Young Russians say they have faced hostility on the streets of Nottingham in the year following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine – but have found a warm welcome among students at the city’s universities.
Veronika Cechanovic, a student at Nottingham Trent University, has been living in the UK for six years and her job in hospitality regularly brings her into contact with the public.
“After the war began, people asking me where I am from has become a trigger for me,” she says. “Middle-aged people tend to straight-up blame me for the situation, such comments have led to my manager advising me to not reveal where I am from for my own safety,” she said.
Outside work, she has been insulted in the street.
Veronika said: “I went out with my friends when a well-respected man in our group made a comment about how my people are killing others and once a man heard me speak Russian on the street and swore at me.”
But her experience has been different at university.
She said: “I think it is because people are more educated and they are not as narrow-minded, which enables them to see and understand other perspectives.”
More could to be done help people in the UK understand that “most Russians do not support the war,” she adds.
“Those who protest [at home] it are met with military and police violence. One of my childhood friends who used to live in Moscow has moved to China to avoid being sent to fight a war that he does not believe in.
“This is why young people began leaving the country, most of my friends have moved out, the further the better.”
Leonid Suevalov, 18, who moved from Moscow to Nottingham last September to study at the University of Nottingham, has also found university to be a safe and inclusive space.
He has been was surprised by how friendly other students have been towards him.
“It’s been really easy to make friends, besides a few jokes, I haven’t been affected by it at all. No one has been fearful of me, or negative towards me, I might be lucky, but it has been a positive experience.”
One reaction that he has noticed is curiosity.
He said: “It [the war] is a big thing in the news and there’s so much information in the media about it. People are interested and they ask questions, but no one has made assumptions before asking first.
“It’s a good conversation starter, even though it’s a bit dark, I’m open to conversation with anyone, as long as there is no malicious intent.”
Anya Goriainova, 21, also moved to Nottingham from Moscow to study. She feels safer here but misses her family.
“I didn’t go out much last year because of my mental health,” she says. “I tried to spend most of my time with my friends, who have been nice and supportive, I wouldn’t say they have treated me any differently.”
On the practical front, paying her tuition fees and rent has been difficult since the war began because she can no longer use Russian bank cards in the UK.
“The main change for me was the financial situation, It’s harder for us to pay and transfer money because they check almost all Russian transactions, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to pay for university.”
For Anya, who hopes to stay in the UK after graduating, her studies have provided a distraction from the situation back home.
She says: “I only have a Russian passport, so I have no choice but to stay here or go back to Russia, I want to stay in the UK, so I have to study hard.”
Vladislavs Nanaks, 24, chose to stay in the UK after he graduated from Nottingham Trent.
He now lives in Nottingham and works as an operations analyst for a software company ENSEK.
“People see the word ‘Russian’ as a red flag, with all the negative things that have happened within the Russian government,” he says. “People tend to think that if you’re speaking in Russian, you’re aligned with that and it this upsets a lot of people,” he said.
Vladislavs opposes the invasion of Ukraine and has never supported the Russian government.
He said: “It’s really unfortunate and I feel bad for Ukrainian people, I don’t want to compare who is feeling worse, but I can’t deny the fact that the situation has just been made worse for everyone – for all Russian-speaking people.”
Not all Russian people that he has met in Nottingham oppose the war which has severed some of his friendships.
“The majority of people I know are against it, but I have met people who were extremely for that regime,” he says. “I tried to convince them otherwise and lead a logical conversation, but they didn’t listen, so I stopped communicating with them.”
Discrimination towards his Russian heritage is not a new experience for Vladislavs, as it was prominent throughout his childhood growing up in Latvia.
“I was raised in a manner of ‘don’t show off that you’re Russian, just tell people you’re Latvian’ and my mother told me never to put Russian as my native language to hide my background, I feel like I’m a foreigner everywhere,” he says.
Since moving to Nottingham, the hostility that he has experienced typically hasn’t come from British people, “but from people that I actually have something in common with,” he says.
He adds: “Most post-Soviet countries share an opinion that Russian people are not good, that makes me feel frustrated, expressing myself as Russian just doesn’t feel safe.”
Vladislavs founded the Russian Speaking Society at Nottingham Trent University while he was a student and says it provided a support system for him and other young Russian and Russian-speaking people in Nottingham.
He said: “When I first moved here, I felt alone, it was necessary for me to form a social circle where I could share my thoughts, opinions and doubts while feeling connected with my own culture.”
“It was necessary back then and I feel it’s even more necessary right now.”