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Anna Rankin

Against the war

The protest at Aotea Square, All photos by Anna Rankin

Anna Rankin on the NZ protest  

Early evening on the Friday the war began I went to visit Anastasia, a Russian Armenian Jew who prefers to use her first name only. It was a solemn affair—the sense of despair, horror and guilt stifled the air in the dining room where we sat, disquieted and still at the table as Anastasia, distraught and disorientated by grief, struggled to comprehend the situation. There is, in such devastating moments, that dawning understanding that history is quite suddenly assembling itself around one and one must take note of it before it becomes something we tacitly accept.

After sedate hours long into the night of reading, watching, listening, scrolling Anastasia opened a bottle of champagne retrieved from a cupboard to commiserate the end of her country and life as she had known it. An absurd gesture, perhaps, but one I’ve since heard reported from other households; after tears and mute horror, the helplessness of distance, the surreal dismay of misrecognition, nothing will make sense; there are many ways to mourn life.

The week the war unfolded Anastasia was despondent for Ukraine, and for her people. Everything had gone, had changed, she said. “My first thoughts were, okay, my country just invaded the country that I love, and surely it will be over in a couple of days…”

*

On the Sunday of that first week of war, we attend a peaceful rally held at Aotea Square initiated by the Ukrainian Association of New Zealand. The afternoon is one of blinding heat, the sun dazzling. An impressive number of people are gathered in swarms of yellow and blue clothing, many holding signs and placards, waving flags, draped in the colours of their country; there are tables assembled to sign petitions; people embracing, arguing, anxiously gesturing to one another. A speech is delivered around a crowd organised in a semicircle, there is music playing; the State Anthem, ‘Shche ne vmerla Ukrainy i slava, i volia’ (‘The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished’) periodically blasts across the square. Others are assembled on the edge of Queen Street, holding signs emblazoned with decrees and pleas; imploring passing vehicles to honk in support, which they do; people approach passers by to sign, to talk, to support. There is something of the festival atmosphere which is testament to the Ukrainian spirit of resilience and belief—of having not perished, against the odds of history.

"The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished..."

Alongside Ukrainians, there are Russians and New Zealanders there in support; one such sympathiser is a young man carrying a prodigious and bright bunch of sunflowers; the national flower of Ukraine. Paul, who prefers to offer his first name only, is lean and quietly spoken and tells me the fight against imperialism is everyone’s fight, “I don't support it when Western governments do it and we can’t allow it when Russia does it to Ukraine.” It is wrenching, he says; his friends, born in Russia but technically Ukrainian, or the other way around, are who he goes home to look after. Several days earlier, online, he saw photos of the Ukrainian nationalist movement flag, a far right symbol, being waved at a Wellington protest and he’s heartened to see it’s not here today: “I want everyone to know how wrong this is, and I think everyone should make that clear.”

Iryna, only a first name provided, has lived in New Zealand since 2012. It’s a love story, the man at her side softly laughs—a New Zealander who met a woman he fell for in Ukraine, whom he brought back to his country. Iryna’s parents are just outside the capital, Kyiv, as are her friends. At the time we spoke, her parents were safe but in panic; people were hiding underground, or staying in apartments and sleeping on the floor to avoid rouge, or deliberate, bullets. She has been crying for days, she says. She has to hold onto hope that the war will finish, and that scores won’t die, but she describes Putin as “destroying everything. He has crazy ambitions, but he is surrounded by other people, why won’t they stop him?”

*

When she learned of the war on Ukraine around 4pm on the day of its inception, Anastasia immediately called her father, an esteemed scientist and engineer, who lives in Moscow. He was in complete disbelief, she says; no one her family knows in Russia thought it a genuine possibility. The immediate consensus was that to ignite a war, with the kind of ammunition and infrastructure Russia possesses, meant something unspeakably dark. Anastasia’s father received the news as not only horrific for Ukraine, but the end of his country. And, as do many Russians, he has a complicated relationship with the idea of what it is to be Russian at all.

Before Communism collapsed he worked for the Russian Academy of Sciences; following its fall he inaugurated a business in the telecommunications sphere, and travelled around the world representing the Academy at various symposiums. He was acknowledged internationally a as someone whose work had improved standards of living in Russia. Anastasia said he was someone who worked to make Russia progressive through his talent and skill.

“To know everything he's worked so hard for and all the good work that has been done, it's like a switch has been turned off, a button pushed and it's all gone. And Dad is old, he can't start a new life," she says.

Anastasia was born in Moscow, as were her parents, her grandparents. Yet she’s never felt entirely connected to Russia for varied reasons and ancestral tensions, including the fact of her Armenian surname which set her apart from her classmates during her youth. Her father is Armenian Jewish and her mother, who has a PhD in economics, is Russian Jewish.

“I've tried to Westernise myself as much as I could, so that no one can tell I'm Russian", says Anastasia

Generations of her family have suffered under violent oppression; members of her father’s family were killed in the Armenian genocide—originally from a territory which is now a disputed region, constituted Azerbaijan during 2020’s conflict between the two countries—her great grandfather was a victim of political terrorism on account of his ancestry and sent to a gulag for three years following the false accusation aimed at him of plotting to assassinate Stalin. Her Armenian grandfather fought in the second world war and although traumatized throughout his life on account of the horrors he witnessed and experienced was fiercely proud to be Armenian.

Reflecting on Putin’s Russia leads her back to the era immediately following Communism’s decline. Aloud, she recites the history of what transpired: an enormous and exceptionally wealthy country flush with natural resources; gas, oil, nickel, belonging to the Government suddenly in the hands of oligarchs who not only became billionaires overnight but whose power is so extraordinarily entrenched it wrenches control of an entire state.

A child during Communism, Anastasia remembers the country feeling together. Before the regime collapsed she recalls being a happy child, one who loved and defended Lenin, a sentiment she now describes as brainwashing. Like Stalin before him and Putin after, photos were displayed in kindergartens and schools of Lenin petting children on the head, or seated on his lap. She remembers being touched by the thought of Lenin loving children, she became a “brainwashed communist very early”, she adds wryly, and shares a story during the swan song of the regime where, queuing for hours in a post office with her father, she overheard a group of people commenting on their hatred for Lenin, which occasioned her to stand up and inquire as to whether they knew grandfather Lenin loved children. Everyone was shocked, she says, and her father was terribly embarrassed. But the brainwashing works, she says, and she notices the same dynamic in Russia today. It affects children profoundly.

After Communism, her father’s circumstances improved; the first time she realised they were no longer poor was in 1992, when they went to McDonalds for the first time. While her parents were intellectuals they hadn’t been well off previously; as is well documented, part of the state’s plan for the nation was to invest heavily in education; one motivation being developing technology to rival if not supersede that of the West. And on this subject, Anastasia mourns the loss of the robust education that once marked the Russian state.

“Today, it's all gone. The USSR used to be leading the field in math, physics, chemistry, you name it, it's all gone. Competition was huge, so you were encouraged to involve yourself, you couldn’t be a non member of society.”

At 18 Anastasia moved to New Zealand to study . “I've tried to Westernise myself as much as I could, so that no one can tell I'm Russian. Even now when someone asks where I'm from I say New Zealand. More than half my life I've lived here and I don't want to explain the whole story. I just say I'm from here…I always, of course, had a choice to go back but I chose not to. So now I've been here for 20 years.”

*

At the time of writing, the Kyiv region has been reported as liberated from the Russian military, a pyrrhic victory considering the cruel devastation left by the army’s wake; news footage displays neighbourhoods and regions besieged by mass destruction and ruin. Grim scenes show dead bodies flung across roads in barren, muddied landscapes where homes once stood. One resident tells a reporter that Russian soldiers fired indiscriminately, killing civilians; leaving bodies where they fell. Survivors reportedly speak of mass graves, of tanks rolling over dead bodies as they retreat from towns and villages. Ukrainians report that as the military capitulated from the territory they planted mines, a final and lasting act of genocidal intent.

"Surely it will be over in a couple of days…”

Kate Turska is one of the original founders of the Ukrainian Association of New Zealand, established in 2007, with youth and educational issues her remit. While not on board in an official capacity any longer, the war has drawn her into supporting the resistance effort. Amid the episodic and somewhat deafening but joyous blasts of the State Anthem, mixed with the voices of men singing vociferously in unison, chanting, hands clutching waists, swaying in the heat, Kate provides an account of the situation as it stands for her.

I ask whether the Ukrainian community is generally as tight as it appears to be today, to which she replies that it’s times of tragedy that bond, that the community is more united today than it has been in years; as it is in Ukraine. It was the same in 2014; there is the sense one must find and be with their kin. The sole member of her family in New Zealand; her ménage are dispersed between Ukraine and Russia; her parents are in Donbass, where she grew up; a central conflict zone. Is her family safe, I ask. Safe is relative right now, isn’t it, she responds. In 2014 her town was occupied for 84 days, with no power for much of that period, leaving only a landline for communication with her parents. This time, there’s no landline but a connection at least, unlike some towns in the South where her friend’s parents live: there’s no power nor internet, so they’re effectively out of contact.

At the time we spoke there were no Russian troops in her parents’ town, but there are slightly further out. Envisaging the pair leaving, should they be forced to, means picturing a couple in their late 60s walking for 2000km—there are no trains or planes, of course—or taking a car whilst dodging tanks and cities under attack. Add to this scene hundreds if not thousands of others leaving and logistically, it’s not a possibility for them, she says. They’re staying put while they can, while their region is not a priority for the military, while the focus is concentrated elsewhere. It’s a matter of making a plan and a decision according to where the Russians will strike next, watching for their movements. It’s a saving grace, she adds. “I asked my father, what’s the plan, and he said ‘the war will show the plan’.”

"My father said they will run in the direction that looks the most quiet", says Kate

In 2014 her parents remained in place throughout the conflict, but this time they can’t, she laughs ruefully, because “they’re very well known for supporting the Ukrainian agenda, for lack of a better word.”

“Last time around they were helping Ukrainian troops coming in, and so on, so they wouldn't be safe. If the fighting starts they don't want to be there, but where will they go? My father said they will run in the direction that looks the most quiet. And that’s it, it’s a day to day thing, I talk to them every hour, constantly, apart from when they’re sleeping—but they’re only sleeping five hours a day to stay alert.”

Kate, too, hasn’t been able to sleep, or relax in the least. It’s still difficult for her to cognize the situation at all. A week prior to the war her father thought its contingency was highly unlikely. She still can’t believe what is happening in her home country is real.

“It's to me a parallel universe. I'm just looking at the things, and sometimes I forget for a moment and I go what the hell and I just … then I see my friends who are currently there, and my classmates, my other cousins, my family members, the ones who are at war, the ones who are hiding, the ones who are in shelters, all sorts—a lot of my friends are picking up arms. Everybody is picking up arms, making homemade molotovs.”

Several weeks later, I check in with Kate for an update. Her parents have now had to flee their home; Kate’s childhood home where she and her brother grew up. The town adjacent to theirs has been bombed, the air sirens a constant howl. Over several days they journeyed across western Ukraine for a border crossing into Hungary. There, Kate has organised an apartment where they’ll stay while their temporary visa to live in New Zealand is processed; given their age Kate will fly to Hungary to collect them, and bring them to safety. 

The visa process was straightforward, she says; it’s contingent on Kate acting as a sponsor—she is now responsible for her parent’s welfare and livelihood. Can she undertake this responsibility? You don’t have a choice, she says, it’s a matter of trying your best. 

They have mixed feelings about the sudden move across the world, she says. They’ve had a difficult few years with Covid, death in the family, the 2014 invasion. While they’re anticipating reuniting with their daughter, they’re leaving behind an entire life; one they might not see again; a house they’ve spent years slowly restoring may be in ruins should they ever return. 

“If they wanted to move to New Zealand at any point, if they were to consider applying under family stream, that would have meant planning, doing it on their terms, maybe selling their house, getting ready, packing up, whereas in this case they just left everything and had to run with whatever they could carry essentially.”

Further, making it out is just the beginning. “Generally speaking, once people make their way, if they are able to apply for this visa and get sponsored, they'll still have to start their life from scratch.”  

Kate is exhausted, her words punctuated with sighs. Ukrainians in New Zealand are in shock, disbelief, anger—all the emotions, she says. Her friends and family are each in different situations; women have had to leave with their children, many are in occupied territories unable to escape, some are living in basements, others have made it out into refugee camps, others are displaced and fled their homes to settle somewhere in the west for now and are waiting, others are fighting on the frontlines or volunteering with various organisations. Every day she receives messages from my classmates who are now in the army, or in local defence units, asking for help.

A sizeable portion of Kate’s family live in Lviv, a western city bordering Poland, so her familial line stretches east to west. She and her family speak both Russian and Ukrainian, and she’s not observed Russian speakers being oppressed; one claim made by Putin as a premise for war. It is, she adds, simply not how things are. The region in which her family lives is majority Russian speaking, and no one she knows supports Putin. That’s the general consensus, though, I put to her: that the so-called denazification, the supposed oppression, is Putin's paradigmatic misinformation, a very clearly false pretext. And it's not new, she adds: “Since Soviet times the Russian regime has attempted to exterminate Ukrainian culture, language—nothing Ukrainian was allowed because they couldn't see us wanting to be independent, ever.”

*

The Holodomor, or the Terror-Famine, was a famine artificially engineered by the Soviet government in Ukraine, home to one of the largest grain producing states in the USSR, from 1932 to 1933, and millions of Ukrainians died. Like the Armenian Genocide, it is not unequivocally recognised as such which prompts one to reflect on what, exactly, comprises a genocide—surely this occasion sufficiently meets the requirements as incorporated in the 1948 UN Genocide Convention— and the substantive political nature of bestowing such a title to a historical event where there is a clear act of aggression and an unambiguous victim. In defiance of this, Kate refers to it as such and states with authority that the operation was intended to not only extinguish life but to annihilate Ukrainian culture, language, spirit.

Placard, at right: "Putin! Let's speed up to the part where you kill yourself in a bunker"

Kate’s grandad originated from Lviv, so he was raised Ukrainian; speaking the language, appreciating his culture. In World War II his family fled Ukraine, reaching France, then on to Canada. However her grandad, a baby at the time, was hidden, alone, underground by an aunt, and he grew up in Ukraine. The family didn’t know, or see, each other for years; they had no idea whether he was alive. During the Soviet times they were reunited; by then he was a married adult. Having grown up in western Ukraine he read and spoke Ukrainian; objectionable in those years. Imprisoned twice during the Soviet era “for some made up thing once, and another made up thing”, he was sent to Siberia for a while, then returned and lived out his life until his death when Kate was 16. Growing up, Kate was told by Russians that Russian speakers in Ukraine were oppressed; Kate never witnessed nor believed this was true. She clarifies, again, that there was always the extermination of Ukrainian culture, and when they spoke their language or exhibited any pride in being Ukrainian the portrayal was that of a far right nationalist movement: “It never was, it’s just a normal amount of national pride that should be allowed in any sovereign independent country.”

You have to look at history, she says, and the long and embittered relationship between Russia and Ukraine. Crimea, to take just one example, was the only region with a port Russia could use. The denazification, the insistence— one even seemingly benign folk, or worse, some leftists use—that the threat of Nazisim is probable elicits outrage in Kate: “You can’t just see countries stand up and overthrow their president next door. If Russian people saw that and thought it was ok, if he didn’t make some kind of theatre out of Nazism, Russian people would say, oh, can you do that? You can’t just have that next door, so you have to make something out of it.

Aggression from Russia is not new, it’s not 2014 news, it’s not 1930s Holodomor time, it’s not Soviet times, this is centuries old conflict, just a new guy with a new agenda but it’s the same thing. With our geopolitics, we’re considered a buffer zone between the West. Not even considering the resources and all the other things, we’re a buffer between Russia and the West and always have been.”

"Every year it's getting worse, worse, worse in Russia; we have less, less, less freedom", says Andrei

Mention of the West warrants commentary on NATO, and Zelenskiy moreover. Expounding on the latter is suddenly met with reluctance—and off record disquisition. Here, her countenance shifts into a more guarded slant. Broadly speaking, Kate is not overly invested in the president; she lived in New Zealand when he was elected, and she knew him back when he was a comedian when she was a university student—it’s odd for her, she says with some bemusement. It doesn’t quite make sense, it is somewhat of a parallel universe that he was elected at all, she says. On NATO, at this point in time, it entirely makes sense for Ukraine to join, she says, and hopes they’ll be accepted “because we know who the enemy is—they’re right next door.”

Elaborating on this point, Kate particularises what Ukraine has given up in anticipation of inclusion; a trade, she submits, that has resulted in the country standing alone during war: “We were third in the world for our nuclear capacity capability and we've given that up in good faith in exchange for their guarantees of our sovereignty, and that we won't be touched, and Putin doesn't give a shit.” While there are gestures of support in reality, she says, nobody is there fighting for them. “Of course we'd like to see the world coming to our aid and of course we'd like to have those partnerships because otherwise we just get left to be torn apart by all these different agendas coming left right and centre.”

At this, Anastasia approaches and she and Kate begin conversing in Russian. But above the electronic music now sonorous behind the conversation Kate turns to me and says, “You can see the nation is so rattled, but also the nation is so united in their will to fight for their land.”

*

Andrei is 31 and Russian. He was at the Aotea Square protest in solidarity, to express that he is not behind Putin. He knows many people in Russia are caught in propaganda, “I understand what’s happening, and it’s not the first war from Russia”.

Andrei now feels ashamed to be Russian. He can’t change anything, he says, and he did not support Putin in the elections. He feels pain, above anything else. That he felt powerless to change anything in Russia is largely why he decided to emigrate elsewhere. Watching what occurred in Crimea, in Syria, the poisonings, was too much. Having been in New Zealand for two years, studying computer science, he wants to stay. It’s a different world, he says.

“I was in Europe, in different countries, and I understand what it means—a free country. Every year it's getting worse, worse, worse in Russia; we have less, less, less freedom. And it's not sharp, it's going at a moderate pace, so people in Russia are adjusted to this process, where it’s getting worse every year.”

He would like to visit home at some point, but solely as a tourist. He has a student visa, but hopes to obtain residency here, or the states, or elsewhere—anywhere but Russia. There, he has an uncle who watches television everyday, he says, and doesn’t understand what’s happening in Ukraine—or Russia.

“Russian television says that war is peace, it’s like reversing everything. They say it's not war, it's a peaceful operation, it's completely crazy. My friends and family are anti-war, only my uncle is who I know. I think he supports it, because he watches a lot of television. It's terrible. I can't do anything, this is why I'm here.”

*

As the assembly disperses, Anastasia and I make our way from downtown uptown to a bar, where we have a drink in the late afternoon sun and reflect on the day’s events. As a Russian, the protest was an entirely different experience for her. She felt vulnerable and unsure as to whether it was appropriate she show up in support, but she is careful to note that she understands why this is. Were the situation reversed, would she want Ukrainians there in solidarity? That can be a difficult question to ask oneself, when there is so much justified anger. There, she observed two Ukrainians, each holding an end of their national flag, debating over whether Ukrainians ought to speak both Ukrainian and Russian in Ukraine; one man stated Ukrainians should speak Ukrainian, the other replied that he didn’t want to speak Ukrainian—while conversing in Russian. This scene illustrates one aspect of the conflict—language, she says

Mostly, we speak of the war and its shifting dynamics. Each day worsens, she says. For the first week she couldn’t sleep; waking up, checking to see who had been killed, who was being bombed. One of the more initial shocks was seeing that the soldiers sent to the frontlines weren’t the heavy lifters beating up women in anti-war protests throughout Russia but 18 year olds, teenagers in effect, with five year old expired food in tanks fighting a war they’ve no comprehension of, “just meat for tanks”.

*

A fortnight after the war commenced, Anastasia and I met for an interview. She was disconsolate, afraid, heartsick, incensed. With the bombing in Mariupol she realised the grave extent of her country’s war crimes. She has to come to terms with it, she says. To accept that this is, irrespective of how she feels about being understood as Russian, or, for that matter, how Russian she feels, blood on her nation’s hands to which she is incontrovertibly associated. She doesn’t want to forget this damning fact. It’s why she’s joined a Telegram group of concordant Russians—across all ages and backgrounds, who she met at the last protest she attended after introducing herself, and stating she hoped to make some Russian friends.

"This is how tiny and simple my job is now, just to keep spreading the message..."

“We've all been supporting each other because we're all in such horror, and I can't really talk to my New Zealand friends about it. Everyone's exchanging stories, understanding we’re sharing this, we’re horrified and also mourning our country that never got a chance to become something good.”

It’s why she posts information on social media, even though she fears she’s alienating her friends: her New Zealand friends who she sees are increasingly less interested in the war, and her Russian friends who live there. If the latter are still on social media despite it being banned, it’s complicated; one acquaintance told her people are being forced to attend pro-Putin events, but Anastasia is not convinced, and is suspicious that there are in fact more Putin supporters than even she realises.

Still, many of her Russian friends have attended anti war protests and suffered violent retribution, arrested for two weeks. The harsh sanctions have been consequential on the lives of her family and friends; they’ve lost jobs, their sole source of income; goods, food, and medication are becoming scarce. While she is assiduous in addressing the monstrous atrocities Ukrainians are subjected to, she is reflective today, and ruminating on the history of her home country. There are silent victims too, she says. Those who never chose this regime.

“Those who opposed the war, those who never wanted it, and are now not allowed to talk about it or protest against it and they're oppressed to such a point that they lost their jobs. The minute you’re imprisoned for protesting you lose your job, you become the enemy of the state. And there's no money anyway.”

Sometimes victims tend to side with their aggressor. I think a lot of Russians who side with Putin are actually victims, too, but they don't even see it. They don’t even see that their government has been robbing them for decades. At this point they seem to think they deserve to live below the poverty line, as though that’s normal. In a parallel universe, they’d be middle class. But now they side with Putin against Ukraine, because it's easier, as a victim, to turn against someone because you then feel superior. It’s psychological, it’s Stockholm syndrome.”

The country is finished, she says. The global hegemonies; McDonalds, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Unilever, Energy companies including BP and Shell, an array of banks; Visa, Amex, Google, Apple, Fedex—you name it, it’s gone, along with thousands of concomitant jobs; the exports—gas to Poland, and to Germany in the near future are over. The rouble is decimated; she has no idea when she’ll see her father again. For now, she’ll continue attending protests, both those organized by her Russian community, and the Ukrainian. Even if alone, for a mere ten minutes, she is committed to attending.

“My sign says Russians don’t want war. Even if five people see it, then I delivered my message to five people. This is how tiny and simple my job is now, just to keep spreading the message.”

Even so, she concedes that given the situation it is axiomatic one might struggle to feel compassion for the plight of Russians; she herself struggles to feel compassion for her country, which she sees as lost in a senseless war that has quickly become genocidal.

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