Robin Ashenden

Lost friendships are a painful price of the Ukraine war

(Credit: Getty images)

One thing you learn about war, if you are close enough for it to touch you, is that it splits the atom. Situations and relationships that have grown over time and seem to have deep roots – a life in fact – can be blown apart in a day. Now, over two years on from the start of Vladimir Putin’s ‘special military operation’ (which came at a time when I was living in Rostov-on-Don, an hour or two from the Ukrainian border), I’m still in touch with several Russians I knew back then. We find common ground, avoid certain topics and continue the conversation. But other friendships were killed stone dead, and for very different reasons.

One was with a young student, Nikolai. Warm and friendly, he was also conservative, ex-military and seemed forever to be searching for a deeper mission in life. He was an imperialist, he told me, at a time when it seemed about as imminently threatening as saying ‘I’m a flat-earther’. When the war with Ukraine came along, he embraced it wholeheartedly – ‘You want the truth? I wish we’d done this ten years ago!’ – and was baffled at my hostility. The Ukrainians were riddled with Nazis, he said, pure and simple. They had to be dealt with for good and if he could fight for his country he would.

I imagine such broken ties across Russia and Ukraine, between families, within them, between lovers and friends

When we argued, he’d bombard me afterwards with YouTube clips ‘proving’ that Ukraine was a fascist snake-pit or the Bucha Massacre a Western smear. Had I been more patient at the time – a wiser adult, a better teacher – we might have closely looked together at the origins of those videos. The one showing neo-Nazi marches was eight years out of date; the one on Bucha was from a TV channel and ‘investigative journalist’ with the dodgiest of reputations. I would have asked Nikolai to define the words ‘Nazi’ or ‘Fascist’, and we’d have looked at the breakdown of the Ukrainian parliament to see whether his definition fitted that or the Russian regime more closely. But living out of a suitcase in Armenia, career gone, family scattered, I wasn’t in a generous frame of mind. I cut contact with Nikolai, and to this day don’t know whether he ever joined up, nor whether he’s alive or dead.

Another was Maxim, an IT-whizzkid (‘a kind of genius’, his colleagues said) who had exacting tastes in cinema and music, a raging appetite for both, and seemed to inject any gathering with his benign, slightly crazy energy. Maxim was among the brightest and frankest people I met in that city, a natural comrade. When it was clear I was fleeing the country, he did everything he could to help me, finding me an affordable ticket to Armenia at a time when flights were rocketing by more than 1,000 per cent in price. But later, after I’d been living with Kherson refugees at a Tbilisi hostel, he was dismayed (I think) at how totally I took their side. He never said the words ‘after all I’ve done for you’ – he had too much style – but that was the implication. Distrust grew between us: emails and WhatsApp messages thinned out, then went unanswered. The sense of having disappointed a genuinely kind person – however unavoidably – is with me still and will not go away.

But the saddest and most senseless break-up of the lot was with my Russian teacher, who here I’ll call ‘Natalia’. It had been a platonic love-at-first-sight when we’d met in Odessa a few years previously. Natalia, in her early fifties and thin as a rake, had understanding, deep brown eyes – the eyes of a good counsellor – and a constant air of naughtiness, as though she’d just been summoned to the Head Mistress’s office for talking too much in class. She was of that generation who missed, deeply, the Soviet Union, not on the grounds of belief (‘No one believed in anything by then,’ she said) but because, on the Ukrainian south coast, it hadn’t mattered where you came from or what your ethnicity was. Life had made her a Russian patriot – she’d been glad, like so many Russians, when the Crimea returned to them, and she loathed the endless propaganda on Ukrainian state TV.

Back then, she liked Vladimir Putin too, trusting in his cold rationality, his apparent sense of boundaries – however much he pushed them – and she was grateful for the way he’d hoiked the country out of the chaos of the 1990s. Whenever she talked about him she’d invariably stroke her hair, something she was quite unaware of until I pointed it out, at which she blushed and got the giggles.

Her sense of humour was Odessan – ironic and highly developed – and she was utterly unshockable, one of those people you felt you could call on, whatever trouble you got into in life, without being judged or rejected. Natalia simply dealt with reality as it was. A Canadian student of hers came to Odessa annually to pick up girls decades younger; Natalia just shrugged: some men liked much younger women, it was a fact of life and certainly not worth getting bothered about. Another language-learner, a Californian, pushed woke doctrine at her for a month and cussed the Ukrainian record on LGBT. Natalia nodded politely, letting the hectoring wash over her, rolling her eyes behind their back at the nonsense they were pushing, her instinctive dislike of radical ideologies, particularly newfangled Western ones, kicking in.

Over time we became firm friends, more than teacher and student, and helped each other out in bad patches. The most impressive thing about her was her total lack of ambition, her absolute indifference to acquiring wealth, capitalising on her talents or ruining her life with too much effort. She told me one day that at a gallery she’d seen a Czech painting she hankered after but couldn’t afford – upon which she’d simply taken a photo of it and painted a copy herself. ‘Why aren’t you doing this for a living?’ I asked, for the copy was insanely good. ‘You’d make a fortune.’

Natalia was fazed by the question – she’d simply wanted the painting, she said, and that was that. If she ever wanted another painting, she’d do the same. As for money, she had enough private students at present to get by, and certainly enough, thank you, to spare her a reinvention like that.

I still can’t quite believe I fell out with this remarkable woman, with whom I went back several years and who’d become like an older sister to me. But war, as I say, makes its mischief, and I put it down to a kind of madness and rage that overtook me, as so many others, after its outbreak. A few days after February 2022, Natalia got in touch with me by Skype messenger to find out how I was. ‘Everything gone,’ I wrote. ’Daughter moved to Italy. Flat and possessions abandoned. Career kaput.’ And then, thoughtlessly, impulsively, I typed out what I wanted someone to do to Vladimir Putin: ‘very slowly, very painfully’. I quickly deleted it but Natalia had already seen.

These are the tiny deaths you do not hear about

‘What is happening in the world, Robin?’ she asked sadly. ‘The world has gone mad.’

At the time I supposed this meant she was backing Russian policy and couldn’t relate to my fury. Well, if she was still pro-Putin… I didn’t call Natalia for several months, and if she called me, I was offhand. Eventually, after I’d settled in Georgia and the anger had dissipated, I apologised and told her why.

Natalia was appalled. ‘How could you think,’ she wrote back, ‘that I could possibly support this war for one minute? That I could ever be in favour of such madness and evil?’

I assumed things were patched up between us, but I was wrong. Those you esteem most in life are often hardest to forgive, and she and I had meant a lot to each other. To this day my emails go unanswered – it was a misunderstanding of her basic world view and essential nature, I assume, that hurt her deeply and made further contact pointless. And perhaps she was right.

I imagine such broken ties duplicated right across Russia and Ukraine, between families, within them, between lovers and friends. These are the tiny deaths you do not hear about: the unreported, but no less painful, casualties of war.