I fled my year abroad in Russia as war began – Now I’m in Latvia where people fear the worst
These are my experiences on both sides of the conflict
I lived in Russia on my year abroad for a total of nearly five months, both in St. Petersburg and Moscow. I skied in Sochi, walked to school in -27 degrees Celsius, drank shots of vodka and bought a Russian hat made from arctic fox fur. I like to think that I lived a very authentic Russian lifestyle.
My year abroad experience completely changed in March 2022. My university ordered all students studying Russian to return to the UK at the earliest opportunity, even asking us to leave things behind if it meant getting on the next flight home.
Just hours after Putin declared war, the atmosphere in Moscow utterly changed. You could feel a tangible sense of uncertainty. The increase in police presence was shocking. I saw at least 100 police vans within the space of 24 hours, labelled with “военная полиция” – “war police”.
I walked through an underground crossing and saw a German shepherd, whose chain lead was being held by a policeman – he had a bulletproof vest on, a balaclava and was carrying an assault rifle. The only body part he kept visible was his cold, passive eyes.
My flatmate and I were too scared to speak in English in the streets of Moscow, concerned that we would be arrested. We had been advised only a few days earlier to always carry at least 5,000 roubles (£50) in cash to bribe any policeman that attempted to arrest us.
We had heard of Russians who had been arrested for protesting against the war, driven out of the city and packed like sardines into vans without food or water to be locked inside them for days at a time. Walking through Red Square, where the Kremlin, Russia’s governmental building, felt like walking through a minefield. One wrong move, like pointing at something, taking a photo, talking too loudly in English, and you could have been arrested.
‘On that flight home, I felt relief, but also guilt’
As well as worry, a lot of the last conversations I had with Russians were lined with confusion. I had been told many times by many Russians, from two strangers I met in a ski lift to the Russian lady I lived with, that a war with Ukraine would simply never happen. And I believed them. I was even asked to be filmed to confirm that I was English and state that Russia would never invade Ukraine, and I nearly did.
The explanation I give to people from the West is this: imagine if Boris Johnson declared that Ireland was the enemy of the United Kingdom. The Irish were plotting against us, with the entirety of the world with them and against us. Imagine then a few days later he invaded. This is how it feels to an average Russian: an invasion of a country that feels wrong and a world that has abandoned them.
When war did break out, it was these two emotions of worry and confusion that you could feel the most. I personally never felt threatened as a foreigner, even in my last few days in Russia. I had the luxury of knowing I could get out, but this wasn’t the case for the majority of people I met.
I know couples, one Russian and one Western, that have been ripped apart and Russian teachers now without students. I got one of the last seats on a flight out of the country. On that flight home, I felt relief, but also guilt.
‘On the other side of what used to be the iron curtain, there is a palpable sense of fear’
Now, I am in Riga, Latvia. Here, still on the other side of what used to be The Iron Curtain, there is also a palpable sense of fear. There is, however, still a slight difference. It is not so much “what could happen next?”, which is what was clear in Russia in March, but rather “we could be next”.
I was recently in the Museum of Latvian Occupation where there was an exhibit about how Latvia fought against the Russian occupation for almost four decades. My favourite story was about a woman who hid the Latvian flag in the lining of her handbag on her journey to the gulag in Siberia.
I can only imagine how many Ukrainians are now also showing such solidarity in the face of the Russian invasion. Walking through that museum did not feel like a step into the past but more of a reminder of the present.
Anti-Putin propaganda is rife in Latvia. To many Latvians, the story of Russia invading Ukraine is unfortunately all too familiar, which is why, along with Estonia and Lithuania, their concerns about the war are so acute.
Geographically, Latvia is in a particularly perilous position. Bordering Russia on one side, Belarus on another, and only Lithuania between it and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian province still existing in the middle of Europe, there is a real sense that Latvia is next.
‘One word describing Putin is repeated more than most: “людоед”, the people eater’
There are reminders of this everywhere, most prominently opposite the Russian Embassy. There are signs along the road stating “война с россией ближе, чем кажется” – “the war is closer than it seems”. There is a huge poster of Putin with the features of a skeleton. Tiny china heads line the street, each one representing a child that has died in the conflict.
There is a display of women’s underwear covered in red paint, symbolising the women that have given birth in hospitals in Kyiv, knowing they could be bombed at any given moment. One word describing Putin is repeated more than most: “людоед”, the people eater.
The difference here is that Latvians make their fear about the war and anger towards Putin utterly apparent. Russians unfortunately don’t have that luxury. For many Russians I know, protesting the war means risking time in prison, loss of your job, a huge fine or worse. Others don’t understand the severity of what is going on in Ukraine because they simply are not told.
I can understand Russian fear of the West just as I can understand Western fear of Russia. I have seen both sides of the conflict and there is one thing Russians, people in the Baltic states, and even people here in the West all have in common: dread over what could happen next.