I was born in 1981, in the hilariously titled United Kingdom. I recently turned forty, and realized that I’ve only known thirteen years of my life not under Tory rule. And Tony Blair doesn’t count. My first decade, while a decently pleasant childhood, was sodden with Thatcherism and underscored with an ever-present, ambient fear of nuclear annihilation. It’s just something we all carried, like a floater in one’s field of vision. Children weren’t immune from awareness - I recall gazing horrified, aged five, at helicopter footage of the the bilious plume of smoke emanating from the compromised Reactor Four of Chernobyl power plant. To this day the site of a red and white-striped chimney sends my nails firmly into my palms. It probably accounted somewhat for my childhood hypochondria - the very feasible presence of an invisible enemy, slowly killing you, killing everyone. When I bought trinitite - the “atom glass” formed in the blast crater of the Trinity Test Site in New Mexico in 1946, I ghoulishly joked that it was a “homeopathic remedy for nuclear fear.” In truth the only remedy for that fear is global disarmament. Those born after the abatement (we cannot accurately describe it as an “end”) of the Cold War enjoyed childhoods untainted with this ambient nuclear threat. To those of us having lived open-eyed and hyper-vigilant through the eighties, this new talk of escalation triggers a generational PTSD tinged with an all-too-familiar existential heaviness.
That Putin and his cabal of Eurasian ethnostate nationalist psychos are using such language should not be a surprise: none of this is a new Putin. Any nod to diplomatic statemanship over the last twenty years has been a temporary and performative deflection to buy him time while he institutionally gutted the integrity of the UK and US, having dangled poisoned fruit under the noses of those for whom self-enrichment supersedes public accountability and the advancement of the human project. They all accepted these enticements so any surprise expressed by our leaders at his attack on Ukraine is as fatuous and shallow as his having pretended not to be a cold-blooded, murderous dictator. He has an established, prolific history of killing his perceived opponents - the apartment bombings attributed to Chechnya as a prelude to military incursion, countless defenestrations, deployment of chemical nerve agents on British soil, and infamously the radioactive poisoning of a former Russian agent, Alexander Litvinenko.
In 2018 I ended up becoming acquainted with Luke Harding from The Guardian after buying a second-hand copy of his book on the Litvinenko poisoning to find it signed by Alexander’s widow, Marina. I messaged Luke on Facebook, to thank him for an elucidating and deeply moving read, and to mention the synchronicity of the autograph, and he invited me to a summit at the House Of Commons on Putin’s human rights abuses abroad. The keynote speaker was Marina Litvinenko.
At one point during her gripping, and deeply upsetting speech she proclaimed that “Russia is not Putin and Putin is not Russia”. We’re seeing that now as I check in on friends in St Petersburg and Moscow on a daily basis, none of whom have anything but the harshest invective for that lunatic who has repeatedly said - channeling the fascist bile of his ideologue Alexander Dugin - “what is the point of a world with no Russia in it?”.
When researching The Quiet Earth, an album I released with my band The Academy Of Sun, in 2020, I’d visited the grave of Alexander Litvinenko in Highgate Cemetery, London. The grave stone, a broken column signifying a life cut short, stands over a lead coffin - lead to insulate us from the residual radiation emanating from the body. In honour of Litvinenko I recorded birdsong at the grave site and threaded this - alongside other field recordings (sonified visual data from CERN, Chernobyl wind through fence wires, the Chelyabinsk meteorite) - into the sonic texture of the record. Marina Litvinenko is one of the most inspirational, deeply humane and resilient figures of whose presence I’ve ever had the privilege. Her speech was as heartbreaking as it was galvanizing.
Months later, Luke Harding then guestlisted me for a festival - Byline in Oxfordshire - where Tommy Robinson’s ex-campaign manager, a young queer man called Caolan Robertson was speaking on a panel having ‘flipped’. Impressed by his eager transparency and intrigued by his story, we got drunk, whereby he began to impart insider details such as who is - or was - funding Nigel Farage, a confidence I quickly betrayed to investigative reporter contacts. (They most likely already knew but it felt dutiful to transmit this information.) He also, tellingly, received an email from pre-PM Boris Johnson asking if he’d do his PR. He declined, and told me “oh yeah, they’re ALL racists.”
I just returned from a month in the stunningly beautiful formerly Soviet republic of Georgia, which may well become my new home. Many in Georgia are taking to the streets, motioning towards the deposition of their Putin-installed president in light of the illegal war on Ukraine. I admire and am inspired by their bravery, collective action and pride in their nation.
While there I met a young man, who will remain unnamed for his safety and security, who turned just twenty on my last night in Tbilisi. A Muscovite, I asked him what had brought him to Georgia. He explained that he faces criminal charges in Russia for helping organize a protest against the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny (who is currently in the midst of a show trial where his crime were essentially having survived being poisoned by the same nerve agent as that deployed by Putin’s inept GRU agents against the Skripals, on British soil in 2018.) My friend lamented that if he returned to his homeland he would likely join the thousands of other protestors in labour camps and prisons across Russia, so thin-skinned is Putin.
Russia is not Putin and Putin is not Russia.
I also visited the town of Stalin’s north - Gory, an hour outside of Tbilisi, where somewhat hilariously I got castigated for trying to play Stalin’s piano, which sits in a museum dedicated to the life of the former leader. The Soviet Union, thirty years after its dissolution, still censoring radical queer artists! I joke, ghoulishly, of course, as one must in these times, in tandem with direct action, humanitarian aid, speaking truth to power, amplifying source-checked news stories, and insisting on the accountability of those running our country (into the ground, in the case of the UK.)
My ex-partner, when I first met him, told me he had connections to the Tolstoy dynasty. It transpires indeed that he does: his father married a descendent of Tolstoy’s - a handsome property tycoon with a portfolio of Belgravia properties tailor-made for luxuriant Russian buyers. My ex’s father’s husband’s uncle (you heard me) is Vladimir Tolstoy. cultural advisor to the Russian Federation, a man who answers directly to Putin. Bizarre to think that were my ex and I still together, Putin (pre-war) would only be a couple of phone calls away. I asked my ex- recently how the family are responding to the incursion - the property tycoon is apparently devastated while the Muscovite allocation stand steadfastly behind The New Tsar and his “denazification of Ukraine.” I cannot reconcile the existential heave-ho of being even tangentially part of this poisoned weave. But I feel of course for the property tycoon (even if he has most likely enabled the oligarchal colonisation of Londongrad via his property business) - homosexual, repatriated: it stands to reason he might be anti-Putin.
Russia isn’t Putin and Putin isn’t Russia.
My young Russian exile friend in Georgia has told me of his intent to join the Ukrainian defense. Whilst I fear for him I’m obviously completely in awe of his conviction and his sense of moral rectitude: to me he is a hero. Yesterday I said to him that I look forward to sharing a meal together in Moscow, and raising a glass to President Navalny and to freedom from tyranny. He said “I believe we will.” So do I.
Svoboda, Nadhezdah, Pravda. Slavi Ukraini, Geroyam Slavi, Putin Khulyo.