OPINION: Don't judge Russians by Putin - most are opposed to his vision
- Credit: AP
As the might of the Russian forces headed to Kyiv with a 40-mile-long military convoy, Russian mothers were forming their own convoy.
Nearly 1,500 miles from the terrifying sight of armoured trucks, tanks and artillery heading to commit atrocities on innocent people, a continuous column of smart 4x4 ‘Chelsea tractors’ were lining a smart London Street.
Behind the wheels of the BMWs, Range Rovers and Audis were Russian women, mostly young mothers with toddlers strapped into their car seats.
One by one they pulled up outside a Ukrainian restaurant in Twickenham and unloaded into the grey drizzle multiple packets of nappies, sleeping bags, power packs, medication, socks and rucksacks, piling them on to pavement.
The gathered up their cargo and carried into a restaurant, Prosperity, run by a Ukrainian family.
The family had appealed for emergency donations to take trucks of supplies to their war-torn homeland. Their target was Lviv, around 70km from the border with Poland.
“I’m sorry,” one woman mouthed to the people standing by a column of yellow and blue balloons as she struggled past with four massive packs of nappies.
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She touched the arm of a Ukrainian woman busily sorting donations as she left, looking deep into her eyes as is to emphasise she really meant it.
No more words were needed. One woman showing empathy to another for the horrors being inflicted in their name.
That touch told her that we are Russian but we hate what is being done to your people and your country
I stood and watched these scenes for half an hour, waiting for my older son to come out of his neighbouring office, mesmerised by the unbroken stream of cars rolling up.
The biggest donations came from Russians in the biggest cars, embarrassed, openly emotional and angry about what their country was inflicting on the people of Ukraine.
Some were clearly restaurant regulars. Friends but now enemies as dictated by their president.
Others were strangers who wanted to declare solidarity and their shame and disgust openly. Never has a bumper pack of nappies meant so much.
This convoy was happening as a news flash pinged on my phone announcing the 40-mile convoy approaching Kyiv. Worlds apart. War there, humanity and love in front of me.
Earlier, a Russian student studying in the UK had spoken emotionally on TV about her fear of being ostracised and abused because of the actions of her country against Ukraine.
"Don’t tar us with same brush," she pleaded. "We’re with Ukraine."
Russian people are terrified of reprisals and being held accountable for the actions of their president.
As I write this, my younger son is making his way out of Russia, where he has made his home in his first job after university.
A Russian speaker, who studied Russian and Spanish at university, he is a total Russophile, soaking up its culture, history, landscape, literature and language. He loves his life there and its people and wanted to stay.
He has been working for a language school in Kazan in western Russia, the capital of Tatarstan, on banks of the Volga and Kazanka rivers, teaching English to children aged eight to 18 in schools across the city.
After his contract ends in the summer, he planned to travel the country to catch up on what he missed after having to abandon a year in St Petersburg as his third year of his degree when Covid hit in March 2020.
He has a flat in Kazan, has made Russian friends and immersed himself in life there, embracing its culture beyond any of our wildest expectations.
He has mixed his passion for football, becoming a regular at FC Rubin’s stadium, with Friday nights at the opera house or the ballet, and cooking up Russian recipes in his flat.
The weekend before war broke out, he was out at a nightclub with friends and introducing British students at Kazan university the city highlights.
After fighting broke out, he had no intention of leaving, despite my pleas to come home when he could. Then all UK flights were suspended.
The coldness and bluntness we might associate with Russians was never his experience.
When he flew back after Christmas, the woman who did his PCR test told him she would love to learn English. They started to meet in a coffee shop. He taught her some English and then they would chat in Russian.
They became friends. Ironically, February 23 was Defender of the Fatherland Day, a bank holiday that celebrates the achievements of military forces and veterans.
Tradition is that women give men presents. Olga handed my son a present when they met that day.
On Sunday, when France and the US told its citizens to leave Russia as soon as they could, he made the tough decision to leave by an internal flight to St Petersburg and a bus to Helsinki. The train was no-go because only Russians and Fins were allowed over the border. He should be back in the UK by Friday (March 4).
He has applied to work with charities using his Russian language skills to help Ukrainian refugees apply for visas.
Messages from his landlady, colleagues and friends speak passionately about of how ashamed they are that he is being forced from their country by this appalling war and they do not want the world to view Russia as Putin.
Don’t judge Russians by their leader. Most are angry and fiercely opposed to what is happening in their name.