April 22, 2022
One thing I’ve learned about Russian businessmen from teaching their children is that they don’t give much away. I once spent an entire summer with a family without working out what my employer did for a living. Most things are concealed beneath a patina of brusque charm and competence.
When Russia invaded Ukraine I saw a small crack in this façade. My current boss is a commodities trader who lives in a prosperous city outside Moscow. Before work starts each morning his chauffeur drives us to the gym in a Mercedes-Maybach. We usually spend the ten-minute journey having an animated discussion about the brutal training regime we’re about to be put through. He often sprints to the front desk as soon as we pull up.
It was still dark when I met him by the garage on the morning of February 24th. We’d both seen the announcement about the start of the “special operation” in Ukraine. The Kremlin had ridiculed the American government’s warning that Russia was about to invade its neighbour, so few people were prepared for it. My boss got into the car and sat in silence watching footage on his phone of tanks streaming across the border. When we arrived at the gym he sat there for another ten minutes, taking it all in. I’d never seen him be still for so long.
The word I heard over and over again was: “Why?”
I was in a bit of a daze myself. I worried about being kicked out of the country, then felt bad for being concerned about myself instead of Ukraine. I carried on with my usual teaching schedule and had an early supper – pork pie with gold-leaf topping – with the children and their nanny, Tatiana.
Tatiana is a short, warm-hearted middle-aged woman. She states with some pride that she has never left Russia; she says there’s no need when she can travel with her mind via theatre and classical music. My lessons are often interrupted by her charming rendition of some Puccini aria. She’s very good at sensing when the kids are lying to her, but these instincts seem to desert her when she’s watching Russian TV.
That night, Tatiana insisted on having the news on during dinner. She kept trying to bring the conversation back to the situation in Ukraine; the children ignored her gambits. After eating, she led them off one by one for individual lectures.
I overheard snippets – “the Ukraine government and the Nazi Zelensky have been killing our Russian brothers in Donbas” – and was astonished at how quickly she had internalised the official line, which was still only a few hours old. Like the TV anchors, Tatiana began her justification of Russia’s actions by explaining the birth of European fascism in the 1930s. Then she described the ensuing world war (sparing the eldest no detail of its horrors). Afterwards I asked the children what they made of it all, using English so that they could speak freely. They shrugged. “We were not really listening,” said one. I couldn’t tell if he was simply being diplomatic.
Instagram was harder to ignore. The youngest child and I used to browse it together between lessons, flicking through videos of skateboarding or motorbike tricks. One evening during the first week of the war, a clip popped up in my student’s feed of a Russian tank rolling over a civilian car. He gasped, put down his phone and began typing out the next paragraph of his essay in silence. It was the only time he had ever instigated an end to the breaktime.
The video showed a Russian tank rolling over a civilian car. He gasped and put down his phone
The family I live with weren’t the only ones struggling to process what was happening. Most people didn’t know what they were supposed to think. In cafés and bars around the city every conversation seemed to be about Ukraine. The word I heard over and over again was: “Why?”
After a few days my boss was back to his usual self at the gym. During one boxing session he remarked to our trainer that my punches were improving. “Soon you will be ready for Donbas!” he joked. The trainer snorted in appreciation.
I’m not sure how he regained his confidence, but I could tell that the official line on the war was gaining traction on him and others around me. Instagram stopped showing us videos like the one that had shocked my student, whether because of censorship or algorithms I’m not sure. After a few weeks the government banned the platform altogether.
Unlike everyone else in the house I read Western media, so saw the flurry of reports on sanctions. Obviously I’m not privy to private conversations, but the only impact of sanctions that I witnessed myself was when one of the children demanded her brother let her use his VPN – she wanted to set her phone’s location to America and use ApplePay to buy things. As far as I can tell, the biggest inconvenience the family has faced so far is having to take their holiday in Dubai, not France.
Other rich families I know are worried that their sons may be conscripted, and are desperately trying to get them places in American and European universities. I’ve received many requests to read over application forms. One would-be student asked if I thought his chances would be improved by mentioning that his grandparents were Ukrainian. I said I didn’t know.
The biggest inconvenience the family faced was taking their holiday in Dubai, not France
Café conversations have turned from confusion to cynical humour. The situation has affected people’s spending power but it’s not yet a catastrophe, for the urban middle classes at least. Over sushi with some friends the other day – most are fairly well-off and university-educated – one joked that it didn’t matter that he was paid in roubles because he needed foreign currency only for socks and it was nearly spring. Humorous memes circulate about how little wealth a man needs these days to persuade a woman to have sex with him; one shows a woman removing her underwear in the passenger seat of a car and saying to the driver: “And you definitely have sugar at home?”
People often talk about shops closing; H&M seems to be the one that upsets people the most. Russia’s isolation from the global economy has itself become a punchline. After Apple closed its doors some people started saying: “The latest iPhone in Russia is the one you have now.” There is lively debate about which country to set your VPN to if you want to circumvent sanctions on the Russian banking system. The reason for all these sanctions is never discussed.
I try not to judge my friends for their lack of curiosity. Russians aren’t the only people to be more interested in their own lives than in holding their government to account. But I do find it hard watching comedians and celebrities parrot the same set of lines on the war. I learnt a lot of my Russian from these people, and some of them feel almost like friends.
One of my favourite things to watch on Russian TV used to be a film called “Yolki”, which is broadcast every New Year’s Eve. It’s a rom-com (think “Love Actually” with the plots taking place across different Russian time zones) that gets a new sequel every year with the latest B-list celebrities. On December 31st I like to gather friends for caviar and a tipsy viewing. Sergey Svetlakov, a comedian, is a “Yolki” stalwart. Svetlakov once compared living in Russia to being stuck in the toilet of a second-class train carriage, but since the war he’s been criticising other celebrities for abandoning Moscow. Polina Gagarina, a pop star who contributed to the soundtrack of one of the “Yolki” films, sang at Putin’s war rally in March.
The influencers are even worse. Funny TikTok stars like Young Gupka, who my students love, have posted videos of themselves reading almost identical patriotic statements of support for the peacekeeping troops in Ukraine. It took a while, but nearly everyone is now sticking to the script.
Since February 24th I’ve had only two conversations during which people unambiguously opposed the war. The first was with a taxi driver a few days after the invasion started. He expressed disbelief that any Russian could point a gun at a Ukrainian, given the countries’ shared history. When I pointed out that Russians had taken Crimea
at gunpoint in 2014, he dismissed that as “different” without elaborating how. Then he continued to rail against the “Big Boss” – Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin – and all his bad decisions.
The second conversation was with a barber I saw shortly after the invasion. “It is terrible,” he said. “Nobody can want this!” The next time I saw him he was worried about how the situation would affect his income, and the extra hours he’d have to work to make his mortgage repayments. He put the blame squarely on Putin, who was behaving “like a bored baby wanting attention”. By the time of our third conversation, the barber seemed to have become more resigned to the situation, and quipped that his unglamorous Kia was more like a Mercedes now that car imports have halted. The impulse to joke, like the war, doesn’t seem to be ending.