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Spectators hold a sign of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals before a Capitals game last March. A week earlier, the Russian hockey player was criticized for his response to the start of the invasion of Ukraine; while he said he hoped for peace, he added that this was 'something I can't control.'Nick Wass/The Canadian Press

Jonathan Garfinkel is the author of the new novel In a Land Without Dogs the Cats Learn to Bark.

Winter in Berlin: People gather in bars. It’s always been like this. The city is hideously grey and constantly damp, a frigidness that seeps into you. Days end early, start late, and you’re lucky to see the sun between November and March. It has a particular effect on the soul. Mixed with the constant barrage of news from Kyiv, a mere 1,200 kilometres to the east, the darkness feels particularly ominous. It’s a season of foreboding and gloom.

Which is why bars are a lifeline. It’s a place to not be alone, warm up and talk. Kneipen such as Beim Dicken, just up the street from me, never close. With vodka for €1.50 and beers for €2, I find myself here often this winter. I like to call it my second office.

Beim Dicken is heated by people’s bodies and the coals of their cigarettes. It’s here I meet a Russian friend for a long-overdue drink. We’ve been friends for over a decade. She orders her usual Gordon’s and ice. Like some kind of British imperialist, she drinks only gin.

We hadn’t seen each other since before the war began. When I look at her, she seems run-down, not her usually energetic self. I ask how she is. She asks if I really want to know, challenging my Canadian niceties. I tell her I do. Then she declares she’ll need at least two drinks before she can answer.

My friend downs her first, then closes her eyes. While she’s been a Berlin resident for a dozen years, my friend explains that since the war began, her life has been completely upended, thanks to her Russian passport. She was forced to step aside from a business project she’d been leading for a decade. Her father, an academic based in St. Petersburg, had his international projects cancelled. She used to send her family money, but can’t because of the sanctions. Nor can she send the medications they need. She complains that the war will never end, and that now she’s a pariah citizen, blacklisted from the world. All because she’s from Russia.

It’s early in the evening. The bar is half full, the usual stragglers. Some speak German, others English. I overhear a Russian couple – or is that Ukrainian? The differences, for a foreigner, are difficult to tell. By now my friend is onto her third gin.

She leans over and, in almost a whisper, tells me that this war began long before Feb. 24.

“Well, sure,” I say, thinking she’s referring to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the invasion of Georgia in 2008.

She says, the war is not Russia’s fault.

For a moment I think she’s joking.

Then she says that while she doesn’t love Vladimir Putin, the Americans and NATO provoked him.

I ask if she’s suggesting Russia didn’t start the war.

She tilts her head and says it’s complicated.

“Seems straightforward to me. Your country invaded another country.”

I feel uncomfortable tension.

My friend argues that it’s in the interests of America to have this war. That the weapons industry will make billions, the West wants to humiliate Russia, they’ve always wanted to, and it’s working: Russians are hated by everyone. Then she concludes that Ukraine didn’t exist before 1991.

I try to remain calm as I remind her that Mr. Putin is ordering the murder of innocent people. That the Russian army is committing war crimes. That you can’t blame this on the West.

She sinks into her chair. I can’t tell if her silence is despair, shame, or some other line of thinking she doesn’t wish to reveal.

“Let’s drink to the end of the war,” she says.

And we do.

The conversation with my Russian friend lingers like a bad hangover. Why does it matter to me what she thinks?

I’m neither Russian nor Ukrainian. And while my Jewish grandparents come from what is now Western Ukraine – I’ve been several times for work and to visit their villages as a witness of history, thanks to the privilege of my upbringing – I have friends from both countries. It’s made the war personal. Sometimes the lines blur. My Russian friend’s parents lived in Kyiv for a decade. She’s also helping a Ukrainian refugee family settle in Berlin, paying their rent and buying their groceries. The Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin, whom my friend loves, was born and raised in Kyiv to a Ukrainian father and a Russian mother. One of my favourite Ukrainian authors, Andrey Kurkov, writes in Russian. The lines, the histories, the languages, so much intersects. But that is not to negate a Ukrainian history, language or country. As American historian Timothy Snyder points out, Ukraine has been discussing itself as a nation longer than America – or Russia, for that matter. To hark back to false historical arguments and imagined mythologies is the trademark of autocratic leaders. To hear it from a friend, disturbing.

The next day a couple comes to look at subletting my apartment. The woman is from France, the man from Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave next to Lithuania. While we negotiate prices, I mention the nice family of Ukrainian refugees living next door. The Russian seems to flinch. I don’t hear from them again.

Recent polls by the Levada Centre in Moscow show that in December, 2022, 71 per cent of Russians supported the war in Ukraine. While we cannot know how accurate polls are in a country where people are afraid to speak their minds, political scientists suggest the Russian narrative of themselves as victims drawn into a war by America is not an uncommon belief. Yet it confounds me. My friend, as a resident of Germany, does not have limited access to information. Nor are there repercussions for her political beliefs that I know of. Where do these mythologies of victimhood come from? Have Western sanctions had the opposite of their intended effect on Russians, reinforcing the belief the West is against them? Well, we are, aren’t we? We want Ukraine to win this war – so say the tanks we’re sending.

The next week I’m on a FaceTime call with Vladimir Tarasov, a jazz percussionist and installation artist who lives in Vilnius, Lithuania. Mr. Tarasov, aged 75, provided inspiration for the Soviet jazz world I describe in my new novel set in the Republic of Georgia. I met Mr. Tarasov when I lived in Vilnius back in 2008; we collaborated on a piece – his percussion, my writing. Originally from Arkhangelsk, a Russian city on the White Sea, north of Moscow, he came to Vilnius in the sixties and never left.

In the early seventies, Mr. Tarasov was a member of a well-known jazz trio, GTC (sometimes known as the Ganelin Trio). Back in the day, you could find the trio playing their avant-garde, improvised jazz at the Neringa Café while Joseph Brodsky and Tomas Venclova read their poems. GTC was often associated with Soviet dissident subculture; jazz was the revolution without words. I always considered Mr. Tarasov a kind of moral barometer on the Soviet past and Russian present, even if music is where he speaks loudest. I ask how the war has affected him.

“I was in Kyiv last February working with a Ukrainian jazz orchestra. We never believed Putin would invade, but he did. I was on the last flight out, February 23.”

I wondered if he was afraid to speak out against the war, given his Russian background. Mr. Tarasov quickly corrects me.

“I am Lithuanian,” he says unequivocally. “And before that, Soviet citizen. I am not Russian.”

He tells me at the Vilnius Book Fair last spring he put on a shirt with the Ukrainian flag and dedicated his performance to Ukraine. I ask how he responds when he hears a Russian say this war is a NATO provocation, or that Ukraine was never a nation.

Mr. Tarasov laughs and says, “It’s crazy. But normal.” Adjusting his screen, he explains that if you live in Russia, you have to live in a kind of reality denial. That most people know what’s going on, but many cannot accept the truth. Perhaps it’s shame, perhaps something else.

“I know musicians who still perform in Moscow and St. Petersburg, like nothing has changed. But some artists speak up. They are not suffering like people in Kyiv, but it takes courage to protest in Putin’s Russia.”

“What about artists who live outside Russia?” I ask.

Mr. Tarasov points out that many international Russian artists have spoken out against the war, such as Kirill Petrenko, the Berlin Philharmonic’s chief conductor, who not only spoke out against the war, but also became the orchestra’s face of support for Ukrainian refugees in Berlin. I remember how, in the first months of the war, Russian friends in Berlin were often the first at the train station to bring refugees food and warm clothing. Others read poems of protest at readings. Many expressed humiliation and shock, professing they would never go back. But not everyone speaks up. I mention Valery Gergiev, another famous Russian conductor.

“Gergiev’s in the different realm. ‘Cultural oligarch,’” Mr. Tarasov says. “Maybe he has to stay silent. What can someone like him say?”

Mr. Gergiev has been much debated in Germany. He was the chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic until last March. In the first week of the war, institutions such as La Scala, Carnegie Hall and the Vienna Philharmonic refused to rescind their ties to him, amidst the clamour of public demands. The old “separating art from politics” spiel. Yet, a week later, everything changed. Suddenly, Mr. Gergiev wasn’t welcome at La Scala unless, as Milan’s mayor demanded, he publicly condemned the war. Mr. Gergiev remained stubbornly silent. His career in the West was over. He returned to St. Petersburg, where he continues to direct the Mariinsky Theatre and live an opulent, palatial life. Cultural oligarchy indeed.

Mr. Gergiev’s support of Mr. Putin is well documented. In 2014, he signed an open letter supporting the annexation of Crimea – an invasion based on another Putin myth, that Crimea had always been part of Russia. In 2012, he spoke out against Pussy Riot, claiming they were in it for the money and Western attention. He’s also supported Mr. Putin’s homophobic policies. While his various European and North American employers had been able to whitewash his politics, citing pressure from Russia on its artists working abroad, the 2022 invasion of Ukraine was a turning point: People had had enough.

Mr. Tarasov adds that Mr. Gergiev has family in Russia. That people work for him at the Mariinsky, and he runs music schools. That thousands of people would be affected if he spoke out against the war.

“But what would happen if he did?” I ask.

Mr. Tarasov looks at me like I’m an idiot. He explains, Mr. Gergiev’s family would be in danger. He’d be in danger, like the rest of the oligarchs who turned against Mr. Putin.

“And besides,” Mr. Tarasov adds. “Gergiev is not going to stop this war.”

That night I can’t sleep. There’s a party in the apartment below. My bedroom shakes. A cold wind blows from the north and east – a Siberian wind, we like to say in Berlin. What Mr. Tarasov said unsettles me. Don’t we need these “cultural oligarchs” to speak up? To put a knife into the myth making that justifies this war? Is it too much to expect someone like Mr. Gergiev to put his life on the line? Or does he – like my Russian friend – believe in Mr. Putin’s lies? I bundle up and head to Beim Dicken in search of salvation.

It’s an odd, 21st-century, 3 a.m. ritual of Heimweh, homesickness. I order cold vodka, pull out my phone to watch the latest hockey highlight reels. Coming from Toronto, I cling to hope eternal: This might be the year.

But instead of Maple Leaf reruns, I find myself rewatching Alexander Ovechkin’s 801st goal, tying him with Gordie Howe. While the old, matronly bartender fills my glass, I admire the winger’s long strides and powerful elegance as he receives the pass near the blue line. And then he does it. A blazing dart toward the right corner. The goalie doesn’t stand a chance. The crowd, the team, everyone goes wild. A beautiful goal.

I watch it, again and again. I watch his wife hold his child in the air like a trophy; the crazed celebration in the Capitals’ stands; the commentator yelling, “This is history, this is greatness!”

The matron refills my glass. My eyes follow Mr. Ovechkin to the bench. For a second, the toothless smile turns into a grimace. Or is it a frown? When I watch the replay for the 10th time – and after my third shot of vodka – I wonder: Why isn’t he happy? After all, he’s caught up to one of the heroes of the West, Mr. Hockey. He might even beat Wayne Gretzky. When Mr. Ovechkin shakes his head, is he thinking about his friend Vlad Putin, who gave him a tea set for his 2017 wedding? Who remains posed with Mr. Ovechkin on his Instagram account? Of course, we’ll never know what Mr. Ovechkin really thinks; he doesn’t like to talk about the war (neither does the NHL). Maybe Vladimir Tarasov is right. No one can deny the glaring, horrifying reality: Mr. Putin’s deluded dream of the restored empire, his juvenile sense of post-Soviet humiliation, the manipulative historical lies. I want to believe I can decipher it in Mr. Ovechkin’s ambivalent face. He understands the brutality of silence … his and that of others. If only he could speak.

I pay, then stumble out of the bar. Crossing the street, a cold wind nearly blows me off my feet. I scramble to find the door to my building. In the courtyard, I overhear a young woman speaking to her mother. Since my drink with my Russian friend two weeks ago, I’ve begun to listen for the soft cadences of Ukrainian. It’s the family from next door, smoking early-morning cigarettes.

The historian Mr. Snyder reminds us that all nation building is based on some form of myth making. But some myths are more dangerous than others. Donald Trump, in his claims of falsified elections, was the author of one such dangerous myth; it led to Jan. 6. Five kilometres from where I now stand, Joseph Goebbels provided a false narrative for global war. What is dangerous about Mr. Putin’s myths is the colonialist agenda they serve. Making false claims such as “Ukraine never existed,” “Ukraine has always been Russian,” “Ukraine is run by Nazis” is to turn Ukraine into an object, a country deserving of conquest.

Why does my Russian friend repeat these myths? Why does anyone? Guilt and denial can inspire powerful, dangerous beliefs. So can imperial exceptionalism and narratives of false victimhood. As for those in places of power who don’t speak out, their silence is an act of complicity, perhaps to protect their own luxury, perhaps for something else.

It’s cold this early morning, no hint of light. I drink water, try to stick to the facts: Tomorrow I’m going to be hungover. And still, the war has not ended, there’s no end in sight.