Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has completely changed the reality for all Russians, even if some are pretending not to be affected. People who will have to deal with the consequences of this war are often those who are in no way responsible for it, even formally: children, including those who live in Russia now. Russian writer Yulia Yakovleva, the author of the Tales from Leningrad book series for children, decided to find out what Russian children were thinking and feeling. Since late February, she spoke with several dozen interviewees aged five to seventeen. Holod presents some of the findings from this non-academic study
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 or 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. It doesn’t anymore. Now, if you say “war,” your interlocutor will immediately think of the war in Ukraine.
In 2015, I published a book entitled The Raven’s Children, which later turned out to be the first in a series Tales from Leningrad. These are books about how it felt like growing up when the world collapsed, set between 1938 and 1946. Soon after the war began, a reader wrote to me what I felt myself: we are now living in the reality of The Raven’s Children.
To be able to write these books, I have read a great many personal testimonies from the era: letters, diaries, memoirs. One of the most striking Russian documents from the war of 1941–1945 was the diary of Tanya Savicheva, a girl from Leningrad. Everyone in St. Petersburg knows its last entry: “Everyone is dead. Only Tanya is left.” Children’s testimonies about a war always condemn the war, even if voiced in the attacking country.
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 talking 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. Actually, scratch that: these stories are already priceless. After all, it is not the 70-year-old president who determines Russia’s future. It will be determined by those who are now five or seventeen, eight or thirteen. By my interlocutors, to be precise.
This is not an anthropology paper or survey. What follows are just conversations recorded during the war, there is nothing more I am aspiring to. I spoke in person with about 20 children, and about 20 more sent me their written responses to my questions. I tried to formulate my questions in a manner as neutral as possible, making sure they reflect different aspects of what is going on and, most importantly, the unprecedented schism created by the war in the Russian society. I did not try to argue, convince, convert, or even state my own opinion: “You support the war? Tell me more. You oppose the war? Tell me more.”
Most of my respondent are aged 12 or older. The youngest ones are five. Several are hardly children—adult and independent thinkers aged 17. Prior to the interview, I spoke with each kid’s parents to see what were the limits of what they approved of as subjects of our discussions. Some asked to send them the questions in advance, a few eventually refused. More than once, I faced dilemmas. What do I do when a very young boy asks me, in a whisper: “Tell me what happened there, in Bucha, nobody’s telling me.” Only once a kid asked me why I was asking all these questions. I answered that a character in an Icelandic saga was asked the same question by a troll, and the character said: “Because I want to know”. Both the troll and the kid were satisfied with this answer.
When I invited a journalist colleague to join me in my endeavor, she was right in a way when she refused saying: “This is meaningless.” From the statistical point of view, it is indeed meaningless. I will never be able to say that children in Russia thought this or that. Then why am I so sure that these stories are valuable? It’s very simple: because that is what these children themselves decided. I haven’t overheard these stories on the streets. I did not bait kids in any way. I did not pretend I was anything other than myself. I explained my reasons to everyone directly and in the same way: because now is a historic moment. Because I want to know.
My youngest interviewees were five or six years old, they talked to me, of course, because their parents had asked them to. The toddlers don’t know about the war, they live in eternity rather than a particular time, and you have to watch very closely to be able to notice a quick but unmistakable sign of the times glitter in the rivulet of their innocent chatter, to feel a shadow of the war. Teenagers are a completely different story. They were lost, or in anguish, or sneering, or tight-lipped, or condescending, or pissed. But the fact that they were willing to share their experiences means that they acknowledge the value of both what they thought and what they have been through. That they understand the historic nature of their experiences. To me, this acknowledgement is the seed of something bigger. Something that will become the “society” one day. That will become the “generation.”
“Just don’t tell Mom”
I asked parents for permission to talk to their children. Here are their common answers:
“Well, sure, talk to her. Only I don't think she’ll say anything.”
“You can talk but I have no idea if my kids can say anything, what can they tell you?”
“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 you may be punished for your words.
What is strange is that all parents were once children and—oh, the horror—teenagers themselves. 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, not the same, 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 or she 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 [what you said] out altogether,” I suggested 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 was punching holes in what seemed so reliable, boring, forever, and now was 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 my accounts on social media altogether. You see, I’m responsible for mom, for dad, for grandma, for grandpa.”
I felt like shouting: “When you’re 12 (13, 14, 15), your responsibilities are mostly your homework, they are in no way all the adults in your family, the government in the country, or the end of the war.” But in Korea, they have this legend: when a secret is pushing you from inside, you need to find a tree with a hollow, tell the secret into that hollow and then cover it up. This is why I didn’t say much. I was the tree, and they were speaking into me. Although sometimes I felt more like a lightning rod catching their lightnings.
No conversation lasted less than an hour.
Since the very first days of the war, the government has been pouncing on dissent to stop any kind of protest, to halt any discussion of the war in the Russian society. This alone shows that discussing amounts to denouncing—and this is something the government is very much afraid of. In spite of all prohibitions, the protest has not subsided. It became like a peat-bog fire. People in St. Petersburg, among other places, are familiar with this phenomenon: you cannot see any flames, bogs are smoldering somewhere deep while the city is slowly becoming shrouded in smoke. The protest has turned into small signs that people share with each other, with the city, with the world, with anyone who is willing to see. Anti-war stickers, graffiti, posters, drawings, price tags, ribbons. All these artifacts are left in their place quickly, by some invisible hands. And by their own hands.
Older children and teenagers talk about it with a mixture of awe and admiration. Admiration, because it is like a game. Like they are in a tale where Hop-o'-My-Thumb is making a fool of the ogre. But it makes their hearts tremble, it is a very genuine fear. These kids already know that the government grabs whomever it can, and tends not to be too ceremonious with teenagers either. They explain to me quite knowingly what one may be arrested for, what are the fines and detention periods, what administrative detention is, or how one is entered into the juvenile delinquents’ database. But it is not just the detentions or fines they are afraid of. In fact, they are more afraid of other things. That mom will be upset. That grandma will be scared (“and that’s bad for her”). That dad will say: “Why’d you do that, I told you not to!” That the teacher will report them to the FSB. But what they are afraid of even more is being grabbed by some repulsive aliens, being yelled at, barked at, snarled at by some big well-fed men and women in uniform. When you are eleven, all adults seem big.
Yes, they are afraid. And they still do what they do. Overcoming your fear is inspiring.
“We began tying green ribbons everywhere (Green ribbons are one of the symbols of current anti-war protests.— ed. Holod). They keep popping up in more and more places. Once, I wanted to tie mine, and I saw one was already there. It felt so good.”
“I wear two bracelets in the Ukrainian flag colors.”
“We made our badges ourselves.” “Do you wear them at school?” “Yes, at school. When we go out, we don’t change our opinion, we just take them down and hide them.” “Why do you hide them?” “We are afraid.” “What are you afraid of?” “That some adults may beat us up or say something.”
“On the subway, there are pro-war posters but people put their stickers or just chewing gum on top.”
State propaganda is well-fed, too. It is everywhere. Cities are covered with banners, billboards and posters. State propaganda is printed professionally, produced for money, packed and delivered. It is industrial. Business, nothing personal. With the protest, it is the opposite: everything is made manually, drawn as well as one could draw, written by hand. Everything is personal, especially the choice made. Made by a specific person. These little signs are like ephemeral touches on the city’s surface, an important and visible part of the urban environment now. They appear, disappear and appear again (no janitor is a match for teenagers) like pulsating lights, like signals to like-minded people “who are just afraid or unable to say it.”
“I don’t want to use big words but I think this is about not being alone.”
“When I see something like this on my way to school or from school, I always take a picture and save it.” “How many pictures do you have?” “At least fifty.”
I Hate Them
Those who were against quickly became a majority which keeps growing every day. Yes, there were others: one girl called them “ambivalent.” They were not against or in favor, they were not even sure what exactly they could be in favor of or against. Confused, disturbed, they seemed to have come to me for something else. Clarity? Answers? I don’t know.
But I have not encountered a single clear, confessed or positive “in favor”, although it is the opinion of pro-war kids that seems most important to examine closely and to understand. What is a kid like this thinking? How does this kid manage to wrap his or her mind around all this? This was what I wanted to see most.
Being against the war is understandable, very natural. What can be strange about disapproving destruction, death and suffering of civilians? What’s not to understand? What is hard to understand is how one can approve of and support killing people. So eventually I began trying to find such kids proactively. I am still trying, unsuccessfully, to this day.
I am not sure how to explain this. It may be just me with my Tales of Leningrad being a filter. For the seven years that took me to write this series, I have been saying that cowardice was a disaster and that bravery meant being scared but still going forward. I have been writing that pain affects everyone, that war means horror and dead bodies, not parades and fireworks. That there are no victors and the vanquished, there are only killers and the killed, there is no “we”, there is just “me” and every person’s own choice. At this level, it is impossible to talk about war with enthusiasm.
This is all true. But let’s be objective: in pre-war Russia, with its “We can do it again”, my Tales of Leningrad have not become a national bestseller or mainstream in “young adult fiction”. I believe most kids don’t give a damn about me (or, to be more academic, my books are not so important for them).
I think all my interviewees were against the war because all kids are against the war. So let’s talk about the “ambivalent.”
“Well, it is bad but it is the right thing to do.” “Why is it the right thing to do?” “They would have attacked us themselves sooner or later.” “Wait, can you explain? Who are ‘they’?” “America.” “Wait, I am losing it. What do you mean, America? How do you explain this? This is all happening in Ukraine!” “America supports them.” “Who do you support?” [Quickly and defiantly:] “I support my country.” “Do you express your support in any way?” “No.” “Why not?”
“Do I have to answer?”
“No, you don’t have to answer every question. Shall we move on?”
He nods. We move on. The unanswered question is left behind but is not going anywhere. It is like a splinter in a finger.
The 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? Then what, am I in favor?” It’s a vicious circle.
“I try not to think about it, to get away from this subject.”
“I try not to get too engaged.”
“We discussed this with my friends.” “What did you decide?” “Either Putin is a fool or Zelensky is a fool. Both are responsible. And peaceful people are not responsible.”
Their questions beg for clear and definite answers. This is why such questions are called “childish.” Teenagers don’t mumble “it is complicated,” or “this is not as simple as you may think,” “we will never know the whole truth anyway.” They want answers. Simple, unequivocal, solid answers, and they want them right now. The fact that they don’t have them makes their minds bend. Some switch to counter-accusations, which is a defense, too:
“This is plain racism.” “What do you mean?” “Punishing people for living in the country where they were born. A year ago, Americans were fighting for Black people’s rights. This is wrong, offending.”
After a while, I come up with a common label for all such mental efforts: what do you do when your mom is an ogre?
“And Bucha?” “I don't think Russian soldiers can do that. I just can’t believe that."
“And Bucha?” “What do you want from me? To sling mud at my own country?”
“And Bucha?” “It is you who are lost, Bucha was staged.”
“Russia is a great country,” “Russia has a great culture,” “America hates Russia,” “And we don’t need them either.”—These are most common defenses, verbal protective pads. This sparring is especially difficult for those whose fathers, stepfathers, uncles or brothers are fighting in the Russian army right now.
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 properly, despite being told he died a criminal and was covered with shame. In 1943, Jean Anouilh wrote his own version of this drama.
If I am against people being killed (and everyone, thanks God, is against this), am I against the war? And if I am against the war, does this mean that I am opposed to my father, my uncle, my step father, my brother?
“I am offended by such comments and such questions.”
I understand that it is Antigone speaking.
Use Her Own Name
The Antigone sitting in front of me has a simple Russian name. In fact, one of the top five most popular ones. But I don’t ask them for last names or names of their schools. I don’t record video or audio; I make notes with a pen on paper. Sometimes I pause the interview: “Wait, I want to write this down in detail”. Or: “Wait, it seems to me you’re saying something very important”. I ask questions to which there cannot be right or wrong answers. Still, the war goes on, the very word “war” is punishable, some teachers report their own students, some students report their own teachers or classmates. “Fear” and “scared” are the words that come up in kids’ stories far more often than they should. I am responsible for the words they entrusted to me.
“We can call you some other name, which one do you want?”
She pauses for a few long moments, then shakes her head and says: “No, if I’m ***, I’m ***.”
I scribble in my pad: ***, 11 years old.
*** is telling me how she had an argument about the war with a classmate, and the boy said he’d beat her up if she doesn’t shut up. *** then realized, with satisfaction, that he recognized he had lost the argument. But, she adds, she was ready to fight for her beliefs.
Later I am typing up the interview on my computer, and my hands freeze in the air at ***’s words “he’s just a stupid little boy.” I am struck with a thought that the boy may be not so stupid, his parents may recognize *** and report her, and then… I go back to the beginning and delete ***’s name.
Shouldn’t I be calling my interviewees just “girl” and “boy”? Or will that make me overstep an invisible boundary, fall for the government’s rhetoric of depersonification, which, by inertia, always transcends into dehumanization? The Russian official Sergey Lavrov has called people who had died in Ukraine collateral damage. Putin called them “expendable material” and people who disagreed with him “insects.”
*** is not an insect. She lives in St. Petersburg, she is eleven years old, and she asked to be called her own name. But I still call her “girl.”
“I remember February 24th very well. I went to school. I envied younger kids. The fact that they didn’t understand what was going on.”
My youngest interviewees were five years old. For them, the streets they were used to did not seem to have changed. No one told me about Russian flags, they may be hanging too high for them to see. A young kid’s stare is usually downward, closer to the earth, to the pavement. They see beetles, things amid the grass, drawings on curbsides.
“There was a flag I haven’t seen before.” “What did it look like?” “Two stripes, blue and yellow. Which flag is that?” “Ukrainian. Where did you see it?” “Someone drew it with colored chalks.”
Five-year-olds don’t have phones. On the streets, they see changes that are important when you are five years old, usually not related to the war:
“There were new stalls on wheels, with corn and lollypops.”
Or, if they are related, kids do not see the connection. They don’t understand:
“There were a lot of people with black heads. They wore helmets.”
When you are five years old, you don’t quite understand the very concept of war—or the concept of death, everyone is immortal at this age. The only thing that is clear is that war is something that is not supposed to happen.
“I don’t know why there’s war. They can have an agreement but they don’t want to. It is very bad that people are dying, they need to have an agreement.”
One six-year-old girl is an exception; she knows that there is a war going on now. “We must have been not careful enough,” her mom says, apologetically. “When it all started, we had friends coming over. We talked about it all the time. Perhaps that was not the right thing to do.” The girl doesn’t want to talk to me. But she allowed her mom to send me her drawings she has been producing since the war started.
No other toddlers I spoke to knew that there was a war, that their country attacked its neighbor. Their parents drew a magic circle of silence around them. Are their parents right or wrong? They don’t have a language to talk about the war with a five- or six-year-old. War in general is one thing. This particular war, waged by your country, is another. How do you say to a five-year-old that our country attacked a neighboring one? How do you explain why this happened? So they just don’t.
“I was angry with dad. He didn’t buy me a pirate gun. He said he would buy me any toy I wanted because it was my birthday. But he didn’t buy me the gun.” “Why didn’t he buy it? Did he tell you?” “He said it’s wrong.” “What is wrong?” “Dad said that I shouldn’t play with guns.”
“He doesn’t understand what is going on,” another mom warns me about her toddler. “But he is now always worried when his dad leaves, when any adult goes somewhere.”
Bombs are not falling on these kids as they are in Ukraine. These kids have never heard shells exploding or seen buildings destructed. They don’t even know there is a war going on. But the war is still trickling toward them through the looks on adults’ faces and their conversations, through what they do, through all the little choices they don’t even notice. The war is slowly soaking the protective felt of these kids’ happy childhoods.
This is how the war is visible for a five-year-old who knows nothing:
“Mom is always staring at her phone now.”
“One boy made a joke about Ukrainians in class.” “Do you remember what he said?” “No, not really.” “Did you find this unusual?” “Yes.” “Why?” “The teacher burst in tears.”
“So he said in one breath that he had family living near Kherson and that ‘[Russia] should send Chechens there so that they [rape] everyone there and then we have a country of pet Chechens next to us.’”
“One boy was showing a video to everyone, there were Ukrainian soldiers’ bodies with ‘Katyusha’ as a soundtrack.”
“This boy” is always there, in every school if not in every class. I was listening to my interviewees and thinking that I knew this boy, too—I went to school with him. You always knew he was up to something when you heard a sudden giggling from the back row. This boy is always the first to start smoking, he is usually the one making sleazy comments that are disgusting rather than obscene. He can adapt when he needs too, though. This boy was not born from Putin’s propaganda. He is eternal. Our grandchildren will go to school with him.
Usually, “this boy” is confined and contained with public disapproval, especially that of his classmates. But when the society is split, the ethics mangled and the public contract broken, “this boy's” energy transpires and triumphs. It seems like the times now belong to “these boys.”
“They demanded that I kneel in front of them and apologize.” “What did they look like?” “Well, boys. What do boys look like?”
You might call this energy xenophobia but that would be an oversimplification. Xenophobia is but one form this dark matter takes. It can be used to shape anything. An army, for example.
Many have written about the fact Putin’s army fighting in Ukraine had been mostly drafted from depressed or semi-depressed Russian regions, from godforsaken backwater lands. You can picture a swamp swarming with all kinds of horrors with just a few shiny spots on the surface representing Moscow, St. Petersburg and a few more big cities. But my Tales from Leningrad introduced me to this Russia, too: “We are riding to school, first cart is loaded with firewood for the school, second cart is carrying the kids.” So I know better about the huge role played in the Russia of village schools and provincial libraries by adults who are not indifferent. Every such person is a source of light, radiating far and wide.
It is not about geography and even not so much about poverty. “These boys” may be found in Moscow and St. Petersburg, growing in all kinds of families from university professors’ to manual workers’, from large families’ to single mothers’. Some of them may even be girls.
At some point in one of my conversations I suddenly realized that the kid was yelling—yelling at me, at the world, at his life:
“Hatred is nobody’s fault! I hate Chechens! I hate Tajiks! I don’t give a shit about these Ukrainians! I hate a lot of people! Yes! I’m a bad person! But I don’t walk around shouting ‘die, motherfuckers!’ If I do, I am a monster. It’s not the haters’ fault, it’s the monsters’ fault. Monsters who turn their hatred into practice. These people are monsters.”
The person who says all this is a 13-year-old.
Since the very beginning of the war, the government introduced fierce censorship. Even the word “war” became banned overnight. It was also overnight that adult men and women, some of my friends and colleagues, adopted this language of omissions and circumlocutions and became proficient in it so quickly as if they had been preparing for this for a long time. It was frightening to see this smooth transition. People’s speech has mutated, even when there are no government’s ears to listen: conversations among friends, One on One, in a kitchen or during a walk. They became wartime conversations.
But no one calls the war against Ukraine what the government suggested it should be called—a “special military operation.”
“Why do you think the government even needs this phrase? What is their purpose here?” I asked my interviewees. Regardless of age, responses were very similar.
“The word ‘war’ is too frightening.”
“Because war is something big and scary.”
“Because if you say ‘war’, that’s it, there is no way back.”
“If you say ‘war’, people will be scared to death: war!”
“Because war is a catastrophe.”
“Bureaucracy, public relations, all these reasons together.”
“So that there is no unwanted chatter inside the country and no associations with 1941–1945.”
Kids avoid saying this word, war, out loud. And I try calling it what my interviewee first called it in each conversation: “these events,” “this shit,” “all this nightmare,” “what’s happening,” “everything” (as in “when everything happened”), “this.”
A few times I would say: “Look, nobody is listening but we keep saying ‘what’s happening’ or ‘the events.’” My interlocutor would think on it for a moment, nod, sigh, swallow, look aside. But even then they continued to avoid calling the war “war”. Or they would try to force themselves, but the word gets stuck in their mouths. It is so short—but so hard to say. I understand why Stephen King, the greatest expert on horror of our times, entitled his best novel about children’s fears It.
That’s what the war is—“it.”
Trauma of Dreams
One night I have a dream and I realize 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 realized recently that I can't listen to 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 ban 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.