Berliner Tageblatt - A young Russian's life transformed by Ukraine conflict

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A young Russian's life transformed by Ukraine conflict
A young Russian's life transformed by Ukraine conflict / Photo: © AFP

A young Russian's life transformed by Ukraine conflict

Two years ago, Anastasia was working for a spa in Moscow and "life was good".

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Russia's offensive in Ukraine changed everything and turned her into an activist.

Aged 29, the blue-eyed brunette now helps victims of repression by writing letters and sending parcels to prisons, as well as working as a journalist for one of Russia's last independent media outlets.

"I started living when all this started. Before, it was like I'd been in a bubble," said Anastasia, known as Nastya, who has a pierced eyebrow.

She spoke to AFP on condition that she not be identified by her full name.

In her previous life, she promoted relaxing baths on social media, she said.

She lost her job in March 2022 after Facebook and Instagram were banned and branded "extremist" following the launch of Russia's offensive.

At the same time, she separated from her husband, whose support for the offensive was the last straw.

While many Russians ignore the conflict and others support the offensive, Anastasia said she has stayed in Russia to fight in her own way, rather than leaving the country like hundreds of thousands of others.

- Writing to 300 prisoners -

One night in March 2022, Anastasia came across a group of Muscovites at an impromptu memorial for late opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on the bridge near the Kremlin where he was shot in 2015.

She ended up spending the night with them and her life took an entirely different turn.

"Since then, I have had no problem waking up at five in the morning," said Anastasia, speaking to AFP in her one-bedroom flat in Zheleznodorozhny, a town near Moscow.

In the mornings, after taking her eight-year-old son to school, she writes to prisoners, who have become regular correspondents over the past two years.

There are more and more of these, since thousands of Russians have been imprisoned for criticising the conflict with Ukraine and dozens have received heavy prison sentences.

Anastasia began her correspondence by sending a postcard to the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny who was serving a 19-year prison sentence in the Arctic for "extremism".

He died on February 19, 2024, in mysterious circumstances and his funeral in Moscow drew thousands of supporters.

"I have 300 regular correspondents whom I find mainly on social media," she said, playing with her handcuff-shaped earrings.

"I never select, I don't even look at their records. I write to anyone I can find," she said, from regular criminals to what she calls "political" cases.

Among these is Vladimir Kara-Murza, who last year was sentenced to 25 years -- the harshest sentence against an opposition leader in the history of modern Russia.

"I wrote to him because of his moral authority. I wanted to ask him a question that was bothering me at the time -- can you still fall in love when all this is happening around us?" she said.

"I can, Kara-Murza said so," she joked.

- 'My life finally has meaning' -

Anastasia's afternoons are also devoted to helping prisoners. Before setting off for the post office, she buys some basic goods for detainees in Moscow's Lefortovo jail, a symbol of repression since Soviet times.

She accepts donations to cover these purchases.

For some months, she has also been working as a court reporter, following the trials of victims of repression for a small independent media outlet.

She says she "does not earn much" but also "does not need much".

Her work often continues into the night.

She regularly organises evening gatherings in central Moscow bringing together dozens of people of different ages to sign birthday cards for prisoners.

"My life finally has meaning," she said at one gathering, looking on with pride as animated discussions went on around her.

But she said she gets annoyed by Russians who have left and are critical of those who have stayed behind despite disagreeing with the country's course.

"I stayed so that they can come back! And there are a lot of people like me," she said.