As I sat there with “number 52” in the air, it struck me how easily we accepted his description of us, the unfriendly.
Perhaps because it was said with a hint of his old, tried-and-true charm.
I was ashamed. We are not the problem, it is him and the rest of the Russian leadership. They talk about defeating the Nazis. But the use of language itself is a deception, perhaps also a self-deception.
Because there are hardly more Nazis and right-wing extremists in Ukraine than in many other European countries, including Russia.
And now the Russians themselves are acting much like the self-proclaimed German lords they fought against at the cost of 27 million dead in the last world war.
It has been a dark autumn. I had been looking forward to meeting an old friend and her husband. The first dinner at the home of someone I knew from my time as a correspondent in the 1990s. I always thought we shared basic values.
Not any more. Because they were convinced that the bodies in Butsja’s streets was staged by the Ukrainians. That it was Ukrainian forces that bombed the port city of Mariupol to ruins. That it was the Ukrainians who started the war against Russian speakers in Donbas.
At one point I got up and said that I can’t take this anymore.
But then the Russian hosting traditions kicked in. Friends don’t part like that. A glass of cognac later I was able to leave, in a taxi ordered and paid for by the host. But we haven’t met since, and in that lies a sadness that cannot be extinguished.
Difficult distance to the war
How do you feel about the war, many at home ask. I answer that the truth is that I notice it only because I seek it out. That is, news about the war, on TV, online and in social media. The nearest battlefield is around 700 kilometers away.
There are a few things here in Moscow that remind people of the war. Z-symbolet outside Gorky Park is one of them. Even with 25 degrees below zero, people came there to skate and everyone has to see the letter Z. It stands in two places at the entrance.
In the most famous of all pedestrian streets in Moscow, Gamle Arbat, pictures of children from Donbas are on display.
They will represent the victims of Ukrainian aggression against Russians.
– Let it always be mum, let it always be me, is the name of the exhibition.
The images are similar to those used in human rights campaigns at home. But here they are hung up to justify a war of aggression. They are hard to look at.
Would love to go to Donbas
I would like to go to Donbas myself, to the places where people’s lives are turned upside down, where everyone has a story about killed relatives and neighbors. Since I have to enter from Russia, protected by Russian forces, there will be stories of Ukrainian abuses.
But we have to bear hearing about the civil suffering on that side as well. We must be able to look civilian victims and relatives from both sides in the eye and be able to say: “I hear what you’re saying. I understand your grief”. And then we have to stick to who has the political responsibility for it becoming this way.
But those with that responsibility do not like to let Western journalists into the war. To be honest, I don’t even know how many people have tried. We are, rightly, afraid of being steered in their direction, exploited in their propaganda.
The war does not concern them
– What is happening in Ukraine has no bearing on how we see the future, said two young journalism students I met last week. They work with local journalism and culture.
The young women do not watch news on TV, much like young adults in Norway. Thus, they do not get all the success stories about accurate artillery, about young soldiers who are willing to sacrifice everything to beat the alleged Nazis.
Bang bang, two sentences from the reporter, bang bang, one sentence from a tank soldier, bang bang, suddenly a chorus of men walking in the war zone, bang bang, the reporter showing ruins cleared of mines and unexploded artillery. «Finally, now we are in control, the Nazis have been driven out’. This is how the Russian TV news goes – day after day.
But my young journalism students in Moscow choose to shut out the war.
There are of course people who care here in Russia. Several hundred thousand spoke with their legs when they fled the country in connection with the partial mobilization in autumn 2022.
The gay opposition politician, economist and staunch war opponent Grigoriy Yavlinsky told me last week that eight out of ten Russians do not notice the war in particular.
– They are too poor to be affected by the sanctions directly. They are not used to buying Western brands and going to Europe on holiday, Javlinskij explained.
Although Europe. Russia is also Europe, but everyone understands that when Russians now say Europe, it is the other Europe – the one that has all the brands, but which, according to the management here, wants to destroy Russia.
The Norwegian Jarlsberg exists
A few words about brands. Before is have become fewer of them, the big chains have left. Ikea, Hennes & Mauritz, Zara and all the expensive fashion stores are gone. But an acquaintance just told me that you can still buy Ikea furniture. Western cosmetics and western hair products are sold everywhere.
And I have found a lady at a market who sells Norwegian Jarlsberg cheese. Admittedly unbranded, but with the unmistakable taste of well-aged Jarlsberg. “Street Georgia”she whispered in my ear.
So-called parallel imports have become fully legal. It goes mainly via Turkey, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Georgia. The Russian authorities have no objection to the importation of Western goods without a license or permission from the manufacturer. The importer only has to take responsibility for repairing or replacing if the item breaks during the warranty period.
And distribution is going so fast, at least in big cities. Everything from cars to toilet paper, cinnamon and fish can be ordered online. Here in Moscow, most things come to your door without costing a kopeck. Amazon doesn’t exist, only Ozon.
So for those who want to, it is entirely possible to live as if the war did not exist.
What are the Russians thinking – really?
But not for a journalist from Norway. Because the whole point is to tell about how people live and think. And sometimes people in the home newsrooms ask what “Russians” think about a specific question.
Sometimes I just have to answer “I don’t know”, as for example when it comes to the church’s and Putin’s campaign against queers and people who want to change their gender. I haven’t talked to many people about it, there are no credible opinion polls and I’m not sure if people would answer honestly if I asked.
No LGBTIQ groups will come forward, it is punishable to do so «propaganda». And any defense of their values can be classified as propaganda.
Both the church and Putin use liberal attitudes towards queers in the West as one of the arguments for the need to wage war in Ukraine.
But there are exceptions for art with a capital K. One Saturday a little while ago I went to a theater by chance to see Oscar Wilde’s play Salomea performance of a woman who danced for King Herod, in this story in exchange for her wish to have John the Baptist’s head on a platter granted.
All but one of the roles were played by men. Salome was a super-masculine man who danced a violent, erotic dance to heavy rock in minimal gold thongs in front of Herod.
Then she, or he, kissed Johannes’ severed head on the mouth. This is how Salome took revenge on Johannes because he rejected her.
This is therefore allowed, because it is art. And the women around me on the balcony sat with binoculars to properly enjoy the sight of men in silk and feathers.
Most likely they also vote for Putin.