When you are a kid all you want for your birthday is a mountain of ice cream, a couple kilos of chocolate and the coolest toy all your friends have at the time. Instead, your grannies present you with underwear and socks. Is that just Russian grannies or grannies all over the world?
They also wish you health and peaceful sky above your head, “peaceful sky” being a metaphor for no war. The generation of my grandparents repeated “as long as there’s no war” like a mantra — the consequence of growing up in the aftermath of WWII. Oh man, I always thought, how about wishing me love (and by love I mean that the boy I really like likes me back) or money (everyone needs money, even 10-year-olds)?
When you are an adult who is living through a global pandemic and a war started by your country, health and peaceful sky don’t seem so boring and insignificant as they once did. In fact, those are the only relevant wishes on one’s birthday and any other day of the year.
On the 24th of February I was in a train heading from Hamburg to Nuremberg. Nuremberg was my first home in Germany. When I arrived four years ago, all I knew about the city is that Nuremberg trials took place here in 1945. Back then my country was the victim and the winner. The Palace of Justice, where those accused of the crimes committed in WWII were tried, still functions today. One floor above the courtroom is a museum where I went on my own and then brought every friend and relative who visited me in Germany.
When you tour the rooms of a museum dedicated to war crimes, all you can think about is how were all these atrocities possible? Don’t people have hearts? How can one man torture another? And what about an ordinary German citizen? Not a soldier, but someone whose life was relatively undisturbed while those crimes were committed. I often wondered what German people felt when their country turned into an aggressor. Now I know. It’s fucking horrible.
This is the first time I wrote the word “fuck” in the six years of running this blog. It seems fitting. But “fucking horrible” doesn’t start to describe what Ukrainian people are going through right now, which is why I struggled with writing this post. It is self-indulgent for a Russian to write about how she feels at the moment, when Ukrainians are going through hell on Earth. In the end, I’ve decided to publish this because I want there to be a written record of my opinion on the topic, and my feelings are all I really know.
When my husband, myself, and our son took that train to Nuremberg I was seven months pregnant. I was scrolling through Instagram when I saw a post by a Ukrainian blogger, stating that Russia is bombing Kyiv. My first thought was: that can’t be true. Must be a rumor, a mix-up. I opened several news outlets, one after another, and as the new reality started sinking in I began sobbing. My two-year-old was watching me in bewilderment.
I pulled myself together and went to the train restaurant to grab a cup of coffee. The guy who was making my cappuccino asked where I was from. “From Russia”, I said. “Give my regards to Putin”, he replied laughing. It wasn’t even meant to be mean. Just a stupid joke. Is that how it’s going to be? I didn’t want this, I don’t support Putin.
The next several days were spent scrolling non-stop and getting more anxious by the minute. I wrote one post on Instagram — to make it clear where I stand — then came silence. I couldn’t talk about the war online without feeling anxious and debilitated. I couldn’t keep posting my market runs and weeknight dinners — it didn’t make sense anymore.
My Instagram feed turned into a live update on the current events. I deleted the app to stay calm and avoid stress — the last thing I needed in the third trimester. I downloaded it in two days. This “on-again, off-again” relationship continued for the next several months.
I know it’s a privilege to be able to push a “delete the app” button and switch off the bad in the world. In the moment when I couldn’t bear to watch the atrocities, some people had to live through them.
I felt guilty to be so weak, helpless, passive. I donated money, had many uncomfortable conversations, and thought that one day, when my baby is here, I’ll write about everything that’s on my mind. This is it. Only I don’t know what to say — I am still processing.
I have a rule of never writing about things that I myself haven’t fully figured out. Emotionally, that is. It often takes months between an idea of a post and a finished text. But this time is different. I don’t know when this war will come to an end. I also don’t know how long it will take me to figure out how to live with the burden of my country starting a war and committing crimes.
How do I reconcile to the fact that I am the bad guy now? When it all started it was easier to separate the people from the government, to distance myself from the president of my country. As days and weeks passed, it has become more complicated.
A friend of mine once said an interesting thing that made me ponder for days after. We feel proud of all the good things our countries, our ancestors have accomplished. As if by sheer fact of being born in the same country as Tolstoy or Tchaikovsky, we are entitled to a tiny piece of their greatness. Yet, when it comes to the shameful pages of our history, we don’t take responsibility: I am not bad, Putin is.
I don’t think humans can ever believe that they are, in fact, evil. I came across a study in which the guards of concentration camps were interviewed. When asked how they could commit such atrocities, they replied that their thinking wasn’t: “What a horrible thing I have done!”. Instead, they looked at the victim and thought: “Look, what horrible thing you made me do!”. A human mind always finds a way out.
Three years ago I wrote a post titled “Enough with the Evil Russians”. It was inspired by the third season of Stranger Things, where Russians were stereotypically portrayed as dumb, heartless monsters that the main characters have to fight to save the world. We are not evil, I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs. Why is this still happening in 2019? And here we are three years later, my country making headlines as the world’s most menacing power.
I am sure many readers who’ll come across this article now will find it ironic. I find it heartbreaking. Yesterday, the forth season of Stranger Things came out on Netflix, prompting my article to go up in search results once again. I have received three new comments to the post that included such delights as “turns out Russians are disgusting vile evil subhumans”, “how ironically couple years later and we see a true face of evil Russians”, and “that didn’t age well you fucking hypocrite, Russians are evil cancer”. I am looking forward to receiving a daily dose of hate for the next couple of months.
It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. Maybe because a comment from someone who chooses “John Doe” as his alias to comment on my blog isn’t as important as my doctor asking how my family is back in Russia or my readers reaching out to check up on me.
Around the same time when Russia invaded Ukraine, mass protests took place in Sri Lanka, caused by the most brutal economic crisis in recent history. People have no access to petrol; daily power cuts last for hours on end; and the prices for essential products have skyrocketed. My husband, who is Sri Lankan, and I had many a conversation wondering how both of our countries got so majorly fucked up, right at the same time.
Two places in this world we called home are now off limits. I don’t know when I’ll be able to see my grandmother or to show my kids where I was born and raised. Partly because at the moment I have no desire to travel to Russia. Partly because I don’t feel safe traveling there after writing this.
I am not supposed to call the war “the war”, it’s “a special operation”. I am also not to use the word “invaded”, rather we are “demilitarizing” and “denazifying”, whatever that means. I’d like to think that I am an insignificant little blogger with barely any following, whose writing won’t get noticed. But people have been arrested for all kinds of trivial reasons, like playing an anti-war song by Vysotsky too loud at their own apartment or holding a poster that said “The sixth commandment. Thou shalt not kill”.
The last time I visited Russia was three years ago. My husband and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary by taking both our families on a trip from Moscow to Saint Petersburg to Teriberka, a remote town with a population of less than a thousand, located on the coast of Barents Sea. That last bit was special: we took an overnight train, touched the waters of Arctic Ocean, ate freshly caught smoked cod and cloudberry jam.
I was pregnant with my first son, dreaming of coming back with him one day to pick wild strawberries in summer, watch a sunset from a rooftop in Saint Petersburg, and eat hot sirniki with sour cream early morning at my mom’s kitchen. I am pushing away the thoughts that this may never happen. A girl can dream, right?