By Robin Westley Martin
For over two years world news was dominated by disclosures about Covid, and other Covid related issues – from its outbreak in December 2019, in Wuhan, China, to its transition into a pandemic that spread around the planet.
But that all changed on 24 February 2022, this year, when Russia invaded Ukraine, and set about an egregious war against a peaceful country. Since that day, the conflict in Eastern Europe has been the predominant feature in the headlines of newspapers around the globe
Queen Elizabeth II of the UK calls a bad year ‘Annus Horribilis’, but it looks like the decade of the 2020s might become known as ‘Decadus Horrificus’. The economic and social turmoil that began with the pandemic is now being exacerbated by the invasion of Ukraine, and the war that Putin started. A war that even influential people in Russia are now starting to say was pointless, ill-advised, and with consequences that are damaging to both Russia and the rest of the world. Already flimsy economies and equally fragile fiscal recoveries are threatened anew by the escalating and deleterious effects Putin’s War is having.
Let’s take a look at what this latest … totally unnecessary … Putin-made disaster that has affected so many lives means to Thailand, and to the Russian people who come to holiday here, or to live and work.
In 2019 Thailand welcomed close to 40 million international visitors, and Russia came in at fourth place, behind China, Malaysia, and Japan. Thus, it can be seen that the Russian market is very important to Thailand, as tourism around the world begins to pick up again. Covid is becoming more manageable, less people are becoming seriously ill or infected, and people are once more starting to travel. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (WTO) has forecast that tourism figures in 2023 should have largely rebounded to pre-Covid figures.
The onset of Putin’s War in Ukraine generated a combined and united response from the free world in condemnation of his actions. Putin, and the Kremlin, did not expect this, and they have now become pariahs in the financial sectors of the world; with not a good word being heard from any quarter about Russia or the Kremlin. Added to this Putin did not expect the strong and steadfast response from the Ukrainian army and its people.
What Putin expected to be over and done with in a matter of days, with Ukraine annexed as a vassal state, did not happen. Ukraine has shown strength and resilience, and Western powers are standing by them. Supplying them with billions of dollars in cash and armaments to support their fight against the might of the much larger Russian bear. David versus Goliath. And it is not even certain yet that Russia will win the war on the ground. The media war they have already lost. The financial war they have already lost.
When the war began this February there were thousands of Russian tourists in Thailand, who had started to return to a tropical country they love to visit, as the entry restrictions had begun to ease.
Then the world began to react against the invasion of Ukraine. One of the weapons they had was to hit Russia in the pocket, and a swathe of measures were initiated. Sanctions began to adversely affect the Russian oligarchs, who had become wealthy because of their toadying up to Putin. Their bank accounts were frozen, their properties and luxury yachts around the world were seized. Russian businesses, including the lucrative oil and gas sectors, were hit, the Russian banks were hit, and they were taken out of the global money transfer system, SWIFT.
The action against the banks made things hard for the tourists in Thailand, and they had to make quick decisions … ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’. It was not their fault that their country had begun a war, all they wanted to do was to escape the frigid winter of Russia, come back to the tropical climate of Thailand, and enjoy the warmth of its peoples’.
The Russian people I talked to in the tourist areas of Bangkok actually did not really want to go back to their own country at this time. They were as much in condemnation of Putin’s War as was the rest of the free world. But they have been left scrambling for ways to support an extended stay, as some of their plastic was no longer working. The ATMs were not responding in a friendly way to their requests for a withdrawal. They want to stay around, they don’t want to go back yet to a country that is doing something they don’t agree with or approve of. And they are looking for ways to do it.
Thailand is doing what it can to help both the Russian and Ukrainian visitors that are in-country (about 7,000) by extending their visas at no extra charge. As for transactions via Russian banks, and credit cards that are blocked, tourism operators have been working with UnionPay, a payment platform from China, to offer this channel to Russian guests who are having difficulties.
But there are other Russians in Thailand who live and work here, in a country they call their home. I talked to two of them, and their story is an interesting and inspirational one. The two girls I interviewed were Anastasia and Olga, who both work in the modeling industry.
Where were you born and how old are you now?
Anastasia: My name is Anastasia, I am actually a mix of different bloods; Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Lithuanian etc. I was born and raised in Moscow – and how old am I? … come, come … that’s not a question you ask a lady (laughing).
Olga: My name is Olga, I’m from Russia, and actually, I was born in the Communist era of the USSR. I was going to tell you how old I am, but I’ll go with Anastasia.
When did you start to become interested in modelling and acting?
Anastasia: I started modeling and acting when I was in high school, whilst I was studying for a degree in finance. I continued when I started working at an investment company, and I have kept it in my life as one of my main activities, part of my many hobbies and other interests. Visual arts have always been one of my greatest passions. I love cinematography, I admire fashion, I like being creative, and after all these years I am thrilled, excited, and even surprised that I can still contribute something in these spheres. It helps me feel alive, happy, and feeling fulfilled.
Olga: I studied at St. Petersburg university, where I graduated with a degree in drama and linguistics. I then started to work in modeling back in Russia, where I worked on TVC’s and also had some parts in Russian language movies.
How and why did you first come to work in Thailand?
Anastasia: I have always enjoyed traveling, and at some certain moment I realised that I had never really felt welcome, safe or happy in Moscow. While Thailand always felt like home, right from the beginning. I remember how on the very first day of my first trip to Thailand I immediately fell in love. It is a place where I feel that I am a child of the Universe, that anything can be achieved. It is now almost a third of my life that I’ve lived here in Thailand and during these years I have discovered many things about myself and the world, I have learnt to prioritise happiness and inspiration, and to listen to my intuition. Moving to Thailand (after living for a while in Spain, a place that I also adored) was one of the best decisions in my life. It has also led me to choose a creative life and career over many other options, and I am really happy with the choices I have made.
Olga: Before Thailand I lived in the USA, in Maryland, for about 2 years. I was on a student exchange program, and I gained a lot of useful experience in different kinds of jobs, like the ins and outs of the hotel industry, clothing boutiques, and the chocolate business, too! But it was way risky to stay in that type of work for very long … much too easy to put on the pounds for someone who loves chocolate and sweet things as much as I do!
After my return to Russia for a while, I had thought I would go back to the USA, but for some reason it didn’t happen. I started to travel further afield, and came with some friends to Thailand, which we immediately felt was the sort of place we had all been looking for. We opened a Russian food restaurant and hotel, which I managed for six years. At the same time I had started modeling and acting in Bangkok. I was shooting for international movies, cosmetics brands, fashion TV, was cover model for Milan-based magazine ‘Adversus’, and was brand ambassador for Italian jewelry designers Barocco Amor. I worked freelance, because I had to look after two businesses as well.
Which agency or agencies do you currently work with?
Anastasia: I have never been exclusive to any agency, since I prefer to be in control of my schedule, assignments, and choice of work.
Olga: I prefer to work freelance, as I like the freedom of being able to choose when and who I work with, and on what type of projects.
How did you meet each other, and do you ever work together?
Anastasia: I have met lots of inspiring, creative, amazing people over the years of my life of art and culture in Thailand, and some of these gorgeous people have become my beloved friends, and family of choice. Including Olga, who, despite her tender looks, is one of the strongest people I have ever known. We met at a video shoot for a restaurant, and have become inseparable ever since.
Olga: At one of the many shoots I went to I met a Russian girl, Anastasia, who has become a true and dear friend. We have done a lot of shoots together, and have even switched with each other at the shoots. She is a person I can absolutely trust and rely on, and we have an amazing time together with each other, at work or at play.
What has been your most exciting job in Thailand?
Anastasia: In the last few years my main focus has been on acting, fashion shoots, creating films with my partner in art, director and actress Olga Andrievskaya, from whom I’ve learnt so much about acting, production and directing. And I’ve been organising and curating cool art shows for (and together with) my other huge friend and inspiration, abstract conceptual artist Leyla.
Olga: Honestly, modeling and acting jobs in Bangkok are really interesting, fulfilling, and exciting … you meet different people from all over the world, doing all sorts of different jobs and professions – and then become friends with them. One of the most fun and interesting times I have had was shooting a French comedy with Jean Dujardin. Amazing team, beautiful location and an all-round great experience to have had.
Why have you stayed here and what is it you like most about living in Thailand?
Anastasia: Thailand has its otherworldly charm, and one of the best climates on earth. The eternal summer vibes, the happiness of people, the tropical nature, combination of paradise beaches, mangrove forests, mountains and waterfalls, the ancient history, majestic temples and palaces, unique cuisine, and of course my beloved city of contrasts, Bangkok. Really, what’s not to like?
Olga: When I first came to Thailand I fell in love with this country … its culture, nature, animal and plant life, the people, the incredible beaches, fruits and food that I had never imagined, and I just didn’t want to leave it. Now I’d say I feel like I am more at home here than ever.
Outside modelling what are your interests, what do you do when not modelling?
Anastasia: During these years in Thailand I have been indulging myself in everything that excites me and sparks interest, inspiration and joy. I have been a TV news presenter and reporter, art director and food stylist, shot commercial portrait photography, photoshoots and parties, walked in fashion shows. I have also organised art events and exhibitions, in particular for one of my special friends, the super-talented abstract and conceptual artist, the crazily-fun girl about town, Leyla Sandshiko. I have worked as an ambassador for several brands and acted in feature and short films, TV series, music videos, TV commercials and art performances, written and translated scripts, articles and a travel guide, edited a novel … I have been incredibly lucky, and I’m so grateful for it.
Olga: When I have free time away from work I love to travel, listen to music, visit art exhibitions, etc. There are a lot of art galleries and studios in Bangkok. and I have a lot of friends who are artists, musicians, writers and journalists, etc, many of whom I have met through Anastasia.
Do you meet tourists or other people from Russia sometimes?
Anastasia: My friend, talented, bright, kind-hearted fashion photographer Max Martin, moved back to Kiev a couple of years ago, and is now involved in helping out with informational and humanitarian services. It all breaks my heart – he should be shooting at international fashion weeks, not sheltering and sleeping in a bomb shelter. One of the most renowned and talented Russian poets, Vera Polozkova, (who recently decided to vacate Russia with her three small kids) has written that bombing Odessa is like bombing one’s childhood memories, and this can’t be more true for me. Odessa is my second hometown, one of my most beloved places on Earth. I can’t stand what is being done to Odessa and the rest of the Ukraine. This is all terribly wrong. This so-called ‘special operation’ has destroyed and taken the lives and homes of millions of people – it’s terrifying, ugly and unbearable.
Olga: The two years and more since the pandemic began there have not been as many Russian people in Thailand as there were before. Russian people like travelling to Thailand as it’s warm all year round, great massages, fresh tropical fruits, sun, best beaches in the world, warm seas. But unfortunately, these days it’s quite complicated and expensive for Russians to travel to Thailand, because the rouble is so weak, and not too many airlines are able to fly.
Has Putin’s War created any problems for you in, work, personal, financial etc?
Anastasia: It’s illegal in Russia to call it a war, even though we all know it is. Despite the fake news that state controlled media put out, the people know. Thousands have been arrested at the protests against the invasion of Ukraine and the indiscriminate shelling of the country. And thousands of people, especially the young generation, are now fleeing Russia. Several families that I know have chosen to become political emigrants, and have left their stable and prosperous life in Russia for the complete unpredictability of living in another country. Because they don’t support the murderous war.
Olga: Of course, nobody, least of all the Russian people, expected or believed this would all happen. I was actually in Russia when it all started. I believed it wouldn’t last long. And of course, we didn’t expect all these sanctions and consequences. I have had to close the restaurant business here in Thailand,, as it was for Russian holidaymakers, who haven’t been coming since the pandemic, and now the war. It has not been good for my financial situation. But luckily I was able to leave Russia and I’m actually really happy to be back in Thailand with my friends, where I can feel alive again.
What would you wish to happen with Putin’s War; what would be the best way out of it for both the Ukraine, and Russia?
Anastasia: I don’t think there can be any ‘best way out of it’ unless you have a time traveling machine and can go back into the past, and prevent all this destruction and sadness from ever having happened in the first place.
Olga: One can never adjust to death, poverty and war, and that’s why I feel so sorry for every single Russian and Ukrainian person. I think the aftermath of the war will have a huge impact upon the whole world, not only economic and politically, but psychologically as well.
I always try to stay positive and believe in good … positive thoughts attract positive things and we all need to have hope.
So I do believe that one day, hopefully sooner rather than later, this will come to an end, and people can enjoy their lives again, travel, and be happy.
Because nothing … even the most terrible or painful things and situations … lasts forever.
Photography, thanks to: Kimmo Kauko; Olga Volodina; ADVERSUS magazine; Darina Chu; Maritimari; Zhurochko; Mark Fiddian; Damian Black; Katherline Lyndia; Olga Volodina; Anastasia Timoshenko; Kraisak Chirachaisaku; Daniel Topic