“I don’t feel guilt but shame”: the life on a wire of the Russians of France



The scene takes place in a hospital in Nice, at the beginning of March, under the pale lights of these rooms where waiting mixes with anxiety, before entering the operating room. Ekaterina, 52, is about to undergo an operation. “Next door, a young man who speaks neither English nor French. He is Ukrainian and must have an urgent operation”, she says. Caregivers try as best they can to understand it using a translation tool. “I hesitated, but I offered to help with the Russian translation. How happy he was… The caregivers applauded. » Before Ekaterina fell asleep, the anesthesiologist told her about the war in Ukraine. “I told him it wasn’t really the time…”

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Ekaterina resides in France. The conflict in Ukraine has engulfed his daily life like a gust through the window. Of Franco-Russian nationality, she left Russia thirty years ago, without ever breaking with her country of origin. From the Côte d’Azur where she resides – like many Russians in France – the war that began on February 24 affects her. “I cry, it hurts my heart when the names of cities are mentioned, it tears me apart. » She continues, to freeze in one sentence this ambivalence that inhabits her: “I still love Russia, which doesn’t prevent me from not loving war. »

“Everyone talks to me about the war”

Listening to the words of this employee of a law and audit company, we imagine her like a tightrope walker, on a wire above a ravine: “We are forced to keep quiet because whatever we say is not the right opinion. » At work, she is asked what she thinks of the war. She prefers not to come forward. She was not subjected to derogatory remarks. “My husband, yes. He wanted to order materials to renovate his boat. He received as an answer: “We do not want to serve you if you are Russian”. »

Difficult to anticipate interactions on such a sensitive subject. “It’s the first time in my life that I fear the reactions, that I wonder if I say that I am Russian when someone asks me the question”, testifies Tatiana, a 44-year-old Franco-Russian real estate agent. Very quickly, he had to make a decision when clients asked him: “You have a little accent, where are you from? »

One day, her 8-year-old daughter came home disturbed from school. Comrades had reproached ” his country “ for attacking Ukraine. To her mother, she confides: “I’m fed up, everyone talks to me about the war. Why can’t presidents solve their problems on the soccer field? » Since then, Tatiana explained to him that it was Vladimir Putin but not the Russian people who were responsible. At home, the TV screen stays off. To keep out of the news.

Cases of assault

Have Russians been targeted in France? “We had warning signals from parents of Russian-speaking children at the very beginning of the conflict. Some have been remarked upon. I have known about thirty cases»reports Gueorgui Chepelev, president of the coordination council of the Russians of France, which brings together about 250 organizations. “There were also verbal attacks, attacks on cultural centers. But this is still limited. » This Russian teacher at Inalco sees more aggressiveness on social networks. “The community is difficult to target because there is no Russian quarter in France. There are cultural highlights, memorials, a Russian store in one area, but it’s quite scattered”he notes.

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France had 73,500 Russian immigrants (residents in France born in Russia) in 2021, according to INSEE. The much larger Russian-speaking community “represents a large mosaic”portrays Georgy Shepelev: “Not all Russians support Russian state policy. The French media were unfortunately able to contribute to the amalgam. »

Bear responsibility

An idea shared by Ira C., a Franco-Russian journalist who spent the first half of his life there. The forty-year-old believes that a “openly Russophobic propaganda has been relaxed in France”. When the conflict broke out, she observed “a very emotional wave” from French people who wear the Ukrainian flag on their Facebook profile picture “even though they know nothing about it”.​​​​​​

“I also saw a wave of Russians apologizing for being Russian. » His blood only made one turn. She published a text to say that she was not ashamed to be Russian. And the war came to interfere in relations. A friend married to a Ukrainian woman wrote me a rather violent note, in which he told me that I disgusted him, that I defended the war. He blocked me and doesn’t talk to me anymore. » Ira C. is exasperated by this world “without nuances”.

But “It’s normal to be criticized when your country attacks another sovereign country and massacres civilian populations”slice for her part Alexandra Tsovma, a 24-year-old student at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. “I consider that every Russian bears political responsibility for what is done in his name”, she says. Unlike a Russophobia, she perceives a “exaggerated empathy on the part of the French” towards Russian society. “Yes, the Russians are afraid of repression, but it remains everyone’s responsibility to inform themselves and not to eat propaganda”she continues.

“Show another face”

After the astonishment, the action. “Help networks have been set up. I am very impressed by the number of Russians who help in the translation and reception of Ukrainian refugeesreports Anne Le Huérou, lecturer in Slavic studies at the University of Paris-Nanterre. Their range of opinions is not necessarily convergent but they agree on a desire to show another face of Russia. »

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Polya, 27, is one of them. She felt a “enormous and insurmountable feeling of injustice”. “I told myself that I could not stop the war, but that I could at least help the Ukrainians who arriveshe says. It may sound weird, but they are very happy to hear Russian. To talk to someone without a language barrier. »

Tatiana, the real estate agent, also felt this need to help. By translating the words of the refugees, but also at the wheel of his large seven-seater car, to convey families. Looking for the reasons for this outpouring of solidarity, her 18-year-old son asked her one day: “Do you feel guilty? » She answered him: “No, I don’t feel guilty, but I feel shame. »

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The main stages of the conflict

February 24. Russia begins to invade Ukraine with airstrikes and missile fire.

March 2. The Russians manage to seize Kherson, an important port on the Black Sea.

End of March. Russian forces withdrew from the kyiv region, then from the whole of the north of the country, after having failed to take the capital.

1er april. Ukrainian troops enter Boutcha after the Russians retreat. Massacres of civilians have been committed there.

May’s beginning. A hundred civilians are evacuated from the city of Mariupol. The strategic port in southeastern Ukraine is under siege.

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