How It Feels To Be A Regular Russian Expat Living In The UK Right Now

They're not all oligarchs, but anti-Russian sentiment is rising.
Anna Jakubova set fire to her Russian passport during the Standing In Solidarity With Ukraine vigil in Edinburgh.
Jane Barlow - PA Images via Getty Images
Anna Jakubova set fire to her Russian passport during the Standing In Solidarity With Ukraine vigil in Edinburgh.

If Polina Shepherd talks to her son in Russian on public transport, she gets stared at by other passengers and feels the need to move seats.

The 48-year-old was born in Siberia, but has lived in Brighton for almost 20 years. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, she’s noticed an increase in anti-Russian sentiment from some in the UK.

On social media, she saw a comment suggesting all Russians “deserve” to be bombed and felt sad to see a friend of hers write a message in support of it. She also knows of people in the local Russian community who received aggressive phone calls until they removed their contact details online.

“One of my close friends has a daughter who has been bullied in school since the war started. Another friend’s child was slapped as a ‘bad Russian’ by his seven-year-old schoolmate,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“A Russian speaking friend had trouble at work as she was required to speak Russian to customers and got nasty comments [from colleagues], even though both her and her customers weren’t Russian – it just happened to be their common language.”

As the UK issues sanctions against Russian oligarchs with links to the Kremlin, regular Russian expats – most of whom are opposed to the war in Ukraine – are facing animosity.

It varies from speculation that Russians in the UK (including the Strictly Come Dancing pros) may lose their jobs, to overt racism or targeted crime.

Earlier this week, a Russian Orthodox church in Oxford suffered a break-in, where perpetrators reportedly desecrated holy objects and stole money from the church’s safe, which had actually been collected by parishioners to help refugees from Ukraine. Police are now investigating.

Shepherd, a Russian-Jewish singer and composer, leads a number of Russian and Yiddish choirs in London, Brighton and Hove. Following the outbreak of war, she decided to rebrand their spring and summer concerts as “Russian Choirs Sing for Peace”, raising donations for Ukraine.

Polina Shepherd, who is leading Russian Choirs Sing for Peace.
Shendl Copitman Studio A.R.&V.
Polina Shepherd, who is leading Russian Choirs Sing for Peace.

The first event, which took place on March 12, was originally meant to include stalls selling Russian teas, arts and crafts by the local Russian School and Community Centre. But as the date grew nearer, all the stall holders pulled out.

“They felt scared,” says Shepherd. “I don’t know their individual stories. They simply decided not to even come to an openly Russian event.”

The overwhelming response to the concerts has been positive though. “My circle is special and most people I work and communicate with do understand that I am not responsible for the war,” she says.

Other Russians living in the UK have also openly condemned Putin’s actions.

Anna Jakubova, a graduate from the University of Edinburgh, moved from Moscow to Scotland seven years ago and now lives in Dundee. Last week, she was photographed burning her Russian passport at the Standing In Solidarity With Ukraine vigil in Edinburgh. Is she worried about the implications?

“I’m not worried about retaliation, if that’s what you’re asking,” she says. “Russia is focused mostly on repressing its domestic opposition. And I’ve done much riskier things in the past, including picketing for LGBT+ rights in Russia itself, for instance.”

She does, however, suspect that Russia may now refuse her entry is she applies for a visa to return. “Moscow is my home, and I have friends and loved ones there, so it is not easy to contemplate such a prospect,” she says.

Anna Jakubova set fire to her Russian passport during the Standing In Solidarity With Ukraine vigil in Edinburgh.
Jane Barlow - PA Images via Getty Images
Anna Jakubova set fire to her Russian passport during the Standing In Solidarity With Ukraine vigil in Edinburgh.

Shepherd describes feeling “deeply ashamed” of her country, while Jakubova says she feels “grief” watching the violence unfold from the UK.

Her own great-grandfather was arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the Soviet Union’s NKVD, she says, while her grandmother and great-grandmother lived through the Doctors’ Plot, an infamous Soviet antisemitic persecution campaign.

She’s now working with Help Ukraine Scotland, a group calling for the UK to waive visas for refugees, instigate a no fly zone, plus send helmets, vests, other military kit and anti-aircraft weaponry to Ukraine. They’re hoping to inspire UK citizens to contact their MPs regarding these issues.

She says she has not personally experienced any prejudice or unwelcome comments following Russia’s invasion.

“On the contrary, I have experienced only support and warmth, including from my Ukrainian friends and my protest group. People approached to hug and thank me and called me ‘sister,’” she says.

“Of course, Britain has a fair share of xenophobia against Eastern European immigrants in general (as evidenced by the government’s current callous treatment of refugees), but the fact that I’m specifically Russian has very little to do with that.”

“My concern is chiefly for Ukrainians.”

- Anna Jakubova

One thing she has experienced, though, is non-Russian people going on sudden pro-Putin rants in the mistaken belief that she would support them. “A taxi driver recently told me that Russia was justified in invading Ukraine, despite my pretty vocal objections to listening to such cruel nonsense,” she says.

Jakubova acknowledges it is possible that there may be a slight increase in anti-Russian sentiment, but firmly says: “My concern is chiefly for Ukrainians.”

Similarly, Vitaly Kazakov, a 34-year-old researcher at the University of Manchester, says he has been personally supported – not prejudiced – by friends, colleagues and neighbours since Russia’s invasion.

“Most people understand that average Russians living abroad have nothing to do with the actions of the regime,” he says.

However, Kazakov does believe we’ve seen some instances of anti-Russian sentiment across the continent that “perhaps go too far”, such as pulling performances of Tchaikovsky’s music in Cardiff, or barring Russian nationals from enrolling into Baltic universities.

“These measures do not help those Russians who are opposed to the war and actually play into the Kremlin’s efforts to portray the West as being Russophobic,” he says.

“Thankfully, we have not experienced anything like this in Manchester so far.”

Vitaly Kazakov says many Russians have family on both sides.
Vitaly Kazakov
Vitaly Kazakov says many Russians have family on both sides.

Shepherd, who has been working on the concerts for free to maximise funds for Ukraine, has decided to keep Tchaikovsky’s music in her programme and says performing a song during the first concert was emotional.

“My close friends from the former Soviet Union were sitting right in front of me on the first row, mostly in tears from beginning to end: women from Ukraine, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Latvia,” she says. “We were all saying goodbye to a big part of our identity.”

She wants to focus on solidarity and Kazakov agrees that this is a priority. Some individual instances of animosity towards Russians may occur in the coming weeks, he says, but his main concern is for people directly impacted by the war, including Ukrainians and “young Russians senselessly losing their lives in the conflict”.

“Some of my Russian friends here have families on both sides of the conflict, so it is a stressful time for all,” he says. “The other major consideration is what life will look like in Russia after the war ends, and how different society will be given the changes we’re seeing to civil society and free speech.

“I think it is important to keep the channels of communication open with those in Russia to promote a positive change to end this horrific war.”

Polina Shepherd is working for free to raise funds for Ukraine.
Shendl Copitman Studio A.R.&V.
Polina Shepherd is working for free to raise funds for Ukraine.

Like many Russians, Shepherd also has close ties with Ukraine. Her grandfather was Ukrainian and she still has friends there. She turned to these friends to help her prepare the final song of her show.

“With sirens and bombs going over their heads as they were translating it, my friends loved the idea,” she says. “We sung it in Russian and Ukrainian – the whole audience joined in. We finished, but nobody wanted to leave – we had to sing the song again, second time with more power.”

The end result was tears and an eruption of applause from the audience as Shepherd ended the concert by raising a bouquet of blue and yellow flowers into the air.

The three expats who spoke to HuffPost UK all emphasised that their primary concern is the safety of the Ukrainian people, but they do not want Russians in Europe to be persecuted for a war they do not support.

Despite the potential personal ramifications, Jakubova is glad she burned her passport.

“Ukrainians have told me they felt supported by my gesture, and that’s good enough for me,” she says. “If it provides even a little bit of emotional support, then it was worth it.”

Shepherd is also determined to use her platform to help those most in need. The lyrics of her finale tune perhaps say it best: “Because I have power in my voice and body, I must run through the streets and shout: Peace, Peace, Peace.”