Postage Stamps and Gunpowder: Syria and the Russian Economy

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Postage Stamps and Gunpowder: How Important Is Syria to the Russian Economy?
The Kremlin has been trying—unconvincingly—to repackage its military campaign in this devastated country as a long-term investment project. 
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
February 27, 2019

The economy was probably the last thing on the Kremlin’s mind when it decided to get involved in a civil war in the heart of the Arab world. But now that Russian military forces have been in the region for several years, the Kremlin has been increasingly trying to spin its support for Bashar Assad’s regime as a sound investment, a contribution to a prosperous trading future between the two countries.

Russia has claimed it is willing to export to Syria anything it can offer in addition to weapons, from wheat to know-how for preventing extremism on the internet. Along with Iran, the country has big plans for taking part in the postwar restoration of Syrian cities and Syrian industry, including the energy sector. Russia’s governors speak touchingly of their readiness to go to Damascus at the drop of a hat to negotiate with the Syrian government.

“When the talk turns to Syria, I immediately catch myself thinking I need these meetings,  I need to see those people again and again, and I need to be useful,” Natalya Komarova, head of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District said at the Russian Investment Forum in Sochi two weeks ago.

The expenses Russia has incurred during the Syrian campaign are shrouded in mystery. Analysts at IHS Jane’s calculated in October 2015 that Russia could have been spending as much as $4 million a day.  In July 2017, the opposition Yabloko Democratic Party published its estimate of the overall bill: as much as 140 billion rubles [approx. 1.87 billion euros], but this total did not include associated costs, including humanitarian aid. In 2017, according to RANEPA, 84% of Russia’s official total of disbursed humanitarian aid ($19.6 million) went to Syria. What kind of economic cooperation could justify such figures?

It would be pointless even to try and find an answer in recent trade trends between the two countries. Its volumes are negligible. During the first nine months of 2018, Syria’s share of Russia’s exports was 0.09%, while Syria accounted for 0.002% of imports to Russia during the same period. This has always been more or less the case.

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“Trends in Russia’s trade with Syria (in billions of US dollars).” The pale violet line indicates Russia’s exports to Syria, while the blue line indicates Russia’s imports from Syria. The data for 2018 is only for the first nine months of the year. Source: Russian Federal Customs Service. Diagram courtesy of Republic

The largest transaction in the history of the economic partnership between the two countries was Moscow’s cancellation of $9.8 billion dollars in debt, 73% of what Syria had owed the Soviet Union. At the end of the 2005 meeting at which this matter was decided, Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin also spoke publicly of the idea of establishing a free trade zone. Subsequently forgotten, the undertaking was mere camouflage for the political bargain reached by the two men, which was and remains support for the Syrian dictator’s regime in exchange for the dubious dividends the Kremlin has received by increasing its influence in the region. It is believed Russian strategic bomber saved Assad, who had already been written off by the west. But explanations of what Russia has ultimately won for its efforts and what its economic strategy might look like have been more muddled and contradictory than before.

In an October 2018 interview with Euronews, Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov avoided directly answering a question about joint economic projects. During his tenure as head of the Russian Export Center, Pyotr Fradkov (not to be confused with his father former PM Mikhail Fradkov, the current head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service or SVR) talked about Russia’s potential involvement in developing the “high-tech segments of Syria’s economy.” A month ago, however, the selfsame Russian Export Center placed Syria at the bottom of its ranking of 189 countries in terms of their favorability for foreign trade.

The Syrian economy, in turn, can currently offer Russia even less. Mainly, its exports boil down to fruit, but in such small and unstable quantities that they cannot seriously compete with deliveries from Turkey. Russia has been promised priority access to the development of natural resource deposits in Syria, which are teeming with oil, natural gas, and phosphates. But the smoldering war and the lack of security guarantees for investments have hampered implementing these plans.

Russian experts pin their hopes on the surviving remnants of industry in the government-controlled areas of Latakia, Tartus, and Damascus. Based on the fact that “the level of production that survived has enabled Assad to almost fully provide himself [sic] with food during five years of war,” Grigory Lukyanov, a political scientist at the Higher School of Economics has concluded the Syrian government “depends on a well-developed business community.”

Syria, however, seemed like a nightmare for investors well before the country was turned into an open wound. “Only a crazy person would go into Syria at his own behest,” Vedomosti quoted a source at a major company that was involved in negotiations with the Syrian government in the summer of 2012. Suffering from international sanctions, Syria proposed that Russian companies take part in construction of a thermoelectric power station in Aleppo. Four years later, one of Syria’s largest cities had been turned into ruins by heavy bombardment.

The Rothschilds [sic], who made fortunes on wars, thought the best time to invest was when blood was flowing in the streets. Their approach might seem to resemble the Kremlin’s strategy. But let’s not kid ourselves: unlike the famed financiers, President Putin is completely devoid of insight when it comes to the economic consequences of his military escapades. Business plans are not his strong suit.

Photo courtesy of Mikhail Klementyev/AP and the Washington Post. Translated by the Russian Reader

Never Think of It, Never Speak of It

DSCN4763“Enigma.” Photo by the Russian Reader

“In the last two weeks, one thousand and forty-two people, including about a hundred and fifty-six children, have been killed in eastern Ghouta, in what human-rights groups fear is a final, all-out offensive to retake one of the few remaining rebel-held enclaves in the country. Bombings by Syrian and Russian planes have been indiscriminate, killing civilians, levelling homes, and destroying medical facilities. Bashar al-Assad’s regime—with the full support of Vladimir Putin and the Russian military—have flouted calls for a complete ceasefire.”
Rozina Ali, ‘It’s Raining Rockets’: Deadly New Syrian-Russian Assault Kills Hundreds in Eastern Ghouta, New Yorker, March 8, 2018

What I really don’t understand is why there isn’t an enterprising Russian or group of Russians who would set up a WordPress blog or a special page on Facebook or VK where they could post translations of foreign press articles about the war in Syria like the article quoted, above. If the Russian media either wants to ignore what is happening there or constantly lie about it, that does not mean the war should be of no interest to Russians opposed to dropping Russian bombs on non-Russia men, women, children, residential buildings, and hospitals that have never done any harm to any Russian men, women, children, residential buildings, and hospitals, and that never thought of doing them any harm.

At this point, I really just don’t get it. The collective silence in Russia when it comes to the Kremlin’s and the Russian military’s crimes in Syria is on the verge of the pathological.

There is not much to be said for the efficacy and vociferousness of antiwar movements in the US, UK, Australia, and the other countries that sent soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan, but it certainly cannot be said that there have not been a relatively large number of people in those same countries engaged either in some kind of peacemaking or awareness raising about what trouble their leaders and armies have caused there and the enormities they have committed.

It’s practically a cottage industry, for what it’s worth.

In Russia, on the contrary, it is as if Syria exists literally in a parallel universe with no connection whatsoever to Russians and their daily lives.

Never think of it, never speak of it. TRR

No. 1003: I Predict the Future

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I wouldn’t be surprised if, fifteen or twenty years from now, when the dust has long settled in Syria, the names of the dead have been forgotten by the entire world except the people still alive who knew them personally, and Russia has once again become a “newly emergent” democracy with a free press and free elections, an enterprising middle-aged Russian scholar sat down to write the history of our darker, troubled times and, if only in a longish footnote, made the patently false claim that most Russians had been vehemently opposed to the deposed dictator Putin’s barbarous bombings in Syria, and there even had been a broad-based albeit mostly low-key anti-war movement in Russia at the time. TRR

 
Photo: 23 February. Happy Fatherland Defenders Day! 24 February 2018, Central Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

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Monument to Emperor Nicholas I, the so-called gendarme of Europe, on St. Isaac’s Square in Petersburg, 13 October 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

Below the fold you’ll find an angry screed I wrote on Facebook a year ago. Since nothing has changed for the better since then, it’s as relevant today as it was then. Thanks to Comrade RA for the reminder. TRR

*****

Here’s the kicker. You literally cannot see almost any reaction on the part of almost any Russians to this mayhem in Syria caused by their government, none at all. Middle-class Russians and Russian intellectuals continue to lead their lives as they have before, chockablock with business and leisure trips to other parts of the “civilized world,” and other, more important activities. They don’t give a second’s thought to what is happening in Syria for one simple reason: because Islamophobia, if this is possible, is even more widespread in Russia than in Europe and the US. The Syrians blown to bits on a daily basis by Russian bombs are not just abstractions to Russians; they’re hateful abstractions, “terrorists.”

Most importantly, it would be news to 99.999% of Russians that the war in Syria started as a grassroots, non-violent, non-sectarian, extraordinarily popular, and extraordinarily determined revolution against the vicious, monstrous regime of Bashar Assad. A revolution that Assad has drowned in blood and used foreign allies (Hezbollah, the Iranians, and now the Russians) to put down.

The reason this would be news to most Russians is not only that their Goebbelsesque TV channels have been lying to them about what is happening in Syria (when they bother to talk about it at all, which is not always the case) but that they don’t want to hear news about more determined, more popular grassrooots revolutions against corrupt tyrants in other countries, because their own “snow revolution” of 2011–2012 was such an abortive miserable failure.

That is the other kicker. Since Putin faced popular discontent in 2011–2012 in a more or less visible form, he has become even more keen on the half-baked notion that all such popular uprisings are instigated by outside forces and powers. So now, echoing Emperor Nicholas I in the nineteenth century, he has dedicated himself to restoring Russia’s great power status by acting as a reactionary, anti-revolutionary gendarme in countries like Ukraine and Syria.

But this discussion is utterly moot in Russia itself, where way too many people are way too fond of their being “civilized” (i.e., being “white”) to give a thought to the untermenschen their bombs are obliterating in a “non-white,” “uncivilized” country like Syria.

Since they are not forced to think about it, they’d rather not think about it all. And they don’t.

Live Target Practice in Syria

Defense Ministry to Take Delivery of 24 “Flying Tanks” for Testing in Syria
Inna Sidorkova
RBC
October 19, 2017

In November, the Russian Defense Ministry will receive the first batch of improved Night Hunter helicopters from Russian Helicopters. The new choppers will cost the Defense Ministry at least 400 million USD. The helicopters should alter aviation tactics in Syria. 

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Russian Night Hunter combat helicopter. Photo courtesy of Russian Helicopters/RBC

For Syria
By 2020, the Defense Ministry will take delivery of twenty-four modernized Night Hunter Mi-28UB combat training helicopters, Andrei Boginsky, general director of Russian Helicopters, a subsidiary of state corporation Rostek, told RBC. He stressed the Mi-28UB was designed with its future use in Syria in mind.

The first batch of helicopters—up to ten units—will be delivered to the Defense Ministry in November of this year. Two choppers will be delivered to the 334th Center for Combat Training and Army Flight Crew Retraining in Torzhok, Vadim Barannikov, deputy manager of Russian Helicopters Rosvertol plant, told journalists on October 19.

“Currently, the Defense Ministry is the Mi-28UB’s only buyer. However, similarly configured Mi-28-like helicopters will be delivered to foreign customers,” said Boginsky.

He added that the coming online of the chopper’s combat training version opened up “practically unlimited” opportunities for improving the training of Mi-28N pilots.

“The chance to train on a real combat helicopter, rather than on a simulator, is a huge advantage for our combat pilots in comparison with their counterparts from other countries,” said Boginsky.

Boginsky declined to tell RBC the cost of the contract with the Defense Ministry and the price of a single helicopter. However, as two of RBC’s sources in the aviation industry noted, the cost of the Mi-28UB would be a “little higher” than the basic model due to the improved design and other features. According to AircraftCompare.com, a website specializing in collecting and analyzing information on aviation equipment, the cost of the Mi-28N ranges from 16.8 million USD to 18 million USD. The sum of the contract with the Defense Ministry for delivery of the helicopters should be at least 400 million USD.

The delivery of twenty-four Mi-28 combat training helicopters is Russian Helicopters biggest contract with the Defense Ministry since 2015, the company’s press service told RBC. For the first time in history, the Russian army will get its hands on combat training helicopters with dual piloting systems.

The Mi-28UB
The design of the Mi-28 combat training helicopter, the improved Night Hunter, is based on the Mi-28N night attack helicopter, which was added to the army’s arsenal by presidential decree in 2009. Its maximum speed is 300 kilometers/hour, its dynamic ceiling, 5.6 kilometers, and its takeoff weight, nearly 11,000 kilograms. The Mi-28UB is armed with Ataka-V air-to-surface and Strelets air-to-air guided missile systems, a nonremovable mobile 30mm automatic cannon, and B-8V20A mounts for C-98 80mm caliber rockets and C-13 130mm caliber rockets.

The main difference between the Mi-28UB and the Mi-28N is the dual piloting system, as RBC was informed by Russian Helicopters press service. The chopper can be piloted both from the commander’s cockpit and the system operator pilot’s cockpit, which expands its capacity for training combat pilots. In addition, during emergency combat circumstances, control of the helicopter can be assumed by the second crew member. The helicopter is also outfitted with a simulator for training student pilots to deal with in-flight equipment failure.

The Mi-28UB is outfitted with modernized integrated onboard radioelectronic equipment. The cockpit has been expanded, the area covered by armored glass has been increased, and visibility from the system operator pilot’s cockpit has been improved. The Mi-28UB has an automatic landing system. A state-of-the-art laser defense station has been installed onboard to defend the helicopter from heat-seeking missiles.

Why a “Flying Tank” Is Needed
The Mi-28UB has been added to the arsenal to adjust the tactics used by Russian aviation in Syria and other hotspots in the future, said the military experts interviewed by RBC.

The army lacks combat pilots, noted Colonel Viktor Murakhovsky (Reserves), chief editor of the magazine Arsenal of the Fatherland. During a speech in the State Duma in February, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that, as of 2016, the Aerospace Forces (VKS) lacked 1,300 pilots.

When the VKS launched its Syrian campaign, the Defense Ministry called up officers from the reserves and even introduced accelerated pilot courses for servicemen working in different jobs, such as aircraft technicians, Murakhovsky recalled.

“In this sense, it means a lot to train pilots on helicopters with dual piloting systems,” said Murakhovsky. “Thanks to the system, an experienced pilot will be able to prompt the trainee and take over the helicopter in emergencies. Pilots will be trained twice as quickly.”

The combat training version of the helicopter was initially designed to train cadets to fly the Mi-28. Previously, rookie pilots had to undergo initial training on stimulators or other helicopters, and then retrain on the Mi-28. This took time, argued Colonel Andrei Payusov (Reserves). The modernized Mi-28 will be used to train graduating cadets and retrain serving pilots, he believes.

The Mi-28 combat training helicopter will facilitate running young flight crews through their paces and nurture combat pilots, Colonel Sergei Yefimov (Reserves), a combat sniper pilot, told RBC. The Mi-28 gives the army the chance to change combat tactics, and the improved visibility and armored glass will help crews feel more confident in the cockpit.

“The modernized integrated onboard radioelectronic equipment will make searching, detecting, identifying, and eliminating targets more effective,” said Yefimov.

But in addition to accelerated training of combat pilots, the Mi-28 faces yet another task, said Colonel Sergei Gorshunov, senior navigation inspector in the Fourth Army’s aviation wing and the Southern Federal District Air Defense. In modern combat, it is hard for a single member of the crew to pilot a helicopter properly while tracking the enemy and aiming at a target, stressed Gorshunov.

“So the Defense Ministry asked for a helicopter with a dual piloting system,” said Gorshunov.

According to Gorshunov, the Mi-28UB can be used not only to support infantry but also to cause tangible damage to the enemy’s armored units.

“We might say it’s a flying tank. If the guided missiles are deployed, a couple of helicopters can disable from four to eight tanks,” concluded Gorshunov.

The first prototype of the Mi-28UB was manufactured by Rosvertol in 2013. The helicopter was put into mass production in late 2015, RBC’s source in the aviation industry said.

“The helicopter was tested for a very long time. All the tests have been passed, including tests in Syria. Now it is a matter of delivering the first batch,” he explained.

Translated by the Russian Reader

UPDATE. Russian Helicopters was listed in a White House document of Russian companies and entities that may be considered for further sanctions. The New York Times published the unclassified document on October 26, 2017.

Idrees Ahmad: Russia Today and the Post-Truth Virus

a10Russia Today and the Post-Truth Virus
Idrees Ahmad
Pulse
December 15, 2016

A video is circulating of a woman revealing “the truth” on Syria that is being withheld from us by “the mainstream media”. The woman is introduced as an “independent Canadian journalist”. She is said to be speaking  “at the UN”. The date is December 9, 2016. The video has become viral.

Eva Bartlett, the woman in the video, writes for various conspiracy sites including SOTT.net, The Duran, MintPress and Globalresearch.ca. But more recently she has emerged as a contributor to Russia Today. And though her wordpress blog is called “In Gaza”, and though she has a past in Palestine solidarity work, unlike the people of Gaza, she is a strong supporter of Assad and she uses language to describe Assad’s opponents that is a virtual echo of the language Israeli propagandists use against Gazans.

Bartlett was recently a guest of the Assad regime, attending a regime sponsored PR conference and going on a tour of regime-controlled areas herded no doubt by the ubiquitous minders (the regime only issues visas to trusted journalists and no visitor is allowed to travel without a regime minder). On her return, the regime mission at the UN organised a press conference for her and three members of the pro-regime US “Peace Council” (The organisation has the same relationship to peace as Kentucky Fried Chicken has to chicken). In the press conference they all repeated the claims usually made by the regime’s official media SANA and by Russia Today: all rebels are terrorists; there is no siege; civilians are being held hostage; the regime is a “liberator” etc.

So a conspiracy theorist with a blog who briefly visited Syria as a guest of the regime is declaring that everything you know about Syria is wrong. That you have been misled by everyone in the “MSM” from the New York Times to Der Spiegel, from the Guardian to the Telegraph, from CNN to Channel 4, from ABC to BBC, from CBS to CBC; that human rights organisations like Physicians for Human Rights, Medicins Sans Frontiers, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch; that international agencies like the UN and ICRC—they are all part of a vast conspiracy to malign Bashar al Assad. And the truth is only revealed on “alternative” media like the Kremlin’s own Russia Today! (watched by 70 million people a week according to its own claims)

In normal times something like this would provoke derision and dismay—or at least the person would be asked to provide verifiable facts instead of anecdotes (virtually everything she said is verifiably false). But these are not normal times. Supporters of the regime, admirers of Putin, and sectarian propagandists have latched on to this video. Kremlin broadcaster Russia Today has promoted the video heavily. And, in the game of Chinese whispers, the story has morphed into “a UN press conference”.

There is of course a deep racism at play here. Besides great international journalists like Christoph Reuter, Janine di Giovanni, and Martin Chulov, there are also many excellent Syrian reporters on the ground. But we are supposed to dismiss them because the truths that eluded all of them were vouchsafed to a Canadian blogger with a column on Russia Today!

What is happening in Syria is not a mystery. The facts are crystal clear. They are corroborated by multiple independent organisations. People who deny these facts only do so because of a will to disbelieve. It’s willed ignorance in the service of an ideology. This ignorance has been reinforced by Kremlin’s premier disinformation service: Russia Today. The broadcaster has rebranded itself “RT” to conceal its origins and agenda. It has even spawned a neutral-sounding viral video outlet like “In the Now.” Their aim is to sow doubt, feed cynicism, and confound knowledge. They are pressing a narrative—Kremlin’s narrative. And as the major perpetrator of violence in Syria, Kremlin has every intention to muddy the waters. (And no Russia Today is not “just like the BBC”. Have you ever seen a Russian government official questioned on Russia Today the way Tony Blair is questioned on the BBC by Jeremy Paxman; let alone the way Jon Snow on Channel 4 questions David Cameron?)

So next time someone shares a stupid video like this, hit them with facts. If they want to challenge them, then they should bring something more substantial than rambling nonsense from a conspiracy nut.

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There is an old joke. A wife returns home to find her husband in bed with another woman.

“What are you doing in bed with another woman?” she screams.

“What woman?” the husband replies.

“The woman I just saw in bed with you,” says the wife.

“Who are you going to believe,” the husband replies, “Me or your lying eyes?”

There is no doubt that the Western media has often failed in its coverage. Its reporting on Gaza and the journalism leading up to the Iraq war was abysmal. But western media isn’t devoted to obfuscating truth with the kind of single-minded determination that Russia Today is. It is deeply ironic that many people’s often justified disdain for western journalists has led the into the embrace of a channel that has no commitment to truth at all. And it becomes most pernicious when pro-Kremlin propaganda is dressed up as criticism of “the mainstream media”, “the establishment”, or “Washington”. As I wrote elsewhere:

“There are few things more commonplace than an Oedipal disdain for one’s own government. In this solipsistic worldview, one need not have to understand the dynamics of a foreign crisis; they can be deduced remotely. If you hate your own government then, by virtue of being in its bad books, a Putin or an Assad becomes an ally.

“Conversely, if people elsewhere are rising up against their far more repressive states, their cause is tainted because of a sympathetic word they might have received from your government. And all the images of agony do not add up to a tear of sorrow as long as they are relayed by a hated “mainstream media”. Indeed, victims are reproached for eroding ideological certainties by intruding into our consciousness through their spectacular suffering.”

My heartfelt thanks to Idrees Ahmad for his kind permission to let me reprint his essay here. TRR

Refugees

“Everything There Is like a Horror Film Now”:
Young Refugees Talk about War, Fleeing Home, and Living in Russia

Filippo Valoti-Alebardi
Furfur
October 19, 2016

Armed conflicts in the Middle East and instability in parts of Africa and South Asia have led to one of the largest immigrant crises since the Second World War. According to Frontex, 1.82 million refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, and another 173,761 people arrived in Europe by sea in the first part of 2016. Russia has found itself on the sidelines in terms of most migrant flows. Only one route, which runs through Russia’s land borders with Norway and Finland, was used for the transit to Europe. According to RIA Novosti, around 6,000 people traversed this route between October and December 2015.

The Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS) claims there are very few people with refugee status in Russia, less than eight hundred. Basically, people who seek refuge here can count only on temporary refugee status, which is valid for one year. But if a person manages to obtain it, no one can guarantee it will be renewed in the future. Furfur met with four young refugees and wrote down their stories of fleeing their home countries and living in hiding in Russia.

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Hasan, a 20-year-old refugee from Syria

I left Aleppo three years ago. In 2012, the civil war came to our city. All the state institutions closed, except for some hospitals. I stopped going to school and almost never left my house. Everything was topsy-turvy in Aleppo then: government troops might be in one district, while the opposition was in the next. Life was hard but bearable. The financial crisis was not as bad as now, and my family had some savings. We were bombed, but not like during the Islamic State’s offensive. The electricity didn’t work, but we had a generator. The water was severely rationed, but it was enough.

Almost as soon as fighting broke out, I was forbidden to leave the house. I was not yet threatened with conscription, but my parents feared I could be recruited, killed or kidnapped, since I was the oldest son in the family. The other members of the family also tried not to leave our flat without a very good reason. We just sat at home and waited for it to all be over.

In the summer of 2013, an acquaintance of my father’s helped me get a work visa to Russia, and I left Syria. The person worked here in a sewing factory where there were many Syrians. He met me at the airport and took me to Losino-Petrovsky, where I still live. I immediately started worked in the sewing workshop. My father had been a tailor, so I already had some skills.

During the fifth month of my stay in Russia, I applied for refugee status. The [UNHCR] helped me prepare the papers for the FMS, where I had to have an interview. I was asked about my family’s financial state, whether I had served in the army, and about my political stance. A few months later, I received temporary refugee status, but it lasted for only a year.

I lived in Moscow Region and worked in the workshop. I tried to keep in touch with my family and friends. One day, a friend called me and said our house had been bombed and everyone had been killed. So only two members of my family, which had consisted of eleven people, have survived: my sister, who got married and lives in Istanbul, and I.

When my refugee status ended, I went to the FMS and asked for an extension. This time round, my case was handled by a different officer. He also asked me questions about my origins, financial state, and political stance, but then he asked why I had not gone to Iran, Turkey or Europe. I said I liked it here. I also told him that, over the past year, my mother,  brother, and all my brothers and sisters had died, except one. I was given a certificate, valid for one month, and then I was turned down. I was told the situation in Syria had normalized, that I was in no danger and could return home safely. But I had nowhere to return: my home and family were gone.

I was given three months to appeal against the refusal. I made four attempts to appeal it, but to no avail. Finally, I went to a Syrian man who said he had friends with pull. He promised to help me for 70,000 rubles [approx. 1,000 euros]. Ultimately, however, I was turned down once more, and never saw the guy again. Now I am in Russian illegally, and for the time being I have managed to avoid problems.

The police often stop me under the pretext of checking my papers, but they have a pretty good attitude to Syrians. Previously, when my papers were in order, they would haul me down to the precinct and take my fingerprints before letting me go. The situation has now become more complicated, and I often have to bribe them. It is usually not in Moscow where the police check my papers, but in Losino-Petrovsky itself. The local police are well aware of where the migrants live and work. They know our routes and when we get off work. So at least one or twice a month they detain one of us.

I rarely leave my own neighborhood. I work six days a week, twelve hours a day, and have almost no free time. But when I have the time and energy, I go play football with my friends, either in Noginsk or Moscow. I speak almost no Russian. At work, I get by with Arabic and a few words in Russian, since I work with Syrians, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. I sometimes chat on the phone with my sister in Turkey and with friends who have left Syria and gone to Turkey and Europe. I used to really miss my family and my home in Syria, but not anymore. I have lost my family and simply see no point in life. I even think it would have been better had I been with my family the day the bomb fell on my house. It would have been better to die with them than to hear about their deaths over the telephone.

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Yasmin, an 18-year-old refugee from Yemen

This is the second war my parents have fled. My father is half Vietnamese, half Yemeni. My mother is a Vietnamese Muslim. When the war between the US and Vietnam ended, they found themselves in a refugee camp in Yemen, which is where they met. My mom was seventeen then, the same age I was when I came to Russia.

Life in Yemen had always been hard for our family. Because my father speaks Arabic poorly and cannot write it, he could never count on a good job. On the streets, people would always point at us and say, “Look! There go the Chinese.” Everything got complicated after the 2011 revolution. Some government offices ceased to function, and foreign companies gradually left the country. A year later, the German firm for which my father worked as a driver closed its office, and he lost his job. It was hard to find another job. Ultimately, my older brother had to quit school to support us. He spoke the best Arabic in our family.

War broke out in Yemen in 2014, but we were affected by it only in 2015, when the heavy bombardment began. We lived in the city of Taiz, but our house was not far from a rebel camp, so the planes targeted our neighborhood. We took our things and left for Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, to stay with relatives. It was much safer there, and we livef peacefully for two weeks or so, but then the bombing recommenced.

In Sanaa, we lived near the Russian Embassy. After one of the bombing raids, we went there to ask for help. The embassy officials told us a Russian Emergencies Ministry (MChS) plane would be leaving [soon]. They explained where to go and when, but they did not promise we would be taken aboard. On the right day, we arrived at the appointed time at the airport, where we saw a team of [Russian] rescuers. They put our family on the plane. We had no visas, but we had passports. All the others who wanted to go had no papers and were left behind.

There were lots of Russian citizens on the plane with us, but there were also Yemenis, Syrians, and even a few Americans. We made a stopover in Djibouti, and there we were given the right to choose: stay behind or fly on to Russia. Since we had no family in Djibouti or other countries, we decided to fly to Russia. First, we were taken to a military airport, and then to a civil airport, where we had to wait for a consul. He gave us ten-day entry visas and ran off.

We did not know a word of Russian or English, we had no money, and we were hungry.  I don’t know what we would have done if it had not been for the Syrian who was on the plane with us. He spoke Russian and interpreted for us. Then he gave us two hundred dollars and ordered us a taxi to the Yemeni embassy. For some reason, the taxi driver took us to the Egyptian embassy, not the Yemeni embassy, and on top of that he made us pay him fifty dollars, not thirty dollars, as we had agreed. But it was a good thing the guard at the embassy spoke Arabic, since it was cold and we had no idea where we were. He called us a cab to take us to our embassy, and the next driver, an Egyptian, did not even charge us.

At the embassy, we were given a room where we lived for approximately two months. During this time we put together papers for obtaining refugee status, which we applied for at the [UNHCR] offices and the FMS. Later, the Vietnamese ambassador came to see us. He helped us get a room at the Hanoi Moscow Hotel, where we have been living ever since.

Our application for refugee status has been turned down twice. We have appealed the decision and are now awaiting the outcome. We need the status in order to be able to work and somehow organize our lives in a new place, because for over a year we have been living solely due to support from the Vietnamese. We have nowhere else to go. The war and bombing are still going on in Yemen, and there is almost nothing left of our home and neighborhood in Taiz. Everything there is like a horror film now.

didie

Didier, a 23-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Before leaving Congo, I lived in Kinshasa, our country’s capital, and was studying psychology. I left not because I was starving, but because I feared for my life. When my father died, I could not even go home to mourn and bury him. Instead, I am here, but I don’t know how much time I have left in Russia.

In 2015, I attended a rally against changes to the electoral system that would have enabled the president to serve another term. It was a major protest rally, for which a thousand and a half students and staff from my university showed up. The authorities responded by sending in the army, police, and large army trucks to kettle the protesters. The police and soldiers shot to kill. At some point, we were herded into a corner where nothing was visible, everything was covered in flames. Twelve people were killed between January 19 and January 25. Two of them were my friends. We were at university together.

The best thing that happened to many people involved in the protests was that they simply disappeared. I managed to hide from the police at the place of some acquaintances. I could not go back home or to the university, because secret service officers were surveilling the demonstrators. They were especially interested in the people who had incited university students and staff to take part in the protests. I was a ringleader, and at the time I was already a member of Congo’s second largest opposition party.  I did not want to leave the country, but my parents insisted. They were worried about me, since a lot of people were disappearing at the time.

Why did I leave for Russia? I knew people who had friends with connections and helped me get the necessary papers. This took a while, but the situation got worse and I had to leave urgently. I left Congo on a night flight after convincing the police I was somewhere else. In Russia, I had the contacts of the people who had helped me get a student visa. The first six months, I lived in the place of a friend who had gone home, and then I lived at the People’s Friendship University, where I met a lot of people and was advised to go to the Civic Assistance Committee. They helped me obtain temporary refugee status, which is issued for a year, and now I am trying to extend it.

There is a small Congolese diaspora in Moscow, but I do not communicate with them. I do not want to disseminate information about myself. I deliberately limit my dealings with other people, and I do not maintain contact with people from the Congolese opposition movement. I know that people in the Russian opposition are also detained, and I am scared my country’s authorities might send an official extradition request. In Congo, I would definitely go to prison.

Russia is a “white” Africa. People here live in greater safety than back at home, but you are also unable to assemble and protest. You fear the police, who help implement the policy of dictatorship. Nevertheless, in Russia, you can find a job easily, you can buy a flat, and get a loan. The government thinks about its people at least a little, but not in Africa. The regime has complete forgotten about people. The president works only to benefity his own family. He stuffs his pockets and takes holidays in the States and Canada, while the populace suffers. Only officials, the people who stuff his pockets, live well. They should all be in prison. God needs to descend and free my people.

People in my country continue to protest, but they are few and the police arrest them, including members of our party, which they are trying to bleed to death. Some of my comrades have left the country, while many have been arrested.

I would like to go back to Congo to fight for human rights and give people back freedom of speech and the right to vote. I want to give them the ability to speak their own mind freely. I can tell you that right now in Congo women are being raped, people’s heads are being cut off in markets, and people are being shot at.

More than ten million people have been killed in my country to date. It is the most dangerous country in the world for women: there are a huge number of rapes, and war is going on almost all the time. But if you dare talk about it, you are lost. Most of the people who can talk about it are in Europe. They upload short videos to the Internet and talk about the atrocities occurring in Congo, but if they went home they would be detained immediately.

And that is why I would like to tell Mr. Putin personally what is actually going on there. Our situation resembles the one in Syria right now, if it is not worse, but everyone talks only about Syria, and not about Congo. You white people in Russia, Europe, and the States, you are well aware of what is happening in Africa, but your governments would rather not doing anything about it. They only support the criminal regimes that rule our countries, getting money from them or investing in them. The whole world buys our diamonds: France, Belgium, and the US. Even you Russians are involved in diamond mining in Congo, which is always accompanied by war. Many people are afraid to talk about it, because they are afraid of disappearing. But I am not one of those people. I like telling the truth.

muhamed

Muhammad, 28-year-old refugee from Syria

I am from the city of Kobanî, on the border with Turkey.  I am a Kurd, and I left Syria five years ago, in 2011. I had just finished my military service when opposition rallies took place in Syria. It was all quite peaceful, and the situation in Kobanî was calm, but I sensed something serious was going to happen and decided it would be better to leave the country. I worked in the clothing industry, and a friend of mine invited me to Russia. I got help getting a yearlong business visa: that was how I ended up at the fabric in Noginsk. Initially, I came just to sit things out, but it has dragged on for five years, and there is no telling how much longer it will last. The first year I lived on a visa, and then I went to Egypt  to extend it. Subsequently, Egypt changed the rules of entry for Syrians, and I was unable to do the same thing a second time.

‏Meanwhile, Syria has shifted into a state of war. One of my little brothers was captured by Islamic State when he was traveling with other schoolchildren to take exams. He was freed several days later, but I lost contact with my relatives when fighting broke out in the Kobanî area. There were heavy battles near the city, and my family were forced to flee to Turkey. Some of my second and third cousins stayed behind to fight Islamic State. Ten of them were killed, and my brother was seriously injured.

‏All this time, I was working and living in Russia, trying to formalizing my status as a refugee, but I was not having any luck. I would come somewhere with papers, but I would be sent first one place, and then another. An appointment would be made for me, but then it would be postponed: I would be told to come back in fifteen days, and then in ten days. I was once told to come at nine in the morning. I came half an hour early, but to no avail. I was told the queue was already too long and I had better come the next day. But they could not see me the next day, since I had been in the previous day’s queue and had not shown up, allegedly. They toyed with me like this for several months. I decided to ask the [UNHCR] for help, but nothing changed. During the nine months I was going to the FMS, I was unable to file an application for refugee status. Finally, I gave up and stayed on illegally. ‏

I met a Lebanese man who promised to help solve the problems with my papers if I went to work for him at a construction site. I went, but my problems were not solved. Instead, the police caught us. They beat us up right at the construction site. There were even some reporters with policemen, but they were told to turn their cameras off. We were thrown on the ground and beaten on the feet. They beat us so badly I could not walk normally for five days or so. They wanted us to sign some papers. We did not know what was in the papers, because they were in Russian, but we were forced to sign. After that, they stopped beating us and took us to court. We were not provided with an interpreter and so we did not understand most of the proceedings. I do remember, however, that the judge tried to find out what was up with us. He could see we were in a bad way. But we were unable to tell him what had happened, and the policemen told the judge that we were just tired from working.

‏After that, I returned to the factory and started working night shifts, since there are fewer chances the police will catch you. However, I am still sometimes detained on the streets anyway. I always try and have money with me to pay the police off. Usually, I take a five-hundred-ruble note with me: that way they cannot take too much. But I rarely go outside. I work almost seven days a week, and I have no energy to do anything else after a shift of twelve to fifteen hours. I only sleep and work, and the money I send to my family: they need it more. I would like to be near them, but we Syrians now need visas to get into Turkey, and I cannot get one anywhere. Nor can I return to Syria. I have no one in Kobanî, and there is almost nothing left of the city.

Furfur thanks the Civic Assistance Committee and translators Igor Farafonov, Alexander Khodunov, and Muhammad Haled for their help with this article. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the heads-up

Read more about the treatment of Syrian and other refugees in Russia:

How to Tell a Skunk

Skunks. Photo courtesy of National Geographic
Skunks. Photo courtesy of National Geographic

Here is how you tell a pro-Putin western leftist. If someone has not written word one of concern or anguish over the slaughter in Aleppo and Putin’s role in it, but suddenly expresses anxiety over NatWest’s closure of RT’s bank accounts, announced earlier today, they have outed themselves as a pro-Putin western leftist.

Apparently, the rest of the world should just watch as Putin and Co. lay waste to Aleppo and the rest of Syria that has not submitted to the mass murderer Bashar Assad.

And then, if Putin wants to move on from there, and stir up more needless trouble somewhere else, the rest of the world should just avert its gaze from his latest victims.

And so on.

After all, the world’s most enlightened white people, western leftists, have mostly been steadfastly ignoring Putin’s victimization of his own people for the past seventeen years—all those incinerated Chechens, murdered journalists, harassed, beaten, jailed, murdered, persecuted and exiled anti-fascists, leftists, environmentalists, opposition leaders, downtrodden truckers, farmers, factory workers and migrant workers, and on and on.

Here is a modest proposal. Since you feel so much anxiety every time Putin is criticized or mildly slapped on the wrist, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and move to Russia, where you can live the dream of dancing in ecstasy round the one true leftist leader left on earth.

Or is a dumb leftist tape, left over from Soviet times, spinning round and round in your head, keeping you from thinking straight?

I have a message for you: the Soviet Union is dead, and Putin is not a leftist. He is not trying to build socialism. He wants to stay in power for the rest of his natural life, enriching himself and his cronies, and making sure his other 142 million countrymen can never improve their own collective lot in life in any meaningful way, especially in a way that would involve his not being their supreme leader for life.

And just imagine this. When NatWest announced it was closing the bank accounts of the miserable Putinist propaganda channel RT, some of my actual Russian friends actually living in Russia actually rejoiced!

Why? Because their tax dollars pay the salaries of Margarita Simonyan and all the other well-coiffed liars at RT, and they would rather not have their hard-earned money wasted in such a flagrant, hostile manner.

Maybe they would rather that Russian doctors and teachers were paid better, or that pensioners had their pensions indexed for inflation (instead of frozen to pay for Putin’s war on Syria). Maybe they would want their country to stand for something else in the world than deceit, military showboating, corruption, and a hot and cold civil war against dissenters.

When are you godlike beings, ye western leftists, going to heed their mostly silent cries?

Or do you think some crap opinion polls “prove” that Putin is wildly popular in his country?

When are you going to wake up to the fact that your sheer stupidity, blindness, ignorance, and dogmatic stubbornness is destroying what remains of honest leftism? How can leftism pretend it represents a real alternative to capitalism when, time and again, it defends tyrants like Putin in the name of “anti-imperialism,” “stopping war,” or some other sheer nonsense?

The people of Aleppo know you are their enemies, because you vocally or tacitly support their destruction, and the people of Russia will also one day realize that you wish slavery and tyranny upon them as well, if they have not realized it already. TRR