For Russians in Ukraine, their country of origin is now an enemy

Between shame and anger: the invasion of Ukraine initiated by the Kremlin has become a personal drama for Russians living in Ukraine, who now see their country of origin as an enemy.

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Sasha Alekseyeva, 32, moved to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, more than four years ago, fleeing the authoritarian regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

For many of his liberal compatriots, this former Soviet republic which has seen two pro-democracy revolutions since 2004 and where Russian continues to be widely spoken, has become a popular exile destination in recent years.

Originally from Saint Petersburg, Russia’s second city, this young woman found refuge in Lviv, a nationalist stronghold in western Ukraine, faced with the advance of the Russian army towards Kiev, which was bombed several times.

“I feel safer here than in Russia,” assures this sociologist and computer scientist with multicolored dreadlocks.

The Russian invasion has caught Russians living in Ukraine off guard, who find themselves torn between their homeland and their adopted country.

A delicate, even potentially dangerous situation when for some, in this country of some 40 million inhabitants, every Russian citizen is now an enemy.

At the end of January, nearly 175,000 Russians had a residence permit in Ukraine, the state migration service told AFP. Many others could be there illegally, as Ukraine does not have a visa regime with Russia.

“At first I was very ashamed to be Russian,” confides Galina Jabina, who spent several days under the bombs in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city in the east of the country.

“Then I was very angry, ready to throw myself on a tank with my bare hands, but there were no tanks, just airstrikes”, describes this 36-year-old advertising editor who “absolutely” does not believe that Moscow can win this war.

Maria Trouchnikova, a 43-year-old English teacher who has lived in Ukraine for twenty years but has always felt Russian, says she is experiencing an identity crisis.

“Shame, rage, pride for Ukraine, there is all that in me,” she told AFP. Plus “a terrible void instead of nationality”.

Andreï Sidorkine settled in Kiev fifteen years ago, but it was after the Russian invasion that he definitely felt at home there and does not want to go anywhere.

In two weeks of war, this 40-year-old man has become accustomed to explosions and anti-aircraft sirens and has tried several times to enlist in the Ukrainian armed forces, without success because of his Russian passport.

“If ever Russian troops enter Kiev, I would like to welcome them with weapons in hand and not empty hands,” said Mr. Sidorkin, who prepares Molotov cocktails with other volunteers while waiting.

For many, this war has ruined ties with relatives in Russia who support the invasion or do not wish to condemn Moscow as Russian strikes have left hundreds of civilians dead and more than two million refugees.

“I barely talk to anyone anymore,” says Ms. Jabina. “My friends are hiding their heads in the sand, my family is inviting me to go back to Russia and they don’t understand why I’m not doing it”.

From her family, Sacha Alekseyeva only communicates with her 88-year-old grandmother.

It saddens him to think that she might never see her again. “But when you hear that an 18-month-old child has been killed (by Russian strikes, editor’s note), you no longer think of your grandmother,” insists the young woman.

Yulia Kutsenko, founder of a kindergarten in Kiev, says her mother and sisters in Moscow are supportive of Ukraine but she has found it hard to understand their inaction, even though any protest is brutally suppressed by the Russian authorities.

“I’m very afraid for them, but I would still like them to go out on the streets,” said the 44-year-old woman, who now feels Ukrainian and considers Russia “an enemy”.

Some even hope for the decomposition of their country of origin.

“It would be convenient to say that only Putin is guilty” for having ordered the invasion of Ukraine but “it is not true”, analyzes Andreï Sidorkine. “We must dismantle this imperial myth of Russia”.

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