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For Russia,ties to Syria are complicated by marriage

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.

Written by New York Times | Published: July 3, 2012 3:18:31 am

Ellen Barry

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 makes the Kremlin reluctant to cast off Syria’s president,Bashar Assad. Russia has strategic interests in Syria: arms contracts that amount to $700 million a year,a tiny port on the Mediterranean Sea,its last military base outside the former Soviet Union.

But 50 years ago,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.

There are an estimated 30,000 Russian citizens living in Syria,most women and children. The collapse of Soviet-allied governments has left Russian citizens stranded and this could prove to be a serious embarrassment to Moscow.

“Based on the recent experience of evacuation from Lebanon and Palestine in recent years,problems always arise,” said Yelena Suponina,a Moscow political analyst specialising 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.”

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. 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.

Now things have changed,Russian-Syrian families were drawn into a bitter conflict 16 months ago,when Assad’s government began a harsh crackdown on anti-government protests. Russia blames outside elements for the bloodshed and stands staunchly behind the government.

A Russian consular official said about 9,000 Russians have officially registered with the embassy,though upward of 30,000 citizens are believed to be in Syria. Evacuation is not on the cards. Such an operation would be daunting because a vast number of the expatriate wives come from Ukraine,Belarus and Moldova.

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. Svetlana N Zaitseva in the Syrian town 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. Six months after the two met,she said,“I realised 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.

Now Zaitseva,62,is a mother of three and grandmother of four. She said she would still choose to stay in Syria to the end. “We have become part of this place. Our children are here,who are citizens of Syria,and our grandchildren. Everything here is ours,” she said.

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