Our last week in Russia

Here are Diana’s collection of thoughts and events that rushed by us on our last 10 days in Russia.

It’s Friday morning, March 4th here in Chachak, Serbia. We have been here for 24 hours, and Russia has been waging war on Ukraine for just over a week. Many of you are eager for news of our situation, and I thought I would at least give some details of the events of the past week. Let me say that our hearts break for the Ukrainians, and we do not consider our plight to be remotely on the same level as those being shelled and invaded. Sanctions and political threats have a very real impact, however, on Russians. Life in Russia changed almost overnight in terms of the economy, government crackdown on protesters and those trying to leave, and loss of free press and social media.

We are safe and staying with friends in rural Serbia for an undetermined length of time. That length will be determined through consultation and prayer with our sending organisation Novo and our Russian team back in St. Petersburg. The initial plan is to wait 2-3 weeks and reassess. I can’t imagine going back to SPB until there is a stable ceasefire, airspaces open up, and banking sanctions ease. Let me walk back a week and share our experience and some of my thoughts.

Monday, Feb 21. Putin recognizes Donbass region as independent. I get an ominous feeling, because this give Putin a reason to defend or enter that territory. Should we start to take out money? stockpile? It’s not a problem to access cash machines at this point.

Thursday, Feb 24. We wake up to news that Russia has invaded Ukraine. Nobody really knows what this means, and we’re in disbelief. What is Putin’s goal? Take Donbass? Why enter from the north? There’s no way he will actually take Kyiv or any place outside of Donbass, will he? This is just posturing, right?

The complicated history of this region is not well known in the West.  If you are interested, here is a lecture by John Mearsheimer from Univ of Chicago that my parents found very helpful called “Why is Ukraine the West’s Fault,” posted in 2015. Are we supporting Putin, however? No way.

Friday, Feb 25. Everybody still can’t believe what is happening. Protesters are arrested by the hundreds, but it gets classified as violations of social distancing. I still have hope that Putin is going to pull back now that he has shown he can make good on a threat. Lyle and Simon left yesterday for a personal prayer retreat. I go to the gym to workout and go about my day, but I check the news constantly.

Saturday, Feb 26. The news turns more grim, and the banking sanctions escalate. More airspace in Europe closes to Russian carriers, and Russia reciprocates. We hear reports that some ex-pats can’t access cash machines. Should we consider leaving? No. We just don’t know how serious this is going to be. Why abandon those we love? our home? our two cats? our lives? However, I start to get nervous enough to begin taking pictures off the walls and removing them from frames. Doing that seems to help me cope with the increasing anxiety.

Our permanent residency status requires us to submit critical paperwork by May 4 or we lose our residency and, likely, the ability to return. This plays heavily in our minds over the weekend. It took us years to get permanent residency. Are ready to walk away? Are the US Embassy warnings diplomatically alarmist?

By evening, the news takes another turn as Russian forces press on Kyiv. Is my worst fear of having to evacuate really imminent? I pull out our Christmas stuff, which is full of memories and precious treasures, and start to fit them into suitcases. I always knew these things would take priority when leaving. All the pictures are off the walls and out of frames. I walk around the apartment selecting those treasures that are non-replaceable.

Sunday, Feb 27. Lyle cuts his retreat short and is home by noon. He heads out to find rubles. No luck. Later, we realize we can pay with credit cards at stores, but can’t withdraw cash from machines. Although we are not seriously considering leaving, I start a preliminary search for flights. With the airspace sanctions, our choices are limited. Ex-pat forums do not show panic, and it seems that if we can secure cash, we could weather this. Borders remain open, which means we could leave, if necessary. Estonian, Latvian, and Finnish borders lie a couple hours to the west by bus or car. However, the question being asked now by many: Will they let Americans leave? If US or NATO send troops into Ukraine, we will be literally behind enemy lines. I go to bed with a concrete pit in my stomach and do not sleep.

Monday, Feb 28

Morning:  The ruble crashes. We wake to an exchange rate of 115 to the dollar, when it had been stable around 75 until this crisis – over 50% decrease since Feb. 18th.  On a tip from another ex-pat, Lyle is able to access Euros at an Austrian bank. He can only pull out Euro, which is not used here but could be valuable in exchanging. In trying to take out rubles, the maximum limit is 100, less than a dollar’s worth. Mort protests. More arrests. More rumors of sealing the borders.

Lyle meets with his Russian team about the situation. They are supportive of any decision we make, which is a blessing. They want to come to our apartment the next morning to discuss further.  I teach my online classes as usual but feel nauseous and anxious all day. Later I speak with my admin, who graciously releases me from teaching for the week. I continue to pack.

Evening: We speak with one of our directors at NOVO and hear his thoughts. They don’t want to force us to leave, but the major concerns are:

 our ability to get cash
 our ability to get out
 changing attitudes towards Americans

Our friends in Serbia long ago offered to host us, and that finally sounds like a good place to hole up and reassess. We would be a couple hours by plane from home, but in a place with access to funds. We have not 100% decided to leave, but we’re close. Then, we call a friend at the State Dept.

Anton worked in Moscow for a few years at the US Embassy and then in Kyiv before evacuating a few weeks ago to the US. While he can’t give us all the intel, he gives us a sober assessment of the situation from his perspective. When asked if we could wait until Monday in order to have more time to prepare a departure and find cheaper tickets, he does not hesitate to say: “I wouldn’t wait that long.” That seals the deal for us. Yes, we can lose our residency, but the decision is made. Exhausted, Lyle goes to bed.

I’m up until 4 am looking for tickets. Turkish Air website will not load for me due to high demand on the site. Julie, our host in Serbia, searches with me. We find a few options, but they start to disappear right before our eyes. Prices are exorbitant. Without much debate, we decide on Turkish Air at 1 am March 3, which gives us 48 hours to prepare to leave. Seats cost over 1,000 Euro each one way. Bed by 4 am.

Tuesday, March 1. Awake by 8 am and start to plan all that is necessary. Our team of Russians come over, and we break the news that we already purchased tickets. Tears are shed, but their support is life-giving. One comment strikes to the heart: “Lyle, you are no good to us dead. We need you on the outside to support us better on the inside.”

The team swings into action to help us. Because we are short on suitcases, three ladies give us their brand new ones to save us time in having to shop. They clean and help move our things out of the way for Olga O. who has agreed to live there with our two cats, Molly and Mochi – and she doesn’t even like cats.

By evening, we are mostly packed in six suitcases and a few carry-ons.

Wednesday, March 2

We wake this time to news that carriers are cancelling flights. Ours has been delayed about 45 minutes. The concrete in my stomach returns. We learn of people we know who must find alternative routes. We hear that almost all the missionaries we know are leaving, some in crazy ways like driving to Central Asia. Another friend calls to tell us there are reports of threats against Americans and taking hostages. We do not have confirmation, but later we learn this is actually true for those working with companies who comply with sanctions. It’s going to be a long day before taxi comes at 9:30 pm.

We run errands and squeeze in one last training session with our dear trainer Vlad. We watch to make sure the flight from Istanbul to St. Pete, which will become our aircraft, actually leaves Turkey on time. Four team members go with us all the way to the airport, and we get in a last photo with them. The number of people on our flight is massive. We hug, cry, and depart. And that was it.

At the airport, with our beloved city in the background

We don’t have a sense of what is ahead, but the situation in Russia is anything but calming down, and freedoms are dropping like flies. We are not refugees like those fleeing Ukraine but we have a small appreciation for what they are going through. We left our life behind, and it will take a while to rebuild.

Some have asked how they can help us through this season of transition.

  • Pray for the peace of Christ to manifest in all that we do.
  • Pray for our children, each of whom are being affected by this experience in their own ways.
  • Pray for our team to thrive spiritually and relationally as they learn to walk through tough times financially.
  • Consider contributing towards our extra expenses, even if you support us regularly, as they will be considerable. For more details, click here.

3 thoughts on “Our last week in Russia

  1. Thank you for your observations and explanations— that YouTube video is so interesting and makes things much clearer. We’re thinking of you and praying for your safety and peace. I feel so sad for both Ukraine and Russia and I hope this will end soon. God bless you!

  2. Pingback: Interview with an old colleague | orphan dreams

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