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'We're so anguished': Worried Latin American students speak out from Russia

"It’s not normal, it’s not pretty, and you’re scared all the time," said a student from Colombia who's studying in the border city of Belgorod.
Dennis Lastra on the Red Square in Moscow in January.
Dennis Lastra on the Red Square in Moscow in January.Courtesy Dennis Lastra

Vanesa Rincón said she has barely slept since Feb. 24, when the thunderous sound and vibrations of the shock waves from the bombs tore her from sleep. Dark circles crown her dark eyes as she talks about the terror she experiences daily in Belgorod, a Russian city bordering Ukraine, where she studies international law.

“One wants to get away from the war and the bombs,” the Colombian student said. “We're so anguished that I never want to hear that noise again. I want to return to Bogotá as soon as I can.”

Rincón said that during the first week of the conflict, she was on night duty with her fellow students in case something happened. Belgorod is about 25 miles from the war zone, so Rincón is counting the days to be able to leave.

“It’s not normal, it’s not pretty, and you’re scared all the time. It doesn’t matter who’s good or bad; all you want is to run away,” she said.

This week, two strategic cities in Ukraine have suffered the resurgence of Russian attacks. Kyiv, the capital, is the scene of bloody battles in important suburbs and metropolitan areas. In addition, the port city of Mariupol has been resisting brutal attacks for more than 20 days that have left it destroyed. 

“Many Russian people do not want war, and, in general, there is a perception that it should be something quick,” Rainer Matos Franco, a Mexican academic based in St. Petersburg, said. “It seems that one of Putin’s main motivations is to redraw European geopolitics, and, since diplomacy did not work from his perspective, he chose strength.”

'We do not know what is happening'

Matos is pursuing a doctorate in Russian history, so he's well acquainted with the saga of empires, revolutions, debacles and reconstructions that characterizes that country. But nothing had prepared him to witness a war.

“The truth is that there is a lot of misinformation, and, in reality, we do not know what is happening in the war,” Matos said. “There is also a very strong attempt on the part of the government [for] all to go along the lines of supporting the army and not criticizing the armed forces. Now, there are new laws and fines.”

At the beginning of the month, the Russian Parliament approved new legal provisions that, among other things, punish with up to 15 years in prison people who make any statement about military actions in Ukraine that authorities describe as false. Criticism of the military is also punishable with prison terms and steep fines.

These measures have resulted in the closures of several media organizations, such as the Echo of Moscow radio, and restrictions on accessing content from international news organizations, including from the U.S.

“Everything is blocked, so you have to activate a VPN to be able to see international news and check social networks like Facebook and Twitter,” Rincón said. “In general, I see a lot of news on Instagram because we feel totally isolated from the world. It’s crazy.”

Alex Lastra, 24, is a programming student from Ecuador who lives in Taganrog, a port city about 31 miles from the border with Ukraine.

“The truth is, I’ve seen a lot of people arrive with suitcases and bags, especially women and children,” he said about the people who have left Ukraine and crossed into Russia. “One would think they would be discriminated against, but it's none of that. They have been received well and with the appropriate personnel.”

'It's like going back to the Soviet Union'

Beyond the shock of violent scenes and human losses, several Latin Americans said the war manifests itself in their daily lives through the scarcity of certain products and rises in prices.

The closer the town is to the border, the worse the situation gets. In Belgorod, Rincón has seen the sudden and steep increase in the price of sugar and coffee as well as electronic devices.

"It's a great anguish, because you can no longer use the cards from any bank. So everything has to be cash, and the ruble has been devalued a lot and very quickly," Rincón said. "One worries, both physically and mentally, because the economic sanctions have been terrible and many stores are closed. It’s like going back to the Soviet Union."

In Krasnodar, a prosperous commercial enclave in Russia's south, Peruvian chef David Durand has felt the impact of rising prices on products that he uses daily at home, such as milk, sugar and meats such as chicken.

However, the situation has become more pressing at El Chapo, the Mexican food restaurant where he works, which is named after the infamous drug lord. One of the things they've had to do is change the menu.

“War is a terrible situation, but I see this crisis as an opportunity to improve,” the 38-year-old chef said during a break after an intense day in front of the stove.

“Many Latin American products are not available. That’s why we are using more local products, and we are focusing on the concept of Russian food, but with Latin touches,” he said, making a version of the suspiro limeño, a Peruvian sweet dish with condensed milk, for the blinis eaten in Russian breakfasts.

He said he's seen a drop in the number of diners during the week, though the place is usually full on Saturdays and Sundays.

More than 1,100 miles away, in the forests near the town of Uglich located on the banks of the Volga River, Cuban chef Rafael Arabel Govea is also grappling with the rise in prices for items such as avocados and other fruit.

“The hotel where I work had business partners in various cities in Ukraine, like Odesa and Kharkiv, who supplied us and helped us financially. But those companies have closed, so we are also affected by that,” Govea, 60, said.

He said he came to Russia decades ago, when it was still the Soviet Union, and he has a degree in chemical engineering.

Govea and some other Latin Americans are confident that the war won't last.

“Russia is a world within this world. It is a very rich country, and Europe will have to lift the sanctions at some point. I think they will soon reach a peace agreement,” he said, hopefully.

Giving up dreams

Rincón, in Belgorod, is counting down the days to be able to leave. She said at the beginning it was impossible to leave by train or plane because the population began to leave when they saw continuous military convoys crossing the border. Currently, a plane ticket can cost up to $5,000.

"Since Russia closed its airspace, the tickets went up a lot. About a week ago I managed to get one for $1,500," she said, and she plans to leave in early April. "I have to make sure that the money lasts until that date."

There were 324,000 foreign students in Russia last year, according to a Bloomberg report citing Russian government figures. According to 2017 figures cited by the BBC, the 278,000 international students in Russia that year had seen an increase of almost 30 percent in those coming from Latin America, especially Ecuador, Colombia and Brazil.

Since the beginning of the war, social networks have been flooded with requests for help and desperate inquiries from Latino students who, in both Russia and Ukraine, are trying to flee the conflict or avoid bureaucratic procedures to receive money.

Contrary to Rincón, Brazilian historian Rodrigo Ianhez dreams of returning to Moscow. At the beginning of February, he went to Sao Paulo for a visit, but he said his stay has been affected by the invasion of Ukraine and economic sanctions that prevent him from transferring savings from his Russian accounts.

Ianhez works in tourism, usually giving tours of the country’s capital and excursions around the ring of nearby medieval cities.

"This took us by surprise because no one believed that it was going to happen," Ianhez, 32, a specialist in the history of the Soviet Union, said. "It will be difficult to work with the same intensity in tourism again; I don't think that during the next two years there will be many visitors to Russia. It is a pity, but I will still return in May to see how my life continues."

For Dennis Lastra, a student in clinical psychology from Ecuador who lives in Rostov-on-Don, returning to his native country is not an option. He said he feels his life “remains the same” in Russia despite inflation and the increase in prices of various basic products.

“I’ve decided to stay because I still have two years to go to finish my degree, and, apart from inflation, life goes on as normal. Children go out to play, and people are working, even though we are three hours from the border,” he said.

Lastra is an influencer with more than 115,000 followers on social networks like TikTok, where he uploads humorous videos about his daily experiences. His channel mixes data, advice and sharp observations about Russian idiosyncrasies that, sprinkled with expletives, make his audience burst with laughter.

He's seen how his social media interactions can be informative, and he uses his posts to recount what's happening in his city. He recently made a video about his generation's fears and the challenges they face in a world marked by the pandemic and armed conflicts.

"We all have the same fear of not being enough, of being useless. But we are not alone. If we see that something affects us a lot, we have to ask for help," he said. "As a psychology student, I know the importance of therapies, and I understand the people who are returning to their countries. Many times the best decision is to leave something in a timely way and take care of your mental health."

An earlier version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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