We didn't keep quiet much and got what we have now
Before the war, Olga Kobzeva lived in St. Petersburg, had her own house, and was engaged in business. She went out with her husband to all the protests that took place in the city. On February 27, 2022, she went out on a solitary picket with a pizza box on which she wrote "I/We Ukraine. Olga was taken to the police van, and the photo spread all over the world's media. In April, the Kobzevs family left Russia. In Germany, Olga volunteers for Rubikus, an NGO that helps refugees from Ukraine leave the occupied territories for safety: "When my grandchildren grow up and ask, 'What did you do, grandma? - I'll have something to tell them.
Tell us about yourself.
- My name is Olga Kobzeva, I am 46 years old and I am from St. Petersburg. I'm the coordinator of Rubicus. I've been doing this since May. I used to do business - I had a company in St. Petersburg that sold Spanish shoes. I have two children and three grandchildren.
What does Rubicus do?
- This is a German NPO. Since the beginning of the war it has been helping Ukrainians leave Ukraine, the occupied territories. We help mothers find their children who were forcibly removed to Russia. Right now, for example, I have about 30 applications. We have a lot of applications, especially lately, because people are afraid something might happen on the anniversary. A lot of people don't believe that we are doing this for free, that we are willing to help them. We have a website, there are two kinds of applications on the website. One application is for people who are in the occupied territories or in Russia. The other is if they are still in Ukraine. Today a family flew in with little ones, with an invalid. They have never left their town before, they have never flown by plane. You have to explain everything to people like that. I was taking a grandfather of 98 years old and his grandson. My grandson is handicapped from childhood, he can't walk, and he has movement problems, too. They only wanted to go to Germany. We don't recommend Germany right now because the country is overcrowded. You have to spend a long time in camps to get housing here. And here it's like the stars came together: a colleague told us that there's a Home for the Disabled, which is ready to accept five people. They were even willing to come to the right place for them. And we took this grandfather with a walker and his grandson in a wheelchair to Warsaw, from Warsaw they were picked up in a special transport and brought to Germany. My grandson writes me from time to time, he tells me that the grandfather has been given some activities, he uses clothespins to pinch his clothes. That is, at his 98 years old, he started a new life. A story with a good ending. But there are different stories. Someone from hopelessness wants to go back to Ukraine because he can't assimilate and get used to life here. I couldn't help a woman with 20 dogs because it's basically impossible to find housing with animals. And she said that she would go to Ukraine, to her broken home. When my grandchildren grow up and ask: "What did you grandmother do?", I'll have something to tell them.
How do Ukrainians feel about Russians helping them?
- We don't discuss our nationalities. Someone writes to me in Ukrainian, and I either understand, or I type it into Google Translate. I reply in Russian. For some people it is a shock and surprise that Russians help them, especially for those who travel from the occupied territories through Russia. They are met, escorted, fed, clothed by Russians. In the beginning they are incredulous, but then they say that it is a big surprise for them.
Were you politically active before the war?
- My husband and I went to all the rallies that have been held in St. Petersburg since '11. I don't think I have the right to discuss it just in the kitchen if I'm not doing anything. Once the police grabbed a minor - they're not allowed to participate - and dragged him away. We grabbed his other arm and started pulling him over. They pulled the boy away, and he ran away. I can hardly imagine the same situation in, say, '20, 21, 22, because it would have been much more complicated. Back then it was like... Like a game, or what? If we keep silent, we get what we get now. Few people didn't keep quiet, few people came out. It seems to me that people got used to a quiet life, relaxed, didn't notice how this blackness came into our lives.
Your first thoughts and feelings on February 24?
- I didn't sleep until, like, four o'clock. The day before, I wrote on my Facebook page that you can't take someone else's things, that Crimea is not ours. I wrote that, and I had a bad feeling about it. The first thing I did when I woke up in the morning was to open up the Medusa and see it. I just couldn't stop crying, and I just couldn't stop crying, because I realized there was no turning back, and nothing would ever be the same. The next day I thought I had to go somewhere, somewhere to go out. It was the 26th. We went out to Station Square, the three of us were there. Criminal Investigation came five minutes later. Some woman was yelling at me, that I was... Anyway, all sorts of things about Ukronazism. The CID told us that either you just leave now, or we'll take you away. We left. On the 27th, I went to the Gostiny Dvor, where we had the rallies, and went out on a solitary picket with a placard. I was still so well prepared, warmly dressed, I thought I would stand for a long time. Five minutes, even less. They took away my placard right away. I didn't have any normal poster at home, but I had a pizza box. I wrote on it and came out with the box. A lot of different foreign media later published my picture. When I was in the infirmary the guys sent it to me: "Olya, you've already been printed everywhere". Then I ended up in the hospital. The police came to everyone who was sitting with us in that detention center and threatened us. And it was very unpleasant, I started having panic attacks. It was very scary. I had the feeling of some kind of wave, a tsunami coming from behind, and I needed to grab everyone and run away. We left on April 1. We arrived and applied for the azul in May, but so far we haven't had an interview, we're still waiting. We weren't going anywhere - my daughter lives here in Germany. On the other hand, we never planned to emigrate. That is, like never - I dreamed that when I was old I would live in some cottage in Provence, among the lavender. But not so. We have a home we love. We have parents at home. We had everything good at home.
How did your family feel about your departure?
- We talked to my son, he accepted it, but then when we were already here, all his friends said that nothing was going on in Russia, that everything was the same as it had been. He was very worried and accused me of prying everywhere, that he should have stayed at home and just kept his head down. But then he apologized for what he'd said, and he said: "You know, I was depressed then, it was hard for me." When we were leaving, one of the reasons for me was the possible mobilization. I was very scared. My husband wrote on his military card that he was a rifleman, and my son was 17 years old. When the mobilization was announced, my son said: "Yes mom, you were right. It's good that we left.
How are you experiencing emigration?
- It's very hard for me. Some months I just don't remember. It was a constant stress for me. I couldn't smile, I couldn't look at people living their normal lives. I didn't understand how these people lived when there was a war. It was probably only when I started working at Rubicus that it gave me the opportunity to resurface, to start living again.
Has the war affected your relationships with acquaintances in Ukraine?
- My relationship with my friends has not changed. They even became closer. I started talking to them more often. I even managed to help someone. But still, many people judge superficially, and for them all Russians are now the enemy. It is very difficult to do anything about this. I cannot judge them.
Why do so many people in Russia support the war?
- And it's easier that way. If they understand what happened, how are they supposed to live with it when they realize that everything they believed in is actually exactly the opposite, because now it's absolutely a crooked mirror. I think it's a defensive reaction of the psyche in some people. Well, others just aren't very smart.
Why did the people obediently submit to mobilization?
- It is an inner unfreedom. You are told to do something - you go and do it. Our whole system, starting in kindergarten, is built on this. You were told to take your neighbor by the hand, go for a walk in the yard to the exact playground you were told to go to. We do not educate individuals, we educate the masses. Someone thinks it is a duty to the motherland. But, actually, what is the duty to the motherland? I don't think I owe anything to my country. I never even made payments on my child. This is my child, which I raised for myself, and I do not believe that my homeland should take him away from me.
What awaits Russia?
- A big backlash, for many years, and at best the war will be over, they will apologize, and they will rebuild Ukraine, return all the territories. That's the best that can happen. Otherwise, I think the country will be shut down, and it will be some variation of Korea.
What are you afraid of?
- I'm afraid not to see my relatives.
Is restoration of relations between Russia and Ukraine possible?
- I think maybe, but not for a long time. A very long time. And I think we probably won't see it. Because what happened there, what is happening - it is unthinkable, and people will not forget it, and will tell their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. It's the same as it was in the Great Patriotic War. Everyone studied at school and read stories about the Nazis. Although so many decades have passed by then. It's the same here, it's just all happening before our eyes.
Going back to Russia?
- If the regime falls, yes. We will have to build a new country. But I'm not sure that my son, for example, will come back. It is unlikely that he would want to spend his life trying to correct our mistakes.