Natalia* (N) is a Russian psychologist who shares her experience of the situation in Russia over the past year, with an emphasis on the psychologists’ community. She recently relocated to another country. This interview was conducted by Marlena Plavšić** (MP), a member of the GNPHR Steering Committee. 

Marlena Plavšić (MP): As psychologists, we are very much aware that words carry a meaning. In the country where I live (Croatia) the current situation in Ukraine is officially called ‘war’ or ‘the Russian attack/invasion of Ukraine’. How is it officially called in Russia, if at all?

Natalia (N): It is officially called ‘the special operation’. The word ‘war’ is forbidden. It is avoided or muted or changed in songs, videos, interviews in various media channels. For example, people who were protesting against the war were carrying banners that said ‘ NO W’ and they were arrested. Gradually the situation has slightly changed and nowadays you can hear that it is used, although it is still prohibited. Of course, people in private communications freely use the word “war” and similar ones.

MP: Is the term ‘human rights’ used in Russia in any form related to the war?

N: Firstly, we should bear in mind that this is a huge case of dehumanisation. The most tragic thing is that the officials are not considered with human rights, as if nobody is suffering.
Secondly, with the development of the war, it has become clear that it is not aggression or fight against Ukraine, it is a fight against the Western values, human rights included. Human rights are hugely violated, such as freedom of speech, expression of opinions, recruitment of men from the poorest parts of Russia to be soldiers sent to war, to name just a few. With human rights so violated, everything is put at stake and many people are suffering.
To answer your initial question, the term ‘human rights’ is not officially used for any purposes. The officials claim to care about the Russian people that are suffering in Ukraine. That explanation was used as the reason for the war. However, those people, who were supposed to be cared for, are also dying in this war.

MP: What is the war about?

N: Neither government can provide a clear justification, nor the opposition. The only meaningful explanation can be: to stay in power at any cost. It seems that Crimea is not enough for raising Putin’s popularity. Ekaterina Schulmann, the Russian political analyst, says that it is the war of past against the future, the war to preserve the power. It really does look like it. Perspectives and opportunities for young people are being demolished. Many younger people feel lost.

MP: You did a research about the influence of war on younger generations in Russia. Can you summarise some results, please?

N: The team I was with, conducted a research about younger people’s perception of the war. It started in March 2022 and lasted till January 2023. About two thirds of them answered that they were lost and reported that they didn’t know how to react. About 10 % were against the war and described the situation as hopeless, while 7% supported the war. The remaining people in our sample, which comprised more than 5000 people between 17 and 35 years old from all over Russia, said that they haven’t even noticed what was going on as they were overwhelmed with challenges caused by poverty and other disadvantages. We also found evidence of propaganda’s influence. The war propaganda is very strong on television, and older people are more affected by that because they are the ones who watch TV more than younger people. The research confirms that people who are more exposed to the TV, even as a background, are more for the war.
My colleagues and I believe that Russian youth is a resource worth advocating for. So we have decided to put the direct consequences of the war aside and tried to focus on the indirect consequences – on the Russian youth. My colleagues approached diverse Russian Ministries responsible for education, IT, business, etc. to explain the adverse effects this situation has on the young people. Still, our voices were not heard.

MP: Have there ever been any official reactions by psychological associations in Russia related to the war?

N: The European Federation of Psychological Associations (EFPA) expected its member, the Russian Psychological Society (RPS) to react against the war. However, if you clearly say: ”I’m against the war!”, those will be your last words. I don’t mean that you will be killed or put in prison. What happens is that you may be forced to give up your position and influence and become powerless. In other words, you are considered an anti-Russian voice of the West and possible ideas, solutions and facts are not taken into consideration. So you have to be careful if you still want to influence the decision makers. I talked with my colleagues about the official reaction. We concluded that if such a public reaction appears, then the whole psychological population would be blamed to collaborate with the West to fight the Russian regime and it would reduce our chances to have any good influence and services that we may offer as psychologists. There are colleagues that are active supporters of the regime in power. A lot of efforts was put into persuading them to stop that support. Well known psychologists openly express their opinion, for example, Aleksandr Asmolov, the vice-president of the RPS, ex vice-Minister of Education, gave a set of clearly anti-war interviews. He was heard only by those against the war, supporters of the regime treated him as a “weirdo” and neglected his words. When other colleagues, not so highly ranked in politics, expressed their opposition to the war, some became stigmatised as crazy or influenced or bought by the West, some were forced to resign from their workplaces if the are affiliated with the government, some resigned from such places themselves to be able to speak and act freely. I don’t know of any cases where some colleagues have been put in jail. I know of a colleague who was called ‘a foreign agent’ because she did not share the values with the prevailing views towards LGBT topic, but it was related to her LGBT activism before the war. And there is a huge official campaign against LGBT rights going on.

MP: What is the sentiment among the Russian colleagues related to the war?

N: I don’t know how many psychologists there are in Russia. I know that the most prominent psychologists that had been in contact with the Western countries are against the war. They mostly say that there is nothing they can do. Of course, there are psychologists, that go to protest, still post anti-war posts for their close circle, hang Ukrainian flags near their doors and on their yards, learn Ukrainian, and provide all the needed help. I think many of my colleagues use defence mechanisms so they work as usual.

MP: What kind of support do Russian colleagues need from the international colleagues?

N: It is important to keep in touch with the Russian colleagues to maintain normality. Let me illustrate how things can deviate. RPS has been working on the law for psychology, because there is none in the country. There was a suggestion that the law should contain a statement saying that psychologists should help the government, and if they don’t, they are not entitled to be called psychologists. We were trying to prevent that, because it is obedience to authority, not psychology! So it is important to help the Russian colleagues to be dedicated to science and to strive to obtain high quality of professional work and ethics. From this point of view, it was not good that RPS was expelled from EFPA. I understand why it happened, but it caused a significant damage, as excluded people are pushed farther from the Western values and moved more toward the totalitarianism.

MP: Does your new address have anything to do with the war?

N: There is a family history to it. My family witnessed tragedies in forms of slavery and gulag. I’ve learned that for us the enemies are not from the other side of the border, they are in the same country. I have lived abroad for some time and then returned to Russia. I was happy to contribute to my country with my professional competences. However, we as a family decided to move to another country if situation in Russia becomes hopeless or dangerous. For about ten months since the beginning of the war I personally experienced diverse emotions in regards to this tragedy: guilt, shame, fear this made me conduct reach on public opinion, volunteer to assist refugees inside and outside of Russia, speak with diverse audiences across Russia, starting from those in power and ending up with ordinary citizens in their struggles, including families of Russian soldiers, and those willing to participate in Russian aggression. I was doing that firstly – to find ways to stop this war and to understand people in this situation. I’ve seen people who are against the war, there are many of them, but it seems that the mechanisms to unite them are not in place, hence their voice is not loud. But I’ve also seen many who have defence mechanisms, and live like there is no war, because either their life always was a struggle. I was never threatened, but I was not allowed to talk and reach the audience as I thought was necessary. I was also not allowed to proceed with my research activity with Russian youth and as a few months ago I’ve started to be more active in promoting the results of my research, I was advised to resign and preferably to leave the country. I’m not proud of that, but my family history, feeling of hopelessness and helplessness, and increased risks to my family made me relocate.
There is a big community of Ukrainians, Belarussians and Russians where I live now. It’s a tremendous feeling of freedom after such a long time. I saw the Ukrainian flags, which I haven’t seen for a while.

MP: Can you see yourself returning to Russia?

N: I am open to the possibility if I feel that I am needed there. That is why I prefer to stay anonymous for this interview, to be able to return and to participate in rebuilding my motherland, and at the moment the terms of such return are unclear.
Many generations in my family gave chances to Russia, by contributing their efforts. Maybe it is high time to stop doing it and to do something for another country there this efforts won’t be destroyed. Or maybe not.

MP: Are there any data about the mental health situation in Russia that you know of?

N: There was a number of studies that showed increased depression and anxiety, published in official and unofficial sources, and consequently, an increased demand for psychological support and medication. However, many people don’t have access to it due to poverty or stigma. Even though this is an open information, and I’m sure that the government is aware of that, it will not stop the war due to the officials’ rhetoric that normalizes suffering in the current situation.

MP: How are the immigrants to Russia treated?

N: There are diverse situations that I know of. Some are well taken care of, some are forgotten.

MP: What can the Global Network of Psychologists for Human Rights do to be supportive to the Russian colleagues?

N: I would say that the Russians need the topic of decolonisation. They need instruments that can help them getting rid of the burden from the past. Many accuse us of having the “imperial mind”. But the majority in power actually are children of the slaves, not the royals.
From about XII century, there was slavery in Russia which transformed into serfdom in the XVIII century, peasants and laborers were literally the property of a small group of rich and powerful, and they were stripped off most of their human rights. There was a short period of freedom from 1861 which ended up early in the raise of the soviet regime at the end of 1920’s. Even though most of the royals were sent out of the country or killed, the new soviet government turned formally free people into slaves or stripped them of most of the human rights. We should not forget that for many centuries Russia colonized*** the territories that are now its regions. Some of those territories are now the poorest and provide the most soldiers to the current war.
Considering this long history of dehumanization it is important that we become a society that values human lives, lives of all our citizens. This is where I see human rights education crucial. People need to develop and conceptualise that they are entitled to human rights and that the other people are entitled to those rights as well.
Many people will be lost after the war and they will have to rebuild their lives. Maybe psychologists will be there to offer them human rights as a start: educational programmes and practical suggestions. I hope the officials will be different from what we have now.
The Russian psychological community wants to keep a dialogue with the foreign colleagues. So it would be a great idea to organise fora with topics of human rights. Let’s talk about human life values!

MP:Thank you for this rich conversation.

*Natalia is a pseudonym to protect the interviewee’s privacy.

**Dr. Marlena Plavšić, Croatia.

***Schorkowitz D. (2019). Was Russia a Colonial Empire? In: Schorkowitz D., Chávez J., Schröder I. (eds.) Shifting Forms of Continental Colonialism: Unfinished Struggles and Tensions. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *