What it’s like to flee a war: A S’porean looks back at her journey out of Russia with her cat

"Things are only going to get worse, we have to go now."

Babelfish |
May 10, 2023, 10:00 am

We’re not starting a cult but some followers on Instagram would be nice. Thank you.

“Are you an American spy?”
“Do you work for the CIA.. or something?”

The Russian Federal Security Service officer asking these questions would be the last hurdle before Loretta Marie Perera, a Singaporean then based in Moscow, was able to leave the country.

Accompanied by her husband and her cat, she had traveled by train from Moscow to St. Petersberg, where the plan was to cross to Tallinn, Estonia by bus before heading to Montenegro, her final destination.

Loretta, as a person of colour with a Singaporean passport, was accustomed to immigration hiccups in these parts of the world.

This time, however, it was her American husband, Martin, that was the source of suspicion.

This was in March 2022, just after Russia invaded and occupied parts of their neighbouring Ukraine on Feb. 24 2022.

As the Russian ruble crashed and airlines began to cancel flights, Loretta and her husband found themselves having to scramble to relocate. Fast.

Though not without some obstacles on the way, Loretta eventually arrived in Bar, Montenegro, where she is now based, on Mar. 12 2022.

This is her story:

By Loretta Marie Perera, as told to Natalie Teo.

 


Could you tell us a bit more about yourself?

My name is Loretta, or Rett for short. I moved to Moscow originally to study Russian with my partner, who’s American.

We had met in Beijing, but he had already been learning Chinese for a while and he wanted to take on another challenging language. So we decided Moscow would be a good place for him to pursue another challenging language, and for me to pursue my journalism ambitions.

Previously, I had worked in lifestyle journalism, PR, advertising and social media, but my dream had always been to work in news journalism.

I worked in news for a couple of years in Moscow and then I got really tired of it, and then I ended up in the company I’m at now, where I’m the Head of Content for a tech company.

You have lived in some interesting places – Beijing, Moscow and then now in Montenegro. What would you say were the key differences between these places and Singapore?

For Beijing, I thought because I spoke very basic Chinese and used to watch dramas a lot as a kid, it’d be easy enough – I’d just go there. After a few months, I’ll be fluent, everything will be fine.

I thought I would have an advantage coming from Chinese-majority Singapore, and that was not the case, because the culture and how people are how they dress how they speak is just different.

It’s funny because I ended up learning Chinese there and I have this Beijing kind of accent.

I just was completely in love with the chaos of Beijing. I don’t think it’s like that anymore, because even when we left a lot of things were changing.

Loretta dancing in a park in Beijing.

A lot of the grittiness was rapidly developing and changing, and they were making it nice and fancy. It was like kind of the tail end of this time when there was a sense of lawlessness to it – like, yeah, there was a no smoking ban, but everyone’s smoking inside.

I had some idea of what Beijing would be like. In Moscow, I had visuals of the Red Square and the Kremlin and stuff like that, but I was not at all prepared for how it would be and how foreign I would feel.

I really hated it for the first few months. I was in tears most of the time and I just thought, “Why did we leave Beijing because it was cool, we had a little foreign enclave and we had all our friends and I was learning Chinese…”

And then we came here and I just felt like, I walk into a room and I just feel this kind of hostility.

Later on, I would find out that that’s just how Russian people are.

Sometimes they are aggressively hostile towards you, but eight out of 10 times, it’s more curiosity-slash-suspicion. Because they’re just looking at you and they’re like, “What’s this girl doing here? What’s going on? What’s your story?”

Once I got my job and I started making a lot of friends and being able to speak a bit of Russian, that changed a lot of my experience there.

Loretta with friends in Kaliningrad, Russia

The city is amazing, but the people were a little hard for me to understand at first. Now, I have so many really good friends in Russia. My team here—everyone’s Russian except me and two other people, so my life is still very Russian.

Could you describe some of the emotions and general mood in the days leading up to the invasion and when you heard the news?

We knew something was up. The U.S. had been talking about this for a while before this happened and they were warning people, but everyone was like, “How could that happen? That’s not gonna happen.”

The day that it happened, I was rushing off to the gym. I didn’t check my phone. And when I looked at my phone, it was disbelief, like I just couldn’t process it.

I’ve never been to Ukraine before, but so many Russian friends and colleagues and people in general have such strong connections to Ukraine. It just didn’t make any sense to me and I just understood that it was really bad.

With friends in Russia.

Then I went to the gym and my trainer was just like, “Nah, everything will be fine.”

And I’m just like, “No, nothing’s going to be fine.”

The office that day was just silence and and I asked my colleagues, “Can someone tell me what’s going on? I don’t understand.”

And they said, “We can’t believe it. We don’t understand either.”

The unfortunate reality was that we were on the side of the aggressor, so of course, we were safe at that time. It’s not like we were in Ukraine. Ukraine is not about to start bombing Moscow.

When they started mobilising, then it just felt really unsafe to be there because we were worried about being locked in because they were talking about closing borders. And we just thought, “What if we can’t get out?”

You initially wanted to wait till the end of March, more than a month after the war started, to leave. When was it that you realised you couldn’t wait anymore and had to leave immediately?

When they started cancelling flights. That’s when we realised that, if they’re cancelling flights now, things are going to get worse and there’ll be less and less opportunity for us to leave.

That’s when we understood that we needed to go right now because we had no idea what the flight availability would be in a few months. More and more airlines were cutting flights to Moscow.

So we just said, “Things are only going to get worse, we have to go now.”

Before leaving, Loretta invited her friends for a final gathering at the couple’s apartment in Moscow, and asked them to take anything they wanted with them.

Both you and your husband were stopped at different times in your journey out of the country. What would your plans have been if either of you were unable to leave?

I told Martin, if we cannot leave with the cat, you go first.

Because at that point, it seemed more urgent for him to leave because America was the number one enemy at the time.

And I just thought, for Singapore, finally we took a stand to say they were against the war – which I was quite surprised and happy that we did. We also got put on the Russian’s “unfriendly” list but I mean, come on, no one’s that scared of Singapore.

Loretta with her husband, Martin.

The below excerpt is taken from Loretta’s recounting of the journey out of Russia, detailed in her Medium article:

I have always had trouble with Russian immigration: most aren’t familiar with a Singapore passport and where we are permitted to enter. Sure enough, the guard with a gun got back on the bus and made a beeline to me.

“You don’t have a Schengen visa,” he growled. “So get off the bus and go back.” It was only after some stellar arguing and explaining by Martin—male whiteness often goes a long way in these parts—that they agreed not to kick me off the bus.

But this time, I wasn’t the source of their suspicion. With my passport returned and stamped, I’d made it through to the other side with nary a question or comment. Then a man with a backwards cap, casually dressed in T-shirt and jeans, cigarette behind his ear — that is to say, an undercover FSB officer — came marching up to Martin just as I shuffled forward wheeling all our things along.

“Are you an American spy?” No. “Do you work for the CIA.. or something?” He couldn’t remember the acronym. The bus driver hovered; everyone else was on the bus and ready to go.

It couldn’t have been more than 30 mins; it was the longest half-hour of our lives. Then Martin was stamped out at last and emerged on the other side of immigration — we had both officially left Russia.

What if the situation were reversed and you were able to get out but he was not?

My plan would have been to stay with him as we figured out how to leave.

I knew we had to leave but I so badly wanted more time.

The journey out of Moscow with everything they could carry.

Also, I’m working on a novel that is set in Russia and it contains themes very much tied to what was going on. It was intense, seeing my dystopian fiction become reality all around me, and I’ve always felt it’s important to document what happens.

But in the end this was not an option and as it turns out, my own leaving, and the way I felt as I did, very much influenced the direction of my book.

You had a lot of trouble getting your cat out of the country. Would leaving your cat behind ever have been an option?

No, absolutely not. That was not an option for me and people might have thought I was a bit ridiculous.

It’s a long story but the cat is very much the reason why I have this job.

Their cat carrier perched atop the couple’s belongings.

Well, I was done with Moscow Times and excited to have some time off, working in Russian independent news meant that it had been a very taxing and non-stop couple of years and I was exhausted.

We’d discussed getting a cat and thought this would be a perfect time, since I’d soon be unemployed and would have had more free time. I asked on Twitter if anyone had shelters to recommend, and one woman who was a sort of pet expert and had a lot of contacts, sent me four options.

I checked them all out and chose one that spoke to me most. After visiting the shelter I fell in love with Bella, and the people there were lovely.

Once Bella was home, I took some photos of her and posted it on the Facebook group of the shelter, announcing that she was safely home and doing great. One person who saw this post decided to check out my profile, and it turns out she used to work Artec 3D (the company I am with now).

When she saw my background in news, advertising, etc. she decided I’d be perfect for the content team, and wrote me (daily!) asking me to apply for a job there. I had no idea about 3D tech or anything, nor was i keen to find a new job so fast. But at her insistence I gave in and sent in my CV.

Ended up going in for a few interviews and three years later, here I still am.

How often do you come back to Singapore, and what do you miss most about home?

I try to come back at least twice a year except for during Covid. And that was really hard being away from home during Covid times.

The things that I’ve missed – I mean obviously my family and my parents but I talk to them every day—being at a place where you can be understood, y’know?

Loretta on her last trip back home.

Just being able to just go somewhere and say something and people understand us is such a it’s such a liberating experience that I think everyone takes for granted. Because you go somewhere and then you have to plan like, “Okay, how do I say this and how do I say it right?”

And food obviously because I mean… most places have at least like a Chinese restaurant that has questionable quality and standards.

In Moscow, we had a couple of good Chinese restaurants, and here, none whatsoever. There’s one Chinese restaurant in Podgorica, which is the capital of Montenegro, which is about an hour away from here by train or by car, and it’s the best that we got.

So I really miss food from home.

What would you say are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt from this entire experience?

The lessons I’ve learnt – I guess it’s this: I’m capable of so much more than I thought.

Because if someone said to me years ago that like one day you’ll be in Russia, there’ll be a war and you’re going to pick up all your shit, grab your stuff, leave to another country and live there for a year and figure everything out. I would have been like, “I can’t do that!”

The importance of partnership, because there were certain times that I forgot about something completely and he said, “No, no, I did it,” and if he says, “Oh, we haven’t done this,” I’ll be like, “Don’t worry, I got it.”

The importance of community and the importance of family as well, because just being able to go home after this was really important.

What are your hopes for the future?

Near future: I want to ground myself and take some time to breathe. On my last day in Moscow I got a tattoo that says вдох,выдох – inhale, exhale. Still working on this!

I hope to spend more time doing what I love: spending time at home, to write more, get my book published (and start another one!), to continue my work in the causes and activism I’m involved in, to keep working on my Russian and to continue learning French.

I want and need to return to Russia one day. Many people I love have left but some of my best friends have had to remain there. Seeing them again one day is not a hope but a necessity, a demand. When this war is over.

Photos via Loretta Marie Perera.

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