If you’re wondering where all those urbane, clever, westernised Russian travellers have gone since the onset of the Ukrainian war – a war which has largely barred them from the West – I can tell you that at least two of them will be found in the tiny Armenian hamlet of Gnishik, high in the summery peaks of the Caucasus. I know this because I met them there last week. And what they told me – about Russia, the war, their lives since the war – was illuminating.
This meeting wasn’t planned. I’d made the long, pot-holed drive from the sunburned Areni winelands, lost in their redrock canyons, up to the wild-flowered heights because I’d heard you could find bears up there, maybe even leopards, along with 6,000-year-old megaliths carved with intricate 10th-century quasi-Celtic khachkars (talismanic Armenian crosses). I never saw the bears. I did find the knackered and poetic khachkars, guarded by wild horses, and then – in the glassy guesthouse kitchen – I came across two thirtysomething Russians, Mikhail and Ludmila, eating organic greens and Megrelian salami. And drinking moonshine Armenian vodka.
As often happens when Russians with vodka meet strangers, they warmly asked me to join them. Taking the vodka bottle to the top floor, we sat on the balcony and gazed out at the moon over the dark blue mountains, and they sketched in their details.
Ludmila explained she ‘managed art galleries’ in Moscow, Mikhail told me he was ‘in IT’. From the way they dressed, to their well-travelled anecdotes, to their excellent English, I surmised he was quite high up ‘in IT’.
Inevitably, the conversation moved to the Ukrainian conflict. And this is where their stories became properly interesting. Ludmila explained: ‘We were in Cairo, in Egypt. Having a holiday! One morning I woke up in our hotel and stared at my phone. I could not believe it. We’d invaded Ukraine? I thought it was a joke. I wanted to believe it was a joke. I was horrified.’
Pouring me my nth shot of burning vodka, Mikhail added: ‘We knew we had to get home as soon as we could. If your country is at war you go home. But all the flights, they had quadrupled in price, everyone was going home to Russia.’
Ludmila leaned down and fed her little dog a morsel of salami. ‘And everything became so much more difficult, in so many other ways, immediately. Uber did not work for us. Google Pay and Apple Pay, they were switched off, our credit cards no longer functioned, we had to do everything with cash. There were enormous queues of Russians at the ATMs.’
It might have been the vodka, but this confused me. Were western sanctions imposed that swiftly? Did we shut down financial links with Russia right after Vladimir Putin dropped his paratroops over Kyiv? I asked them, but they didn’t really reply, because Mikhail became impassioned.
‘The sanctions! They are terrible. They hurt everyone. You have to stop them!’
I did not know how to answer this, because I was thinking: well, obviously the sanctions are working. Because they are designed to hurt. Ludmila saved me from any embarrassment: she eagerly went on with their tale: ‘When we finally got home it was no better. Mikhail’s business could not do anything, because of the sanctions, so we had to come here, Armenia. Mikhail’s boss is from Yerevan. Why does everyone hate the Armenians? They are so friendly. Kind. Intelligent.’
I asked them about family in Russia. Knocking back another vodka, munching another pickle, Mikhail laughed darkly. ‘I argued with my mother. I told her I hated the war; my mum said I was unpatriotic! We barely talk now. So here we are. But I want to move on. Maybe Georgia. Tbilisi. You said you were there last week – what is it like, Tbilisi? Are they OK about Russians?’
I hesitated, but I decided to tell them the truth. Because I had just come from Tbilisi, and because Mikhail and Ludmila were so nice, so generous, so funny: in other words, they were just like most Russians I have met over many years of travel. They deserved the truth.
‘They don’t really like Russians in Tbilisi. I’m sorry.’
Mikhail sighed. ‘There are Ukrainian flags everywhere?’
‘Yes. Loads of them. And lots of anti-Russian graffiti.’
‘Why? Why do they dislike us?!’
‘Because you invaded them, like you invaded Ukraine. Maybe you should stop invading places?’
Mikhail looked my way and laughed. Like I had a point, but it was beyond the wit of man to make it better. Ludmila was now gazing at the empty vodka bottle disconsolately. The mountain air was still and warm. Mikhail disappeared, then somehow returned with another vodka bottle.
‘This one is really homemade,’ he said, chuckling. With refilled glasses, we toasted each other, we toasted peace, and we watched the stars glittering over Nakhchivan, the hostile Azeri exclave. Then Mikhail said: ‘You know, I hate the war, but we have to win it. I am scared that Putin will order a mobilisation, but if he does, I will fight. Russia is my country. Russia must win the war.’
Then he necked his 16th glass of vodka, and I thought, blurrily: even the émigrés want to win the war. Even the westernised Russian émigrés who love the West, and hate the war, want to win the war. Which means the war is existential.
It was a troubling notion. I dismissed it by downing another vodka. And another. Ludmila led us into a couple of boozy, homesick songs. And then we sat there in happy silence, listening out for the fabled bears of south Armenia.
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