Those following the news on Ukraine may have come across an unusual documentary called “The Way to Ukraine”, which features some prominent anti-Putin activists fleeing Russia and trying to settle in Ukraine. Its full version is available online and within few weeks the film has gained over 12,000 views on YouTube. Sarah Hurst, UK journalist, made the film single-handedly on a near-zero budget in April this year. On September 10, extracts of this film will be shown at Pushkin House in London along with a talk by the author. Prior to this event, Sarah has kindly agreed to answer several questions for our website.
There’ve been many documentaries about the Maidan Revolution, the ongoing war, but none about the topic you’ve chosen for your film. What inspired you to make this film?
My film “The Way to Ukraine” is about Russians fleeing Putin, and also indirectly the story of how I came to Ukraine. There is nothing about me in the film, but all my experiences in the former Soviet Union brought me to it. In March 2013 I visited St. Petersburg for three weeks. It wasn’t my first trip to the city, but it was definitely a very different experience than previous ones. It was gloomy and eerie. My friend Elena, who had been corresponding with me for years, turned out to be a big Putin supporter who stormed out of the room when her husband criticised him, saying, “Don’t insult the president!” Elena’s friend Lyudmila tried to persuade me that homosexuality was a disease. Later that year I moved back to England and started following the news in Russia closely. The Duma was passing more and more crazy laws, banning everything. Then the Maidan started in Ukraine.
Did you go to Maidan personally?
Not at the time of the protests, but I watched the Maidan nearly every night on Hromadske and Espreso TV, and talked to my friend in Odessa, chess grandmaster Mikhail Golubev, who participated in demonstrations there for months. After the annexation of Crimea I started a blog, X Soviet, to provide news links and interviews with activists in Russia and Ukraine. But I only went to Ukraine for the first time in April this year, when I made the film.
Why did you choose to make the film about Russians in Ukraine, not about let’s say Ukrainian Revolution or the ongoing war?
I chose to interview Russian emigres for the film because I had seen that activists were leaving for Ukraine and didn’t think that this had been covered very much in the media. Dramatically, my Facebook friend Pavel Shekhtman disappeared for a couple of days in Moscow and resurfaced after crossing the Ukrainian border via Belarus. He had been placed under house arrest for an inflammatory post on Facebook about Russian propagandists, and added to Russia’s list of “extremists and terrorists”.
Also, fortunately for the film, after I arrived in Kiev I found that Moscow activist Yekaterina Maldon had escaped to Ukraine the same week and was staying in the same flat as Pavel. Katya is one of Ukraine’s most fervent supporters and was detained numerous times by police in Moscow, and even beaten in a police cell. On one occasion she and other activists played the Ukrainian national anthem on a loudspeaker outside the prison where Nadiya Savchenko was being held. One of her most famous actions was throwing a toy gun on the stage of a theatre where Mikhail Porechenkov was performing and shouting “Shoot me, Misha!” at him. Porechenkov had been to eastern Ukraine, where he aimed a gun while wearing a “PRESS” helmet.
How did you find other activists who you filmed?
The other people interviewed in the film I also knew from Facebook, either for a long time or I contacted them when I decided to make it. I talked to two Ukrainian activists in Kiev and they both said that Russians and Ukrainians had participated in the Maidan alongside each other and that there was no problem with the Russian language being used in Kiev, which I can confirm myself. In fact, when I apologised for knowing only Russian and not Ukrainian, Ukrainians didn’t know what I was talking about – they were just happy that I could speak to them in Russian.
Many of your film heroes complain about Ukrainian migration service, that makes them unable to build their new homes in Ukraine? Can you tell more about this?
Everyone in the film also agrees that the Ukrainian migration service has not reformed and is generally very hostile to Russian political emigres, so it’s extremely difficult for them to obtain political asylum. That means they live in limbo, not allowed to work, and not knowing if or when they will ever get permission to live in the country legally. Officials tell them that Russia is a normal, democratic country, and they should go back there. Then again, the UK government has a similar attitude.
Andrei Teslenko did get political asylum in Ukraine, after being prosecuted in Russia, but he and his family won the US Green Card Lottery and now live in New York state. For most, moving to a third country will not be possible, so I hope that they will be able to stay in Ukraine and devote their efforts to rebuilding their new homeland.
Do you think there’s a chance for some change in Russia? Will these people be able to come back there soon?
I don’t think Russia has much of a chance of recovery from the quagmire it has sunk itself into in the foreseeable future.
In the beginning of the interview you said that you have a long history of your relationship with Russia. Can you please tell more about it?
I became excited about the region as a teenager in the Gorbachev era and decided to learn Russian and become a journalist. On my first short visit to Moscow and Leningrad in 1990 I interviewed Soviet Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin and the editor of Pravda, Ivan Frolov. The government then was so apparently open and welcoming to foreigners back then!
I did a degree in Russian and History at the University of Birmingham, spending time in Voronezh, St. Petersburg and Minsk. After graduating I went back to St. Petersburg and became a reporter for the St. Petersburg Press. I went to the opening of the State Duma in January 1996 and asked Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky questions. I could not have imagined that nearly 20 years later these angry, delusional clowns would not only still be around, but would be far more influential than they were before. It has become normal now in Russia to see portraits and even busts of Stalin.
In 1998 I campaigned against Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who was then simultaneously president of Kalmykia and the world chess federation, FIDE. He was implicated in the murder of opposition newspaper editor Larisa Yudina in Kalmykia, and his aides were convicted for it. He is still the FIDE president today and a friend of Putin. The following year I went to Azerbaijan to work for BBC Monitoring. I also visited Georgia, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. I once had a goal of collecting all the flags of the former Soviet republics. But after a year in China I spent 12 years in Alaska, and that was postponed. Now I finally have the Ukrainian flag!
From Alaska I had the opportunity to visit Chukotka and Kamchatka, places that most Russians have never been to. Chukotka was saved from starvation by the benevolence of oligarch Roman Abramovich when he was governor of the region. He poured in money, but now that he is gone and Russia has isolated itself again, I don’t know what will happen to the indigenous peoples there, who struggle in such a harsh environment. Alaskans also helped them and worked with them for some years, but Putin made that impossible, fearing American spies.
When traveling around Ukraine, did you ever feel that you are suspected to be an American spy?
I was only in Ukraine for a few days in April, and it felt incredibly open and welcoming. I noticed there were lots of TV crews on the streets of Kiev, a sign that the media environment is very lively. I gave three interviews myself. I thought perhaps there might be some questions about what I was doing there, filming all the time, but there weren’t. Everyone was happy to help. I don’t think too many people in Ukraine, except for Putin supporters, are worried about American spies, because Americans are on their side, but fortunately they didn’t think I was a Russian spy either.
I am going back to Ukraine soon – and this time I hope to do some sightseeing! When I get back, I’ll give a talk about my film at Pushkin House, and I’ll update everyone about the people in it and life in Ukraine.
Interviewed by Anna Morgan.