Svetlana: the conscience of a country in struggle

Publish date 22-01-2023

by Claudio Monge

We are often asked about the current Russian-Ukrainian crisis, seen from a Turkish perspective. International public opinion follows, through the media, the propaganda use of this war made by a country's leadership seeking consensus, at least in foreign policy.

The diplomatic results were more than modest, in spite of solutions that were announced in the short term, already well before the summer. However, the Turkish president's ability to use this external front to tickle Turkish nationalist pride, which he has been feeding with unquestionable sagacity for over twenty years, remains remarkable. The strong Turkish implications on the Ukrainian table as well as on the Russian one make Turkey an obligatory destination for the victims of both sides in conflict.

Since the first months of the year, several thousand Ukrainian refugees (in addition to the millions of refugees that Turkey has been welcoming for years from the fronts of many other regional crises) have found refuge in Turkish territory, with a particular effort, coordinated by Kiev and Ankara, for the reception of more than a thousand children, orphans or foster families, who fled their country through Poland or Romania.

But since the beginning of the war, almost half a million Russians, political refugees, activists, artists or intellectuals (figures soaring after the partial mobilization decreed by Putin on 21 September), have rushed to one of the few countries still connected by air transport and which does not require them an entry visa. This is how we hosted Aleksiej, a university student, hoping to obtain a visa for France to complete his computer engineering studies and, above all, to stay away from the almost certain enlistment in the army of his country.

But it is Svetlana's story that has struck us in a particular way in recent weeks. Arriving one afternoon at our church in Galata, it was immediately understood that her visit was not just a simple tourist visit. She spoke very fluent Italian and she told me fragments of the story of her mother, who arrived in Italy without her children, married secondly to an entrepreneur from the Marches. You have now been in Istanbul for a few days to welcome your son Matfey, a twenty-seven-year-old officer in the Russian army, who has decided to desert to stop being an accomplice in a war that uses young Russians as cannon fodder. At first, Svetlana had advised her son to take the plunge by leaving the Ukrainian front directly for Poland or Belarus: she was ready to go and look for him with the mediation of the International Red Cross.

Then, the escape from the country concocted with two colleagues, to be able to share the burden of renting accommodation in Turkey, pending positive developments in the negotiations for obtaining a European visa. In Svetlana's tears, not only the anguish for the fate of her son, but all the weight of loneliness in the face of the indifference of the world, not to mention the disapproval of thousands of Russian citizens, therefore at odds with the politics of country and who are paying the serious consequences of their resistance.

In his request to speak with a priest, also the need to recompose the relationship with a God, who cannot be reduced to a simple "protector of armies", mobilized in support of purely human hegemonic projects. In Svetlana's words and face, I seemed to see a shining example of what the Russian Nobel Peace Prize Dimitri Muratov defines as the "backbones" of a country's conscience: concrete lives where the response to injustice is generated and to the violence that radically rejects both, and that work, with the method of nonviolence, to subvert them.

I proposed to Svetlana that we end our meeting with the recitation of the Our Father. She didn't know it in Italian, she repeated it after me. It was her way of invoking her protection over her Italian husband, who was diagnosed with cancer just in the days of his trip to Istanbul. «Gospodj pomilui»! Lord have mercy on me.

Claudio Monge
NP November 2022

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