Russians looking for the exit

red square Image copyright AFP

If Russia is alarming its neighbours with its actions in Ukraine and its anti-Western rhetoric, many of its own people are also uncomfortable with the prevailing atmosphere of bellicose nationalism. Some are preparing to leave, discovers the BBC's Caroline Wyatt, a former Moscow correspondent - and some have already left.

Moscow is at its loveliest in May, when the usually forbidding expanse of Red Square is bathed in sunshine, and the delicate scent of lilac fills the air around the crazy ice-cream spirals of St Basil's Cathedral. Tourists from across the Russian Federation take smiling family photographs in front of the church built to mark Ivan the Terrible's military conquests.

The rocket launchers and martial might on display to celebrate Victory Day in Europe have all gone. And instead of marching bands, the ethereal sounds of an Orthodox church choir fill the square, and visitors stop to listen. The only reminder that all is not quite as sunny as it seems is the shrine of flowers on the bridge, the fresh summer bunches left with handwritten notes - in memory of the Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, shot dead on this same spot just a few months ago.

I meet an old friend for coffee on the terrace of what was once the empty Soviet department store GUM. Now it's a temple to consumerism that wouldn't feel out of place in Paris, London or Milan. The shop windows bloom with pastel-coloured dresses from all the luxury brands. I can hardly conceal my surprise when the waiter wishes me a good day with a smile that even looks as though he means it.

I hardly know this place, it feels so different. The streets are no longer pot-holed, nor choked with traffic. There's a new confidence visible in the way people walk. And despite Western sanctions over Ukraine, the supermarket shelves are still full, and the cafes too.

Yet as we sit over coffee, reminiscing about the Moscow of old, I'm suddenly reminded of the past as my friend looks around to make sure that nobody can hear.

"I've sent my family to live abroad," he tells me. "It's better that way. I've sold everything, and now I commute. The health service here is crumbling, and so are schools. Sanctions have started to bite, but it's not that - it's the political atmosphere. It's stifling and it's getting worse. Nobody knows what will happen next, but it doesn't feel like a good place for the liberals."

I resist the temptation to make a joke, to lighten the mood... Liberals on the run, worries about the health service? Why, it sounds just like the UK. But my friend isn't laughing - and nor am I, as I remember his optimism about his country's future 15 long years ago. For this highly educated man to send his family abroad was not a step taken lightly.

Later, I meet Olya in a park, and we sit on a bench dappled by the early summer sunshine. It's warm, but getting muggier. The wisps of cloud carry the ominous grey tinge of an oncoming storm. Olya, too, has a sadness in her eyes as she talks about preparing to emigrate - if she can. She's also eminently well-qualified, another middle-class Muscovite with a decent job and good prospects. For Olya, it's not economic fears that make her want to leave, but a gathering sense of unease.

Image copyright AFP

"I don't know if you in England know the story about the frog, who sits in a pan of warm water on the top of the stove. He's happy. And then someone lights the stove beneath, and gradually, the water gets hotter. The frog is happy, he's comfortable. But soon the water will boil - and he probably won't get out in time because he doesn't realise what's happening. I'm scared of being that frog - trapped in a boiling pot, unable to get out."

Olya's fears grew as the troubles in Ukraine spiralled into conflict, causing blazing rows that split her family - and many others too. "Some believe America will use what's happening in Ukraine to attack Russia - and they say that we should attack first because that's the best defence," she tells me.

"All I want is to find a place on earth where everyone knows the law and abides by it, and where there isn't corruption. I'm so sick of it. And I'm tired of arguing about Ukraine. What's happening there is insane, and it's terrifying that it could lead to a full-scale war. All I want is a small patch of land where there's peace and quiet."

I'm reminded of those conversations when I hear President Putin respond to the corruption allegations against Fifa. He blames America for what he seems to see as politically motivated arrests aimed at taking the World Cup away from Russia in 2018.

I ask another friend, Tanya, what she makes of it all. "That bellicose form of patriotism is everywhere in Russia today," she says, speaking softly as she drags deeply on her cigarette.

Image copyright AFP

"You hear it all the time on the news. Everything is interpreted as being aimed against Russia. It's absurd. Americans don't spend their lives scheming against us, but the authorities here think and talk as though they do. And many believe it. The rhetoric today is like something from another era - the Soviet era. I feel as though we're asked every day to make a choice between being true patriots or leaving Russia.

"I'm not leaving. I'm Russian and I love my country. But sometimes my country is hard to love."

Tanya and her husband are putting money aside for their daughters so in a few years time the girls can travel and perhaps study abroad.

"If our borders are still open then," adds Tanya, with a sigh. "I remember the Soviet Union - we were trapped and we couldn't escape. That's how I grew up. I just hope it doesn't happen again."

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