My Time in Irkutsk

The then-escalation with Ukraine didn’t seem like it would devolve into war. But just after one month, I’m back home in Los Angeles.

By Chris Bechtol '23

When I was boarding my flight to Moscow to study abroad this semester, I was primarily concerned with the pandemic. The then-escalation with Ukraine didn’t seem like it would devolve into war. But just after one month, I’m back home in Los Angeles, continuing my courses online for the foreseeable future. 

From the start of February until the beginning of March, I studied in Irkutsk, a city of 600,000 located in the heart of Siberia and roughly 75 kilometers from Lake Baikal. The entire month I was there, I was physically safe—the only things Irkutsk had that could be considered strategic were a dam and some aluminum plants, so even if there was a war in Russia, it probably wouldn’t be much of a target. I was as far from Ukraine as Ukraine is from eastern Canada. My friends studying in Spain and the UK were closer to the conflict than I was. 

Throughout February, the Russian news didn’t cover Ukraine. Rather, it focused on the Olympics since they were real-time in Irkutsk. After Russia invaded Ukraine, my host бабушки didn’t have the news on often. They were worried about the war, but they had their great-granddaughter living with them and wanted to shield her from it. While they both downplayed the possibility (and later, severity and purpose) of war, I could tell they were both extremely nervous. Katya told me she grew up during the Second World War and doesn’t want her country to get involved in another European conflict. I would often walk into the kitchen and see her hunched over the radio, listening with a face of abject horror or even crying. Even though the news on the radio and TV came from state-run institutions, she knew what conflict meant.

It was more difficult for me to determine what Tamara, my other host бабушка, thought about the war in Ukraine. On the one hand, she told me all Western news sources were “fake,” but I still saw her crying one morning while listening to the radio. Even though she was thousands of miles away from Ukraine, Tamara was still directly affected by the war. Her son, who lived and worked in Germany, had to return to Moscow while he still had a chance (this was the day before I had to leave so I don’t know what will happen to him). 

Public opinion in Irkutsk was also difficult to grasp, mainly because people didn’t openly talk about it. And public life reflected this. If you didn’t know there was a war in Ukraine, you would have never guessed. There were no signs of war—the police presence did not increase, and there was no change in people’s visible attitudes. In fact, until my program made the decision to evacuate us, the only problem I encountered was the bank running out of dollars, though that seemed to not be related to the sanctions, as they restocked within the next few days. 

The problems I encountered due to the war came about when I was trying to evacuate Russia. Because we needed negative COVID-19 tests, which had a 24-hour turnaround time, my fellow abroad students and I were unable to get on a flight from Irkutsk to Phuket, Thailand on the first day.

We booked a flight to Seoul via Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, but when we landed in Vladivostok the flight to Seoul had been delayed two days, so we got on a flight to Moscow.

From Moscow, I went back through Seoul to LA, but the rest of the group split. One person flew to Charlotte via Dubai and Houston; the other three went to the Baltics via flying to St. Petersburg and then taking buses/trains to Tallinn, Helsinki, or Riga. 

My experience in Irkutsk during a war, during a pandemic, was certainly a unique one. While I certainly can’t explain how Russians are experiencing the war and subsequent sanctions as a whole, my time living with Katya and Tamara gave me a brief window into how Russians view the world.