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French students returning from Russia recount the taboo of war

They were staying in Moscow or Saint Petersburg as part of a university exchange and tell BFMTV.com the difficult discussions they had with Russian students about the war in Ukraine.

Difficult to freely broach the subject of the war in Ukraine at university with Russian teachers or students. This is what Jade, 21, a student in master 1 of EM Normandie who had to leave Yekaterinburg at the beginning of March, a month after her arrival for a university exchange, and a few days after the start of the invasion of Russia with its Ukrainian neighbour.

“It’s as if the subject did not exist”

An email sent by the administration of the Russian university to its foreign students about international money transfers – while Visa and Mastercard suspend operations in Russia – moreover laconically evokes the “situation”.

“It’s as if the subject did not exist, explains Jade to BFMTV.com. At university, no one ever talked about it. On the first day of the attack, it was as if it was an ordinary day, like all the others. The impression it gave was that it was taboo. Besides, we foreigners were quite uncomfortable”.

Any opposition to the war in Ukraine is indeed strongly repressed. Protesters are arrested – sometimes thousands in a single day – and the Russian journalist sentenced for holding up a sign against the war during the most watched television news in the country says she fears for her safety.

Indeed, Russia has adopted very harsh laws regarding the dissemination of information about the war in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has thus signed a text which can lead to up to 15 years in prison for those who disseminate “false information” resulting in “serious consequences” for the Russian armed forces. The words “war” and “invasion” should also be banned when referring to Ukraine.

“I can’t say what I’m thinking here”

One evening, Guillaume, 21, calls out to a Russian student who lives on the same floor as him in the hallway of his university residence. The young Frenchman arrived in Moscow at the beginning of February and was to spend six months there as part of an exchange with the same business school, EM Normandie.

“It was before the invasion of Ukraine, remembers Guillaume. I was direct and I asked him what he thought of the situation and if he liked Putin. He replied: ‘Remember you the name of our university (it is the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Service to the President of the Russian Federation, Ed.) I can not say what I think here. “

But when they find themselves in his room, the young Russian speaks to him more freely. He confesses to her that he is against the war, that he disapproves of Putin, that he is ashamed of being Russian, that he does not see his future in Russia and wants to leave his country.

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“He told me he hated Putin”

Sometimes speech seems to be freeing up. Guillaume recounts another episode which happened to him shortly before his departure from Russia.

“It was a very guarded establishment, there were guards at the entrance. One evening, I was coming home late from a party, it must have been 4 a.m., and one of them asked me what I thought about the conflict in Ukraine.”

The young man is cautious, his French teachers have just warned him by email to avoid answering this kind of questions.

“I replied that I didn’t really know what to think about it. And then he got carried away, he told me that he was against the war and that he hated Putin. It surprised me because most of the Russians I had met didn’t dare to say it, or else in a private circle.”

An update email

Guillaume hastens to cut the conversation short and go back to his room. It is difficult to know what the guard’s real intentions were, but the student adds that he was questioned several times, in the same way, by young Russians. A surprising behavior when at the same time, Guillaume received – like all the other students and staff of the Russian university – an email from the administration. A stepping stone.

It is written there that “the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, explained in detail the reasons for the decision to carry out a special military operation” and that “the historical background and the reasons for this difficult decision are clear” .

“We urge everyone to use official sources of information, to be critical and vigilant so as not to fall victim to the information war unleashed against us, continues this letter. Reckless actions and violations can have irreparable consequences. We ask you to strictly observe the laws of the Russian Federation and not succumb to provocations.”

There follows an enumeration of the various penalties incurred – heavy fines and prison sentences of up to fifteen years – in the event of “false”, “public actions” and “calls” to “prevent” or “discredit” the deployment of Russian troops “including on social networks”.

“Some Russian students posted publications against the war on social networks, Guillaume testifies again (since then, Russia has banned Facebook and Instagram for “extremism” even if it is still possible to connect to them, Editor’s note). was certainly to put pressure on them”.

Morgane, 23, left Russia in a hurry four days after the start of the war in Ukraine. This Master 1 student from Kedge Business School, a major business and management school, only stayed one month in Saint Petersburg out of the six planned as part of her exchange. Because the day after the offensive, his French school forced him to return as soon as possible.

“I had found a ticket for the Wednesday after. But on Sunday, I learned that my flight like all the others for France had been canceled (Air France then announced the suspension of its flights to Russia and France closed its airspace to Russian planes and airlines, as well as other European countries, editor’s note), she explains to BFMTV.com. The school managed to find me a plane the same evening, I I had four hours to pack up and leave.”

With a certain taste of unfinished for the young woman. “I didn’t want to leave, I felt good, continues Morgane. I never felt in danger or targeted because I was French.” Unlike some other French students who were on the same campus as her and who told her that they felt followed in the street.

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Within the university, the young woman like the other foreign students were “sponsored” by young Russians, responsible for facilitating their integration on campus. “When we told them that we had to go back, they told us that we were doing well, that it was better for us.”

“He said to me: ‘you are talking to a corpse'”

If it was impossible for Jade, the young woman who testifies at the beginning of the article, to evoke the subject at the university, in private, the languages ​​are sometimes untied. The owner of the apartment she was renting seemed sorry for the situation. “She even apologized and told me she was ashamed of Putin.”

During a party, Jade also exchanges with a Russian student. He confides to him that he received an official letter from the military administration the same day ordering him to go and fight in Ukraine.

“He had to leave the next day but he didn’t want to, he had tears in his eyes. He told me he had to, that he had no choice even if he was not professional soldier (Russia has recognized the presence of conscripts in its ranks, editor’s note). He said to me: ‘you are talking to a corpse’, he saw himself already dead”, recalls the young woman.

Since her return, Jade has been able to talk with the young conscript who would have managed to postpone his departure to the front. But what struck the French student the most was the young man’s lack of information, marked by a pattern of thought inherited from the Cold War. Guillaume also evokes these ideas of another time, including among young people – he was forced one evening to present his French passport to a young Russian convinced that he was a spy in the pay of Poland.

“He also wanted to know what France’s point of view was, if France was going to attack Russia, recalls Jade. And he also asked me what was being said in ‘our camp'”.

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