'I fled while I still could' - Teacher's escape from Russia after Ukrainian invasion
- Credit: TED JENNINGS
A teacher from Norfolk has described his dramatic escape from his home in Russia after local friends urged him to flee while he still could.
Ted Jennings, 22, had been working in Kazan - a city 500 miles east of Moscow - and made the hurried decision to leave three days after the country's invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, as international tensions escalated.
He had to immediately resign and tell his landlady he was leaving before setting off on a tense cross-country journey, heading for the Finnish border because he was not able to get a direct flight to the UK.
Mr Jennings, a former pupil at Wymondham College, had been teaching English to children in Kazan.
He had been closely following events after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24 and made his decision to leave just before midnight on February 27.
There was no official guidance from the UK government at the time for Britons to leave Russia, but Mr Jennings said he knew from discussions with locals that he ought to head home.
The UK has been at the forefront of efforts to impose sanctions on Russia and Vladimir Putin's government has singled out Britain in its threats, saying it "will not forget" the country's support for Ukraine.
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Despite this, Mr Jennings described how friendly his Russian colleagues and neighbours had been and that most had been angry with their government and fiercely opposed to the invasion.
Having made his decision, he started to organise tickets for himself and his flatmate, who was still asleep at the time.
“The first thing I did the next morning was inform my work why I had to go. They were very supportive and completely understood, telling me it was the right decision.
“Then a text message from our landlady also confirmed our decision. She messaged out of the blue to explain to us that there was a lot of unrest around the situation and it may become difficult being a foreign person living in Russia.”
With only a few hours to pack, Mr Jennings was forced to abandon his flat in a less-than-pristine condition, as well as all the possessions he was not able to take with him.
He then began the long journey back to Norfolk, with just a single suitcase, hand luggage, and the clothes on his back.
“We had to fly to St Petersburg via an internal flight on Wednesday evening, where we stayed with a friend until catching a coach to Helsinki at 6am on Friday. Once we arrived, we had an eight-hour wait for our flight back to the UK.
"Things were a bit strange at the Finland border. We were held up for about two-and-a-half hours; an hour-and-a-half to get out through the Russian side, then about an hour on the Finnish side.
“I did hear that on buses with a lot of Ukrainian people they were held up for hours and hours due to suspicious border control – at least that’s what I’ve heard from friends who took a different route to us.
“The mood was sombre.
“When they came round collecting passports, I got a glimmer of a few different nationalities including Russians, Finnish, Germans, and Nepalese. It was a big mix of different nationalities trying to get home or somewhere safe."
The weekend before war broke out, Mr Jennings had been out at a nightclub with friends and introducing British students at Kazan university to the city highlights.
Now he has returned to his hometown in Acle, he has been able to reflect on what the Russian state media is portraying and the reality of what is happening in Ukraine.
“It's really awful,” he said. “It's difficult to see what’s happening on the front line.
“It’s a completely alternative reality. Even the word 'war' is banned from the Russian state media. Instead, it is referred to as a 'special military operation'.
“A new law banning 'fake news' around the situation has also been brought in, meaning any news which doesn’t toe the state line."
Despite this, he saw glimpses of opposition to Putin. In the streets of both Kazan and St Petersburg he spotted anti-war graffiti.
He added: "Of course, it’s nothing compared to what the Ukrainian people are going through but I’m also worried about my students and my friends in Russia. It really hit home the gravity of the situation for them when people they knew had to leave.
"Any fears about being in grave danger, I wasn't too worried about for the immediate future. The main worry was about the economic situation and if at any point the land borders would start to shut. Also if public opinion started to become more hostile to westerners after the sanctions then it could have been unpleasant.
"But as of when I left, I didn't encounter any aggression from anyone.
“I’m just glad to be back in one piece.”
Mr Jennings arrived home safely at 3am on March 5, three days after leaving his Kazan home.
A recent graduate of Spanish and Russian from the University of Exeter, Mr Jennings had been living in St Petersburg in 2020 after his year abroad was cut short by the Covid pandemic.
After graduating in 2021, he landed his first teaching job in Kazan at a language school teaching children aged eight to 18 in schools across the city.
Since his return, he has applied to work with charities using his Russian language skills to help Ukrainian refugees apply for visas.