In the end, the war came three days early. It found me in Moscow, where I watched a Russian news anchor on state television call tanks crossing into Ukraine a “special operation.”
A Russian friend watched with me. We sat without speaking, dull and blank as the snow outside. Soon after, another Russian friend came over, and we discussed whether the ticket I’d bought for the next day would get me out of the country soon enough, or whether I had to go to the airport immediately.
I’d believed war was coming, but my belief hadn’t been shared by most of my Russian acquaintances. Nor had it been shared by the dozens of people I met in February as I worked my way through a series of cities from Ufa in the south to Arkhangelsk in the north.
I am a journalist who has reported on climate change and gone on four research expeditions in the Far North in recent years. My latest published book, Icebound, narrates Dutch navigator William Barents’s voyages north of Siberia in the 1590s. I’ve seen for myself the value of international collaboration in science in the Arctic and have studied Russian, cold-water diving, and navigation specifically to do cross-border work on climate and archaeology. But the war, of course, has changed everything.
I had flown to Moscow early in February to research Russian Arctic history. By the time the war began, I’d spent more than two weeks in and out of museums, photographing rocks and relics, and learning from experts in everything from anthropology and ornithology to naval history and geology—all material for use in my next Arctic book and for reporting on the state of the planet.
Despite the Kremlin’s daily condemnations of Washington, everyone had been friendly. Only on the streets of St. Petersburg had anyone confronted me—and even there, my lone inquisitor seemed to be a member of the international fraternity of harmless drunks. The rhetoric of presidents is far removed from the lived lives of their people.
Drifting through the realms of science and history, I’d traveled in a bubble, until the war altered my immediate plans—and future ones, too. But it would have more profound effects on the researchers I’d met, the citizens of Russia as a whole, countless scientific projects around the world, and, most of all, the people of Ukraine, where Russian forces had already begun their slaughter as I boarded a plane home. [Continue reading…]