In our second article on the war in Ukraine, EM Oxford Region’s current Chairman, Graham Jones, looks at the personal element behind the headlines. Based on his travels in the country, he looks at how ordinary Russians may be seeing this conflict. He also discusses how everyone here can help to support those who have had their lives torn apart by Putin’s war.
Six weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 I spoke with the young Intourist guide who had welcomed us on the day of our arrival in Moscow, intent on travelling to Siberia and returning via what was still Leningrad.
That spring the people of the Soviet Union, electing the Congress of People’s Deputies, were able, or the first time ever, to choose candidates not approved by the Communist Party. Election literature was everywhere, in waiting rooms, on public transport, and in hotel lobbies.
For someone used to repressive regimes everywhere east of the Iron Curtain which divided Germany and Europe from the Baltic to the Adriatic, this explosion of free speech in the heart of the Soviet empire was astonishing.
What did the young man think of it? I expected enthusiasm for perestroika and glanost. ‘It’s chaos,’ he replied. ‘But luckily we have the KGB. They will sort it out and bring the country back to its senses.’
Not long before the pandemic struck, with a former KGB colonel now wielding autocratic power in Russia and promised another 15 years in the Kremlin, the young man’s words came back to me as I listened to two young Russian women describing what life in their country was like.
It was a social evening put on by friends in Spain to welcome young people from several countries taking part in a summer work camp. Two guys from Czechoslovakia told why beer defined life in their part of Europe. Two Italians laughed about buses and trains that never ran to time but shared with us delicious pizza they had made.
‘The highlight of our year,’ said one of the two Russian girls, ‘is New Year’s Eve when our President speaks to the nation.’ They were in deadly earnest. Irony this was not.
What are they thinking now, with Russia suspended from the Council of Europe and shunned by most of the world for war crimes in Ukraine? Were they in that sports stadium to wave Russian flags and cheer Putin’s repeated lies? Or are they open to persuasion that Putin is guilty of war crimes and sullies Russia’s good name? We must hope so, which is why I have doubts that cutting ties like city twinning, as Oxford has done with Perm, is the right thing to do if it means fewer channels for our appeals to ordinary Russians.
Like many of us, I’ve been agonising about what as an individual I can do. I’ve been outside the Bodleian Library, demonstrating solidarity with protesting Ukrainians in Oxford. I wear the Ukrainian colours. But that is not enough.
Were I 20 years younger, I would go to Ukraine to help on the ground. Ukrainians are right when they tell us this is our war too – to protect European values which draw their inspiration as much from Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky as from Shakespeare, Dante, and Goethe.
As it is, I am in touch with the former barista at Costa on Cowley Road whose parents are in Kharkiv, asking how I and my wife can help. We don’t have a spare room but we can help person-to-person in other ways.
We all laughed, I think, at David Cameron’s lack of foresight in hiring a lorry without a spare tyre to drive to Poland with food and clothing for refugees. But at least he and his Chipping Norton colleagues were walking the walk. I shall seek out the group doing similar work in Oxford, and of course donate to the Red Cross.
Workwise, I’m due to take part once more in an annual academic symposium in Serbia with Russian colleague. I’m writing to two particular friends and colleagues in Moscow to offer not anger but concern and hope for replies which indicate they are among the brave Russian souls urging an end to this war. There is much we can do by mobilising professional contacts.
Other voices come back from that autumn when the Wall fell and Gorbachev was the hero of the hour. The lad in Irkutsk who ran up to us wearing a Margaret Thatcher tee-shirt. The woman in Leningrad who said ‘Give us time. After 70 years being told what to think and do, we’re out of practice in making decisions for ourselves.’
Should we be doing more militarily to help Ukraine? A crucial and little discussed factor is the Responsibility to Protect, a duty laid on nations under international law endorsed by all member states of the United Nations in 2005. It addresses four key concerns: to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.
We shall hear more about this as Putin’s war of attrition claims more innocent victims.
Oxford branch of the United Nations Association plans a meeting at Oxford Town Hall in the week of April 25. Speakers are invited from the Ukrainian Embassy, the Red Cross, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
Please pencil this in your diary and be there to Stand with Ukraine.