Wednesday 17 August 2022 \


Russians and Syrians, Allied by History and Related by Marriage

Pro-Syrian regime protesters gather under a huge Russian flag made from balloons to meet FM Sergey Lavrov (Muzaffar Salman/AP)


On one jasmine-shaded block in the Syrian port city of Latakia, Natalya lives three doors away from Nina, two from Olga, across a narrow alley from Tatyana, and a short walk from Yelena, Faina and Nadezhda. They are all women from the former Soviet Union who married Syrian men.

Pan out to the greater expanse of Syria and the number of Russian wives grows to 20,000, the human legacy of a cold war alliance that, starting in the 1960s, mingled its young elites in Soviet dormitories and classrooms.

This unusual diaspora offers some insight into the many-stranded relationship between the two countries, one that makes the Kremlin reluctant to cast off Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. Russia has strategic interests in Syria, including arms contracts that amount to $700 million a year, and a tiny port on the Mediterranean Sea that is its last military base outside the former Soviet Union.

But there is also a human factor, set in motion 50 years ago when social ties were forged among young people who met in college. Walk into any government ministry or corporate headquarters in Syria and you will almost certainly find men who spent their 20s in Russia; many brought home wives and raised children in Russian-speaking households.

“They are wives of the elite, who can have some influence, but it’s a soft influence,” said Nina Sergeyeva, who until recently led an organization of Russian expatriates from her home in Latakia. “The elite of Syria, the men, are very oriented toward Russia.”

As the conflict in Syria continues to defy a diplomatic solution, there are an estimated 30,000 Russian citizens living there , most women and children, Russian government officials estimate. This is an issue that Moscow has confronted before in the Middle East, when the collapse of Soviet-allied governments left Russian citizens stranded. But it has not faced anything on these proportions, or in the age of social media, when the plight of ethnic Russians could prove a serious embarrassment to Moscow.

“Based on the recent experience of evacuation from Lebanon and Palestine in recent years, problems always arise — though there we weren’t talking about thousands or tens of thousands of people, but several hundred,” said Yelena Suponina, a Moscow political analyst specializing in the Middle East. The task of evacuating Russians from Syria, she said, “would be 100 times worse.”

The Russian population in Syria is the result of an experiment begun in 1963, when the socialist Baath Party came to power. The Soviets provided education to top students from Asia, Africa and Latin America, throwing them together with Soviet classmates in work brigades and “evenings of friendship.”

The goal was to forge a global, pro-Soviet intellectual elite; the immediate result was weddings. Young women emigrated as the wives of doctors, professors and officials; “the Soviet side said farewell to them and essentially gave them up for lost,” said Natalya Krylova, a historian who has published widely on Russian populations in Africa.

Syrian-Russian unions were especially common — and not just for geopolitical reasons, husbands and wives said in interviews. Many Syrian men felt genuinely transformed by their time in Russia; they also sought to avoid paying a bride-price as is customary in the Middle East. Mahmoud al-Hamza, who met his wife, Nadezhda, in a Moscow park in 1971, said that in order to marry a Syrian, “you need an apartment, you need to pay money, you need to buy gold, and for a Russian woman you just need a wedding ring.”

Soviet women had their own reasons to pursue Syrians — nondrinkers who, thanks to the Baath Party’s ties to the Communists, traveled freely in and out of the Soviet Union. A new wave of marriages followed the Soviet collapse, as young women sought a way out of economic chaos.

“Let all the world hear this: Russian men, maybe not all of them, but more than half of them are gigolos,” said Roksana Dzhenid, who married Wa’el, a businessman, in 2000, and lives with him in Moscow. He benefited too, she noted, by escaping the intense family ties that come with a Syrian bride.

“If there is a quarrel, what will a Russian woman do? She will cry,” she said. “Maximum, she will go to her friend and say, ‘He is such and such.’ And what will an Arab woman do? She will gather a posse of all her relatives. She may run at night to her husband’s mother and sister and start yelling.”

Taha Abdul Wahed, a journalist who married a Russian woman and lives outside Damascus, said the phenomenon was so visible that in recent years, even young men who have never set foot in Russia have started “to call us very seriously and say, ‘Help me marry a Russian.’ ”

Russian-Syrian families were drawn into a bitter conflict 16 months ago, when Mr. Assad’s government began a harsh crackdown on antigovernment protests. The opposition has since become an armed insurgency. Russia blames outside elements for the bloodshed and stands staunchly behind the government, continuing to supply Syria with arms and blocking international efforts to force Mr. Assad from office.

The Russian Orthodox Church has also defended Mr. Assad’s secular government, arguing that it protects religious minorities and acts as a bulwark against radical Islamism.

In February, after Russia blocked a United Nations Security Council Resolution calling for Mr. Assad to leave, the top representative of the Orthodox Church in Syria complained to Interfax that his parish was melting away as Russian families left Syria, the embassy had closed its school and, he said, “our women are insulted out loud in some districts of Damascus.”

A Russian consular official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said about 9,000 Russians have officially registered with the embassy, though upward of 30,000 citizens are believed to be in Syria. He said there are currently no plans for evacuation, but said that if the need arose, buses would be sent to cities to transport Russian citizens to safety.

Such an operation would be especially daunting, because a vast number of the expatriate wives come from Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, countries that would almost certainly turn to Moscow for assistance with their own citizens, Ms. Suponina said. She said she knows dozens of families who have quietly flown out women and children to Russia in recent weeks. Officials, she said, “are paying more and more attention to this.”

“You can criticize them for some mistakes, but nonetheless in Moscow they understood long ago that this is a very painful question,” she said.

Among the thorniest aspects is that, after 50 years of intermarriage, the line between who is Russian and who is not may be difficult to find, if it exists at all.

Svetlana N. Zaitseva, who spoke by telephone from her home in the Syrian port city of Tartus, was 19 when she met her husband, a linguistics student living in the same dormitory in what was then Leningrad.

She and her friends had only the dimmest idea of what life was like in other countries, she said. In the Soviet Union, “it was like the entire world was our friends, brothers and comrades.” Six months after the two met, she said, “I realized that we loved each other and could not live without one another.”

“From the height of my age, I must say that it’s of course better to marry someone from your own country,” she said.

But that decision is long past for Ms. Zaitseva, 62, a mother of three and grandmother of four. She is clinging to the hope that the conflict will end; but even if it escalates into war, she said, she would still choose to stay in Syria to the end.

“It cannot be otherwise,” she said. “We have become part of this place. Our children are here, who are citizens of Syria, and our grandchildren. Everything here is ours.”

Viktor Klimenko and Anna Kordunsky contributed reporting.


We recommend

Social Networks