CONVERSATIONS WITH PEOPLE IN RUSSIA: Three Amigos from Ukraine, Sanctions, Putin, and much more


August 12, 2015

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Alevtina Rea

“Haven’t you heard, it’s a battle of words …

And who’ll deny it’s what the fighting’s all

“Us and Them,” 1973

far as the other cultures are concerned, basically, we deal with “ultimately
unknown reality,” and the lack of either direct involvement or mere curiosity
on our part is manna from heaven to our respective governments. It is exactly
why a bunch of arrogant and ignorant politicians – at least some of them who
serve the ignominious interests of global domination – feel free to manipulate
their constituencies without the slightest twinge of conscience. One of my
favorite philosophers, Jacques Ellul, said, in his book On
Freedom, Love and Power
(expanded edition), “We live as if the reality we have come to know and live is reality
itself, minus some details yet to be discovered and lived. … In other words, we
have extrapolated what we know and live to include, in principle, all of
reality, thereby leaving no place for anything that is radically ‘other.’” As
in Plato’s parable about the cave, political manipulators are only eager to
cast the shades on the back wall of our “caves” to draw our attention away from
the immense world outside of our voluntary “imprisonment.” And we are the ones
who allow confining ourselves in Procrustean bed of distorted reality and,
thus, “leaving no place for” – or not accepting – “anything that is radically other.”

Given the prevailing Russophobic fad that took place in the West in the
last few years, one may wonder how to really wade through the thick propaganda
and the constant lies that are being mounted on Russia and its leaders. How
should one make sense of something that if not entirely “other” but still is
not “our” way of life? Obviously, the best way to find truth is go to the
source, so to speak – to visit this country and talk to people who live there,
find out their views and thoughts on what is transpiring nowadays, as far as
their lives are concerned. During my trip to Russia this June-July, I was curious
to see with my own eyes how the Russians handle the impact of economic
sanctions imposed by the West. I was in Moscow in the summer of 2014 and saw
how happy and prosperous the Muscovites were back then. One year later: what
has changed under harsh pressure on Russia, in an effort to bend the country
politics to the Western politicians’ will?

Upon my immediate arrival, still in the airport, I had a
chance to speak with the head of a young family standing behind me in the
customs line. The three of them – a husband, wife, and their son – were coming
back after living in the United States for four months. The young man was a
computer tech who had a chance to work at Microsoft in Seattle. He was quite
excited to go back home. They definitely seemed to miss Russia. I was curious
to hear his opinion about the effect of the sanctions and what he thinks about
the U.S.-Russian current confrontation. The guy was very clear – he himself and
all his friends support Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Obviously, they
noticed the economic effect of the Western bullying – the prices on some food
items soared – but all in all everyone copes. Most of what the sanctions
caused, he said, is to unite the Russians – they understand the unfairness of
it all and, for the most part, they are disappointed in the West’s stand,
especially in the U.S. one. It is quite obvious to all who is the mastermind of
a current hostility. “Americans, as people, they are ok,” he said. “But we
don’t like the Obama administration!”


 Incidentally, my arrival in Moscow on June 12th had happened
on big Russian holiday – the Russia Day. The celebration on the Red Square, the
firework, the throngs of happy people everywhere – I guess, it was all
predictable and expected, to some degree, but still very pleasant to see. One
year later, despite the sanctions, the economic hardship that followed, and in
spite of the Obama administration’s dedicated efforts to cause some harm to
Russia, its people are still happy and they know how to enjoy life!

In the next few weeks, the conversations with people of
various ages in Moscow and elsewhere demonstrated that they had more or less accepting
attitudes toward the sanctions while feeling a kind of indignation toward the
West, mostly the United States. Yes, the prices were soaring and they noticed
that their money was much easier to spend these days, but, at the same time,
they do ok. For the most part, they all support Russia, condemn the American
“exceptionalism” that is so brazenly put on display by the U.S president – while
all sort of international gangsterism being committed by his country around the
globe – and they support Vladimir Putin. It was way overdue for Russia to have
such a strong and wise president who puts Russia’s interests first and who has brought
a lot of stability and – for many – even economic prosperity, especially in big
cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, and others. However, a few voiced
their concern that while they are proud of the Russian international stand,
they think that, definitely, there is not enough being done to improve the
lives of ordinary Russians. The misuse of public power for personal gain is
rampant, especially where public funds are concerned.

For example, in the city of Cheboksary, the capital of
the Chuvash Republic, one year ago I was told that a public school would be
built by a cluster of the new fancy houses that popped up by the Volga River in
the last few years. The place for school was allocated, the plans were all in
place – the school was really needed for all the local kids around. And here I
am, 12 months passed, and where is the school, or at least any sign of the construction?
The sight is still the same – the shallow ravine, the aspen grove, and things
have not budged an inch. What are the people saying? They think that the money
was embezzled by the officials. I was told, “If they managed to steal 92
billion rubles (or $1.8 billion) from the new cosmodrome project in the Far
East, no wonder the funds for the school were missed.” For those who don’t know
about this reference, Vostochny Cosmodrome is an ambitious $3 billion
government project intended to guarantee Russia’s independent access to space.
Earlier this year, it became public that more than half of this money has been apparently
embezzled. So, you get the picture. Unfortunate as it is, corruption is still
an ever-humming leitmotif in Russian life, especially when the governmental
funds are concerned. And it appears the people are well aware of it.

Were there any real critics of Putin’s Russia, one might
wonder? Frankly, I have encountered only three of those who offered a harsh
criticism. There was an older gentlemen in his 80s, who just cannot forgive
Putin’s attempt to destroy Chechen terrorists wherever they were found,
including in toilets. Since then, this gentleman projects his dislike of
Putin’s words to any of his actions, whether in Russia or abroad. When, back
then, Putin promised “to pluck out the remaining terrorists from the bottom of
a sewer,” it didn’t fare well with some of the Russian people. However, while I
condemn any violence that was exhibited on both sides – the Chechen and the
Russian one – it seems to me that the Chechen excessive violence toward the
civilian population in Russia was an urgent issue to deal with back the
situation at that time. Perhaps the cruel means of suppression were the only
ones workable given the circumstances, especially the fact that the Chechen
insurgents were trained and otherwise supported by the United States.

Furthermore, the situation in Chechnya back then was
different than it is in Ukraine today. After all, the self-defense forces of
the Donbass region do not commit any atrocities against Ukrainian civilians;
they do not hold any kids and women as hostages; they don’t impose an economic
blockade on civilians; and they did not even start this military conflict – it
is the current Kiev regime that started the so-called anti-terrorist operation
against the “separatists and terrorists” residing in the east of Ukraine,
without even making any effort to negotiate with them; it is the Kiev junta and
its president, Mr. Poroshenko, who have ordered the use of shells, mortars, and
even rocket launcher fire while dealing with residential areas. So, while
judging Putin’s decisions on the Crimea and Ukraine in general, I would not
hold the Chechen war against him.

Two other critics belonged to younger generation, and
their denunciations of Putin were also of a more or less personal matter. The
middle-aged man was disappointed that there is not enough attention given in
the present day to the victims of Stalin’s repressions. If in the past it was a
dangerous enterprise to research the topic and publish the results, nowadays, there
is almost palpable disinterest to reveal all the details. It is not needed,
many say. In fact, there are numerous efforts to whitewash the Stalin terror,
to revise history in his favor, so to speak. Certain gatekeepers on the political
scene are doing their best to filter information or divert attention to
something more easily accepted and agreed upon. Thus, the millions of those who
were killed during the years of Stalin terror have become political ghosts
sacrificed on the altar of the Soviet ideology of the past, and, ironic as it
is, they are still being neglected in the capitalist Russia of today. In this
way, I would agree that the certain cynicism of the state power is always in
place, alas.

third critic was incensed because of the “gay propaganda” law prohibiting “the
promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships” as far as the Russian
children and youth are concerned. The young woman in her early 30s thinks that
there are detrimental effects of this law. Many young people of
“non-traditional” orientation have neither a place to go, to meet with the
like-wise friends, nor the opportunity to share their frustrations and worries.
In consequence, they feel as outcasts and, as she said, the suicide rate among
the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) youth is high.

As reported by
Wikipedia, “Although same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults in
private was decriminalized in 1993, same-sex couples and households headed by
same-sex couples are ineligible for the legal protections available to
opposite-sex couples and there are currently no laws prohibiting discrimination
regarding sexual orientation.” Whereas I don’t have much to offer in terms of
evaluation of this law, I regret if the banning of the promotion of “non-traditional”
sexual relations has resulted in the lack of services offered to LGBT
population, in outlawing of almost any expression of support for gay rights,
and in cases of harassment. However, as it is the case with Chechnya, I won’t
hold Putin personally accountable for this unfortunate state of affairs.

Thus said, it is
also possible that the reaction to this law is overly exaggerated in the West.
For example, as Jack Hanick writes in his article, “The U.S. Media are Failing
in Their Reporting on Russia” (published by Russia
), “The punishment for breaking this law is a fine of less than
$100. Double-parking a car in Moscow carries a heavier fine of $150.
Nonetheless the reaction was overwhelming against Russia. The
boycott of the Sochi Olympics was the West’s way of discrediting Russia. Russia
saw this boycott as an aggressive act by the West to interfere with its
internal politics and to embarrass Russia. Sochi was for Russians a great
source of national pride and had nothing to do with politics.” Here we go, as
some of us see it again and again, the distortion of reality is blatant and

Ordinary tribulations

At the end of June, I had a chance to visit Kazan, a capital of the
Tatar Autonomous Republic. Also, Kazan is one of the Russian cities where the
FIFA competitions ought to run in 2018, provided that Russia will retain its
right on this prestigious championship. The first glance on the city shows that
this capital is more rich and better tended than, for example, the
neighbor-city Cheboksary, a capital of the Chuvash Republic. Incidentally, it
is not such a surprise because the Republic of Tatarstan has more money, due to
the simple fact that it has a plenty of oil and gas. “Money-money-money, money
makes the world go around, of that we can be sure …,” as the song in the film Cabaret goes.

The architecture around the downtown is quite impressive and
makes the walk on the streets of the city quite an aesthetic adventure. Kazan
is definitely the city where the East meets the West. On the territory of
Kremlin, the Islam mosque is located next to Christian churches, symbolizing
the peaceful co-existence. Per Wikipedia, “originally, the mosque was built in
the Kazan Kremlin in the 16th century. It was named after Qolşärif, who served
there. Qolşärif died with his numerous students while defending Kazan from
Russian forces in 1552. … Since 1996 the mosque has been rebuilt in Kazan
Kremlin, although its look is decisively modern. Its inauguration on July 24,
2005, marked the beginning of celebrations dedicated to the Millennium of
Kazan. It can accommodate 6,000 worshipers. Several countries contributed to
the fund that was set up to rebuild Qolşärif Mosque, namely Saudi Arabia, and
United Arab Emirates. Qolşärif is considered to be one of the most important
symbols of Tatar aspirations.”

Not too far from the Kremlin is a pedestrian Bauman Street,
located in the heart of the city. Beside the architectural delight of the
buildings fencing the street on both sides, there are such landmarks as the
church and the bell tower of the Epiphany, Shalyapin monument, the building of
the National Bank, a drama theater, a monument to the Cat of Kazan, the zero
meridian, Catherine’s coach, alley of national stars, and even a huge stature
of Gulliver that dwarfs any of the bystanders. Also, there are many boutiques,
which are, obviously, not for the average folks. Passing by one of those
stores, my eyes caught an attractive summer dress displayed in the window-shop.
I peeked in, if only out of curiosity. “How much this dress cost?” I asked. The
answer has cooled off my expectations – it was available for 54,000 rubles, or
approximately $1,000. Ok, I thought, if not this dress but maybe this necklace,
made of multicolor opaque glass? Well, its price was 27,000 rubles, half of the
dress. Just to give you an idea about its “accessibility” for ordinary people,
it is important to know that the minimum pension in Russia is about
$6,000-7,000 rubles – depending in what region people live. As to those who
work, I was told that some of the hard-working people in Chelyabinsk, for
example, earn only 7,000 rubles per month. Chelyabinsk is located beyond the
Ural Mountains, in the Asian part of Russia. People who live in the European
part of Russia are better off, as it seems, but just slightly so. One of the
locals in Kazan, my friend and a former classmate in the university, earns only
17,000 rubles a month – and she is a lead nurse, thus, earning more than most
of her co-workers. To buy such a dress, they have to work almost four months –
meanwhile, not paying for anything else.

My cousin, who works in one of the banks in Ulyanovsk – a home
of Vladimir Lenin – fares better than my friend-nurse. Her monthly wage is 40,000
rubles. So, the way I see it, the financial sector provides a much more
lucrative career than vocation in medical field. The educators are somewhere in
between. For example, an academic in Chuvash State University earns only 25,000
rubles. Whereas the Soviet times were marked by more or less even distribution
of wealth – the doctors, bank employees, and educators earned enough money for
a decent life – the capitalism in Russia has a predatory face.

Life in Russia under Putin has improved significantly – as
recent IMF data indicates, “From 2000 to 2006, the Russian middle class grew
from 8 million to 55 million. The number of families living below poverty line
decreased from 30 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2008.” But still, the state
sector has meager remunerations compared with the private field. Those who work
for private companies and the business owners themselves are especially much
better off than the rest of the Russian population. The way I see it, the
disparity in earnings and the style of life is a prominent feature of the
modern Russian society. Definitely, there is a chasm between the rich, the
poor, and those in between. Most of the average folks live ok, though, provided
that they have families to support one another. Therefore, the family
connection and the friends support are a must.

Ukraine and the
Ukrainians: “the demolition of false pretenses”

As far as Ukraine is concerned, the concerted efforts of western
governments and their minions in the mass media led to the fact that “what passes
for truth” is very often false, or at least distorted to such a degree that it
seems ludicrous to those in the know or to those immediate participants who
didn’t let themselves to be inebriated by excessive propaganda. As Zygmunt
Bauman once said, “How quixotic to debunk the distortion in the representation
of reality once no reality claims to be more real than its representation.”
Nevertheless, the debunking of the distortion is what I strive for.

My recent trip to St. Petersburg was marked by a fascinating
conversation about Ukraine, Russia, and beyond. My train companions were three
young, husky guys. As I discovered it later, all three of them were from
Ukraine, from Kherson region but from different towns. Obviously, I was curious
to talk to them about the situation in Ukraine, so I was the one who initiated
the chat. First, I was curious if they are tired to be asked about Ukraine all
the time. But they didn’t mind, and, as it seemed to me, they were even glad to
share their thoughts. Oleg, Valera, and Kolya – those were their names. Kolya
was the most talkative one. He said that he got summons to the army, but he has
escaped to Russia, almost immediately. The declaration of hostility against his
brothers Slavs in the east of Ukraine didn’t fare well with him. People from
his hometown – even some of his friends – asked him, why he didn’t go to war in
the Donbass. But he was very clear about it. “Why should I?” he said. “For
whose interests and for whom should I go there, for the greedy oligarchs? I
don’t want to kill!”

Oleg and Valera were in the same boat – they were drafted and
they also didn’t want to fight against their own people. Basically, all three
of them have had become fugitives: they cannot live in their respective towns
anymore, they had to leave behind whatever life they had before Maidan (the
February 2014 coup) and start their careers anew. Luckily, they found a good
job in Russia – they are part of a roof team (where three of them met one
another and became friends), travel from one place to another, and build new
roofs for their employer. They are well taken care of – their employer pays for
their rent in whatever city they work and for transportation between the
cities, when they travel to their next destination. For example, their train
tickets were paid for, the taxi fare to their apartment in St. Petersburg will
be paid when they arrive, and they don’t need to worry about the rent. Three
weeks in St. Petersburg – and they will earn about $1,000 (about 55,000 rubles
each – which is much more than some university professors earn). Not such a bad

in all, they like their new life – after all, they have a chance to send enough
money to their families in Ukraine to support their loved ones. Back home,
people struggle to survive, they said. Utilities went up ten to fifteen times.
All prices have skyrocketed. Not enough work too. Some of the coal mines are
held in conservation, because there are not enough funds to develop them. Every
three months, these young Ukrainians have to risk by going back home – the
current Russian law allows them to work in Russia only for three months, but
then they have to re-enter the country. “Aren’t you afraid you will be snatched
on and sent to the army?” I asked. “No,” Valera said, “We could always pay a
bribe – $250 can buy the path to freedom.” Also, he thinks that those who went
to the army were from the country side, not educated, and they were threatened
into submission. He, for one, is well educated (a degree in jurisprudence) and
he knows his rights. Because he served in the army already, he could be sent to
the army only when Ukraine impose martial law. Because this hasn’t happened
yet, he is sure that no one can make him fight for the sake of the oligarchs.

do you think about the Right Sector (notorious neo-Nazi group, marked by
extreme violence)?” I asked. Kolya was very quick to answer – “Bastards!” he
blurted out. These monsters were in the Kherson region for a while and brought
a regime of terror to his town. “They are all well paid,” he said. “For money,
they are ready for whatever.” – “Did they kill in your city?” – “I don’t know
about killing, but they beat some people severely. And I know about it not from
some people but I felt it on my own skin.” Frankly, I didn’t feel comfortable
to probe for more information in this regard, but my understanding was that he
was badly beaten himself. However, he said that lately the situation was taken
under control – whoever is in charge of these neo-Nazis, it seemed they sent
them to another place. And why? Because, if they were to continue with their
tactics of terror and intimidation, then the whole south of Ukraine would rebel
– and then the hell will break loose for sure.

is your opinion of Putin and Russia?” I was curious to hear. The answer was
positive regarding either. “We like Putin,” Kolya said. “I have heard that
Putin has proposed to extend the three-month stay to one year,” which would be
very good for all Ukrainians who work in Russia. Then, they don’t have to risk
by going back home every three months. As to Russia, this young man thinks that
these two peoples, Ukrainian and Russian, are the brother-nations. Why should
one fight for the oligarchs’ sake? As to the United States, these guys think
that people in Ukraine are not hostile to Americans in general, but they know
it well that the U.S. politicians are the ones who incited the flame of hatred
and warfare and who are planning to grab the fertile black soils of Ukraine
(Monsanto’s planning to get hold of their fertile soils). Also, they know that
the West doesn’t care about the common folks in Ukraine – they follow the
money, so to say, and they act according to their interests only. At the same
time, Kolya said that they hate Yatsenyuk (currently, Ukrainian prime minister
and also he is one of the Maidan instigators) and Co., the U.S. puppets who are
selling Ukraine to the Western companies and make profits themselves while
doing this ignominious deed. All in all, they fill their pockets with money at the expense of the people.

was also curious to hear their opinion about Bandera (the Nazi collaborator
during WW II) and why he is so popular in Ukraine. Kolya said that it is very
simple, “People don’t think and they believe what they are told. Someone said
that Bandera is a hero and, when it is repeated many times, people tend to
believe that. No one knows the real truth anyway,” he said. “We don’t even know
what to believe in anymore.” The silence took place after this phrase. I was
thinking that I cannot even offer any adequate answer to this lack of beliefs.
The young generation of Ukraine is definitely confused and even tired of the
lies that are being piled up by all the corrupt politicians they had all their
lives, basically. Kolya broke the silence at last. “My granddad went through
World War II, until Berlin, and he was wounded only once, not too seriously.
However, he fought for three years after the war, he fought against the Bandera
bands in Ukraine, and he was wounded three more times even if, officially, the
war was over.” He was proud of his grandpa, and I was proud of him keeping the
memory of his hero-grandfather and also understanding what the latter was
fighting against, as well as keeping his head together in the current times of
turmoil and confusion and not willing to fight against his own people in the
Donbass. Before Maidan, Kolya had his own business back home, but he had lost
everything and started his new life by escaping the rabid nationalism and
Russophobia of current Ukrainian politicians, earning money in Russia, and
helping his family the best way he can.

time, he asked me, “Do you know how the Maidan had started?” No, I had to
admit. Kolya said that there was a group of students who came out with the
banners for Euro-integration. But they were brutally dispersed. Who gave such
an order? Who were those people who beat them up back then? Perhaps those were the
Special Forces militants in disguise and perhaps this was a false flag
operation, he said. Somehow, he knew that later on, when the crowds were taken
to Maidan, they all were paid good money. Those who were in the front rows were
paid handsomely, 2,000 hryvnias per day (back then, it was almost $800 or even
more). Who paid this money? The West, Kolya thinks. He himself was offered 800
hryvnias to be on Maidan and participate in the protests. But why, he said. “I
didn’t want to sell my country!” But those who did? “They are as a flock of
sheep. They don’t care – they get paid, and they don’t care what will happen

all three of them greatly impressed me. This conversation was as a breeze of a
fresh air, for it helped me to realize that there are some young people in
Ukraine who don’t get fooled by whatever amount of propaganda is being tossed
at them; who don’t let themselves to be bullied into killing their own people
on the east of Ukraine; who see through their politicians nefarious goals and
know better. After all, there is always a choice, and it is up to us which path
we choose. As one of the songs goes, “there is a dawn in every darkness; there
is a hope in every pain.”

addition to these guys, I have also had a chance to talk to a middle-aged woman
from Ukraine about what it feels like to live over there. Originally, she is
from Chernigov, the central part of Ukraine, but she has lived in Moscow for
two decades at least. However, every summer she visits her homeland, to take
care of her mom and spend time with the rest of the family. In our
conversation, this woman told me that all the people she knows in Chernigov are
completely zombified by the local TV. They watch the news diligently, they
don’t like the fact that she lives in Russia, they accuse Russia in starting
the war in the Donbass region, and they don’t even want to hear anything of the
sort that it is the other way around – the substitution of reality is complete,
and any intimations of the truth are being filtered.

she prefers not to talk to them about Russia at all, and every evening, when
everybody else sits in front of TV screens, she goes for a walk. Even the fact
that people in Russia are better off, especially after the coup, is held
against the neighboring country too. The life for ordinary Ukrainians these
days is riddled with disappointment, the animosity toward anything Russian,
hatred in general and toward Putin in particular (as he is at the root of all
evil!), and survival, survival, survival. I asked how they manage to say
afloat, so to speak. The woman told me that every available piece of land is
taken to grow vegetables and berries. Basically, the ordinary Ukrainians just
deal with whatever limitations they may have by doing what their ancestors did
– growing their own food – and also growling at the neighbors who have nothing
to do with their trouble at home. The whole state of mind of those who live
there leaves the bad taste in her mouth, she said. And this is the native
Ukrainian, mind you!


The overt distortion of reality is what we mostly see as
far as Russia and Ukraine are concerned. Notorious lies spread by the West and
their Ukrainian puppets are so prevalent that even Ukrainians themselves don’t
know what to think, who the heroes are, and whom to believe. Some have chosen
to believe in whatever their politicians feed them with. Some others, as those
three young guys from Ukraine I had a chance to interview, took the other path
– instead of killing their own brethren, they moved to Russia where they built
their new lives and, meanwhile, support their families at home. Some of us have
chosen to follow the steps of Theodor Adorno, German philosopher, “who was
allergic to the power-relations involved in propaganda” (Ben Watson). For him,
to condone “using something as imbalanced as the mass media to put over a
‘progressive message’ is to agree with manipulation.”

It is definitely not easy to go against the Juggernaut of
the Western mass media lies, but this is what we have to do, as it seems. As
John Milton said, in Paradise Lost,
“Long is the way and hard that out of hell leads up to light.” More often than
not we have to take a stance on issues to which the rest of the world – at
least its Western part – remains ignorant, indifferent, and unaware of. The
chaos of life in Ukraine is often blamed on Russia, but the real culprits – in
Ukraine and in the West – deflect the blame, dodge accountability, and get off
scot-free. At least so far…

In regards to Russia – yes, as commonly agreed, there is
not enough done to improve the lives of ordinary Russians, but still, the
Russians are proud of the independent steps that their country is taking in the
world these days, the steps that part with the Western dictate. The economic
pressure of the Western sanctions is making their lives harder, but they stand
firm. They are proud of Putin – the first president in the long run that people
could be proud of because he has the Russian interests at his heart. All in
all, according to what I heard and saw in Russia this summer, the bonds of
unifying stand against the Western bullying are what draw people together,
tighter and tighter, in their support of their own country and their truth. And,
in the end, the effort to spread their truth, their stance, is the main purpose
of this piece. As Spinoza once pointed out, “if I know the truth and you are
ignorant” – as the majority in the West are, as far as Russia is concerned –
“to make you change your thoughts and ways is my moral obligation; refraining
from doing so would be cruel and selfish.”

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