Russia’s new year is far from happy. But helping refugees gives me purpose
OPINION: Like many Russians, I feel abandoned and lonely as 2023 begins. But we have important work to do
I always looked forward to New Year’s Eve in Russia, despite all the consumption and vulgarity associated with the holiday. For some reason, the apparent miracle of changing from one year to the next always won out over rational arguments that the turning of clock hands meant little.
This new year, though, everything was different. Ten months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, you feel either that you’re surrounded by enemies or by the ghosts of departed friends and relatives. Moving into 2023, the main feeling for many in Russia is loneliness.
On the eve of the holidays, I travelled to various cities across Russia, and talked to lots of different people: on trains, in taxis, in shops, at a garage and a government document centre. There was none of the usual holiday excitement. The general mood of depression seemed to affect everyone. Shop assistants didn’t pressure customers to buy. Employers didn’t wish their employees and clients “happiness and love” for the upcoming year, as they usually do.
But many people continue to do important work. Such as helping the millions of Ukrainians who have ended up in Russia as a result of the invasion – something that I’m involved in. Or feeding the homeless. Supporting one another. Defending political prisoners and writing letters to them.
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Tens of thousands of people are doing this work, but they have no representation. Russia’s human rights organisations have disappeared; some were closed down, but most left the country. The opposition’s political leaders – such as Alexey Navalny or Ilya Yashin – are in prison.
Even social welfare organisations are having a hard time: many of their leaders and regular donors are no longer in the country and cannot help in any way. Most of the employees of Russian social and cultural organisations are female now – after the invasion and mobilisation, there are almost no male employees left.
The sense of abandonment is overwhelming.
Anti-war activists targeted
The few people left in Russia who oppose Putin and his actions are under attack. Just before the new year, on 29 December, Russian law enforcement searched the homes of six anti-war activists across the country.
In Moscow, the police went after municipal deputies – local councillors who support the opposition. The apartment of former left-wing municipal deputy Sergey Tsukasov’s 88-year-old mother was searched, as were the homes of democratic socialist and former parliamentary candidate Mikhail Lobanov and former deputy Vladimir Zalishchak. No charges were brought. But Lobanov was beaten during the search, and then sentenced to 15 days in prison for “disobeying the lawful demands of police officers”.
In the city of Tyumen in western Siberia, searches were carried out at the homes of two journalists, Artur Galiyev and Nikita Kiforuk, and at the home of Rezeda Abasheva, former head of the local Alexey Navalny team, in Izhevsk in central Russia.
On the same day, blogger Vladislav Sinitsa, who was convicted of incitement during Moscow’s peaceful election protests in 2019, was put under investigation for expressing his anti-war position from inside prison.
Behind each of these news items are dozens of people in Russia: lawyers and activists who stand outside – and, if they’re lucky, inside – courthouses in support of people on trial. Then there are the support groups, such as volunteer-run advice hotlines for people detained by the police. This is the way Russia’s civic infrastructure has worked for a long time. But now that so many activists have left the country or been effectively gagged, the silence around that work is deafening.
Constant moral choice
One volunteer who helps Ukrainians in Russia summed up the year like this: it has been a constant moral choice. When to say something, and when to remain silent. Is it right to apply for a presidential grant? After all, it’s better to spend Russian public money on helping those in need, but, still, such a grant is disgusting. Should we pay our taxes? Our taxes, it seems, go to local budgets and not the Russian war effort – but still, God knows what they do with the money.
Also, what do you do when someone from Ukraine asks you for help with staying in Russia or getting a Russian passport? And if this is an older woman with limited mobility, who has relatives here?
Or if you find that one of the refugees is a man who beats his wife? Or what if one parent wants to take their child back to Ukraine, while the other wants to keep the kid in Russia? Or if someone wants to return to a place in Ukraine that is being bombed right now? And so it continues every day.
These are questions that don’t have answers. In fact, there are no answers at all. Each of us finds our own way of navigating this sea of endless unanswered questions.
Most of my conversations this new year have been with myself, and all about the same thing: where is your own border? The border of self-censorship, of cooperation, of inclusion.
For me, helping Ukrainians who ended up in Russia is a form of reparation. I am fond of this reparations formula. It saves me. Because it requires giving the help that people ask for. Not the help that is “morally correct”. Whatever people ask, you give – if you can. If you can’t help, for technical or other reasons, then do what you can.
Activists have other choices. They could make a solo protest for five minutes – but there is little point, and the risks are high. Some do end up making these gestures of desperation: for example, they take a Molotov cocktail, throw it at a military recruiting office and end up in prison. The Russian media have already reported the first arson protest of 2023 – on 1 January, in Moscow.
In the past, we Russians were taught to keep our dignity and face hard times with our heads held high. If you’re being beaten, there is a special strength in staying on your feet. I saw these small forms of self-preservation – and the inner heroism – in the memoirs of men and women sent to the Gulag under Stalin in the 1930s, and in my grandmother’s stories about the Christmas tree they put up during the Nazi siege of Leningrad in 1942.
Those times were different: then we were under attack – whether from state-run terror or external aggressors.
But today, we are the ones who attacked. And in Russia there is no heroism left, whether you stay or leave or go to prison or remain free.
Everyone is going into 2023 just as they will face their own death – alone, no matter how many people are around.
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