Ellen Litman left Russia 30 years ago, but lately can’t stop thinking about friends and family still there, blind support for the invasion of Ukraine, and regression to the Soviet-era lifestyle.
Over the last month, the fiction writer has watched the events of war as a journalist would, scrutinizing dispatches from Moscow to determine their credibility and reporting for those on the outside in the West what’s going on inside a country when most of the world has condemned its leader’s actions.
The resulting collection she’s dubbed “Telegram Chronicles” has given readers on Medium and Facebook a day-by-day diary of the war’s less sensational, yet no-less-important happenings.
“I started doing it because I thought my head would explode if I don’t write things down,” she says. “There are times it gives me a sense of purpose, that I’m doing something. Then there are other times I ask myself if this is helping anyone. And sometimes, it just gets so overwhelming.”
Yet, most days she pens an entry.
“I find it very difficult to pull myself away,” she says about the information sourcing she does mostly on Telegram. “I always feel like I can’t stop because I’m going to miss a major development or something. It’s hard to look away.”
Litman, an associate professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, hasn’t returned to Moscow since she left at 19 with her sister and parents, but recalls lines at the grocery store for a can of peas, the jingle of the BBC broadcast her father would listen to on short-wave radio for uncensored news, and what early freedom felt like when communism fell.
“I remember so vividly what the early 1990s were like,” she says. “They were difficult, but there was that freedom and there was hope for democracy. It’s devastating to learn about and see how it all disappeared. I’ve been trying to write about that in fictional form, what happened after I left in those 30 years, and then this happens. Everyone I talk to in Russia says that in just one day they were thrown back into the Soviet way of life.”
During the August Coup in 1991, Litman says the radio station Echo of Moscow that had provided news programming kept having to move operations, going off the air, and changing location to keep reporting what was going on. In the early days of the current war, it was shuttered for good, migrating some programs onto YouTube.
This certainly wasn’t the start of Russian media censorship, but it is an example, and it won’t be the last, she says.
With Western media mostly moved out of Russia today, its government policing state media, and threats of sites like YouTube being shut down, Litman says censorship is getting stronger and propaganda is taking hold. Recently, a Moscow court found Meta, the owner of Instagram and Facebook, guilty of “extremist activity.”
She says that in the early days of the war in Ukraine, she and Russian friends kept in touch on social media. She then started following various channels on Telegram to connect with activists, political scientists, literary figures, and journalists to discern what truly was happening. Later, she says, she took to heart what Russian academics urged: “If you are abroad, if you are not in Russia, you can make sure people have the information about what is happening,” she says.
“I realized that what I was seeing on Telegram often wasn’t covered by the Western media, simply because the major sources can only afford to cover the biggest and flashiest developments” she says. “And sometimes I was getting information from my sources that didn’t exist in translation, so I was able to post something or tell people something I found out or that I was reading about that wasn’t available yet or offered a different view of it.
“Sometimes I do posts chronicling the big stories of the day,” she continues. “Other times I write about a particular event or try to answer questions people might be asking, like Putin’s speech comparing opponents to ‘gnats’ and what does it mean to people, what he seems to imply.”
Even though some in Russia say they feel like the country has been thrown back into the 1930s when Joseph Stalin had complete control over the everyday life of the country, Litman says, there have been reports that as many as 70% of Russians support today’s war in Ukraine – although they’re not allowed to call it a war – and that stuns her.
“It’s going to be interesting because people have seen another reality now for many years in Russia,” Litman says. “It’s really hard to imagine people going back to the old way of life and accepting it.”
She opines that Russians will turn on President Vladimir Putin only if they run out of food or if medicine becomes scarce – already Russians are stocking up on grains, rice, oats, sugar, and insulin. Many of those who don’t support Putin’s war have no means of leaving the country, she says, as many credit card companies have pulled their business in Russia, leaving people without a way of going abroad.
One friend got their son out of the country and stayed behind to care for other family members, Litman says. In the beginning, they attended war protests, then asked themselves what would happen to their elderly parents if they were jailed for even 30 days. So, they stopped going.
“They are just trying to survive, like we used to,” Litman says. “This is like any autocratic regime where all the power is concentrated in one person’s hands. Unfortunately, it’s the model that Russia keeps coming back to.”
Meanwhile, as she pours through Telegram posts and looks at the photos and videos from events in Ukraine, she can’t help but look inward.
“I’m grateful I’m here in the United States; I’m grateful I left,” she says. “But there’s this question of what would have happened if I didn’t. What kind of person would I have become? What would I be doing now? And, of course, how would I react to these events? Would I have the courage to do something about it, or would I not? Would I be home protecting my kids? I don’t know.”
Litman is set to participate in a panel discussion at 1 p.m. Friday, April 1, via Zoom, “A New World Order? Roundtable on Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine.” UConn history assistant professor Sara Silverstein and Tufts political science associate professor Oxana Shevel will join her for the event sponsored by UConn American Studies.
UConn’s Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life, the Human Rights Institute, and the History of Human Rights and Humanitarianism Colloquium are co-sponsors. Visit the program’s website for the Zoom link.