Skripnichenko, who was fatally punched while guarding flowers at a makeshift memorial for Nemtsov.
Photo: Ordinary - but equally extraordinary - Russians in the queue of mourners at the funeral of murdered former deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, 3rd March, 2015.
I attended Nemtsov’s funeral. It was heartbreaking.
One teacher had travelled all the way from the provincial city of Tver, 180 km north-west of Moscow,to lay two red roses on Nemtsov's coffin.
"After this," she said, "I will go home and close my door and shut my mouth. All hope is lost."
Briefly allowed back to Russia in 2018, I covered the “election” of Vladimir Putin for a fourth term as president. It was a particularly snowy winter and Muscovites had discovered a clever way to get the municipal workers to come and clear their yards. They spray painted the name “Navalny” on the snowdrifts and promptly men in padded jackets arrived to shovel away this mention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Of course, since then, the authorities have found crueller ways to shovel away Navalny. After they failed to kill him by putting novichok poison in his underpants, they are now holding him in a jail within a jail, hoping he might die and be forgotten.
And what of the exiles? Some are actually, physically in exile, like my friend, an Orthodox priest who bravely attended court proceedings to stand up against the banning of Russia’s oldest human rights organisation, Memorial. He now lives in Georgia.
Many more Russians have gone into “internal exile”, meaning they still live in Russia and quietly disagree. These are the people who have blacked out their Facebook profiles in silent protest.
As in Hungary, the Russian opposition is very divided and it is disheartening to see them arguing among themselves as to who are the “good Russians”.
But it is with these Russians that the West might start to rebuild bridges after the war, assuming, that is, decent Russians can build some bridges among themselves.
Helen Womack is the author of The Ice Walk: Surviving the Soviet Break-Up and the New Russia, a memoir of life in Russia under three Kremlin leaders.
Photo credits: Anonymous - alas, Helen can't remember who took the pics.