Since last September I’ve been studying Russian at the Institute of Oriental Languages in Paris. After the invasion of Ukraine in February our polyglot grammar teacher strayed from the curriculum to explain the differences between Ukrainian and Russian. They are not mutually intelligible, he said; Ukrainian is a language not a dialect. The war has widened the political fault line between them. Other teachers read us responses to the war by newly exiled poets.
When the course supervisor, Valentina, returned from the mid-term break she was dressed in black. It was obvious she hadn’t slept or eaten properly for days. She apologised for the new mood in the Russian department. She told us we should be sensitive to the Ukrainian staff who were teaching us Russian; we should also presume nothing about the opinions of the Russian staff. Our youngest teacher, who never referred to the war in class, and reposted an article on social media defending Russian culture, looked increasingly tired and defeated as the war dragged on.
Valentina’s translation exercises had always been full of references to Russian writers, poets and media channels. By April she was adding commentary on the texts: ‘By the way, that TV channel has been shut down’; ‘A remarkable young man … he’s been branded a foreign agent.’ Holding back tears, she eventually gave up on the exercises and addressed us in increasingly speedy Russian:
When you were raised being told that you had to live a rich enough life for two, so that those who died in the war didn’t sacrifice themselves in vain, when you were raised being told that four o’clock in the morning, 21 June 1941, was the worst moment in our history, then waking up to Novaya Gazeta’s ‘Russia bombs Ukraine’… it’s your entire world that comes crashing down.
She was also upset by the indifference or outright support for the war she was encountering in email threads with colleagues in Russia. Academics who stood up against the invasion were being shamed by their colleagues; some had been fired.
When Ukrainians began arriving in Paris in large numbers, we were encouraged to help the Red Cross make travel and sleeping arrangements for refugees. At the Gare Montparnasse one of the volunteer translators explained that most of her colleagues – nearly all women; one worked for Gazprom – were Russian, and that strained relations with the Ukrainian Embassy were giving way to a working relationship. Some of the Ukrainians I tried to help couldn’t – or wouldn’t – speak Russian, but didn’t have English or French. We mostly got by with the help of gestures, writing and city names.
Official generosity was creaking forty days into the war. The SNCF went from offering limitless free tickets to one single free ticket per person. Valéry Pécresse, the head of the region of Île de France, was stingy about metro tickets for refugees. Public transport officials handed out notices of fines to ticketless passengers with Ukrainian passports unless they could give an address in Donbas.
On the weekend of the first round of the presidential elections – in which Pécresse, the candidate of the centre right, tanked – there were no free train tickets, and a single adult ticket to a provincial city cost more than a hundred euros. Exhausted Ukrainian teenagers and grandparents, confronted with a four-day wait in the capital in cramped conditions, burst into tears. One woman shouted that she ‘was Mariupol’. Many refugees wanted to head back to Germany, where things were apparently better organized. Since June, non-Ukrainians who’d fled to France, including many students from across Africa and the Indian subcontinent, are now being ordered to return to their home countries.
Valentina said it would be up to us to rebuild bridges with Russia when the war comes to an end. The possibility that they wouldn’t be rebuilt in her professional lifetime seemed to trouble her deeply.