My one-way ticket out of Moscow

12 March 2022

9:00 AM

12 March 2022

9:00 AM

Things fall apart. Moscow friends call to say that I have to urgently send my 19-year-old son out of Russia. He is travelling on his Russian passport and a new law says that he is obliged to register for the military draft. Nikita is on a gap year working at a Moscow theatre and he begs not to be sent away. I dismiss the warnings. A day later, a friend’s nanny shows up at our door and hands me an inch-thick packet of high-denomination euros to take out of the country for her employer. The money’s owner is already en route to Israel on a private jet. I overrule my son and open up Skyscanner. Europe, the US and Canada have closed their airspace to Russian planes and the Kremlin has reciprocated. Istanbul is the only European destination still accepting flights from Moscow. One-way tickets are 1,700 euros. But miraculously I discover air miles I had forgotten. Even more miraculously, Turkish Airlines is still issuing reward tickets. We’re booked.

I appear on a debate with Radek Sikorski, former Polish foreign minister. Radek has always maintained that Putin was a classic Russian imperialist. I, in common with all the Russian watchers I most respect, was convinced that Putin was a master of divide and rule, diplomatic bluff and strategic calculation. As it turned out, we were wrong – the diplomacy was the bluff, and war was the strategy. Radek had the good grace not to say ‘I told you so.’ How does this war end for Putin? Whoever in the Russian government has been leaking the Kremlin’s detailed operational plans to the CIA and MI6 has been very clear. The strategy was to quickly surround Kiev, decapitate the Ukrainian government and install a pro-Moscow puppet regime. But Putin’s blitzkrieg has failed. Advance will be bloody. Thousands of body bags are hard to hide and politically toxic. A senior European spook friend reports desertions and low morale in the Russian army. Military failure will be hard for Putin to survive. Radek speaks of an ‘Indira Gandhi scenario’ where Putin is murdered by a bodyguard. Does he know something we don’t?

I join my son and his friends at a protest at Pushkin Square. The place is flooded with police, placed like chessmen every five yards across every pavement. A few brave souls dare to shout slogans and are bundled into police vans in under 20 seconds. My son’s phone buzzes day and night with WhatsApp and Telegram group chat messages. Asya has been arrested. Yasha too. Sergei. Anya has been driven to a town three hours away for processing. Moscow’s youth have become instant experts on the Russian criminal code. One charge lands you in jail for 15 days. Other new laws carry sentences of up to 15 years.

Things fall apart. Swift blocks transfers to and from most Russian banks – and in any case the Kremlin bans sending money abroad. But it’s the power of private companies, not states, that really bites. Apple Pay cuts off Russian cards, making it impossible to pay for taxis, food orders, the metro. Adobe, Microsoft, IBM, Netflix, Boeing, Ford, Airbnb – the list of companies ceasing to do business in Russia grows hourly. A day before Visa and Mastercard pull the plug, a Moscow friend pays my younger son’s school fees a year in advance. Anything is better than leaving money in Russia.

Vnukovo airport is deserted except for a single check-in stand where hundreds of passengers line up with dogs, children, huge piles of luggage. There is no panic, as nobody is aware that this will be one of the last flights out of Moscow. Hours later, news comes from a friend’s son that his Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Tel Aviv had to land in Sochi, southern Russia. While the plane was in the air the leasing company cancelled the contract. Russia’s Ministry of Transport suggests ‘nationalising’ – i.e. stealing – all planes leased by Russian air companies. United Russia – Putin’s party – tables a plan to nationalise the property of all western companies pulling out of the country. Within hours all flights and ferries in and out of Russia are cancelled. Only the trains are still running, like we’re back in 1917. Safe in Istanbul, my son and I get drunk on a windy rooftop with a distinguished British foreign correspondent. He tells us he was menaced by FSB goons in a supermarket the day before, and decided to flee. ‘To the Kremlin, Russia is at war with the UK,’ he says. Like White Russian exiles in Istanbul 105 years before, we swap stories of which of our friends have got out and who remains behind.

Things fall apart. Aeroflot’s deputy head has resigned and fled the country. A top cabinet minister has offered their resignation to Putin, which has not been accepted. A friend reports that oligarchs are telling him that elements in the military are behind the defence minister Sergei Shoigu to replace Putin, while the moneyed elite back the Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin. And Putin himself? ‘He has to die. It will be too dangerous to leave him alive.’ The backlash against Russians begins. In Tbilisi, Georgia, a Russian friend reports that locals are refusing to let apartments to her fleeing countrymen. ‘Why aren’t you staying to fight the regime?’ they ask. My son’s 17-year-old girlfriend is slapped in the face by a stranger as she stands on a Rome street speaking Russian on the phone to her mother. An older Russian woman who has lived in London for years is verbally abused in St John’s Wood. ‘The very word Russian has become toxic,’ write Boris Akunin and Mikhail Baryshnikov. ‘But the real Russia is bigger, stronger and more durable than Putin.’

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