What do Russian children say when their motherland is an ogre?

A collage of drawings made by one of the children with whom Yulia Yakovleva spoke. (Credit: Yulia Yakovleva)

Russian children's author Yulia Yakovleva talks to children in Russia for two months about their experiences of the war. She discovers that the propaganda does not answer their more pertinent questions. Quickly, she comes across a child who says to her: “Tell me what happened in Bucha, nobody talks to me about it.”

In Russian there are no definite and indefinite articles, like there are in English, for example. Instead, interlocutors simply understand that it is not about a dog or a house in general, but about this dog and this house in particular.  

So it is with war. Previously, the very word “war” in conversation immediately brought to mind the war of 1941-1945. Now it’s not. If you say “war,” the interlocutor will immediately think of the war in Ukraine.

Today's children hardly keep diaries. And if they do, they don't write in them every day. So when the war started, I began to talk to them, asking and collecting their stories about how they were living now. What they see, hear, think. How they go to school, go for walks, fight, make friends, read. How they feel.

I thought this: I would surely see the war that goes on far away from them permeate their conversations, their quarrels and friendships, their growing up. I thought about how these stories would eventually become priceless. People will want to know, just as they wanted to know what children did, said, and thought in Germany in 1933-1945. 

Just don’t tell Mom’

I asked parents for permission to talk to their children. Here are their usual answers:

“Well, talk to her. Only I don't think she’ll say anything.”

“You can talk, but you might get some strange reactions, a teenager is a teenager.”

“Talk? He doesn't read anything at all, he doesn't think about anything.”

“He doesn't like to talk.”

“Try it, but it might not work, she doesn't talk to anyone.”

Parents shrug their shoulders, hesitate, many agree, but many also refuse. Every parent has to reckon with the reality of Russia, in which punishment is given for what they say.

What is strange is that all parents were once children themselves and – oh, the horror – teenagers. Since then, they should have remembered that the life their children lead and the life their parents think their children lead are, to put it mildly, different, sometimes even two different lives altogether. That thought alone makes a parent’s heart grow cold. Especially now, when the walls have their ears back, and a child is a child: he can blurt out, write, do, spout things for which adults are punished, too. 

“I can’t believe I said that, me!” but I told her, “I forbid you to say that at school”. Alas: forbidding anything to a teenager is more or less pointless. They won't stop doing what you've forbidden. They'll just do it in a way that you won't find out. And they do.

“Just don’t tell mom.”

“If you want, we can take that out [what you said] altogether,”  I suggest then. “No, we don't have to take it out. Let it be. Just don’t tell Mom.”

“Mom will be upset.”

Each of them had already seen how vulnerable their parents were. How a distant war is punching holes in what seemed so reliable, boring, forever, and now is faltering. For many children, this was the first time this had happened.

“I had never seen that look on my mother’s face.”

“Dad shouted, and it’s not that it happens rarely – it just never happens. You know? Never.”

“When we found out that Mom had been detained, we started laughing wildly. Then we calmed down and started thinking.”

“Mom said: Don’t talk about it at school. Don’t tell anyone else, they’ll think we say that at home.”

“I deleted the accounts on social media altogether. You see, I’m responsible for mom, for dad, for grandma, for grandpa.”

I feel like shouting: “When you’re 12 (13, 14, 15), your responsibilities are your lessons, for example, and in no way all the adults in your family, the power in the country, or the end of the war.” 

No conversation lasted less than an hour.

Flags everywhere

In every conversation, I have first sought to first clarify what it is that children are observing for themselves. It quickly became clear that children are like cats: they go around “their” territory by the same routes every day. The younger the child, the less of this “own” territory he has: home – school, school – home – and on the way parents look out. Only teenagers “walk”, but they also have their own proven, favourite places and routes for that. When you go to the same places the same way, you notice changes quicker. What has come or gone since the war began.

“Flags. At first a few appeared. Then more and more.”

“One day we went out to go to school, and I said: don’t you see what’s changed? Flags! There are flags everywhere now.”

“Above every entrance, and somewhere on every floor.”

I can just see sewing shops sewing Russian tricolors. It's a big country. All of the flags of this Spring were probably bought cheaper in China. But all the same, it is obvious that this is a huge item of government spending.

While the cities are decorated as if triumphant winners live in them, the war is bursting into Russian teenagers’ worlds through the narrow windows of their phones.

“My eyesight has been very bad since the war began, and I read on my phone all the time.”

“I read everything, the briefings of the Ministry of Defense, the independent media, everyone. I want to understand what’s going on, but everyone tells only part of the truth one way or another.”

“I only read, I don’t look at pictures, I’m afraid.”

Others choose not to look either, but for a different reason:

“Photos and videos serve to elicit a reaction, and I'm more interested in the mechanisms of what’s going on. I don't need to prove that people die in war.”

“It’s easier for me through videos and pictures. Except that my eyes get blurry. So it’s easier when it’s voiced.

“What do you mean, your eyes get blurry?” I ask. But she immediately shuts down: “What?” Cool girls don’t cry.

Give her your name’

I don’t ask anyone for names or school numbers. I don’t take video or audio recordings, I write answers on paper with a pen. Sometimes I stop the conversation: “Wait, I want to write everything down in detail.” Or: “Wait, I think you’re saying something very important.” 

I ask questions for which there can be no “right” or “wrong” answer, just an answer. Nevertheless, there is a war going on, the word “war” itself is punishable in Russia, it happens that teachers denounce their own students, students denounce their teachers or classmates, and the words “fear” and “being afraid” flicker in conversations in ways that shouldn’t be if you are a child. I am responsible for the stories entrusted to me.

“Can we call you anything else you want to be called?”

She thinks for a few long moments, then shakes her head, and says: “No, if I’m ***, I’m ***.”

I write down: ***, 11 years old.

*** tells how she argued about the war with a classmate, the boy threatened to beat her up if she didn’t shut up. He admitted his powerlessness, *** understands contentedly. But adds that she was willing to fight for her beliefs.

Later on I type on the computer. My hands hang on the ***’s words “just a silly boy.” The thought strikes me – the boy might not be so stupid, and his parents might find out who *** is, then snitch, then... I go back to the beginning, and erase the name.

Maybe I should just call my interlocutors “girl” and “boy”. Or by doing so, on the contrary, would I imperceptibly cross some fatal boundary, succumbing to the state rhetoric of dehumanization, which, by the inertia of freefall, always turns into dehumanization? 

Russian official Lavrov referred to the people who died in Ukraine as “collateral damage”, Putin  - as “expendable material,” and to people who disagreed with him as “midges.” In Hitler's camps, the corpses of dead people were called “figures”.

She is not a midge. She lives in St. Petersburg, she is eleven, she demanded to be called by her name. And yet I write: a girl.

‘If I am against the war, am I against Russia?’

Propaganda does not answer the so-called “childish” questions of adolescents, who need clear and precise answers. “If I’m against the war, does that mean I’m against Russia and don’t like my country? That I am for the war?” It’s a vicious circle.

After a while, I find a common thread in all these interviews: what to do when his motherland is an ogre?

“And Bucha? “I don't think Russian soldiers can do that. I do not believe that."

“And Bucha? - What do you want? That I denigrate my own country?”

“And Bucha? – You are wrong, Bucha was invented.”

In 442 BC, Sophocles wrote a play about a young girl who goes so far as to give up her own life to bury her brother Polynices, (he was condemned to lie unburied -ed) despite being told he died a criminal and that he is covered with shame.

“If I am against people being killed, and therefore against war? Does this mean that I am opposed to my father, my uncle, my father-in-law, my brother who are at war?

“I am offended by such comments and such questions.”

And I understand that it is Antigone speaking.

Trauma of dreams

One day I have a dream and I realise that it’s about the war. I dream about a cat with her kittens. I make many small unnecessary movements to move the kittens to another place that I myself don’t know. And then a dog comes and eats them all...

No bombs are falling on these children. Their homes are not destroyed. They were not wounded by shell splinters. Some had to leave with their parents, but even then it wasn’t fleeing from the shelling. Their trauma is called “witness trauma.” The trauma of someone who sees and knows and can’t change anything. For now, they can’t.

“A plane flew over me, it rumbled, and I got really scared, even though I know it was just a plane, no bombs were coming from it.”

“I became afraid when people looked at me.”

“I try to leave the house less.”

“From the outside it may seem like I’m just sitting with my phone and sighing. But I’m not.”

“He was in his green uniform, and I got scared and my heart started pounding.”

“I realised recently that I can't listen to the heavy footsteps. I mean, I loved the sound of my heels banging on the parquet or on the tiles since childhood but now, when I walk on the same asphalt and hear my steps, I immediately get pictures in my head from Bucha and videos from the rest of Ukraine. It’s as if I myself become that Russian soldier who kills civilians and shoots at maternity homes. I began to hate the sound of my own footsteps, so now I try to walk as quietly as possible so as not to hear that sound again.”

“I had a dream that the whole city was covered in green ribbons. You know, like they do for New Year’s Eve, when they hang garlands across Nevsky Prospect. Only in my dream, it wasn’t covered with garlands, but with green ribbons, and it was as if it was done for Easter. You can’t forbid Easter and Spring.

Green ribbons are a symbol of anti-war protest. This girl is older than Juliet, and younger than Pushkin’s Tatiana, but not by much. Her dream is about Spring coming to Narnia.

Yulia Yakovleva is the author of “Tales from Leningrad” which recounts the Stalin era through the eyes of children. 

The unabridged version of this article was first published in Russian by independent media Holod, a partner of Geneva Solutions on its project Ukraine Stories.