Entrepreneur Ekaterina Stankevich: "They took our country away from us.
Ekaterina Stankevich is an entrepreneur and volunteer. In Moscow she monitored elections and came out to protests. After the Bolotnaya rallies were broken up, she moved to Ukraine and opened a chain of stores in Crimea. And when Russia annexed it, Stankevich emigrated to Bulgaria. For the past year, since February 24, Ekaterina has been coordinating assistance to Ukrainian refugees in Varna as a volunteer:
Tell us about yourself.
- My name is Ekaterina Stankevich and I have been living in Bulgaria since 2014. Before that I lived in Moscow, and then I lived in Crimea for three years.
You moved to the Crimea after the Bolotnaya events. Why did you move?
- Probably the last point was the 2010 State Duma elections. I was an observer, and I was very outraged that the election commission was still working, the votes had not yet been counted, and United Russia was already holding a concert at Manezhnaya Square to celebrate the fact that they had won. I remember it very well: at that moment I wanted to express my opinion. I wanted to be heard. The first rally on Bolotnaya was the first rally for me in general, before that I had never participated in such events. I was among the people who seemed to me very close in spirit. These are clear, bright, clean eyes. These are people who say the right things. These are people who want to make a difference. These are people who want to live in a normal democratic country where there are elections, where you don't have to kill and capture. The largest number of people was on Sakharov Avenue and I, of course, was there too. Then the protest began to wane. I did not understand why. On the one hand, yes, I understand that we were not ready for some military solution. And on the other hand, as we know, nowhere, never, and no one has been able to win by waving a white ribbon. This, too, is understandable. After that came the repression, the arrests, the screws began to tighten, and it became clear that that was it - we had lost. We had lost the only moment we had. So I had no illusions. When I was talking to my friends, everybody said to me, "Look, are you missing something?" I said, "Yeah, I miss something. I don't want to live in a country where such things happen, where journalists are killed, where some wars are constantly going on - the war in Chechnya, the war in Georgia. I don't want to be silent, I don't want to pretend that this is how it should be. It's hard for me, I can't." My friends would look at me like I was an alien and ask, "Look, don't you have anything to eat?" That's a very strange question. I mean, if that's the main criterion, what kind of civil society can we talk about? How? So if I have a roof over my head, food, clothes, I still have apartments, cars, because I've been working since I was 18 - I studied and worked at the same time - that's it, that's the limit? I don't need anything else? Then I clearly understood that I was not a citizen, because I could not elect, I could not be elected, I could not express my opinion - I could do nothing. I can be a work unit, work for this state, pay taxes, give birth to children who have now become cannon fodder. I am not satisfied with that.
What do you remember of the "Crimean spring"?
- We lived in the village Parkovoye - it's 30 kilometers from Yalta, and I took my child to school every day - very close and fast. We went to the highway, a very beautiful road - the South Coast Highway. And then, you know, tanks. I had seen tanks in war movies, in a museum, and pretty much everything. When I saw them in person, it so happened that my daughter and I were in the column between these vehicles. The vehicles were unmarked - just something that was going somewhere. That feeling haunted me for years - it was terrifying. My child screamed at night, and when we moved to Bulgaria, she went to a psychotherapist for several years.
At the same time I had a business in the Crimea. I had three stores: in Yalta, in Balaklava, and in Gaspra. Balaklava was the epicenter of events. That same day I got a call from the girls who worked in the store, saying, "Katya, we're getting shot at, what can we do?" - "What can you do?" I invested my soul, money, time there, I have a beautiful store in Balaklava on the waterfront, exactly where the navy stands. There were only a few armed confrontations in the Crimea, and I was very "lucky" - one of them was right near my store. After a few days we realized that it was Russia. It was hard for me to believe it, because by then I had been living in Crimea for three years, and all the arguments about the oppression of Russian speakers, about some kind of discrimination were not true. Because I didn't have any documents at all: I had a Russian passport, a car with Moscow license plates, my Russian-speaking child from Moscow went to school in Yalta without any documents at all. Nothing was needed. Any Russian could come to Ukraine, in particular to Crimea, just enter and live. I had to leave the territory of Ukraine once every 90 days, but I could leave at one of the border crossings and immediately re-enter absolutely legally.
Why did you move to Bulgaria after the annexation of Crimea?
- No one we knew in Crimea could understand why we were leaving. "You are Russians, aren't you? Yours came, you're not in any danger, why are you leaving?" I was ashamed. I had the feeling that someone might think, even for a moment, that I had something to do with this occupation, with this seizure. That I was the Russian occupant who came there to take something away.
Do you remember how you felt on February 24, 22?
- For me it was a question of "When?", it wasn't something that came as a surprise to me. I knew exactly that it was going to happen. I was talking to my friends, the same guys from Odessa, my friends from Kiev and another family from Kharkov in February - we talked a lot - I said, "Guys, come and visit" - "Come on, what are you doing?" - "Well, there's going to be a war" - "Come on, stop it, what war? There won't be one." On February 24, there was a rally near the consulate in Varna; there was a rally near the Russian consulate. A lot of people - Russians and Ukrainians - gathered there to express their attitude towards this event. I was there, and so were my two adult daughters. The next day my eldest daughter and I went to the Ukrainian House and asked, "Guys, how can we help?" At first they just wouldn't talk to us, but we said, "No, we're not leaving anyway. You just tell us what to do."
We were collecting humanitarian aid - things, hygiene products, medicine, diapers, baby food, pet food, and literally one day later the first people who made it to Bulgaria - the first refugees - began to arrive. And that was a time when the state did not yet understand what to do with these people. My phone number was available everywhere: on the Internet, on the pages of the Ukrainian House. And people started calling me with all sorts of questions: some of them just to ask something or to clarify something, but there were also such calls that I will probably never forget. I was driving in the car and a girl on the phone said to me, "Thank you so much for answering. I'm on the bus, I have a 1.5-year-old child, we're coming from Nikolaev, and no one will meet me. I do not know where I am going. When we were on duty, people would come and ask, "How can I help?" There were Bulgarians, Ukrainians, and Russians. Many offered lodging, someone offered to meet us by car at the border, someone brought things, clothes, and so on. In principle, a manager is a manager everywhere. There is a task: to meet a girl with a child, to accommodate and feed her. There are people who are willing to do it. All that's left to do is make a few calls, and everything will be fine.
What is the situation of Ukrainian refugees in Bulgaria now?
- You know, different, because people are very different. Someone really arrives without a change of clothes, without money, without documents - people just run away. They grab a baby and definitely a kitty or a dog - all with cats, with dogs, with some kind of animals. And it's really hard for these people. There are people who have already gathered somehow, planned their route, they understand something and need less help. And there is a category of people who have appeared in a terrible situation, in particular it is invalids, seriously ill people, pensioners. Because all the people who were more or less healthy and could work and so on were moved away from Varna. People who needed medical care were left in Varna. And unfortunately, nothing is being done for them. On the one hand, of course, the European Union is doing a great job by accepting several million refugees. But according to the European directive refugees must be provided with shelter and minimum food. This is what is mandatory, and everything else is at the discretion of the country in which the person is. And in Bulgaria, in general, there are no benefits. There are one-time payments from various organizations, which are not so easy to get. You need to collect paperwork, apply, come, and some people can't even come. It is necessary to help those people who are really in dire need. There were a lot of pregnant women, women with small children and seriously ill people, people with disabilities. Once the help from the state started to work normally, the Red Cross, the Bulgarian government woke up, the help center in the "Sports Hall" in Varna started to work, after that we focused on people who really need an individual approach and concrete help in a concrete situation. That's what the government doesn't do.
What needs to happen for victims of propaganda to see the light?
- Only when people realize that this concerns every family, concerns them personally, that it is personally their husbands and children may not return. Although this is already happening. The war has been going on for a year now, and a lot of people have already died on both sides. I hope that someday we will know the real numbers. Because the estimates that the Ukrainian side gives are already 200 thousand dead. If even that's not enough, I don't know what should happen. I have a native older sister. I haven't spoken to her since 2014.
- At all. She said: "Well, that's great, Crimea is ours." I said, "Look, Natasha, if you leave your house and there's a tank outside your doorway, is that great or not? For some reason, when you ask these questions, people can't answer them. To say it's great, she couldn't. I think relatives are a punishment because we don't choose them. There's a very good anecdote about this: "A man doesn't choose his parents, the color of his eyes, or the president of Russia." God bless everyone, but I'm not prepared to waste my energy, nerves, and resources trying to explain something to someone or convince anyone of anything. I understand that there are people who need help, and I would rather spend my energy on these people. I know that there are people who feel very strongly about everything that is going on. I have acquaintances who had their sons leave Russia. And these are absolutely normal mothers who never participated, never supported, never worked for the government. You know, I really sympathize with them. I feel very sorry for those Russians who are forced to flee their country. Because our country was taken away from us. If we were the majority - there would be a different Russia. We are not a majority. In Moscow a maximum of 150 thousand people came out to protest. I was there. 150 thousand people in multi-million Moscow. These were really the people who were ready to defend, fight and change. We are not the majority. The majority stayed there.
Why do so many people in Russia live as if there were no war and nothing terrible is happening?
- Because it's scary. It's very scary. It's scary to think about. Because as of today - I think this is clear and obvious to everyone - Russia cannot win this war. That is the special operation, which should have been over in a few days, has failed. Russia is suffering enormous losses. And then what will happen? Ukraine will liberate its territory, it will be accepted into NATO, and Russia will fold its paws? This, too, is impossible. We know the actors and their peculiarities. This war will go on as long as Putin exists. He has no other options. He can't just admit he was wrong, he can't admit he was defeated, he can't say: "Guys, I was only joking, and that's why everything is like this. 200 thousand dead, sanctions, impoverishment, several million Russians who left, and it's always the best who leave. Those who have that little seed inside them that says, "I can do it. I will wash dishes, I will scrub floors, but I can do it. And others say, "Nothing depends on me, I can't do anything, I have a lot of things here, I won't go anywhere." So those who can do something, have already left. I think everything will end in a catastrophe. For Russia it will end in disaster.
What are you afraid of?
- I am afraid of losing my loved ones. I'm afraid of losing my ability to work. And you know, it's very frustrating and hard when you spend 20 years studying, then you work your whole life, and then you become weak and old and no one needs you. That's probably what I'm really afraid of. Because in the civilized world, people understand that they have the state, they have medicine, they have a pension-they have a lot of things. They've earned it. And what have we earned? I've been working since I was 18 years old, I have several educations: I'm an economic engineer, an auditor, a financial manager, I graduated from business school in Moscow. And so? So what are these consequences for Russians? I am not feeling them at the moment. But at the same time we do not know what will happen.