From Turkey, thoughts on the Ukraine war, one year later

‘Boundless fields of wheat in the east of Ukraine.’ Image by Polina Rytova. Free to use under Unsplash License.

Many across the world followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a year ago, in disbelief. It was a war waged by one man, as if a puppet master, putting on a show, for an audience — much of the rest of the world. Like many, I sat glued to news reports, following the developments, worried about my Ukrainian friends, colleagues and their families. Little did I know, this nightmare would last for a year with no end in sight. 

Since then, the destruction and debris left behind as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been devastating. Global response in support of Ukraine, while it has helped significantly, has not stopped Russia from continuing to enjoy an upper hand in this war — thanks to its mercenaries, autocratic grip on power silencing any local opposition to this war, and a handful of international supporters, including China and Iran. 

Meanwhile, despite the terror unleashed by the Russian state, Ukrainians have shown courage and unity, and continue to stand their ground, defending their past, present and future. My heart goes out to all the brave friends and colleagues who have kept on doing their jobs, despite the chaos. And heartfelt condolences to all the families of those who are no longer with us.

At the start of the invasion, I wrote this personal reflection about how the war was being reported and perceived in countries like Turkey, where I live. I still stand by what I wrote then: that as it was at the start of the war, a year later, we, international journalists, analysts, and observers, live in a news bubble of like-minded voices. Surely we venture into the abyss of Russian or pro-Russia propaganda-speak only to realize that not much has changed. If anything, it has spiralled out of control. The past year yet again proved one thing: that no matter how much objective reporting, in-depth analysis, and fact-checked content one offers, so long as the audience is tone-deaf, there is very little we can do to change the propaganda narrative. But also, so long as those behind that propaganda had no conscience or fear of the crimes they were committing, what could we do?

In “The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes, there is this passage: 

And yet, for all this, for all that he was unparalleled in depicting tyrants knee-deep in blood, Shakespeare was a little naive. Because his monsters had doubts, bad dreams, pangs of conscience, guilt. They saw the spirits of those they had killed rising in front of them. But in real life, under real terror, what guilty conscience? What bad dreams? That was all sentimentality, false optimism, a hope that the world would be as we wanted it to be, rather than as it was. Those who chopped the wood and made the chips fly, those who smoked Belomory behind their desks at the Big House, those who signed the orders and made the telephone calls, closing a dossier and with it a life: how few of them had bad dreams, or ever saw the spirits of the dead rising to reproach them. 

Throughout this past year, I kept hearing the word “conscience” or should I say, lack thereof. For those making decisions, and for those delivering them. The conversation about the Russian people adds further nuance: anti-war Russians have left the country in fear of repercussions; those who stayed behind have been silenced; the rest of the public is split between those who keep supporting the state’s war rhetoric and those who don’t.

Covering these nuances from Turkey has been interesting. Turkey has been among the countries to not only abstain from sanctions against Russia but to keep its airspace open to flights, as well as turning into a popular destination for Russians who have left their country since the start of the war. In the neighborhood where I live in Istanbul, I see Russians hanging out at the cafes and restaurants frequented by locals, and shopping at the same grocery stores. Since the invasion of Ukraine, I have been to several concerts where performers were from Russia; I have interviewed a cafe owner from Russia and I keep hearing stories of more Russians choosing to travel to Turkey and stay here for the time being. The other day, as I was waiting in a checkout line at my local grocery store, a Russian man was paying for his products (in cash), and returning the small change the cashier gave him. In English, he told her he did not need it. I could not resist; addressing the man in Russian, I said maybe the change will come in handy to pay for something else. The man, at first startled to hear Russian, gathered himself from the surprise and answered that he had not found use to them. As he was leaving, he looked up, undecided whether he should speak to me, but then left the shop. I later thought about his conscience. 

I have lived in my neighborhood for more than 10 years. Naturally, I have developed friendships with shop staff and owners, in cafes and other businesses. When I ask them whether they have felt a spike in Russian customers, they all say “Yes.” In Kadikoy, a bustling neighborhood just a 20-minute drive from where I live, I hear even more Russian spoken on the streets. 

For a journalist, this is a story, but for someone who has ties to the region, and has friends in war-torn Ukraine, writing those stories is challenging. While Turks as people, and Turkey as a state have welcomed Russian businesses and emigres with open arms, for people like myself, it’s a little bit more complicated. That, and the nationalist, anti-West narrative persistent in Turkey and which claims Russia was provoked, makes arguing against these views challenging. 

All of this reminds me once again of that story I wrote at the start of the war, the knowledge people like myself have, and the familiarity with Russia’s “Big Brother” vibes in our region put us in a position of skeptics, but skeptics in a foreign country (at least in my case), which has its own concerns and historical narratives. 

Where does that leave me? In a place where patience, journalism ethics and personal connections clash on a daily basis. But also with a task: to keep explaining to those who see it otherwise, that Russia, an aggressor state, did not need a provocation to invade Ukraine. As this past year has shown, that was the plan all along. 

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