Ukraine-Russia: ‘It feels shameful to be Russian at the moment’, says woman hosting a Ukrainian refugee in her Edinburgh home
A Russian-born woman living in Edinburgh has told how she opted to take in a refugee from Ukraine after a charity told her she needed to be interviewed about her political beliefs before she could volunteer as a translator.
Valentina Erastova, 34, who has lived in Scotland since she was 16 and has family in Ukraine, but was born in Moscow, said she had offered her services to translate for newly-arrived refugees in Scotland. However, she was told she would need to be quizzed on her politics in a formal interview process before her application was accepted.
Instead, she decided to help by taking in a refugee to her Edinburgh home.
Ms Erastova, a scientist working for the University of Edinburgh, made contact with a Ukrainian woman who was away on a business trip in Brazil when war broke out and has agreed to host her once her visa has been processed.
However, the experience of being rejected from the organisation helping refugees coming to Scotland has had a lasting impact.
"I’m British now, but I'm Russian, originally, my parents live in Moscow, but my also, my dad's sister is in the east of Ukraine. I have tried to get her out to come here, but she is a typical proud Ukrainian, she doesn't want to leave. She still has her work.
"My application was for a group doing some organising for people who were coming here as refugees. I wanted to do some translations, I told them, I speak Russian, I don’t speak Ukrainian, but I can help, then I got this strange email saying, ‘oh, we need to hold an interview because you need to ask you about your political opinions’.
“I felt ‘ouch’. It was like, ‘if you look through my Twitter, you’ll see [my opinions]’. It felt like this was just too much, so I decided that I would go and do something else. It felt a bit funny, but I'm sure they had good intentions and they won’t have any problems finding translators, there are a lot of people in Edinburgh who speak Ukrainian and Russian and want to help.”
She posted on a social media site that she could take in a refugee and was soon contacted by Kristina, 33, who was staying in Brazil, on a business trip for her job at a start-up firm when news of the war broke.
“I'm a single girl, living in my flat in the centre of Edinburgh,” says Ms Erastova. “So I was thinking I would really like to have someone more or less of my interests and my age and that would be beneficial for them. So I wrote that.
“But I am technically Russian, and I said that [on my post] too, because I wanted to give a full disclosure. I never have had any problems with Ukrainians.”
The pair are now waiting for Kristina’s visa to be processed and for her to be able to arrange travel to Scotland. Because she was on a temporary working visa in Brazil, she has had to pay a fine after overstaying her time in the country while waiting for her UK papers to come through. They have communicated in both Russian and English and Ms Erastova has given her a video tour of her Edinburgh flat.
They have also discussed the political situation.
Ms Erastova says: "We had a bit of a chat on messenger about it and I feel like we’re tapped into the same information sources. It feels very shameful to be Russian at this moment. But the whole situation is just so strange because for Russians and Ukrainians, these are the strongest country connections. I don't even understand, watching this, who could support it, but I’m sure there are some people.”
She is concerned about her parents, both documentary filmmakers, who live in Moscow. Her father, Andrei Erastov, has won international awards for a film he made in 2015, Airport Dontesk, which gave a balanced perspective on the battle between Russia and Ukraine for Donetsk Airport through the eyes of those fighting on both sides. He has also worked on programmes filmed in Russia for the BBC, National Geographic and Discovery.
"In Russia, you can just walk down the street and get arrested," she says. "It's not like they’re just arresting people who are guilty of something. So I think that's my more of my worry, and obviously, that they don't have any work.”
Sanctions are hitting ordinary people hard in Russia, which has left Ms Erastova feeling divided. Many major international firms - from food and drinks brands Heineken, McDonalds and Starbucks to accountancy firms Deloitte, KPMG and PWC - have pulled out of the country, while Russians who were working remotely for UK firms are also unable to be paid.
Shortly after the war began, the SNP called for all Scottish exporters to pull out of Russia. Scotland usually directly exports £28 million – the equivalent of 42 million bottles - of whisky to Russia, according to the Scotch Whisky Association.
"I’m not sure what I feel about the sanctions,” Ms Erastova says. “The idea of not buying oil, yes, because we know where that money goes straight away. But we’re also talking about the lives of ordinary people who are losing what they have worked their whole lives for.”
She adds: "I think it’s good for people to understand that Russia and Russians aren't the same. It is very difficult. It feels like we’re in for a long and very scary war for a long time.”