"My son will never join the army."
Svetlana is 48 years old. Ten years ago she married an Italian man and, entrusting the care of her high-school son to her parents, moved from Ufa to Pesaro. The year 2022 was fateful for Svetlana. Her husband's furniture firm began to fail financially, unable to withstand the test of a pandemic and a conflict with a shipping company. Despite Svetlana's entreaties, her son stayed in Russia until the beginning of the mobilisation and only managed to leave for Istanbul at the very last moment, where he got "stuck" because he did not get an Italian visa in time. And at the same time her husband was diagnosed with cancer at an incurable stage. But Svetlana's story is not so much about her personal drama as it is about how Russian propaganda works not only within the country, but also among immigrants with a long history.
I have to live in Italy.
– It was 1994, a year before my son was born. I was sitting with my girlfriends near the entrance and heard a woman howling from the first-floor window. I asked the girls, "What is that?" And they told me that her son, who was conscripted from Chechnya, had been brought there. He was brought in a zinc coffin. I still remember my horror. Then I told myself that if I had a son, he would never join the army. And a year later my son was born.
In 2008 I accidentally won a tour to Italy, and it was my first trip abroad, I had not seen other countries. And so I was infected [with the idea] that I should live in Italy.
My son was already 15 when I first went away. The usual story, like all Russian women: I met an Italian man on a dating site, we "hit it off", everything fell into place, and I went to see him. At that moment my parents started to take care of my son. A year later he was graduating from school, and my parents convinced my child that "a man should go to the army". I came home, but there was nothing else I could do.
In 2015 my son joined the army. He served in Khabarovsk as part of the 64th Guards, a unit that was stationed in Knyaz-Volkonskoye and then ended up in Bucha. When I heard this news [about Bucha], I felt bad.
In 2016 my Italian came and we got married in Russia. And I had already left with the ends. And my son followed his own line: "Mom, I'm not going anywhere, I'm doing fine here. I left him a two-room apartment and everything that was there. I left with a small suitcase. But I never gave up hope that he would move to Italy with me.
The Long Road Back to Opposition
I was an oppositionist in 2011. I was kind of out of politics, but I was really pissed off about Putin, I never liked him, and I never voted for him. And when I came to Italy in 2012, people started saying to me (including my husband): "No, what? Look how good Putin is!" I guess this was still coming from Berlusconi, Italy is a country with a lot of oligarchs and very rich people.
When you leave, you start watching some news, social media, YouTube channels. At that time there was a lot of propaganda - and I fell under it, I tell you honestly. I started talking in this language that Ukraine was Russia and that all was well in Russia.
There is a second reason: when you just start adapting and fail (all migrants go through this), you see some pluses where you left from, that it was better there – and some kind of fairytale Russia begins to form, which is only in your head and on TV. And here you see that Italy is a very conservative country, still not fully digitised.
The propaganda worked well, and when the Maidan began in the late fall of 2013, I was already "mature" and on Russia's side. I had no critical thinking skills. I was as "Russian-Russian" as anyone else here. I was doing very well financially, my husband was healthy and working. I lived the high life and took the position that Putin was right.
It doesn't come at once: one moment and you have an epiphany! It's a long road back to the opposition. My first suspicion that something was wrong came when the Malaysian jetliner was shot down and Strelkov came out of Slavyansk.
On November 24, 2015, when the Russian pilot was shot down in Turkey (the incident with the Su-24 plane near the Syrian-Turkish border - ed. note), I was subscribed to Goblin Puchkov and other propagandists, following them with approval. Then a wave of hate turned from Ukrainians to Tatars and Bashkirs because they said nothing about the dead pilot and, therefore, supported Turkey. It was a tangible wake-up call for me at the time.
When Poklonskaya started her campaign with Nicholay II, I was already disgusted. But when they started pressuring the Tatar national languages, I went irrevocably into opposition, and only then did I start watching Navalny.
I integrated deeply because I worked in medicine as a nurse in all the hospitals in the province and I got to know Italians, the families of the patients. So I changed a lot during this period. In 2020, when the epidemic began, I saw Russians laughing at Italians, that they "don't wash their hands", that "let them die". These laughs shocked me. In 2021, I deleted myself from Facebook.
Russian "contingent" in Italy
I have come a long way, unlike Russian women who live here in their Russian-speaking information bubble and talk dirty about Italian women and Europe in general.
In 2017 we decided to create a Tatar diaspora in Italy. I was at the origins of it. It is called "associazione culturale" (cultural association, Italian). Then its vice-president and president quarreled and created two competing Tatar diasporas. Later it turned out that there was another Tatar diaspora at the Russian embassy about which no one had heard anything. We started arguing with the third diaspora, and in the end we never did anything for the Tatars, we just argued.
This problem really gets to me, because after the war started, I found out that 80 percent of Russians here are for Putin, and I was totally alone. Even there are Italians who say that Putin is right, and here are all these silly tales about "Bombas" and NATO expanding according to the methodology of Rossotrudnichestvo (it was the one who supervised all the diasporas).
The presidents of the Tatar diasporas flew to all kinds of congresses, kurultai (congress of the nobility, Mong. - ed.), the "World Congress of Tatars," they were paid for plane tickets to Kazan or Europe. That's their price for praising Putin and Minnikhanov.
Why am I talking about this? Because we've organised two get together and I've seen roughly the contingent that lives here. Usually it's uneducated women who come here to earn extra money as caregivers. The second category is "getting married, having children, not learning the language, watching the First Channel, absolutely no assimilation, speaking mostly in English with her husband, and sitting in Russian chat rooms "How to go to the doctor," "Where to do shopping.
That is, they don't have any other problems anymore. These people watch Malakhov, and I don't even remember, frankly, what "Let's get married" is, etc. I saw their level live, how they talk, their interests (purely gastronomic).
All the "moms" were fixed on problems with their children. When it was 2018, they all ran together to the embassy to vote for Putin. That was the only time they cooperated.
There is also a third category that lives here in isolation. We don't see them at all, we don't hear them, we only sometimes read in the newspapers about them, that they have done and bought here, or sponsored something. In Assisi, for example, Matvienko's son restored a church.
When Navalny was arrested, or when there were these protests in Kushtau (held in Bashkiria August 3-16, 2020 over the transfer of control of the Bashkir Soda Company - editor's note), only a few people came out to protest in Italy.
My relationship with my relatives went bad back in 2016. I already saw then that there was something wrong with our people. In 2019, when I arrived in Russia, it struck me that people had become violent. I then blamed it on the fact that it was me who had become more European. I went to the gym, I had an oppositional trainer. There were violent protests in Moscow in August and we were discussing this during training. I told him at the time: "I have a feeling that in three years you will all be marching in unison and thinking that this is the right thing to do." My coach replied, "In a few years I'll be walking out of the house, and there'll be military men standing outside the doorway." We must had second sight.
My son worked as a cook, and he was doing great. He was so independent: "I don't need anything. I can do everything myself."
I distanced myself from my relatives. I was left with only my parents, who, when Navalny was arrested, said that he was a blogger and "they were right, they should have locked him up even longer." It was a sign of the dehumanisation of my loved ones. Since August 2020, when there were protests in Belarus, I started persuading my son to move.
In 2020, I began to prepare for this. On January 15, I registered a sole proprietorship for my husband's online furniture store. And on February 24, 2020, 2 years before this disaster, the first epidemic in Italy began. Job hardship set in.
In 2021 my son finally said: "I'll move in with you." But how, if the square footage does not allow? I started looking for an apartment. I found a suitable one in March 2021. And in July my residence permit had expired. I was to collect my permit on March 17, 2022. This day I've been waiting for months with the idea that I will rent a bigger apartment and call my son.
On February 24 I decided to fly to Russia as soon as I received the document, because my son didn't really believe that it would affect him. We did not discuss the war with him. In the beginning he said: "It'll sort itself out." What a common misconception, right? But... On March 15, 2022, the transportation company blocked my account for not paying for their services. And we didn't pay because they broke a lot of our furniture on delivery to customers and we lost a lot of money.
My lawyers and I had to deal with the account. Our business was starting to fall apart. The blow of having the account blocked was too painful. And the rent situation kept getting worse, but I kept looking.
And so it was September 2022. By this point we were approaching without a visa and without the possibility of inviting my son to Italy, and he, a junior sergeant and BMP commander, was at risk of going to Ukraine. After waiting until September 24, my son went to Istanbul and was stuck there because he didn't have an Italian visa, because "everything will solve somehow."
I stayed with him for three weeks in Istanbul, and on October 5 I rented an apartment together with him and two other guys. And on October 6 I got news from Italy that my husband had been hospitalised and had an emergency operation. They found cancer, months to go.
I've lived with three "save." - save my husband, save my son, save my business. Until December 13. On that day, my husband died in my arms.
All these months he continued to believe that Russia was right to enter Ukraine. So many Italians feel that way too, but there's nothing I can do about it. I am stuck in Italy to finish my husband's business. Business is bad, I have to deal with debts. I don't even have anyone to talk to about it. All my "friends" have abruptly disappeared.