— Gavin Haynes (@gavhaynes) March 6, 2014
In case you hadn’t noticed yet, the Russians are going to kill us all. If you are reading this, it probably means they haven’t killed us yet, but make no mistake, since Monday we have been teetering on the brink of World War 3. One gun-cleaning error at a military base in Sevastopol and the whole house of cards could come tumbling down by the weekend: the Russian flag fluttering not for the first time over the Reichstag, the "Song Of The Volga Boatmen" blasting from tannoys at Milan Central Station, war, apocalypse, death and bad times.
Unfortunately, Vlad Putin is no longer in touch with reality. But even the most absolute of monarchs is still to some degree a servant of the people. Surely, if we could just get through to ordinary Russians, and convince them of the rightness of getting the hell out of Ukraine and not killing everyone, then they’d stop him, take to the streets, and all us Western liberals would be saved?
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So, while David Cameron was busy serious-facing himself to Twitter ridicule, and the international community were failing to persuade a poxy Russian envoy to talk to Ukraine's new, western-approved President, myself and a translator spent an afternoon mashing our fists against the phone keypad, plugging unknown Russian phone numbers into our switchboard, in an attempt to get a message of peace through to the other side.
We wanted dialogue, peace, a collective consciousness of our common humanity. We got about 20 phones slammed down instantly, another ten who hung up at exactly the point in any conversation with an "unknown number" where you suspect someone might be about to try to sell you car insurance, and three or so who didn’t seem to be able to operate a mobile phone despite possessing one. In between those, we got through to a few Russians who were at least prepared to listen to our pleas, even if they had far more difficulty giving a flying fuck.
The first was a restaurant in the south-east of Moscow: Art Kafe. Seemed nice. A blini and chai kinda place. Judging by Street View, I imagined that it might make a nice Central Perk in a sitcom about hip Russian twenty-somethings.
Me: Hello. Am I talking with a real Russian?
Translator: Я говорю с реальным русском языке?
Real Russian Man: Da.
Me: You’re sure of that?
Translator: Вы уверены?
Real Russian: Da.
Me: Great. I bring a message of peace from the land of Tony Blair.
Translator: Я принести послание мира из земли Тони Блэра.
Real Russian: Allo?
Me: We are from the West.
Translator: [“We are from the West. We are from a British magazine. We would like to talk about the crisis in Ukraine?”]
Clearly, this was going to be more difficult than we’d anticipated. What was with these Russians? Did they hate Tony Blair? On second thoughts, his role in securing freedom for the Kosovar Albanians hadn’t exactly got them dancing in the aisles in this part of the world, where they tend to prefer their Kosovar Albanians ethnically-cleansed.
Still, the Russian people seemed, well, not exactly nice, but they had vocal cords, and that was a good start. So we dialled a library in St Petersburg. St Petersburg is hip. Librarians are soft, pudgy people with tote bags who have a lot of time on their hands to talk to randoms. Right?
Me: Hello. Sorry to trouble you. We are from a British magazine, talking to people about Crimea…
Real Russian woman: Da.
Me: So the Crimea….We are wondering when Russians are going to get out of Ukraine? Because to be frank, we were rather hoping they’d be gone by now…
Translator: She says she cannot speak on behalf of anyone. It is a question that gives her many thoughts, but she is at work now.
Me: Well perhaps you could possibly tell all the Russians that you know that you spoke to a man from the West, and despite all the propaganda, we are not all twisted heartless monsters.
We tried a few random mobiles by jiggling the digits of real Russian numbers that our translator had pulled off her phone…
Photo by Michał Huniewicz
Real Russian: Allo?
Translator: [“We are from a British magazine. We would like to talk about the conflict in Ukraine?”]
Me: Hello. I bring a message of peace from the land Of Harry Potter. We would like to know what real Russians feel about the Crimea.
Translator: She says she doesn’t know what’s going on in Ukraine.
Me: Doesn’t she? It’s very, very bad. I mean, it’s appalling. Which is why we would like ordinary Russians, if possible, to try to prevent World War 3?
Translator: She says she doesn’t know anything about this.
Me: Do you think you could ask Mr Putin to get his troops out of Ukraine?
Translator: She doesn’t understand the question.
Me: Perhaps you could –
So it went. Russian after Russian refusing our olive branch, ignoring the hand of friendship with a brusque “Nyet”, or a more fearful excuse about being "at work", or "in a hurry". Vlad had knobbled them. No doubt. We had begun to despair at the fecklessness of the common people. It was time to go all the way to the top. In most countries, this would mean the presidency. In Russia, however, their oligarchical model of government means that the tippermost-of-the-toppermost is actually the biggest oil company. Gazprom press office it was, then:
Me: Hello. Do you speak English?
Gazprom press officer: Yes.
Me: Amazing. Could you please tell us about Russia’s plans in Ukraine?
Gazprom press officer: Sorry, can you introduce yourself please?
Me: Yes. We’re calling from a magazine in London. We’re trying to get a Russian perspective on Ukraine and whether we’re all going to die.
Gazprom press officer: All news was out yesterday. For today we have no updates.
Me: Do you think Ed Miliband’s position on Ukraine is justified?
Gazprom press officer: Sir, I am not an official spokesman, I am only working in the press office.
Me: Can you put me on to a spokesman, then?
**Gazprom press officer:** Can you speak loudly in the tube because I cannot hear you.
Me: Sorry, in "the tube"?
Gazprom press officer: Because it’s noisy here and I cannot hear you.
Me: Is this better?
Gazprom press officer: I think so.
Me: Okay. Right. So what about David Cameron? Do you think Russian people like him? Could they give him a chance, maybe? He has very soft skin.
Gazprom press officer: I’m sorry but we can only talk about the situation with gas in Ukraine. Other information we don’t give out. We are not a political organisation.
Me: Okay. Well is there going to be more gas in Ukraine tomorrow or less gas?
Gazprom press officer: I’m sorry you didn’t ask your question about supplying gas. Otherwise not at all.
Me: But if there’s World War Three, there’ll definitely be less gas.
Gazprom press officer: Well you see, we don’t comment the situation also. We comment only about amount of gas. All your information you can find to news agencies.
Me: Or maybe… more?
**Gazprom press officer:** You are asking me prohibited questions. Thank you for your calling, goodbye.
Maybe Russia’s largest bank, the only slightly embarrassingly-named Sberbank, would be able to offer us a firmer fix on whether Muscovite savers were even now withdrawing their last roubles as Putin set the seal on orders for his crack regiments to cross the border of a sovereign country and rain unholy fire down upon it in "self-defence", much like he already had in South Ossetia, etc, etc...
Me: Zdtravstvuytye. We’re just phoning to check with Russian citizens about the situation in Ukraine. Does Sperbank have a line on that?
Translator: She asks if you have a concrete question?
Me: Yes. Right. Are you preparing for World War 3 down there?
Translator: She can’t express an opinion on that, because they only deal with questions on email.
Me: Perhaps you will be able to tell us whether the tyrant Putin will be overthrown soon?
Translator: She says they only deal with questions on email, so you cannot ask her anything specific.
Me: Well in that case, I would like to send a message of peace from the West to the people of Russia. Saying: "Please don’t kill us." We have a lot to live for here. I know we gripe about our lives a lot of the time, but actually it’s really great here. I mean, I have an iPhone 5 and I only earn a moderate salary. That’s something to be grateful for. So we would like to not be killed, if that is OK?
Translator: She says: "Yes, thank you, goodbye."
Me: Do you have a reciprocal message of peace for me?
Translator: She says “Yes, of course. Thank you so much for your call, please find our email online and contact us. We will deal with your question.”
Me: That’s not quite what I –
It appeared that the trans-European culture gap was too broad for us to leap across. We might’ve gotten over the era when a simple pair of Levi’s would be enough to make any Russian sell you really high-quality no-messing sexual favours. But they still had a lot to learn about why the West is the most-awesomest place ever.
Last gasp… It was time to go for the doomsday weapon.
Ordinary Russian: Allo?
Me: GET OUT OF UKRAINE!
Sorry, guys. We tried. Pretty soon Vlad Putin will be laughing maniacally as he tumbles to earth astride a nuclear warhead. And it will all be the fault of the people who will only answer questions on email.