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Do You Have a Moment to Talk about the War?

Anna Ryzhkova
Christmas tree in front of ruined buildings in Ukraine
Украшенная елка в разрушенном войной украинском городе. A decorated Christmas tree in front of a war-torn Ukrainian city.

“Hello, do you have a moment to talk about the war?” 


This question is the essence of what Russian independent journalists have been doing since spring 2022. We knock on doors only to have them shut in our faces—figuratively, of course. These days we “knock” on people’s doors using email or phone calls. Most of us have fled Russia because working for independent media has been effectively criminalized.


I began my own virtual canvassing almost as soon as I left the country. Over a year and a half later, phone conversations with those directly affected by the war constitute my professional routine.


Who are the people I talk to? A lawyer from Kyiv who used her own Jeep to flee the shelling and a few months later found herself cleaning stables in a Polish village for free. A man from Rostov who offered room and board to a female refugee from Mariupol in exchange for an intimate relationship. A contract soldier from Sakhalin who changed his mind about fighting in this war on the first day of deployment and ended up a prisoner of war of his own army. A mercenary from Kursk who returned to Ukraine twice because he “couldn’t stop” and couldn’t cope with insomnia, which plagued him in civilian life. 


These and a hundred other personal stories. Every conversation helps one understand something new about wartime violence. But I increasingly feel weird treating war as a subject of research, in which I try to record, confirm, estimate, and prove something with the help of “respondents” who themselves are not looking to talk to a journalist and may even fear it. The facts I collect will eventually become important testimony, but will they help anyone? 


Talking to the Desperate and Traumatized


Take, for instance, this story from April 2022: Katerina Zaripova, from the town of Yasnogorsk in the Tula region, comes to pick up her sons from kindergarten and notices stickers with the letter Z—Russia’s war symbols—on the building’s windows. She rips them off and ends up in court. “Your mom is a Batman,” she tells her boys, and these words become the title of our piece. Within twenty-four hours, our readers raise enough money to pay her fine and cover the lawyer’s fees. Katerina’s proud husband tells our editor in chief that he’s got the word “awesome” on his mind the whole time. But Z stickers soon reappear—now on the gates of the kindergarten and on the children’s lockers. And to Katerina, it seems that neighbors cross the street when they see her. “I read the news and don’t talk to anyone but my husband,” she wrote to me recently. 


Or this story from August 2022: Two grandmothers, one in Mariupol and another in Vinnytsia, are looking for their missing granddaughter, four-year-old Nastya, and her parents. A missile hit their apartment building and the young family vanished. The grandmothers can’t find them, either among the dead or the evacuees, or among those who had hid in the basement. How does one search for a missing child in the midst of war without losing hope? These two grannies will describe that to me in excruciating detail. Two years in a row, these elderly women in Mariupol and Vinnytsia buy birthday gifts for their granddaughter and store them in a closet. The war has left them no clue as to whether she is alive or dead. 


May 2023: “Tell me, are you a Russkie? Memories are all I have left of Mariupol, and I don’t want Ruscists"—a compound word combining Russian and fascist—"to ruin them like they’ve ruined my city,” says Maria, a Ukrainian woman now living in Hungary. She nevertheless lets me call her and tells me that the post office across the street from her home was converted into a mortuary during the Russian occupation and then into a grocery store selling meat and sausages. Her story got repackaged as a viral image on Instagram captioned, “The evolution of a building in Mariupol.” Many shared it with a crying emoji. Now a new apartment building is going to be built next to that store. 

Peering into the Face of Those Who Kill

October 2023: “Hold on a sec, I need a tissue,” says Leonid, a Wagner Group mercenary, and mutes himself on WhatsApp. During Prigozhin’s mutiny he rode into Rostov-on-Don on a tank and exchanged hugs with locals. Now he drinks brandy in a children’s playground, stumbles around his home with an unregistered gun, refuses to treat his combat injury, and waits for the police to detain him. The emotional monologue of a crying Wagnerite appears in our piece about former mercenaries and “livens it up.” But what will that change? The mercenary will in any case return to war—he has already reenlisted. 


Soldiers return from war and drop in on mandatory “patriotism” lessons at their local schools to share their stories with the kids. Recuperating Wagner veterans casually stroll along the streets of Black Sea resorts, enjoying their official pardons. Many of the mercenaries were convicts who enlisted in penal colonies in exchange for a presidential pardon. 

Peering into the face of someone who only yesterday killed people with a gun, one might recognize an old friend, a helpful next-door neighbor. 

“Why are you humanizing them?” writes one subscriber, indignant. She had just read our piece about Russian women who travel to frontline zones to see their enlisted husbands and sons, and even bring along their kids and grandkids. I can’t wrap my head around this simulacrum of domesticity against the backdrop of bullets and missiles, but I restrain myself and act professionally. I ask the mother of a contract soldier who brought her son some "yummy treats” whether she has ever thought her son might take the life of another person. “One day he called me, yelling, ‘Mom, I killed a man!’ And I told him, ‘Son, he’s not a man, he’s an enemy.’”


I’m horrified, but I hope this detail makes it clear where I stand. Now the audience of our antiwar publication won’t accuse me of sympathizing with the Russian women who come here and make borscht for their sons whom they sincerely believe to be defenders of the motherland. 


Walking the Fine Line


Our interviewees also subject us to scrutiny. Some think we are pro-Ukrainian, some think we are pro-Russian. “I’ve been reading your articles, and I don’t really get whose side you’re on,” writes Margarita, a resident of a Russian village near the border with Ukraine. Because of air strikes, she left her house and spent a year living in a hotel as a refugee. After three months of exchanging messages with me, Margarita came across the word “occupation” on our website and blocked my number. 


“I’ve thought about it and decided not to comment for a Ruscist media outlet,” says Elena from Mariupol, whose house was first bombed and then demolished. 


“Our supervisor might get into trouble because of your piece,” says Alexey, an orphaned teenager from the Ukrainian city of Makiivka. Together with other Ukrainian children, he was forcibly taken to Russia and now studies at the Moscow Cadet Corps of the Russian Investigative Committee, where they all march on the quad, sing the Russian anthem, and prepare for a career of criminal investigation. 


“I’m writing in Russian to make myself very clear. F**k off back to where you came from,” suggests Alena. Her relatives’ house got flooded when Russia destroyed the Kakhovka Dam. Russian authorities offered no help, and the family had to navigate to safety on a mattress. Alena is certain that a Russian-speaking journalist will want to conceal these facts and tells me and my countrymen to drop dead in all caps.


It’s fine, Alena, I get it. I’m finishing the piece and taking a day off. 


This piece is a translation of an article that first appeared in In Other Words. It has been edited and shortened for clarity.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Anna Ryzhkova

Anna Ryzhkova

Journalist, Verstka
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more