I left Russia in 2011. It took me almost three years to make it happen: we began serious preparation immediately after Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008. I want to talk about it.
I was about nine years old when the USSR collapsed, so it’s fair to say that I’ve witnessed the final breaths of the decaying empire.
I remember quite a bit from that time. While my memory is pretty spotty at best, some things stand out decades later.
I remember seeing intercity bus sanitation check-points along the highway leading to Moscow from Ukraine in 1986/87. I remember staying inside at my kindergarten after it rained around the same time. A dude in a hazmat suit walked outside with a radiation detector.
I remember food cards and hours-long lines for food. I remember when mom sent me to a store to buy something, like, milk or bread - something necessary, but I decided that some jam was in order; after all, we hadn’t had jam for a while. I didn’t realize how huge of a blow this was back then.
I remember representing Georgia in a kindergarten play, dancing lezginka in traditional Georgian clothes.
I remember watching tanks rolling along the highway towards Moscow in August 1991 during the August coup. I remember family hunkering down at our dacha near Moscow.
I remember our first exchange guest, an American from Atlanta, staying at our apartment for a few weeks in 1992.
I clearly remember American humanitarian aid — from milk and multivitamins to pens and t-shirts. We didn’t have much at the time, and what little we had was way too expensive, so this aid was badly needed and much appreciated.
I remember our second American guests, who arrived right after the House of the Government (Russian “White House”) was shelled by tanks and set on fire during the 1993 constitutional crisis.
I remember going to the “Kyiv Market,” a make-shift outdoor market near Kyivskaya metro station, for cheap expired food. Folks would sell food past its “best before” date or about to expire. It was more affordable this way.
I remember my parents’ attempts at business and how difficult it was for them to make ends meet. I understand it now, but back then, I was little, barely a teenager, and I didn’t really see or understand their struggles.
I remember my first i386 personal computer, a powerful Intel 486 machine running at 90 Mhz, with 16 Mb of RAM and a huge 800 Mb hard drive. It was $800 in 1995 money in Russia, which is, like, $5000 in today’s money. I thought that it was cool of my parents to buy it, but I didn’t realize exactly how cool it was.
I remember going to the U.S. for two months in the summer of 1996 and staying with a family in Ephrata, WA. I remember meeting with our first American guest (the one from Atlanta) in Seattle and later going on a road trip from Seattle to Tijuana, Mexico. I was offered to stay in Central Washington for the next school year but ultimately declined, and I’ll explain why in a moment.
I remember going to Bulgaria a couple of times. I don’t think we could afford any other kind of vacation, but it was always a treat going there.
But most of all, throughout this entire time, I remember the feeling of the whole world being open to us. A sense that our country is joining other nations, at long last, in becoming civilized, free, and democratic. And I was one of the “next generation” kids who expected to carry out this transformation.
We studied the Constitution at school and debated how different freedoms work and how they should be reflected in the country’s daily life. I admired the work of journalists who upheld these freedoms and decided to become one. I really, really wanted to live in a free and democratic country. I believe that I can and should help Russia shed its ugly past and be the best place it possibly could be. That is why I declined to spend a year in Washington: I was a patriot of my young homeland.
And then it all came crashing down.
The arrest of Khodorkovsky, dismantling of first NTV, then TV6, then slowly but steadily every other free news media. I remember the slow hijacking of the narrative about the West. The slow resurgence of the imperialistic ambitions, slow rewriting of the past, the decline of political freedoms, uprooting of all opposition to the dictator-wannabe and his party, and murders of journalists who dared to speak up. It was a painful and ugly sight. Everything I believed in and held dear rapidly turned to its worst opposite version.
My last attempt at making a tiny difference was joining the Russian state radio as a producer and a host. I had access to the air and used it as I pleased for quite a while. I had my own segments where I never held back what I really wanted to say. I had a few shows that I’d been producing, and whenever I could, I made every effort to sneak in the truth.
When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, it was over for me. I posted a scathing post on my blog, where among other things, I said that Ukraine needs to get its shit together and join the EU and/or NATO as soon as possible because they will be Russia’s next target. I had to take the post down a few days later by request from my wise mom (I took it down so good that I can’t find it even in the Wayback Machine). However, some people read the post at work, and I got fired: you can’t work for the state radio and speak out against your dearest dictator. Ultimately, they changed their minds, and I kept my job, but it didn’t matter to me anymore: I was on my way out of Russia, no matter what.
I have been thinking about emigration since, like, 2005. It was fairly clear to me that the country is, in fact, incurable. It’s sick to its core, and a tiny minority of people trying to make it better doesn’t stand a chance. But as a patriot, I believe that emigration is the last resort: you fight for your country for as long as you can and retreat only when there’s literally no way forward. And after 2008, there was absolutely no way forward, and it was clear as day.
(Одиночные пикеты на Петровке, 38)
It took me three years to leave Russia for good. Emigration is crazy expensive and difficult, especially with a family; it changes you and your life forever, and you never know whether it will work out. But it doesn’t matter when you have a family and want them to have the life and the future they deserve.
(Прямой эфир телеканала Мир)
On August 20, 2011, we boarded a plane to Toronto. We had packed our entire lives into three suitcases plus some carry-on and started from zero in a new country. Later that year, we organized a protest at the Russian Consulate in Toronto; we were naïve enough to think that maybe here people care about what’s happening in Russia. They didn’t. I stopped following the news out of Russia entirely within a couple of years, too: it’s just another oppressive dictatorship, whatever.
I’m deeply ashamed that when Russia invaded and occupied parts of Ukraine in 2014, my first genuine thought was, “phhh, I told you so.” I sympathized with my Ukrainian friends and supported them as much as possible, but this “you knew it was coming” thought always lingered in my mind.
And now, in 2022, Russia is waging a full-scale war on Ukraine. Russia’s pathetic dictator invaded Ukraine. He’s bombing and shelling beautiful, peaceful cities and khutors, killing thousands of civilians. And while his army is the second-best army in Ukraine and has failed to reach any of its objectives so far, it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a real fucking war going on in Ukraine. My country of birth is the aggressor.
To be clear, I feel no allegiance to Russia whatsoever. I was born in its evil predecessor, lived for 20 years in “independent” Russia, and left it for good 10+ years ago; that’s about it. I consider myself an American (a Russian-American before February 24, 2022). And the more I learn about Russian history and Russian imperialism, the more appalled I am by how I used to see this country and its people as redeemable, how I thought about Ukraine as Russia’s “little brother” and about Ukrainians as kind, quirky, and sweet “brotherly” folk. I mean, they are kind and sweet. It’s just that Russia was never a “big brother” to Ukraine and Ukrainians but rather a violent, constantly drunk, abusive foster parent. And for this, there’s no forgiveness for me and all of us.
This long-ass intro is important for setting some context.
Now, Ukraine. Somehow, it just so happened that many, if not most of my friends, are Ukrainians. Ukrainian-Canadians, Ukrainian-Americans, just Ukrainians. I’ve been to Kyiv a few times, drove there from Moscow once, and I sincerely fell in love with the city, the people, and the country. And it almost physically pains me to think that someone, anyone, would wage actual war against Ukraine. It’s unthinkable, unspeakable, yet here we are. And 100% of my sympathy and support is with Ukraine, with no reservations. Смерть ворогам!
I wish for a complete and devastating defeat of nazi Russia with all my heart. I want to see it destroyed, utterly and completely. I’d be a little sad to see Kremlin in ruins, but I’d be totally fine with it. I want to see Russia denazified and deputinified as the Allies did in Germany after WWII. I sincerely hope that the entire Russian project is dismantled and broken into smaller countries so that people in those countries could literally break up with the Russian imperialist past. I wish that every Russian soldier who enters Ukraine returns home in a body bag. I swear I’ll have the biggest celebration when P*tin dies a painful and gruesome death — it will be a great day for Eastern Europe and the world.
And you know what? All of this is going to happen. Mark my words, this war is the end of Russia, and it’s wonderful. The world needs fewer russias and more ukraines. And as with every major war between good and evil, between right and wrong, the good will win. Ukraine will win. Or in other words, все буде Україна.