This weekend, as Ukrainians fought, sheltered underground, or took the difficult decision to flee their country, I headed towards the blue and yellow in Stockholm’s Hamgatan and took this photo, which I posted on Twitter. My social media presence is modest, to say the least, so I was a little shocked when, courtesy of North West Bylines’ retweet, the photo got a little more traction than I’m used to.
But it got me thinking about why a photo like this might resonate.
Ordinary Russians protesting Putin’s war
The photo, with its heartfelt, hand-written sign, highlights the despair and powerlessness of ordinary individuals in the face of the cynical machinations of the powerful. It reminds us of the bravery of those who take a stand in solidarity, like the many who currently protest in Russia and Belarus, despite knowing full well that they might be imprisoned and tortured.
I only spoke very briefly to the woman in the photo; we didn’t even exchange names. But our brief conversation, in a halting Swedish-English hybrid, centred on the deep shame we both felt regarding the actions – and inaction – of our respective countries’ governments.
Putin wages imperial war, aided and abetted by his oligarchs, supporters and apologists. Putin and his oligarchs steal from the Russian people, and the UK is one of those who obligingly launders the loot. In fact, the anti-mafia journalist, Roberto Saviano, has called the UK the world’s most corrupt nation. What’s more, as Nick Cohen writes, in his trenchant piece in this week’s Observer, anyone speaking out against Russian oligarchs in the UK faces a barrage of legal ammunition, as well as the prospect of crippling costs.
The response to Putin’s aggression cannot be solely about defeating Putin; it has to also be about ridding western societies of their dependence on the dirty money coming from corrupt governments around the world.
Solidarity from Ukraine to Syria
The day after the photo, I try to meet on Zoom with my CARA student in Jordan. Her internet is down, so we Whatsapp a bit instead. I ask how she is. She says that the events in Ukraine have triggered her anger again at what Putin did in her country, Syria. “He did the same to us. He is a war criminal.” She is exiled in Jordan, her brother in Germany, and her parents and sister in Turkey, where her father recently passed away: just one of the families paying the price of the unholy alliance between Putin and Assad, two of the world’s most brutal dictators.
“Some are more equal than others”
Depressingly, there have been a number of idiotic comments in the media about Ukrainian victims of war being more ‘like us’, more relatable than other victims of war, such as those in the Middle East perhaps. Such comments reveal a barely disguised racism. As Zarlasht Halaimzai tweeted so poignantly:
“Why do you have to dehumanise one set of people to stand with others?”
I am lucky to meet people from many different backgrounds in my job as a university lecturer, and I can safely say that I have more in common on many levels with my Syrian student, my friend, in Jordan than I do with many closer to home. Our conversations range from Freud (she is a psychology academic and professional) to Brexit, and I have learned a great deal from listening to her perspective.
On the current situation, she adds:
“You know, it is not only anger at Russia, but also feeling frustrated with the double standard when dealing with the invasion of a European country, and crimes in Palestine and the Middle East.”
A meaningful response to current events requires joining the dots and seeing the common humanity of all victims of war and oppression.