Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, 2022. A war waged against sovereignty and sleeping cities, it began in earnest seven hours early in Cleveland. I didn’t sleep for two weeks. My best friend sent videos of missile remnants in his front yard in Kharkiv, and I sent demands for proof of life every six hours. He responded with a picture of buckwheat (grechnevaya kasha) and two mattresses stacked in his apartment hallway to avoid shrapnel and exploding windows. As war became the norm, another friend finished her senior year of high school in a basement bomb shelter in Rivne. They played Twister during air raids. Her older brother died on the frontlines of Bakhmut in May 2023. My other friend’s hometown, near Dnipro, doesn’t exist anymore. We text about power outages from damaged infrastructure, boy problems and funerals. I saved up money from my hostessing job to fly to Warsaw and visit my friends from Kharkiv this summer. We cope.
My mother was born and raised in Moscow. I spent childhood summers in my grandmother’s Leninsky Prospekt apartment, on our family’s dacha in the aging town of Zvenigorod. For years, I, alongside other Russian Americans, advocated for the separation of Putin from regular Russian citizens, holding the regime exclusively at fault for its oppressiveness. But to maintain its supremacy, the regime must be upheld. What do you do when the inhabitants of your homeland become murderers and rapists on a world stage? When civilians become soldiers that attack beyond the scope of their “orders,” just because? How can you reconcile culture with accountability? To some degree I miss it – Gorky Park, the wild lights on display for New Years, my family – but I will never go back. The memories make me as nauseous as they do nostalgic.
This isn’t to say that I was unaware of Russia’s brutality. I protested in Public Square after Navalny was arrested and kept up to date on the painfully laughable prison sentences that his fellow oppositionists received. I knew then and now that the country as a whole was largely isolated and uneducated about the reality of the world. I knew that many Russians held outdated views. I knew that it was an imperialist beast that stripped the cultures, languages, religions and independence of millions. My grandfather was one of them. Still, I had to break down ingrained colonist beliefs that I didn’t realize I held. I am learning Ukrainian as my part of the Russian-language-boycott. I acknowledge the identities of Ukrainian writers, activists and musicians that have been historically erased in the name of Russification. I fundraise for the UAF and try my best to educate myself and others.
I understand that many within Russia don’t have access to anything except state-controlled media; my grandmother arrived in Cleveland from Moscow in March 2022 calling the Russian troops nashi, “ours.” A week later, faced with the printed New York Times headline “Russian Bombs Blanket Kyiv” in our local grocery store, she was horrified. Nevertheless, she has great sympathy for the future of Russia and its citizens. Russia is all she has ever known. She worries about her laboratory and her university students, her nephew and her nation. My mother holds firm in her opinion that Moscow should be flattened, if that’s what it takes to end Russian occupation in Ukraine.
Five days after the war started, I stayed home from school, crying in a jumbled heap on my kitchen floor. I was consumed with guilt over the terror that a country I had held such pride for was inflicting on my friends. I understood that I would spend the rest of my life making up for this. But denouncing Russia and its crimes is not enough. Almost eighty years after the end of World War II, many Germans do not openly proclaim national pride. The common sentiment is “what is there to be proud of?”
They erected monuments dedicated to those that died on their land, built museums, created cultural centers and required schoolchildren to learn about the genocide their government carried out. Eighty years after the Holocaust, I still pause when someone tells me they are German and fiddle with my Magen David bracelet. I give them the benefit of the doubt because I must, but it is ingrained in me. In April 2022, when I first began tutoring Ukrainians in English, I hesitantly revealed that I spoke Russian. My first student flinched. The second stared until I mentioned my friends from Kharkiv. It is ingrained in them too.
I can’t reconcile with those Russians and Russian Americans who understand the reality of the world and still choose to advocate for the “innocence” and “preservation” of “Russian culture.” I don’t understand how a forced romanticization of Russia, in some attempt to absolve the country of its recent reputation, can override the horrors of Bucha and Mariupol. Not everyone knows people whose apartments have been shelled, their lives derailed and their sense of self uprooted. But these ties are not necessary. It is so easy to access humanitarian and cultural context. Russian culture, language and people are not in danger of being forgotten or destroyed. Above all else, Russia will be and should be remembered for its violence.
Students, faculty and community members with any ties to Russia have a moral responsibility to educate themselves and others. We cannot teach in the same way that we did five years ago. We must dissect, question and stitch our traditions back up in order to redeem them. Most importantly, we cannot drink tea with biscuits in the name of Russian culture without inviting those hurt by the empire to the table. We must allow them to guide, to lecture, to yell and to blame us. It’s our responsibility to listen and to do better.
Those who remain silent about the country’s flaws but are vocal about its strengths – especially the Americans who categorize Russia as a quirky antagonist from a Bond film instead of the terrorist state that it is – are complicit in Russian imperialism. Now is not the time to direct people’s attention solely to Russia – it doesn’t need it. Russia is not the victim. Learn about Ukraine, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Turkmenistan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and more. Decenter the Russian perspective and advocate for those who do not have the power to do so themselves. This is the only way that the Russian language will cease to become the language of the aggressor, that Russians can have pride in progress and freedom and that they can share their culture in good conscience.