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“At first the graffiti said ‘F— Russia’ or ‘F— Putin’, but now it says ‘F— Russians’. It’s unpleasant, of course,” said Russian journalist Andrei Loshak.
He is among thousands of Russians who fled to neighboring Georgia in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine and around the time Russia criminalized independent war reporting.
Graffiti aside, Loshak says he loves Georgia and from there he can say and write whatever he wants. He’s trying to be philosophical about all the inconveniences associated with fleeing your country in a heartbeat and having credit cards that are pretty much useless anywhere outside of Russia and the reality that he won’t be able to go home anytime soon.
The biggest problem, he says, is the incredible unease about war and what it does to his people, his cousins, his neighbors.
“My soul hurts a lot. It hurts for Ukraine. It’s not a foreign country, not an abstract Syria, which is also terrible,” says Loshak. “War is terrible. But Ukraine is also my native country, my native land. My father was born in Kharkiv and my grandfather was born in Odessa. As a child, I spent every summer in Odessa. sheer pain.”
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The former Soviet republic of Georgia is famous for its ever-groaning festive tables of local food and wine, but Loshik says none of his fellow exiles are really in the mood for all that.
“I haven’t watched a single TV series or a single movie since the beginning of the war, although I watched a lot of them. And when my Netflix account was closed because I couldn’t pay, I didn’t watch it. I didn’t even notice.” Loshak said. “Thousands of people have written to me that they have the same disease. You open Telegram feeds in the morning, and you’re in this hell, and you can’t stop.”
Loshik says there’s no hiding from the condition, calling it “punishment, collective responsibility for him and the Russians, at least knowing what they’re doing and what’s going on there.”
The pandemic was likely good practice for freelance journalists in Russia who now have to do much of their work remotely. It’s not easy, but many say they are determined to persevere, countering state propaganda in any way they can.
Loshak is working on a documentary about how many families are fighting and breaking up and no longer speaking in terms of differing opinions about the war. This causes a great divide in Russian society. Loshak, like many, never believed war would actually happen.
When asked when he realized what Russian President Putin was capable of, Loshak said it was when explosions at four apartment buildings in Russia occurred, killing hundreds early in the year. fall of 1999.
The Kremlin attributed it to Chechen terrorists. To this day, many suspect the hand of the FSB behind these deadly attacks, creating a justification for Moscow to invade Chechnya.
“He never seemed nice to me,” Loshak says of Putin. “I actively hated him from 1999, even though I was 26 at the time and had no interest in politics. But I immediately felt something in my bones…his past, his appearance, the KGB.
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“When the terrorist attacks started, on the wave of which he started the second Chechen war, intuitively I felt that it was a very dirty game. And from that moment I had the feeling like he was a pretty bloody man,” Loshak said. .
At some point, he says, that was forgotten and Putin just seemed like a pragmatic, rational man who would keep Russia in some sort of gray area.
“But then,” adds Loshak, “there was this Dima Yakovlev law.”
The law was drafted in 2012 in retaliation for the passage of the Magnitsky Act in Congress.
The Magnitsky law called for sanctions against those considered “human rights violators” following the death of Sergei Magnitsky in a Russian prison. It was a death the Russians were trying to sweep under the table.
Dima Yakovlev was a Russian orphan who died at the hands of his American adoptive parents after being left in a parked car for nine hours. Thus, the logic of Russian retaliation was that no American should adopt Russian children because they could not be trusted to protect them. A rather asymmetrical tit-for-tat, say many, including Loshak.
“It was hard to punish Americans economically, but it was possible to do it,” Loshak said. “It was total madness. I don’t understand how these people are made if they sacrifice children to punish certain American families.”
Loshak believes that Russia has come to the point where “it lives in the head of an elderly KGB officer with outdated ideas about the world, its complexes and so on…the whole country finds itself in this kind of insane matrix”.
Asked what Russians seeking change can do now, in the current situation, Loshak replied: “I don’t have an answer at the moment. I can’t say, ‘Guys, come to the rallies’ because that it doesn’t make sense now. And, anyway, I lost that moral authority when I left the country.”
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He thinks nothing less than hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets will force the Russian authorities to stand up and listen. But that won’t happen, many observers say, because people are scared.
“There is no point in calling for political activism at this time. Perhaps we should remember the manifesto that Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote in the 1970s – ‘Do not live by lies’, on the way to remain a decent person in the conditions of a totalitarian state. You must try not to cooperate with it,” he said.
“Don’t take money from the state whenever possible. Owe it nothing.”
He tells his friends that they are making the difficult decision to stay or go.
“Save your soul,” Loshak said, adding that Russia is “sliding into true fascism as a form of government.”