I was in Moscow the day Putin invaded Ukraine, and some Russians were in tears

Moscow

Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow.Getty Images

  • I was living in Moscow when Putin declared war on Ukraine.

  • Russian friends and colleagues were in tears as they began to realize what the invasion meant.

  • Rumors about the potential imposition of martial law was my cue to leave.

This essay is based on the recollections of Cameron Manley, 24, from Edinburgh, Scotland, who was a private tutor and freelance journalist in Moscow before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. He now works as a news fellow with Business Insider.

February 24, 2022, was a sunny day in Russia’s capital, Moscow.

The commute to work that Thursday morning had felt like any other. Traffic hurried down Moscow’s Novyi Arbat Avenue as normal. There was the usual bustle as people tried to squeeze their way onto the overflowing metro.

People didn’t speak — they never did — preferring instead to stare at their phones, but there was no doubt what everyone was reading.

That morning, the Russian capital had awoken to the news that Vladimir Putin had launched a “special military operation” in Ukraine, beginning what was to become the largest land war in Europe since the end of World War II.

Many friends and colleagues tried to shrug off the news of the invasion with an apathy that had become commonplace in Putin’s Russia.

One colleague, quite confidently, proclaimed that “this thing will last no longer than a week. Two at most. It’s not a big deal.”

In recent years, Moscow attracted a very particular kind of foreign worker, an uncertain graduate willing to enjoy a gap year making money at not especially difficult jobs in teaching, banking, and advertising. I had taken up just such a job: I as a private tutor for wealthy Russian children.

My company’s office was on Tverskaya Street in central Moscow. As I packed away my laptop on the evening of February 24, I began to hear chants coming through the open window.

“Nyet voinye” (“No to war”), “Putin idi nakhui” (Fuck Putin), “Pozor” (shame), “Mir” (peace). The cries were coming from Pushkin Square just down the road.

Russian police officers detain a woman during an unsanctioned protest rally against the military invasion on UkraineRussian police officers detain a woman during an unsanctioned protest rally against the military invasion on Ukraine

Russian police officers detain a woman during an unsanctioned protest rally against the military invasion on Ukraine, March,6, 2022, in Central Moscow, Russia.Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images

I met with some Russian friends later that evening. The emptiness that everyone had felt in the morning had transformed into terror as the realization that Russia was at war hit home.

Some didn’t have the words to speak, too choked up by tears, only able to shake their heads. What would happen to them? To their families? Others kept repeating the word “uzhas” — horror.

That night, I sat thinking about how the country I had studied, read about, and fallen in love with was disintegrating before my eyes.

Russian troops conscripts OmskRussian troops conscripts Omsk

A Russian serviceman adjusts the uniform of a conscript at a gathering point in Omsk on November 10, 2022.REUTERS/Alexey Malgavko

On the morning of February 25, instead of cars and buses running down Novyi Arbat, it was police vans, sirens blaring.

There, anti-war protesters were being tackled to the ground by black-clad police officers and the National Guard. They cried out and screamed, often with tears of anger in their eyes.

Those who didn’t have the confidence to wave placards placed anti-war stickers on their rucksacks, sprayed graffiti on walls or left green ribbons on park benches.

In those early weeks of the invasion, more than 15,000 protesters were thrown behind bars.

Security forces mass during an anti-war protest in Moscow, Russia on March 06, 2022.Security forces mass during an anti-war protest in Moscow, Russia on March 06, 2022.

Security forces mass during an anti-war protest in Moscow, Russia on March 06, 2022.Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Those plugged into what was happening made the savvy move to withdraw savings from local banks and exchange them for dollars.

In just a few days, the Russian ruble would collapse from 76 rubles to the dollar to 134.

Some foreign friends initially made dark jokes about how much their salaries, paid in international currencies, were now worth. These quickly ceased when they saw Russian colleagues in tears, whose life savings had halved overnight.

The waiter came over with the bill. Our credit cards were declined.

In those first days, the steady stream of disinformation was rampant across Russian social media platforms.

But at that point, we still had access to Western social media. The now iconic video of Zelenskyy and his team defiantly walking the streets of Kyiv and the countless other acts of Ukrainian defiance began doing the rounds.

That was the first glimpse of what was happening on the other side of the curtain.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a selfie-style video in Kyiv on February 25, 2022, alongside four top officials, in a bid to demonstrate that he was staying in Ukraine.President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a selfie-style video in Kyiv on February 25, 2022, alongside four top officials, in a bid to demonstrate that he was staying in Ukraine.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a selfie-style video in Kyiv on February 25, 2022, in a bid to demonstrate that he was staying in Ukraine.Armed Forces of Ukraine/Facebook

But soon after, Putin’s government blocked access to social media to prevent any other narratives, bar the official line, from seeping through.

At the same time, several Russian opposition media outlets were shut down for falling afoul of Russia’s censorship of coverage of the war, and almost all Western news outlets suspended operations.

By the time the war entered its first full week, texts were already pinging back and forth between friends, foreign and Russian, checking who was still around and when they were leaving.

They began to research the merits of Armenia’s visa policy vs Turkey’s. Foreigners with Russian partners became experts on Georgia’s quick and unbureaucratic marriage laws.

russians leaving russia armeniarussians leaving russia armenia

Russian and Belarus people as they wait a taxi at the airport upon their arrival in Yerevan, Armenia, on March 10, 2022.Karen Minasyan/AFP via Getty Images

On March 2, I went to a sushi restaurant for lunch with two British colleagues. One was incredibly anxious. The other had pragmatically put together a list of potential exit routes should the worst come to the worst.

When the waiter came over with the bill, our Visa debit cards were declined.

That evening, well-connected friends and colleagues gossiped about the imminent imposition of martial law and the closure of the borders.

We knew we had to leave.

‘Someone is trying to kill me, and his name is Vladimir Putin’

Tickets to Yerevan, Istanbul, and Dubai — the few cities still open to Russian flights — were selling for $3,000 apiece. Russian friends began referring to Tbilisi as the “new Constantinople,” referencing the city where anti-Bolshevik Russians fleeing the Communist revolution had taken refuge a century before.

We settled for the cheapest option: a train from Moscow to St Petersburg, a bus from St Petersburg to Helsinki, and then a flight home to the UK.

Putin, MacronPutin, Macron

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets French President Emmanuel Macron (R) on February 07, 2022 in Moscow, Russia.Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The day before we left was a strange experience where a concoction of different worlds seemed to merge.

There were those proudly walking around with “Z” T-shirts and badges as signs of support for the war.

But there were a lot of people simply apathetic to Putin’s invasion. Seeing people going to the theater and couples on dinner dates was strange, as though nothing had changed.

This subdued acceptance was bizarre: not necessarily contentment, but resignation. One Russian colleague said: “Look at the streets. Do you see war? No. So everything is fine.”

Moscow Russia skyscraper drone attackMoscow Russia skyscraper drone attack

Investigators examine a damaged skyscraper in Moscow’s business district after a reported drone attack on July 30, 2023.AP Photo

Within a year, the war would reach the world of the Moscovite as Ukraine’s drones struck the Kremlin, city office blocks, and then oil-and-gas targets within Russian territory.

Two years on, more than 300,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded.

But even in the early days, there was immense fear. Long lines of people formed outside banks. At work, many parents were trying to find ways to get their children into private schools in the West. Switzerland or the UK were hot choices for those who could afford it.

By mid-March, some 300,000 Russians had left the country, and by the end of the year, the total was just shy of a million. It was a mass exodus of Russians, many of whom saw leaving as the only means of protest that they had left.

At the Saint Petersburg bus station, a young man, no older than me, spoke as if in a movie: “Someone in this country is trying to kill me, and his name is Vladimir Putin.”

I hope to be back soon, I told the border guard

Finish boarderFinish boarder

View from the Finnish borderCameron Manley

At the border, they took people into rooms, singling out the conscription-age Russian men. We had heard stories of interrogations lasting four hours, with phone messages and laptop files being thoroughly checked. Luckily, my colleagues and I had deleted WhatsApp and other messaging services before leaving.

I stood at the glass window silently as the Russian border guard inspected my passport and now useless work permit.

“I hope to be back soon,” I said.

“I hope so too,” the border guard replied, handing me back my passport and gesturing me through the gate.

No one at that point could have predicted how long, bloody, brutal, and terrible this invasion would become.

As I stepped into Finland, I waved goodbye to Russia, the place, the beautiful image of Russia, its culture and people, that I loved.

Two years later, I continue to mourn that loss.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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