I’m a translator, an academic, and a US citizen. Over the past week I have received many dozens of emails from people all over Russia who are desperate to leave and looking for any way out of Russia and into a stable academic or arts-related position.
The one I’ve translated here (with permission from the author, whose personal information has been removed) is both characteristic and particularly exhaustive, and reveals a lot about the situation in Russia now. Just as the prospect of a “war in Europe” and “World War III” has activated memories of the Second World War, in Russia the new crackdown on free media and civic protest has dredged up a lot of cultural trauma around Stalin-era repressions, particularly among the intelligentsia. Postmodern apocalypse rules, with totalitarian concentration camps and 1984 rubbing shoulders (see also Nadia Plungian’s piece analyzing the 20th-century’s death-grip on the modern-day cultural imagination in Russia).
The specters of the twentieth century are additionally deleterious in the way they constantly bring back and elevate specifically Russian suffering. While this suffering is linked to real, undeniable and still largely unprocessed trauma, it feeds into the self-absorption and political passivity that underpins the state of things in Russia today (I don’t have to point out certain parallels with the US and mainstream American culture). It’s not my place to blame Russian citizens for what their insane government is fomenting in Ukraine; there is just clearly much work to be done to build civic consciousness and a functioning society.
Although I was born and have spent my whole life in Russia, I am, ethnically speaking, half Russian and half Ukrainian: my grandparents are from Ukraine, and even quite recently I was thinking about applying for Ukrainian citizenship in order to move to a normal, free country, all the more so since I have roots there, but I took too long to decide and now the war has canceled all of those plans. What’s happening right now in Ukraine puts me literally into a state of shock, and what’s happening in Russia makes my hair stand up on end from horror and the realization that this is not a bad dream or nightmare that one might at least eventually wake up from.
This inhumane and senseless war that Putin is waging against Ukraine, which the Russian governmental media insist on calling a “special operation” (while using the word “war” carries the threat of criminal charges), this is only half of the hell, the other half is happening inside Russia. In downtown [city’s name redacted; it is not a capital city], I witnessed the police arresting he small number of people protesting the war. The police used truncheons to shove a grandma holding a “NO WAR!” sign into a paddy wagon. I can’t get my head around the fact that being pro-peace is a crime now. But there are very few protests, the people capable of thinking, the ones who understand how absurd what’s happening is, they’re spooked and scared of protesting lest they end up crippled or have fabricated criminal charges pinned on them.
But the worst thing is that many people, including my former colleagues from the theater, absolutely support this hell that Putin is creating right now in Ukraine, this totally unprovoked and unjustifiable, senseless and bloody slaughter. A huge majority of people has been zombified by the propaganda on TV and are openly welcoming this war, thoughtlessly reproducing the TV propagandists’ fascist, misanthropic slogans. And it’s impossible to convince them otherwise, they brand any rational argument a “fake” and hate the people who argue with them. Today, near my building, I saw that my neighbors had painted the “Z” symbol on their cars, this new swastika that marks the Russian military equipment going to attack Ukraine. They’re all in favor of the hellishness, the blood and death, the war. It’s so scary.
The most absolute insane and absurd madness is being fomented, madness that has no sense and virtually no grounds. Besides this bloody war, besides the sanctions that the entire civilized world has imposed on Russia, here inside the country right now the most severe censorship is being implemented, the last free media outlets that covered the last alternative points of view are shutting down. This is the end. They have been destroyed simply because they called the war a war. There are new laws being passed that threaten fifteen years in prison for telling the truth, and who knows how long it will take before they bring back the firing squad for any kind of freethinking. The prime minister already voiced his support for [restoring] the death penalty. Every day things get worse and worse, and the end is nowhere in sight.
This is a surreal nightmare! Reality just all of the sudden lost its mind. In the blink of an eye everything turned from a vague sort of dictatorship into a totalitarian concentration camp along the lines of Orwell’s 1984, and this is no exaggeration. Soon nothing will be left here besides crowds of insane, poverty-stricken people, completely turned to morons by fascist propaganda, their last bit of reason lost, roaring bloodthirsty slogans, and they will simply destroy anyone who allows themselves to think differently.
I just don’t know how to go on living in this concentration camp that Putin is building here in Russia. Before the start of the war, one could at least try to live one’s life, to be free, to make a living through one’s art and not engage with the universal vector of militarization and dumbing down, to have some kind of hope and plans for the future, but now that’s over, there is no hope left. Navalny is in prison, the opposition has been totally crushed, and the state media, radio and TV, all without exception just repeat one and the same lies, lies, lies and nothing but lies, while the non-governmental sources of information are either already closed or are being destroyed and persecuted. The state is mercilessly rooting out even the weakest rudiments of free speech and of rational thinking in general. It’s terrifying to be here amidst this hell.
While I was writing this I got the news that PayPal and Payoneer announced that they would not be doing business in Russia anymore, and that means I will literally be left without any source of income for my creative projects, while working as an actor in this country involves propaganda in one way or another, because free creative activity has not been possible here for a long time. I became convinced of this myself when I left a theater whose management literally threatened the acting troupe to get us to vote for the candidate they wanted.
I’d like to just live peacefully, make art, learn new things, create beauty, and work to build a bright and joyful future. But now wanting peace will just get you beaten up and thrown in prison. I don’t know what to do and how to go on living.
Translated and prefaced by the Fabulous AM. Photo by the Russian Reader