I refuse to — be. In
the madhouse of the inhumans
I refuse to — live. To swim
on the current of human spines.
I don’t need holes in my ears,
no need for seeing eyes.
I refuse to swim on the current of human spines.
How to live in Russia with European education: my journey from Perm to Prague
I was born in the Soviet Union. It sounds almost absurd to me today, but I was born in the USSR months before it collapsed, leaving millions of its inhabitants to wander over the pieces of the evil empire. At last, people were able to enjoy democracy and freedom, which, sadly, for too many are still linked to poverty, chaos, and organized crime creeping into everyday lives. Bloody wars and uprisings broke out across one-sixth of the planet's land surface, while sudden billionaires devoured black caviar in luxury houses at Rublyovka: freedom turned out to be so deceitful! Magicians and healers were taking over television, mixing with familiar aging faces of beloved soviet actors and strange queer men in sparkling clothes and makeup.
Perm in 1991. Source: Perm State Archive
I was born in Perm to a young couple of perestroika-inspired ordinary Soviet citizens. My mother was sent there to work at a military equipment factory after she graduated from Kyiv State University; she was given a room in a communal apartment, where I have spent my first childhood years, from 1991 to 1996.
My early childhood memories are very dim and are mostly about dirt, long and cold winters, and poor people. I remember our communal apartment: a large four-bedroom apartment in a new ten-story house on the fringe of Perm, up on a hill. A young woman, a friend of my mother’s, who dated a firefighter, and a lonely one-legged old man lived in the neighboring rooms.
To go to kindergarten – I went to a kindergarten for the military factory workers’ kids, – my mother and I had to catch a tram and to take a long, narrow path down the hill to a tram stop every day. It was particularly adventurous in dark and freezing winter mornings. Trams were old and red and often got broken. And we had to wait, and wait, and wait for a tram to come in the street every day, and it always seemed it would never arrive and that all the people waiting there just wanted to get on it to get warm.
I already knew the meaning of the words “deficit”, “inflation”, and “Chechnya”, but for me, waiting for that tram every morning was the worst thing in the world. It made me think cities like Perm were only for very poor and unhappy people: nobody would live like this willingly. And as I remember myself and my mom standing at that tram stop, I have always dreamed of leaving Perm one day.
When I started school, I noticed how local grocery stores began changing: they were clean and didn’t smell weird anymore. Delicious yogurts in beautiful boxes and candy with foreign letters on the wrap appeared everywhere! They tasted like something from another world: I have never tried anything like this before. And then, when I was around nine, they opened a huge four-story mall in the city center, with a food court, and clothes, and even a cinema. This is how I learned that life in Perm could be good. My parents and I were really proud of our city and of how great our economy was.
But one day, we left Perm anyway. We moved to Saint Petersburg because there were better schools for me. My father’s mother was born in Leningrad, but she was evacuated during the Great Patriotic War when the city was sieged. And since people didn’t move around too often in the Soviet Union, she stayed in the Urals, where my father was born, and where I was born, too.
Saint Petersburg was nothing like Perm! It was dazzling and vigorous. Its center, a treasury of architectural marvels, is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with 25 other locations in Russia. The Winter Palace – a residence of all Russian emperors – shined like a bright diamond on the square. All renowned Russian writers, composers, scientists, and military leaders lived in the city for centuries, making history. My family and I were newcomers in this beautiful place, even if my grandmother was born there, and we were full of awe and excitement.
The school I went to was named after a celebrated fabulist and journalist Ivan Krylov. He lived in the 19th century and wrote short didactic stories filled with mystical allure, ridiculing human vice. Sometimes Saint Petersburg is called Russia’s cultural capital – a fair alternative to Moscow, the country’s political and financial heart. I studied, I went to Hermitage, I went to the Russian Museum, I spent days in city cafés and restaurants sometimes, making my first, very awkward writing steps. During the white nights, we drank beer at the riverside with other teenagers. We were young, free, happy people; like teenagers everywhere, we were stressed about our grades and exams. Our parents – the former ordinary Soviet citizens and now typical European middle-class people – expected a lot from us. Most of my classmates were excited about future careers in management or finance. But I found it very boring and looked for a different path.
Perm in 1991. Source: Perm State Archive
The next years of my life were filled with the magical ambiance of the centuries-old university. My fellow students – almost all of them were Czechs and Slovaks – accepted me well. We shared things we read with each other, shared our ideas, and were worried about grades – like all students everywhere in the world. We went to pubs to talk about politics, very often about Putin, and organized and took part in protests. Together we marched in solidarity with refugees and migrants, protested against far-right radicals in Europe, against Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and marched from Wenceslas Square to Letna Park for gay rights.
As a university student, I learned about the Prague Spring, about decades of Soviet control over the Eastern bloc, about jails and exiles, concentration camps, spies, threats, lies, propaganda, and all the sickening tools of control that persisted for decades, before the communist system began falling apart; I don’t remember what they wrote about 1956 in Hungary or about August 1968 in Czechoslovakia in our Russian school textbooks. But I remember that for us, Russian schoolchildren of the new millennium, the Gulag, mass executions, psychiatric abuses, and other atrocities of the Soviets were just a historical fact – like medieval battles or the Holocaust. But, unlike in the crimes of the Nazis, we didn’t see the unspeakable cruelty of the mass arrests, labor camps, or forced relocations, done by the Soviets, and we were never told why we should have seen them. My mother still thinks it was her choice to move to Perm: after all, she was given a room there.
Hello, I Am Back!
A year after my graduation, I decided to return to Russia: eight years of living abroad felt exhausting. I felt insecure with my recent degree in political science in Europe: these kinds of jobs seemed to be a better fit for European citizens. Bureaucracy, constant visa prolongations, occasional misunderstandings with the locals sometimes can be frustrating and discouraging. But I didn’t choose to return only because of that: I believed that at home, now as a grown-up, educated, and ambitious person, I could make a career and a contribution. I wasn’t aiming to opposition circles or to become an investigative journalist, but I thought there were many opportunities open to young professionals. After all, we all spoke the same mother tongue, which makes a lot of things in life easier.
The country I came back to was the same one I left more than eight years ago: same wide streets, same tall panel houses, and the same president. I visited Russia just a couple of times after I left, but now that I was back for good, I felt excited to hear the Russian language around and to see the food like Alyonka chocolate or shuba salad in supermarkets: small things like these evoke great nostalgia in all foreigners living abroad. Then there were things right on the surface that seemed wrong to me, like all those streets named after Lenin and other Bolsheviks, who have died, but who “will always live”, as if nobody cared at all about it.
Just like the buildings and the people’s conversations around, our celebrities on TV, and billboards, and the news seemed to have never changed. But I changed, and I couldn’t help but observe strange and frightening things about my homeland.
They appeared in tasteless theatre and concert posters in dirty, poor neighborhoods of the same old panel houses; in books about “evil American conspiracies” (1, 2, 3) casually on display in bookstores, next to Nabokov and Jack London; in long and furious propagandist howls, reaching you through pricy VPN; in bleak and dreary tones of newspapers and blogs. The overwhelming despair seemed to linger in the air all the time, like a thick fog. Whenever I looked into people’s faces in the streets, I thought I was seeing the same bitter expressions I saw when I was a child, standing at that tram stop.
A few months after my return, I felt disappointed. Despite very low unemployment rates, I couldn’t find a job for months: most open positions were low-skilled and underpaid. The best offer I got was from an agency offering Russian students preparation courses to study abroad. Everyone around looked lazy, and bored, and deeply unsatisfied. But civic organizations weren’t in sight urging people to take part in their activities. In fact, civic engagement appeared sporadically, in forms of very hard and undervalued labor, as something self-denying and heroic: taking care of sick and poor seniors, children, or rescuing animals in the woods. The harder these activities looked, the more respected they appeared, while most people confused civic engagement for charity.
Pro-Navalny rally in 2018
Despite being largely apolitical on the surface, Russian society has been deeply affected by the 20-years-long regime, marked by blatant corruption, political fraud, murders, assaults, oppression by security forces, and an ongoing war against independent media. The constant state-managed violence has created a toxic environment, in which chauvinism and lies thrive. Fuelled by propaganda, Putinism crept into the lives of people, leaving little room for political and human rights activists to operate. But I still believe that activism is possible in every environment, and that just by getting yourself and your friends informed, and by being curious and passionate about something, one still can open many doors and get people’s attention.
Aspiring Intellectual Elites
I gave up on the idea of finding a job and decided to pursue a writing career. I was aware it was hard to get published in Russia, but independent writers, journalists, and bloggers are often in sight, which always made everything look natural. I wrote a small collection of poems and sent it out to some publishers and literary magazines (such as Neva, October, or Youth). I never heard back from any of them and was very surprised. None of the publishers or the “independent” literary awards openly support political art, leaving all counterculture artists to coexist online, or on buildings‘ walls, fences, and in other public spaces.
I was deeply saddened by this notion, as I still don’t believe in the absolute power of censorship. Art in Russia, just like art anywhere else, is often about an ability to be in the center of attention, about being likable and popular, and about the personal experiences and the choices we make. I was never able to accept the widespread notion that “art should be beyond politics”; from Russia’s bohemia’s perspective, politics must be something very dangerous, dirty, and pointless – at every level.
Once at a party, I asked a well-known photographer and a musician if he supported a communist party, because a friend of his did. He said that he didn’t give political comments: “They just advise us not to.” My conversations with other poets, journalists, and artists also did not help me understand the mystery of having or not having political views while being an artist in Russia. By the time when Alexei Navalny, an opposition politician and the most fierce Kremlin’s critic, was poisoned, it was a mauvais ton.
The lack of political interest, ambition, and basic desire for truth makes people confused, weak, and foolish. And month by month, Russian media circles were becoming more and more passive, and direct threats and control became excessive, while fear and self-censorship paralyzed the public's critical thinking. The rivalry between state television and popular Internet-based programs escalated dramatically over these past few years when everybody and everywhere seems to be competing for public attention and profitable marketing contracts.
Two years since my arrival, my life in Russia suddenly stopped making sense to me. I didn’t have a job, and I didn’t make any influential friends helping me grow artistically, and my aging father’s business had collapsed. Prone to depression, I developed a neurosis and suffered from insomnia and occasional panic attacks for months. The country itself appeared to be harmful to my mental health, and the news about new arrests and fines didn’t make it any better. For a very long time, I was ill, and lost, and without any ideas about my future.
The Future Is Too Violent
Two protesters at an ecological rally, 2019. Source: Fridays For Future Russia
After a global youth movement against climate crisis swept across the world, I was happy to discover a regional Russian branch, inspired by Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg. Having the whole corrupted, fossil-fuels financed system against them, the young people inform society about scientific discoveries and the Russian government's reactions to the climate crisis and ecological catastrophes. I found it very moving, as it has shown me and the world that non-violent activism was possible in Russia, despite the state propaganda and FSB’s close attention.
But in 2020, everything changed. When the Covid-19 pandemic erupted, all our plans transformed into a series of long video calls. For many, such hard, unpaid, and stressful work as activism was too much to bear, in the context of the global sanitary crisis. A lot of people began experiencing fear and fatigue to spend hours making infographics or translating scientific articles nobody would bother to thank them for while being completely unprotected in the violent country.
And then just within several months, Russia has transformed from an authoritarian state with limited freedoms into a violent and dangerous country with a disrupted constitution and a poisoner as president. Despite many people remembering all the unlawful acts of the regime of the past twenty years, including Boris Nemtsov’s assassination, assaults on journalists, and hundreds of fabricated cases against opposition politicians and activists, everybody was shocked by the recent restricting laws and by the most outrageous happening in modern Russia – Alexei Navalny’s poisoning with a secret Soviet nerve agent.
As I followed his recovery and the recent arrest in Moscow, it became clear to me how Putin’s regime is falling apart, stuck in corruption, lies, and sectarian anti-western ideology. Seeing how Alexei Navalny and his allies were able to mobilize thousands of people across the huge country made me feel hopeful. For me, Alexei is a hero and a brilliant politician, a role model and a person whose charisma inspires and unites many. As thousands of his supporters across the country await his trial and get ready for more protests, I am happy to be a part of the most intense political debate in Russia in recent history and a cultural revolution, as more and more celebrities openly call for Alexei’s support.
Independent bloggers and journalists begin drawing parallels with the Soviet past and compare today’s Russia with Belarus, taking into account Vladimir Putin’s generous $1.5 loan to support the bloody regime in the vassal state. The President himself must have predicted the current situation when he signed the restricting legal package in the last days of 2020. In the context of the upcoming legislative elections, the growing political awareness and public unrest are crucial to defeating United Russia electorally. But hardly anybody believes in a possibility of an entirely peaceful transition of power.
For many Russians, inevitable poverty and ongoing violence will be too hard to cope with in the post-pandemic environment. In these circumstances, migration often appears optimal, if not the only possibility to provide for yourself and your loved ones. Once borders will reopen, and the economies restart after lockdowns and restrictions, are we to expect a wave of migrants from Russia, escaping tyranny and looking for better economic opportunities? Will the host countries be ready for them?
As someone who has spent years living abroad, all I want is to say: there is nothing shameful about a desire to change your country of residence. The geographical borders shouldn’t be defining people’s lives as they do today. Since migrants have access to high-quality education, we should expect more of them than just to assimilate into the society; we should expect them to be brave and ambitious enough to change it. The global pandemic has caused rapid deterioration of human rights all across the world, and chauvinism and racism today represent the biggest threat to democracy and personal freedoms. In the post-pandemic environment, a lot will depend on our ability to accept and understand foreign cultures.
Pro-Navalny Rally in Saint Petersburg, 23/01/2021. Source: Paperpaper.ru