I did my school-leaving exams in the summer of 1989, what’s known as the Leaving Certificate in Ireland. It was long ago and far away; the world was younger than today etc. Seventeen-year-old me studied like mad in the last couple of months. I always was a crammer.
We felt (and we were repeatedly told) that our whole future depended on how we did in those three weeks of written exams. If you wanted to go to university you had to get enough points overall, counting the six best subjects out of eight. It was intense but you also gained temporary VIP status in the family.
We had to fill in the application form for third level courses in January of exam year. I was good at languages and writing, but clueless about careers. My first choice was a Communications course and my second choice was French and Russian in Trinity College. As it turns out, those two fields have dominated my working life.
Mikhail Gorbachev was the man of the moment. He had been president since 1985 and suddenly everyone knew two new Russian words – glasnost and perestroika. I got into the French and Russian course, and found myself surrounded by enthusiasts for all things Russian. There I made friends for life.
That’s the beauty of higher education, finding other people who tick like you, and diving into the world of your chosen subject. I took a year off between second year and third year, spending the first half working in restaurants in Paris to improve my French and save for Russia. At the beginning of 1992, I was on my way to St. Petersburg for a semester.
The Soviet Union had just ceased to exist, replaced by the Russian Federation and the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Baltic States had achieved their independence, Gorbachev had resigned and Yeltsin was waiting in the wings.
In his resignation speech on Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev touched on an important point, saying he was “concerned about the fact that the people in this country are ceasing to become citizens of a great power and the consequences may be very difficult for all of us to deal with”.
What he couldn’t foresee was that the culture of lying and repression that the ruling elite were steeped in would be revived to a terrible degree in the twenty-first century under a new self-serving, amoral and extremely dangerous leader.
The time I spent in St. Petersburg was the peak of my love of Russian culture. This memoir essay I read on Irish radio gives a flavour of the excitement. As students of the city’s state university, we had official student cards and could get tickets for everything in roubles.
We could easily afford long-distance train travel, which we took advantage of, visiting Moscow, the Baltics and Ukraine, all the way down to Odesa. Tickets for museums and the many theatre, ballet and opera productions cost next to nothing.
We were able to get by on ten dollars per week, which converted into increasingly large piles of roubles. Unfortunately, ordinary Russians were suffering economically while their better-placed and more corrupt compatriots were stripping the national assets. Organised crime took off.
I lived in Russia a second time in 1999 and I have spent the ensuing years feeling no desire to return. I have regarded the country with increasing dismay as Putin tightened his stranglehold on Russian life. The worst vainglorious tendencies of Russian people, tendencies often displayed by citizens of former empires, have been pumped up and twisted into something truly nasty, with deadly consequences.
Which brings us to today, and the war in Ukraine. There are decent Russians, who don’t subscribe to Putin’s genocidal project. It takes exceptional critical faculties and exceptional courage to maintain any opposition to such a powerful force inside Russia. I salute those people.
The rest of the population is awash in disinformation and short on options. They have been encouraged to take refuge in a dangerous brand of patriotism, built on grievance and false superiority.
I can’t express strongly enough how much I abhor what Russia is currently doing to Ukraine. We had a Ukrainian family staying with us for a few months this year. They have lost everything – their home, their school, their friends and family left behind, their business, their peace of mind, all their favourite things, all their plans.
Those losses are multiplied by thousands, millions, and the sad thing is that these refugees are the lucky ones. Countless others have lost their lives, or suffered horrific injuries, terror, torture, rape, bereavements.
In normal life, most of us apologise when we bump into someone, or rush to help when a person trips in the street. How can it be that one group of people is willing to inflict such terrible damage on another group? It is a question that has always been asked about humanity, a question that haunts me as 2022 draws to a close.
The people of Ukraine are foremost in my thoughts this festive season. As part of a communications project this year, I worked with several Ukrainian colleagues, and I have nothing but admiration for their dignity and fortitude. Even in that small circle, they have experienced so much disruption and fear.
The Russians like to talk about the Russian soul and how special it is. A cancer has taken hold of that soul, and there is a long and painful road to travel before it can be cured. Repentance will be part of the cure, though that seems very far off right now.
I was originally going to write a post about the novels I’ve read this year. One of them is The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan. It’s a gritty portrayal of Ukrainian citizens caught up in conflict, a difficult read but worth your time if you want to understand better. A gentler but equally affecting story is Grey Bees by my favourite Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov.
Wishing the readers of this blog a peaceful and cheerful Christmas break. I hope that we will have happier things to report at the end of next year. Take care.
(Photo credit: see link to the Ukraine-based content platform Depositphotos ‘Say no to war’)