A Postcard from Petersburg: Fear and Despair

Back on February 21-22 (as during the previous week), my colleagues at work made fun of the experts and media outlets who warned that Russia would attack Ukraine. “Ha, ha! How could that happen? Putin’s not crazy enough to openly attack a neighboring country.” Although I hadn’t found the time to read the news for a long while, I responded by saying that I would like to be as optimistic as they were.

Everything changed on February 24. The laughter stopped. My colleagues read out the news and showed each other the screens of their phones. The number of curse words in our conversations skyrocketed. An hour later we agreed not to discuss current events. Of our department’s nine employees, two and a half people supported the “special operation.” Four were strictly against it, while two others, although they had a negative attitude to the war, blamed the Americans and their imperialist policies for everything, saying that Russian actions were being condemned only by those countries that were “under” the United States.

On February 28, all the employees at our workplace were summoned to an urgent meeting, at which we were told that we should not read the news on American-made messaging apps or write anything on social media. After the meeting, our department head told me that we had listened to what they told us and had forgotten it, and that we would write what we deemed fit on our personal social media accounts. A couple of hours later, our organization’s deputy director requested “political asylum” in the office of his former colleagues so that he would no longer have to hear political propaganda from his superiors. In the corridors, people discussed who was going to go to the protests against the war and when.

On March 5, a colleague who supported the “special operation” solemnly deleted the “devilish” Facebook app from his phone, while others got used to using different VPNs. A donations drive for refugees from Donetsk and Luhansk was announced at work. No one in our office took part in it.

The entire city center has been cordoned off by various security forces for two weeks now: everywhere you can see paddy wagons, riot police, and street cleaning machines (which I would like to see used more for their intended purpose, because it is still difficult to walk around the city due to the ice and snow on the pavements). It feels like the city is occupied: Palace Square and Nevsky Prospect are fenced off. Despite this, people have been going out to protest. Now they are being detained for holding up placards with innocent slogans like “No war” and “Peace to the world,” for sporting blue-and-yellow ribbons and pins, and for simply daring to exist the Gostiny Dvor metro station on Nevsky Prospect.

People have been finding new ways to protest. Artists have held plein-air sessions where they painted blue and yellow pictures. The Interior Theater held a protest at which actors wearing costumes recreating Petersburg’s landmark buildings held a banner that read “Petersburg is against the war with Ukraine.” There are the numerous green ribbons that have already become a symbol of the anti-war protests, anti-war graffiti on residential buildings, garages, and fences, flowers laid at the monument to [Ukrainian writer] Taras Shevchenko, the public signing of statements against the war by municipal district councils on the porches of council buildings in the company of local residents, reporters, and riot police, and numerous open letters condemning the war by various professional groups (cultural figures, representatives of the book trade, etc.).

In response, after a short delay, groups who are easier to pressure and true believers have begun to sign open letters supporting Putin. A letter from the faculty of St. Petersburg State University, in which there were too many surnames I recognized, was especially painful for me to read.

“No war”

When someone wrote the message “No war!” on the icebound Moika River, housing authority workers partly painted it over (!), and partly covered it with sand. The next day, thanks to this artistic reframing, the message was even more legible.

The same message a few hours later

People are numb. No one is particularly happy about the fact that troops have been sent into a neighboring country. There have been pro-war videos posted by the police here and there, and small astro-turfed pro-war demos, but it looks nothing like the way “Russian World” fans reacted to the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

On social networks, you can see how those who can afford it are hurriedly leaving Russia. They are fleeing out of fear, out of an unwillingness to live in the country on whose behalf the aggression is being perpetrated. Some are horrified by what is happening in Ukraine, but others are horrified that their favorite goods are disappearing from the shops and scold the countries who impose sanctions on Russia and do not want to do business with it.

The Ukrainians in my social media feed are also divided among those who don’t want to communicate anymore with Russians, and those who are more afraid for us than for themselves. They wrote to me that, despite the fact that the air raid sirens were howling all the time, and they had to hastily evacuate from a city in the east of Ukraine to the west in a darkened train, they feel inspired by their country and feel confident in the successful outcome of this war, which to people who live in Ukraine is a “patriotic war” [as the Second World War and the war against Napoleon are called in Russian]. They fear for us because they know that the screws here will be tightened even more, and that it will become even harder for us to breathe.

A friend of mine in Mariupol has not replied for several days – there is no electricity there, and I don’t know what has happened to him. I read that the school where he worked had been bombed. I don’t know whether he will ever write back to me.

St. Petersburg, 8 March 2022

This “postcard” was written specially for this blog. The author’s name has been withheld at their request. Photos courtesy of the Telegram channel Rotunda. Translated by the Russian Reader

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