A demo in support of Ukraine, Berlin March 6

Thousands of refugees from Ukraine have been arriving in Berlin – 6,000 estimated today. At the city’s vast central station, the Hauptbahnhof, volunteers awaited the new arrivals, carrying cardboard signs indicating how many people they could take in. At the moment, the capacity of the volunteers exceeds the number of arrivals  – but everyone is expecting that to change in the coming days.

The spirit of solidarity was also shown at the huge demonstration on Sunday. It took hours for the crowds to march from one end of the broad tree-lined avenue that runs from the Brandenburg Gate to the Victory Column.

The police put the numbers in the low six figures but it seemed like a relay event. The crowd was thinning but there were still new faces replacing others when we arrived mid-afternoon. The streets around were thronged with people with blue and yellow balloons and cardboard signs peeling off and some arriving. One contrast with marches I have been on elsewhere – particularly in the US – was that the crowd was almost completely silent. There was the occasional noisy group, by most were quiet and the mood was subdued. I guess they could have been noisier earlier.

Loudspeakers along the route relayed the voices of speakers that we couldn’t see. One spoke in English, asking internationals to do what they could to lobby their Governments for action. The rest we couldn’t understand. It felt odd to walk in silence listening to the disembodied German voices. One note – the standard pronunciation of German has changed in recent years. Like English, it is not as you hear in old films, in particular with a softer R.

Speaking to young Ukrainians who live in Berlin, out in force at protests, most said that at the moment, their parents and other relatives are lying low, stocking up on tinned food and other essentials. They are in constant communication by phone.

On the other side of the divide, I had an interesting conversation this morning with a group of Russians who are staying in the same little hostel as me.

I managed to buy a copy of the New York Times today and two articles on the front page speculated that Russians may bring down their Government. One reported Russian soldiers laying down their arms and said that mounting Russian casualties pose a risk to the Kremlin. It put the best estimates of Russian casualties at 2,000 –  the Ukrainians say it is 5,000.   In a front-page Op-Ed, Thomas Friedman wrote that thousands of Russians are demonstrating at the risk of their own safety:

“And though too soon to tell, their pushback does make you wonder if the so-called fear barrier is being broken and if a mass movement could eventually end Putin’s reign”.

After speaking to my fellow guests, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Attending a protest is, my fellow guests agreed, a ticket to jail: “no questions asked, you go straight to jail.” Most Russians avoid getting involved with the authorities – survival is the name of the game.

They said they do not watch or rely on state media in Russia – but they are almost equally disbelieving of German news. Over years, they have acquired an ingrained scepticism of all media. They hold the west and Russia both responsible for the conflict, saying that the only people who benefit are arms dealers.

An example of this scepticism is that they don’t believe that currently thousands of Russian soldiers have been killed. One said he has a wide network that includes many people with military connections. Given that for each combat death, there would be several serious injuries, he said he thought he would be seeing evidence of this.

In other news, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko withdrew from  “Turandot”  at the Berlin State Opera. She canceled her own appearances on Tuesday – jumping before she was pushed, perhaps, as the Opera House indicated concern that she has not done more to distance herself from Putin – but she did take to Instagram to say she was not “a political person”:

“I am Russian and I love my country, but I have many friends in Ukraine and the pain and suffering breaks my heart. I want this war to stop and people to live in peace. That’s what I hope for and I pray for.”

American citizens did eventually force the end of the Vietnam War – but that took many years and a huge death toll. Unfortunately, it is probably easier to start a war than to end one.