It’s a lovely home, rented by a young family comprising two highly skilled, professional parents with two teenage daughters and a younger son. They have lived there for over six years after moving to the UK from an equally lovely home in St Petersburg, as it happens just about as far away from the troubles in Ukraine as possible to the west of the Urals, within Russia.
Russia House in Surrey
They live in what could be described as the ‘Russian golden triangle’ of Surrey, within boundaries defined by a proximity to Cobham, Weybridge and Oxshott. Andrei is no oligarch but a highly skilled engineer working on ‘green’ technology and Natasha works in the City.
These are not their real names. I named them after two major characters in Tolstoy’s War and Peace – a favourite tome – which seems an oddly appropriate literary source to create their identities.
Andrei and Natasha were not, and are not, refugees in any way, nor can they be branded with what has become for some a dirty word, fuelled by some regrettable political and media musings about ‘immigrants’. Andrei is applying for British residency or nationality given the length of time he and Natasha have spent here in professional capacities.
Why leave a comfortable Petersburg lifestyle?
So why choose to leave a relatively comfortable lifestyle in St Petersburg where they had a nice house, similar in size to the large house they rent here? “Better weather, high class of education for our kids, high focus on technology, better business opportunity, UK culture, good and open society”, says Andrei.
With relatively numerous influxes of Russians to this part of Surrey, how much was that a factor in choosing to live in the area? Andrei told me, “It is not really important for me to be among Russian citizens, so it did not help a lot. It is very important to have access to a decent school”.
From an environmental perspective, Andrei and Natasha appreciate the “wonderful nature”, living as they do close to woods and open countryside, but the Surrey location matters as well: “Good logistics to main airports, proximity to highways and London city.”
When the family first came to the UK, they barely spoke any English but they have made huge efforts to become bilingual. “It is critically important and (learning the language) was for us one of the major goals”, Andrei said.
Assimilation and settlement
Having spent so many years in the UK working for British companies and having paid their taxes here and worked hard to develop relationships with friends and co-workers, they are ready now to apply for residency or even British nationality. Asked if either of these were important for them, Andrei observes that it “was one of the major goals as well, we are going to apply in several days”. All the more important as their eldest children want to pursue university or college education in the UK.
There’s no denying now that the West is in conflict (if not actual war) with Russia over the incursion into Eastern Ukraine and, of course, prior to that, Crimea.
Given the overwhelmingly negative reaction in the West and the UK in particular, it’s possible that Russian émigrés might experience some negative attitudes towards them. Not so, according to Andrei and Natasha. They told me they are, “very comfortable, never experienced any negative feelings from British people at all, we are surprised how big the gap between media hysteria and the opinion from the real people is.” Andrei says he does not “follow UK nor Russian news which helps a lot with my mental well-being. All people around us very good and kind”.
Russian ‘special military operation’ or ‘war’?
Vladimir Putin has promoted a massive incursion by his forces and left a trail of enormous infrastructure damage. Hardship, injuries and deaths among the Ukrainian people as well his own army. Numbers we may never know in full but there’s little doubt they are very large in terms of a ‘special military operation’ which had been expected by Putin to last only a few days.
Russia has become increasingly isolated from most of the rest of the world, morally and economically. Andrei’s view is that:
“It is a war, there is no reason to call it differently. Between West and Russia, Ukraine is [a] victim on [sic] this war which is being ignored by West and Russia as a collateral damage. As Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Serbia and many other countries before, which is a huge tragedy for Ukrainian and Russian people.
“Most of all [Russian and British] people are just ignoring the war, they more focussed on the side effects of this war such [as] inflation and utility bills.”
Sanctions and emotional ordeals – paradoxes in quiet, leafy Surrey
“We are heavily affected… Our money was blocked, we cannot use funds which we earned [in Russia]. I cannot watch movies in Russian language which we paid for, Russian children not allowed to watch cartoons and Disney’s movies [in Russian] any more, access to information (we cannot read Russian news websites, they are banned from UK side).
“We are not allowed to buy some [Russian] goods, to use credit cards. We cannot fly to Russia; we cannot visit our parents and support them.
“This is endless sad list of cases.
“We are being discriminating [sic] in the heart of Europe in number of ways which UK government supports on state level.”
So, despite the seemingly warm and friendly reception extended by the British to these and other emigres, the lifestyle costs of being in the UK seem to figure strongly among the Russian community here.
What does the future hold? War or peace?
Here now is the major heart of the matter from Andrei and Natasha’s viewpoints. “People in Eastern Ukraine do not want to be a part of Ukraine anymore. We’re not surprised because Ukrainian army has been bombing them for all these eight years, on daily basis, killing their leaders, preventing them to use the language they want”.
This bombing has not been independently verified but forms part of Putin’s justification for the annexation (illegal, according to the United Nations Charter) of four regions in the Ukraine. Andrei’s view seems to reflect that of the Russian delegate to the United Nations:
“Russia has been supporting [Russians in Eastern Ukraine]”, the Russian population of Donbas, for example, “and been asking Ukraine to find a compromise, take Donbas as a republic under Ukraine jurisdiction, let them use Russian language. Now Donbas does not need to live in fear anymore, now they’re under protection. End of story.”
Ukraine since the first Tsars
We can look back through history since the first Tsars expanded the Russian Empire to the south and east and see that Ukraine has always been a source of conflict and tension since the immigration of Russians into the territory which is rich in arable land, minerals, oil and gas. With regard to the Donbas, many Russian immigrants came there when the area industrialised in the 19th century: by 1897, according to an imperial Russian census, Russians were 3 million in a population of 17 million in the then Ukraine territory. Further south the coast is important to Russia in that it provides a warm water base for the Russian Navy, albeit needing collaboration with Türkiye to maintain unimpeded access to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea via the Bosporus.
A cynic might observe that Putin’s withdrawal of troops from the Eastern frontline is due to the lack of battlefield competence among his troops, or the lack of a secure supply line to re-arm and support his army. Or perhaps even clearing the frontline area to allow him to experiment on the western front fringe with tactical nuclear, chemical or biological weapons in an area no longer occupied by his army to minimise collateral damage to them by such lethal hardware. Not a hero but a family man.
We’ve heard much about younger Russian men going into hiding to avoid Putin’s call-up. Andrei’s view: “I would leave the country. I would not go to the war, although I understand the reasons, I’m not ready [to] die for it, unfortunately I’m not a hero, I’m a family man.”
Even for Andrei and Natasha living in peace and safety in Surrey, they cannot escape their view that, “it is a WAR, there [are] no relationships anymore on the state level.”
Perhaps their gratitude that “all people around us [are] very good and kind” will overcome their anxieties for themselves, their friends and family still in Russia, coping and living with an ongoing European tragedy with no easy end in sight.