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11 April 2021

Putin, What Have You Done with My Russia?

Many people in post-Soviet countries have retained strong ties with Russia. For years, this was a generally positive, even elite, connection. These days, things are changing. Russian-speaking Azerbaijani, Nailya Bentley, explains how Russia's invasion of Ukraine is souring her good memories.

Putin, What Have You Done with My Russia?

Image: Rotozey/Shutterstock 

Somehow it feels like writing on any topic other than the war in Ukraine would not be appropriate at the present time.   

“So why don’t you just write about that?” said someone the other day.  

Write what, I wondered? I feel like anything I could possibly say would be obvious. Or already said. Or at least already said better than I could ever manage.   

Yet, I have been incredibly preoccupied with the subject.  

A friend of mine asked me recently why it was that I seemed so disturbed by the situation in Ukraine. Do you have family there? No. Are you partially Ukrainian? No. So why does this bother you to such an extent?   

The thing is, to me, besides the obvious - all those civilian deaths, the possibility of Putin deciding to nuke us all, etc. - this war has brought up a lot of weird emotions.   

A Russian-speaking Azerbaijani 

After all, I grew up in Soviet times as a Russian-speaking Azerbaijani in Baku. There used to be quite a lot of us. Indeed, to my huge embarrassment, I don’t even speak Azerbaijani very well. That happened to a lot of people from my generation. At that time, Russian was perceived to be the language of culture and education.   

I was always drawn to everything Russian, and Russia has always had an enormous influence on my cultural upbringing. Russia to me means Akhmatova, Bulgakov and Tsvetayeva, Nabokov, Pushkin, Lermontov, Bunin - where do we even stop? Russia to me is the Tretyakovskaya Gallery and Petrodvorets. It’s the Bolshoi and Taganka theatres.   

Add to that the movies… all those movies I grew up watching and re-watching every year. And the food. Even with some of the dishes that I cook, I would have to pause to think twice about whether it is something culturally Azerbaijani or Russian.   

So much that I love comes from Russia.   

Or do I have to say “loved”?   

What I see now depresses me - and not only because Putin invaded another country and people are dying.   

It also depresses me because it has brought the other side of everything Russian to the surface. The ignorance. The bigotry. The nationalism. The imperialism. The brutal, sweeping violence.   

It has reminded me that Russian culture does not only mean all those wonderful things I grew up admiring. It also consists of vatnik (jingoist) mentality, a sense of imperialist entitlement, and some really screwed-up beliefs.   

It scares me that thousands of Russians are there on television and social media, laughing at the sanctions, making stupid jokes about not being bothered about McDonald's and Ikea, and celebrating how great their country will be without the evil of Western influence.   

Did I know about this other side of Russia? I guess, deep down, I must have known. Because the invasion of Ukraine is not the first time the Russian army went to “liberate” someone. Look at what happened in Chechnya. Remember what they did to Georgia.  

It’s not just the “cattle” (or bidlo as we say in Russian) who believe Putin is doing the right thing.   

Worryingly, it is also some people who are otherwise quite intelligent.   

Good Versus Evil 

To me, the war in Ukraine is quite unique in its good vs evil setup. But take some other long-term never-ending conflicts. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. There will always be sides in any war. Israel and Palestine, for example.   

I get it when people who have no understanding or knowledge of the region ask silly questions about the Karabakh wars or make wrong assumptions because the whole history of the conflict may be confusing to them. But this, now? Even if you don’t understand anything about the region or know anything at all about Russia or Ukraine, it is easy to understand - one country attacked the other.   

“You just don’t see the full picture,” said an ex-colleague of mine. “Read up on independent sources about Neo-nazis in Ukraine.”  

“I’m sorry, they attacked another country,” I replied. 

There is a standard set of explanations that Putin supporters usually throw at you. They claim Ukrainians secretly opened biological weapons research laboratories. That they were breeding neo-nazis. They could say that Ukraine is a strategically crucial land for Russia with its ice-free ports. That NATO represents some sort of an existential threat to Russia. That it is all a plot by America and England. (This last one seems to be the most popular explanation at the moment, though I am confused how England ended up behind it all).   

Even if they were true, none of those reasons would justify an invasion of another country. Full stop.   

Yet, to thousands of people in Russia, this simple fact does not seem clear. And that by itself is disturbing.

I am, without any doubt, on Ukraine’s side here. Yet, I can’t help but feel sad about Russia, too. What happens to the non-vatnik population? There are plenty of Russians who didn’t want this war. Many people there are now trapped not only by their own government but also cut off from civilization, any progress, any future. What happens to all those who had to leave without knowing when or if they will return? What happens to those who have no financial opportunity to leave?   

So yes, I am heartbroken for Ukraine, but I am also saddened by what Putin has done to my Russia, to the Russia I liked and knew. In one barbarian move, he has taken his people right back to a life behind the Iron Curtain. He brought back into existence things that we had all assumed we left behind forever. Russia has returned to the era of Stalin - and all that with an enormous price tag in terms of humanitarian tragedies, a horrendous image of Russians in the civilized world, and a long-lasting economic disaster that will affect all of us for many years to come.   

And for the foreseeable future, whatever the outcome of this “special operation,” when Russia comes to my mind, it no longer means Pushkin, Tsvetayeva, ballet or The Bolshoy. It means murder.