Is there a Different Russia? London’s post-Soviet diaspora react to war in Ukraine7 min read
Amongst the many blue and yellow flags hovering over the crowds at an anti-Putin, anti-war protest in Trafalgar square, a few flags stand out for their different colours – whether the current flags of other eastern European countries, or past flags of countries to-be.
Andrei, a front-end engineer from Belarus who moved to London 3 years ago, is waving a red-and-white flag. It was first adopted after the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, and was chosen as the first flag of post-Soviet Belarus, only to be replaced with its Soviet version after a referendum in 1995 called for by Alexandr Lukashenko. Harking back to an older political order, the flag is anathema to the symbolism promoted by the current government in Minsk and was one of the key symbols of mass protests in Belarus after the fraudulent presidential elections of August 2020.
After the protest ends, Andrei goes on to greet other Belarusians at the protests. He has been in Trafalgar Square, waving his flag and chanting slogans at almost every protest since Vladimir Putin gave the order for his troops to invade Ukraine. “I didn’t believe this would happen”, he says – on the eve of the invasion, he went to a basketball match with a Ukrainian friend, and the possibility of an invasion was a topic of discussion. “I thought that he might just go and try to do some limited manoeuvres around Donetsk, it made no sense for him to invade the entire country. But now you can no longer use logic to understand what he is trying to do.”
He maintains strong ties with family and friends at home, and tries to visit as often as possible. He was in Minsk in the summer of 2020, when the unprecedented anti-government protests reached their peak – “ I have seen everything”, he says. Andrei is ashamed of the position that the current leadership in Minsk holds, but is quick to point out that this is not representative of the majority of Belarusians – “very few people support Lukashenko’s view… Ukraine and Belarus are so close. And the TV channels in Belarus are much worse than the ones in Russia at spreading propaganda – people in the country are well informed, know how to search for genuine information on the internet on social media”.
Pavel Shliaha, also from Belarus, echoes Andrei’s words. “Most people in Belarus do not want this war,” he argues, drawing attention to Belarus’ delicate geostrategic position. “Russian troops are using our territory to enter Ukraine, but many Belarusians are now fighting on the side of the Ukrainians. We are very proud of them.” There are thought to be between 200 and 500 Belarusian volunteers in the Ukrainian army, including celebrities like Pavel Shurmei, a former Olympic rower and world-record holder.
Lukashenko has thus far avoided direct involvement in the conflict by sending state troops to Ukraine, but as Shliaha points out “he [Lukashenko] will remain in power as long as Putin is supporting him. We hope that if Ukraine is freed, Belarus will be liberated too.” Whilst Andei, Pavel and others in the diaspora community are vocal in their support for Ukraine, a February poll from Chatham House suggests that 50% of Belarusians believe their country should remain neutral. For many liberal Belarusians, unable or unwilling to leave home, supporting Ukraine is important, but it’s a question of timing.
We meet Keti Kalandadze, who has taught Georgian as a foreign language at UCL SSEES since 2018. Kalandadze, standing amongst a group of protesters in full Georgian national costume, explains her position. “Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, occupying the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, so we understand what Ukraine is experiencing. Our former president, Saakashvili, fought against Putin. He tried to warn the whole world against Putin and nobody listened. Now he’s in prison, on hunger strike. Our current government does not support Ukraine by imposing sanctions, but the Georgian people are not the government. This is our war too.”
In Georgia there have been calls for citizens to use the Russian army’s preoccupation with Ukraine as a window to seize back the two breakaway regions, but no insurrection has taken place so far. Moreover, Georgia, one the few countries still open to Russian planes, now houses more than 30,000 Russian exiles. It is unclear what proportion of these people fled for political reasons, and how many sought to evade sanctions. Given that credit-card sanctions affect Russian citizens regardless of their political affiliations, it isn’t always possible to draw a line.
In a follow-up interview, conducted after the Bucha massacre, Kalandadze has strong words for the enablers of Russian violence. “I think that Russians from all walks of life have imperialistic minds. Generally speaking, people are responsible too. There is no ‘different Russia’ – I don’t think so. Their own famous writers speak of the ‘Russian horde,’ which destroys everything in its way. It doesn’t really care about children, or the old or vulnerable. Ukrainians will never forgive them; neither we – Georgians.”
For a Kazakh protester, who wishes to remain anonymous, it is also the ‘imperialistic’ aspect of the Russian war that rings alarm bells. “Many Russian politicians have already said that Kazakhstan should be the next country to be invaded after Ukraine,” he says. “We’re afraid that they want to bring back the Soviet Union, which we don’t want.” In recent weeks, the Kazakh government appears to be taking steps to distance itself from Russia. Though Nur-Sultan has yet to officially condemn the invasion, prominent Russian TV host Tigran Keosayan Keosayan, husband of RT chief Margarita Simonyan, described Kazakhstan as ‘ungrateful’ and ‘sly’ for failing to back Russia, before directly threatening the Central Asian state. He is now expected to join the list of ‘unwelcome individuals in Kazakhstan’.
Sympathies between these two post-Soviet countries go beyond the desire for self-preservation, as the Kazakhs share one of the darkest chapters of their history with the Ukrainians. Between 1930 and 1933, more than 1.5 million people starved to death in Kazakhstan – almost half the population. As is the case with the Ukrainian Holodomor, the event is recognised as a Soviet-backed genocide within the country itself, but not in the majority of western countries – and certainly not in Russia.
The idea of western double-standards and ignored warning signs is a recurring theme amongst the London protesters from Belarus, Georgia, and Kazakhstan, and the sense of frustration is palpable. Though we meet protesters from all over Europe and from the extended international community, all supporting Ukraine, it is those from countries whose governments are cooperating with Russia on some level who are keenest to speak to us. This act of protest becomes a way for people to mark themself as distinct from the regime – ‘the people are not the government’ is a common catch phrase – but as the war develops, we hear it less often in relation to Russia.
Amongst the crowd is a small but distinct group of Russians, waving the alternate Russian flag – blue and white, with the red stripe removed. They explain that the red stripe has come to symbolise Russian bloodshed, and Russian imperialism. “We want the same as everyone in this crowd,” we are told by one girl, who does not give her name. “To end this war, and to close the skies over Ukraine.” A further pro-Ukraine demonstration was organised at Downing Street this weekend by Russian anti-war activists, the event remaining overshadowed by Putin’s Victory parade through the heart of Moscow.
Amongst the post-Soviet diaspora in London the mood is turning – against Russia, and sometimes against Russians too.
Featured image: Russian Diaspora / Wikimedia Commons
Vlad Iaviță is a postgraduate student in European Public Policy at the London School of Economics, and writes as a freelance journalist on Central and Eastern Europe and the European Union Neighbourhood Policy. He is a journalism mentee at the Rațiu Foundation and holds an undergraduate degree from the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at UCL.