Julia Aug: We, the Russians, are all responsible for bringing up a dictator like Putin

Aimar Altosaar
, ajakirjanik
Actress and director Julia Aug admits that she is afraid to return from Estonia to Russia, but 18–19. april he must be in Moscow in April because he has productions there.
Actress and director Julia Aug admits that she is afraid to return from Estonia to Russia, but 18–19. april he must be in Moscow in April because he has productions there. Photo: Mihkel Maripuu
  • Putin is trying to save his ratings with the war in Ukraine and unfortunately seems to succeed
  • People influenced by propaganda should be treated like victims who have been exploited

Julia Aug, an actress and stage director well known in Russia and Estonia, can consider herself Estonia, Jewish, Swedish or Polish, but having studied and grown up in Russian-language environment in Narva and St. Petersburg, she primarily represents Russian culture and Russians, who are now despised all over the world because of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine

Although not all Russians are directly responsible for the crimes of Vladimir Putin, the support of most of them to the war in Ukraine tends to scare other people. Julia Aug as a socially sensitive artist and a brave woman has openly expressed her complete opposition to the war in Ukraine and her latest production in the Tallinn Free Stage addresses its horrors and absolute incongruity in the modern world.

We meet her on Saturday, April 9, after the rehearsal of the production «Letters from the front». 

Since February 24, you have another role besides those of actress, director and a builder of bridge between Estonia and Russia – a representative of the Russian nation. Every day when war crimes are committed in Ukraine, someone says «those damned Russians!» You have declared very bravely and clearly that you oppose Putin’s war and are probably more aware of what is happening than may others. What is happening in Russia?

I am afraid that I cannot answer this question. I read many analyses of historians and political scientists, I also follow many international analysts, but I have no answer to this question. One thing we should learn in this situation – have more confidence in intelligence. The US intelligence reported many days before that there will be a Russian military invasion in Ukraine.

It actually seemed some time that President Joe Biden and the Americans are talking about their intelligence data so intensively for some political purposes because releasing otherwise secret information seemed quite strange. But it appeared that they were indeed very well informed and knew exactly that a military attack was being prepared. That there would be a strong attack against Kharkiv in the near future I even tended to believe based on my own experience.

But yes, I cannot answer the question about what has happened to Russia. One explanation could be related to the decline in Putin’s ratings half a year ago. Even the official public opinion researchers showed the fall of his popularity. We then said with bitter irony that Putin would probably have to hold another little victorious war to boost his popularity. But we could not expect that instead of a little war there would be a large-scale and terrible attack against Ukraine. And this war is becoming even more terrible every day.

It seemed to us then that Putin intended to annex the DNR (Donetsk people’s republic – Ed.) and LNR (Luhansk people’s republic – Ed.); this would not have required more than having the Russian military already there put on Russia shoulder straps or legalize what had been going on all the time. We thought that this would be all. But we could not think that Russia would bomb Ukraine! Honestly, this seemed totally impossible!

«During the Soviet period the heads of the Orthodox Church actually had some officer’s rank in the KGB. And it is very regrettable that the same people remained at the head of the Russian Orthodox Church after the perestroika.»
«During the Soviet period the heads of the Orthodox Church actually had some officer’s rank in the KGB. And it is very regrettable that the same people remained at the head of the Russian Orthodox Church after the perestroika.» Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

But the bombing began and is continuing with high intensity. Russia seems to have no rational reason to do this; why are they doing it then?

I cannot exactly say why all that happened. Maybe Putin is really trying to save his ratings and, unfortunately, he seems to be succeeding. Viewing the opinion poll results shows that the war and warlike propaganda have certainly increased his popularity. It is claimed that his inner circle is divided into two parties – the doves and the hawks –, where the peace party representatives are talking about peace negotiations. For example Vladimir Medinsky, head of the delegation [for negotiations with Ukraine] has been trying to raise the issue about the need to conclude ceasefire quickly. The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has announced that ratifying ceasefire could be possible within a few days.

But such statements produce strong patriotic opposition in the media channels of the Kremlin which immediately began to demand Peskov’s resignation. Therefore it seems to me that the war is a political gesture for Putin which should ensure him good election results in 2024.

To come down from the political summits to the ordinary people, how to they look at the war? The Ukrainian mothers had to seize their sleepy children from beds early on February 24 and hide in cellars from the Russian bomb attack. How many mothers must have been in Russia that morning, who had to tell their children that the war began today? The sons, husbands and other relatives of Russian mothers immediately faced death threat due to it.

I believe that precisely on February 24 there must have been many such mothers because my own personal observations and acquaintances let me presume that at least 90 percent of Russia’s population received the news of war with a feeling of great horror. They initially categorically opposed what was happening But then the propaganda was turned on an in a very aggressive manner. This is the way propaganda works that people without firm convictions and lacking the habit of critical thinking become easy prey for it. Now the percentage of anti-war people is certainly much lower than in the beginning.

Now the people subjected to propaganda can explain themselves and others that this is not a war but a special operation. They say that this was unavoidable, that events in Ukraine posed a threat to Russia and they repeat with conviction everything else the official Russian media channels say with their propaganda. But I stress that on February 24 when it all began, I could see how all social media channels were full of horror and refusal to accept the war. Unfortunately, in two days it was even forbidden to use the word «war». 

But has the fact that tens of thousands of Russian youngsters have been killed or injured in that war by now affected the society in any way? How do people react to the huge casualties in the towns and villages where these young men came from?

Unfortunately I know nothing about the life of Russian villages. One has to be there to know. But I have staged quite a large number of plays in Russian provincial towns. For example Tobolsk, Novosibirsk, Dzerzhinsk. Having lived for some months in these towns I could understand the mood there. But now I have not been to these places for several years and this makes it very difficult to answer this question as well. But I personally find all what happens very difficult to understand. As far as I know the units at war include a large percentage of contract soldiers who should be aware of what they are doing. There are fighting only to earn money. This is how they earned money in Syria.

It is widely believed that Russian units fighting in Ukraine consist mainly of professionals with combat experience. But it is know that they also sent there conscripts.

Probably yes and they have also admitted it. Before admitting it officially they told the people that the conscripts were sent to training exercises – although eventually they found themselves in a real war. On the other hand this does not surprise me because the Russian power structures and officials have never spoken the truth during the past ten years.

Russia used to have professional and very interesting journalism some twenty years ago. Can we say that this is now totally out of the question?

There is no journalism in Russia any more; there is only propaganda. The last [publications] were Ekho Moskvy, Dozhd, Novaya Gazeta, but all these were closed as the war started. Today (April 9 – Ed.) they closed the last independent media platform with federal reach – Kholod.

My generation remembers the Soviet period when there was no free media and the theater had a huge role of telling truth to the people besides the daily propaganda. The cinema also sometimes attempted to display life the way it was rather than the way the ideology demanded, but since making films required the use of state resources, the control was stricter. Theaters in Estonia contributed a lot to keeping up the people’s spirits during occupation, because it is difficult to censure the performing arts and we always had enough brave directors. Can we now expect that the meaning and popularity of theater will increase in Russia as well?

This is certainly coming up. But only recently, two or three years ago it was possible in Russia to speak in public about everything. Of course, the theater always had a greater amount of this freedom. Unlike cinema, theater does not need that much money; sometimes you can do it almost without any money at all. For example, the performances of the Dock Theater, which was totally self-financed, always addressed the most topical issues. Even the state theaters could afford telling the truth and they always produced plays on very sensitive social issues.

As they began to suppress public criticism two or three years ago, very plain speaking web-TV platforms carried on nevertheless. We were still able to tell the truth and not only in the theater. But what will happen next I cannot imagine because three new laws came in force in the beginning of March: the law on fake news, the law on discrediting Russian power structures abroad and the law on supporting sanctions against Russia. The penalties could reach from administrative fines to 15-year prison sentence. These laws and the total neutralization of mass communication will lead to a situation that one can only say what the ruling party and the government allow. A stage director acquaintance is already worried whether there is a theater left in Russia where she could stage «Cipollino»!

What is wrong about «Cipollino»?

But this is an Italian political fairy tale which ridicules the authorities!

And despite everything you have not left Russia but are simply working here in Estonia?

Yes, I have to be in Moscow on April 18–19, because I have stage productions there.

Are you seeking any opportunities for carrying on your work in Russia?

Yes, let us see! I have very specific duties I cannot fail to perform. I have plays in the Gogol Center in Moscow, in the Stanislavski Elektra Theater and the St Petersburg theater Priyut Komedianta, and the responsibility toward these theaters. But I freely admit that I am afraid to return to Russia. Terrible things are already happening there. For example, my acquaintance, the journalist Yevgeni Levkovich, who cannot work as a journalist for some time now, posted an anti-war statement on his Facebook account. They came for him yesterday, took him to the police station and he was fined for his posting – not yet a prison sentence. It was for discrediting the Russian armed forces in his posting.

Julia Aug says that none of her Ukrainian friends have cursed her because she is Russian: «I think about it all the time. Sometimes I think it's all unrealistic what's going on!»
Julia Aug says that none of her Ukrainian friends have cursed her because she is Russian: «I think about it all the time. Sometimes I think it's all unrealistic what's going on!» Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

Is your daughter Polina also in Russia?

Yes, she is there together with her family.

It seems that this war is becoming increasingly vicious and the stress is only increasing.

It seemed to me that anything worse than what happened in Bucha cannot happen, but then there was the strike at the Kramatorsk railway station full of refugees! 

It seems that Russia is deliberately bombing civilians to terrorize the people. But the experience of World War II when both sides bombed each other’s cities showed that the people’s morale did not deteriorate under bombs and their will to resist only increased. Now the Russians are doing the same in Ukraine as if they had learned nothing from history. Do the artists opposing the war have any opportunity at all to influence the mentality of Russia’s population?

I do not believe that it would be possible to influence anything any more. It is not possible to do anything constructive. We, the Russians, are all responsible for having brought up a dictator like Putin. I admire the people who have dared to go out and protest, have talked about it and given interviews.

I do not currently know of any producer who would refuse to work with me because of my political position. But I also understand that we cannot do much more than try to do our work honestly. Alexey Navalny has done more but he is also in prison now and is of no use now... He did the maximum but is now unable to do anything!

Therefore – to do something right now and in a constructive manner to bring along changes; we cannot do anything like that in reality. But there is always the theory of small acts. We can help specific people.

Do you have Ukrainian acquaintances you could help?

I have been working a lot in the Ukrainian theaters. I have many friends there; I have participated in the projects of some Ukrainians since 2004. They have not given up talking to me, despite the war. We are communicating daily, exchange greetings in the morning. I have friends in Kropyvnytskyy (former Kirovograd – Ed.), in Kyiv, in Kharkiv, in Mariupol, even in the Luhansk region – we are communicating, sending letters. No one of them has cursed me for being Russian and I think of it constantly. Sometimes I think that all what is happening is unreal! I have worked two and half years of my life in Ukraine!

This means that personal relations between Ukrainians and Russians need not be fully severed. But there seems to be a barrier somewhere which does not allow communicating as equals. The RIA Novosti news agency published on April 3 the text by Timofey Sergeitsev «What should Russia do with Ukraine», which effectively calls for the destruction of Ukrainians as an ethnos by using the same methods with which Hitler tried to destroy the Jews and to enslave the eastern Slavic peoples. Do you know about it?

Yes, I have read it. This reminds me of my previous production, also in the Free Stage, it was about the Holocaust and titled «Mother, is our cat also Jewish?» As I was preparing materials for this production, including those about the Holocaust, I reached the Wannsee Conference in Nazi Germany in 1942, which included a detailed report about how to accomplish a task already set up – how to finally solve the Jewish question. The theses of this report are amazingly similar to the message of Sergeitsev’s article, which is essentially about how to destroy the Ukrainian people. It is absolutely terrible!

Can we hope that this attitude towards the Ukrainians is not predominant in Russia?

I am certain that this attitude still does not prevail in the society as a whole. The danger posed by this article is that it was published in the national news channel. RIA No­vosti is one of the most central and influential agencies in Russia and this article was published on its front page. I find this very dangerous because this send a very crazy message to the society. As far as I have understood, this is the way the authorities operate in Russia – they publish a particularly radical statement which may initially shock everybody and then they observe the people’s response. But it seems to me that most of the people do not accept the RIA Novosti idea of the Ukrainians; it tends to produce horror instead..

Let us hope that this would not change! Your work in theater has done much to make people aware of problems, understand better what is happening in the society and generally to make us better persons. This certainly works with the regular theater audience or so-called normal people, but is it possible to do something so that the people presently refusing to know the truth would finally understand the actual situation?

I am afraid that there is nothing to do with them. I recently read a psychologist’s answer to the question about how to communicate with relatives who have been completely trapped by the state propaganda net. They are saying that there is no war, that it is a special operation, that Putin is saving Russia and Ukraine from Nazism, that the Russian forces are bombing only military targets – and that everything else shown by foreign channels is «fake». The psychologist said that people manipulated by the state propaganda should be treated like victims exploited by a mental rapist or as members of a religious sect.

Regular communications channels and conversations would not work with these people?

They wouldn’t! A usual conversation, art, theater, cinema would not influence them. It would be necessary to activate certain psychological mechanisms. After World War II they had Germans see the concentration camp victims, forced them to work there, dig out and bury the corpses, etc. This kind of shock therapy worked well. The German burghers, who had been saying that such terrible things they were told about never happened, finally understood something after they had seen a huge number of killed people. I think that this is the way such mechanisms work. 

They often say in Russia that Russians are a very Christian nation. Is this true?

The Ukrainians are much more religious. Based on my own experience I can say that the Ukrainians are devoutly religious, true believers.

Christianity is closely related to the concepts of mercy and repentance – where have they disappeared in Russia?

These are very serious questions. I have been thinking about these matters for many years. My father was initially an atheist in the Soviet period and then went to the university where the faculty of Marxism-Leninism had a department of propaganda of atheism. Studying there made my father religious and he had many friends among clergymen of various churches. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and Estonia restoring its independence, my father campaigned for the nuns of the Pühtitsa nunnery, who had come from various regions of the USSR could have residence permits in Estonia. My father was actually a human rights protector thanks to this activity! 

What is the role of the Russian patriarchy?

To my great regret the Russian religious leaders are always dependent on the security services or even a part of them. During the Soviet period the heads of the Orthodox Church actually had some officer’s rank in the KGB. And it is very regrettable that the same people remained at the head of the Russian Orthodox Church after the perestroika. But now they wear the FSB rank insignia instead of the KGB. Although the church is officially separate from the state in Russia, it fully participates in the state propaganda. Even to an extent not possible in the Soviet period.

«I very much wish that my fears of another attack against Kharkiv would not come true.»
«I very much wish that my fears of another attack against Kharkiv would not come true.» Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

The church should have a high moral authority in the society. The Russian patriarch blessed the war in Ukraine – how should one judge that?

Of course, this contradicts the principles of Christianity and our church. It seems to me that the patriarch is not a religious person if he does that.

Can we say that the authority of the church has deteriorated because of the war?

It did not happen because of the war but a long time ago. I have friends among clergymen, who clearly expressed their anti-war views already back in 2014 when the war broke out in Ukraine – I have always canned it the eight-year war. For example Grigory Mikhnov-Vaitenko – the son of the poet Alexandr Galitch – was not allowed to hold service at church because he did not bless the volunteers who went from Russia to fight in Ukraine, in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Father Grigory was forced to leave the Russian Orthodox Church. In all fairness to specific persons I have to say that here are people in the church with incredibly high moral authority who in no way support the war or the patriarch’s directives. They are having a very difficult time now.

How would you characterize the role of the Orthodox Church in present-day Russia?

Unfortunately, its high representatives perform the same rule at the Russian authorities as the Young Communist League played by the Communist party in the Soviet period.

What could happen in Moscow on May 9? It has been a day of peculiar theatrics in the whole Russia for years.

Oh, this is a horrible question! On the one hand this is indeed a performance but on the other hand it was not always so. I am now scared of it. We all understand that nothing came out of the small victorious war. The special operation the way it was planned was a failure. Something went very wrong. But I am really afraid that the military leaders want to make a present to Putin for May 9. For example, to make him a gift of a fully «denazified» and «demilitarized» Kharkiv for the holiday. I am afraid of that. And I am personally worried because I know the Kharkiv playwright Oleg Mikhailov, whose play «Sworn Virgins» was performed in the Free Stage. I very much wish that my fears of another attack against Kharkiv would not come true.

I am afraid that the Russian army can now do something truly horrible. No matter the cost or the blood, how many soldiers are turned into cannon fodder – they want to do something. The worst thing is that many people understand perfectly well that this horrible, shameful, occupation war is in principle different from what is described in the old wartime songs.

For example, songs about the victory in the Second World War?

This is not possible! Putin, who unleashed this war, where thousands of civilians are being killed, destroyed the memory of the great victory. He has discredited that victory.

This means that no one considers the Russian solder a liberator but a violent invader and a rapist? The myths built for decades about the invincible Russian army and the great victory have been shattered; there is no more the army or the liberators. When will the Russian people understand it?

Time will show. Everything could happen.