SHADOW OF THE KREMLIN OP-ED
The fear of Putin stalks the Russian émigré community – even in South Africa
Speaking to Russians living in South Africa reminded me of the fear that rules Russia. They may have left Putin behind in Russia, but they can never trust that they are free of him – no matter where they go.
It started with an idea – one that seemed simple enough. How has the war in Ukraine affected the Russian émigré community in South Africa? I had a notion that it might not be so simple, but it seemed worth pursuing under the current circumstances.
I began slowly, determined to earn the trust of people. I was not naïve enough to think that people would be easily persuaded to talk.
Let me say, then, at the outset, that in writing this I have not used anyone’s real name, or described their actual situation too closely.
On the face of it, these are all simple, undramatic stories of immigrants to our country, living placid, comfortable lives, busy with finding ways to succeed in a new country where they hardly speak the language. But under this mundane exterior, there are more potent forces affecting their lives.
A German colleague gave me the number of a Russian scientist who has lived here for a long time. We met at a coffee shop in Melville.
“My first visit here was in 2006,” he told me. “I found South Africa very interesting.”
His face takes on a more serious aspect. “I predicted the present situation, and I decided to leave Russia in 2014. So, I came to South Africa and found a position here. It was the greatest luck in my life. I was 49, so this was my last chance to make such a move in life. 2014 was the year Russia annexed Crimea and we moved here.
“There were many signs of what was going to happen, but I didn’t expect this catastrophe.
“There is no truth in Russia today; it even affects our work in science. People don’t believe in the truth, in facts.”
He made sure to point out that his wife and others regularly met Ukrainians here in South Africa.
“We stand with Ukraine,” he told me.
He wasn’t the right person to speak to about how the current situation in Russia had affected his life right now, but he put me in touch with Anna. We met in a coffee shop in Sandton, sitting outside on the balcony. It was a cold snap, and I was wearing four layers of clothing, including a padded anorak. She was wearing a light cotton sweater.
“I must say,” she told me with a tolerant smile, “I rather like the season that you call winter here.” I nodded humbly, and she went on to tell me something of her story.
She met her husband in Moscow. He had extensive contacts with South Africa, and they got married just before the invasion of Ukraine. They and her son from a previous marriage live in Johannesburg now.
“My husband lost his job and had an offer here, so we came here last October.”
She speaks openly about what she has left behind.
“The war was one of the main reasons we left. My husband is also half-Jewish, so that’s not so easy in Russia. I grew up in Russia and my husband grew up in Soviet Azerbaijan. When I was growing up, I used to hear a lot of insulting words about Ukrainians, but before the war, it didn’t matter if you were Ukrainian or Russian.”
She shakes her head. “I have a Ukrainian step-grandmother and she supports Putin. I often have a dispute with her about this, but she doesn’t care. In a way, it’s a kind of generational conflict. There is a meme that goes around in Russia: ‘Where have you been the last eight years?’ ”
She laughs cynically: “It’s supposed to mean, ‘didn’t you know that Ukraine has been attacking the Donbas for the last eight years’?
“I used to work as a journalist, but actually I did state propaganda for a social media company. It puts messages from Moscow up on local social media groups. Sometimes, social media is good because people can complain about the electricity or the water, but the main thing is the messages from Moscow. All of our production was based on lies.”
Living in South Africa has been a revelation to her.
“Here, we are clear of Russian propaganda and we can make our own decisions.”
It is a fascinating conversation and, while something of a self-selecting sample, she goes on to tell me: “Every Russian I know here in South Africa supports the Ukrainians.”
Can you help me find them? I ask. I’d like to speak to them – on camera.
“That won’t be so easy,” she says. “But I’d like to try. It would be real journalism.” I offer to pay her something as a fixer, but she refuses. “It’s my pleasure. It’s an interesting task.”
Over the next few (winter for me) weeks we meet regularly while she puts out feelers to the Russian community here.
“The problem with us Russians is that we don’t meet as a community. We stick to ourselves.”
Still, she finds Gregor down in Durban. He is an engineer living in Umhlanga, but he comes up to Joburg on business.
“He has run away from the army,” Anna tells me. We meet for dinner, and he invites two friends – Andrei and Katerina.
“It’s an interesting project,” Andrei tells me. “Of course, we are against the war. But I can guarantee no one will speak openly to you on camera.”
Gregor looks at me. “I also am against the war. The mobilisation was the last straw for me to come here. I might be willing to speak, but we would have to arrange what I say beforehand. We would have to agree on what I can say and what I can’t say.”
Not ideal for South African journalism, but I’m in uncharted waters here.
I am clear in my mind that I’m not even going to try to persuade anyone, but I do need to show the audience what people really think. I can do one, maybe two, interviews incognito, but an entire short film has to have more images than just blurred-out faces.
“Remember,” Gregor says, “a big part of Russians support the war. Not everybody agrees with us.”
It is what it is. I’d like to show South Africans what Russians who are living here really think about things in their country, and what their ideas really are.
Andrei pauses over the food which has just arrived. “Before we even begin. I need to ask you: Are you KGB?”
I laugh uncertainly. Of course, the KGB itself no longer exists, but it is a convenient shorthand for the secret Kremlin-controlled networks that exist outside Russia to spy on, and even murder, dissidents.
I search for myself on my phone and hand it to him. He scrolls through my photos and the articles I have written.
“No KGB agent would have such a public profile,” I say self-consciously.
“Okay,” he replies, handing back my phone. He looks at me carefully. “In Russia, we have no ideas.”
I’m taken aback – the pantheon of great Russian intellectuals is indeed vast. “What do you mean?”
“We lost all our long history with the Revolution, and we were told we were living in a paradise on Earth. Which, of course, it wasn’t. Then that paradise collapsed and now we are living with Putin. We have no ideas.”
Andrei adds: “In Russia, just the other day, a child who drew a Ukrainian flag in school was sent to an orphanage. Her father was sent to jail.” The man managed to escape and is on the run.
“No one can talk to you,” Katerina adds. “If they have family back in Russia, the risk is too great.”
Anna and I persist in our search, nonetheless.
On a Telegram group aimed at Russians in South Africa, she finds Vladimir and Martin. Martin is gay and moved to South Africa with his boyfriend.
“I’m never going back to Russia,” he says. There is no real need to explore that further, considering Putin’s attitude towards gays.
As it is for all the men I meet, “the mobilisation was the last straw. I escaped first to Uzbekistan and then I came here”. He pauses. There is a chasm between himself and those he left behind who support Putin.
“Even now, I must go to war with my brother and my grandfather.”
Martin has broken up with his boyfriend and lives alone. To survive he is making candles and selling them at flea markets. His is the immigrant’s story of kleinbegin, with no way back home.
Most new Russian immigrants here have skills in IT or engineering, things South Africa needs badly, and most of them, tellingly, live in Cape Town where they find the greatest opportunities to thrive.
Vladimir is a real go-getter. He and his young wife, Nadya, love Cape Town and South Africa in general. He knows a lot of other young Russians living here and if anyone can help us find people who might speak freely, it’s him. We chat on WhatsApp and the phone.
“Tell me a little bit more about your project. What do you want to show?” I’d like to meet perhaps three characters, I tell him. “Maybe you guys have a group that meets? And then we go with each of the characters to the beach, or maybe where you work, somewhere visually interesting. If people want to speak openly and frankly and be critical, we can hide their identities.”
We meet in Joburg when he is up here for business. He brings a friend, Ivan, and we chat about what might be possible. They seem open to the idea.
Back in Cape Town a few days later, he sends me a message: “My final interview decision: ‘No’.”
I don’t even try to convince him. There is simply far more at stake for him than I can even imagine. We do chat once more, though.
“I’m Switzerland,” he tells me. “And among the Russians here there are a lot of different positions about the war. The main position is not to talk about it at all. We don’t want the stress of thinking about it all the time. We don’t want to open all those things again.”
Late that afternoon, Yevgeny Prighozin’s plane is shot down. There’s no link to people here, but the spiralling body of the plane and the burning wreckage in the field flickering everywhere on the TV channels certainly underscores the grim reality of those who go against Putin. As does the fate of Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politskovkaya, who are both dead, Alexei Navalny, poisoned with a nerve agent and now behind bars in Russia, and many others.
Anna sends me a message and we meet for coffee in Sandton.
“I saw (Vladimir’s) message on the Telegram channel. He asked: ‘Should I tell a local journalist all our Russian secrets?’ And people answered, ‘No, don’t do it’.”
I ask her about the meaning of Prighozin’s fate, and she laughs. “Don’t even think about him. How else could he have died? This was always going to happen.”
There is something deeply ominous in those final, throwaway words. Even Anna accepts the murderous dysfunction of today’s Russia as something unavoidable, perhaps unchangeable. She doesn’t want that for her country, for herself or her child, and she is here because of that.
No one, in the end, would speak to me openly and publicly.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. But following these leads and speaking to these people reminded me of the fear that rules Russia. These people may have left Putin behind, but they can never trust that they are free of him – no matter where they go.
It reminded me, too, of how much our country has changed in the past 30 years. We have sadly squandered much of the promise of our liberation, but we live in a truly free society. Within the limits of our progressive Constitution, we can say whatever we like about our President, his ministers and the ruling party. We can even, unlike in Russia, criticise our military. We are free to do so. They are not.
And in the gap that lies between our noisy chaos and their ominous, fear-driven silence, lies much that we should treasure and, crucially, never take for granted. DM
Hamilton Wende is a South African writer and journalist who has worked on a number of television projects and films for National Geographic, CNN, BBC, ZDF & ARD, among others. He has published nine books based on his travels as a war correspondent in Africa and the Middle East, and two children’s books.