It’s never been easy to be from Russia. Okay, it actually was for a while. The 90s were a tumultuous time, but I was a kid. And the 2000s, when I was learning to think, were a decade of prosperity compared to before (or after).
If I talked to foreigners, we mostly joked about bears and balalaika (but it is no joke that some actually believed I had a pet bear that I rode to school). In 2014, with the annexation of Crimea, I learned the phrase “breaking international law.” Still, somehow, I managed to stay mostly apolitical until April 2017. And then I “met” Alexei Navalny.
You may know him as the Russian opposition leader who conducted an investigation into most members of the Russian elite, had his brother put in prison, tried to run for president but wasn’t registered and was arrested and jailed dozens of times. In August 2020, he was poisoned with a chemical weapon Novichok, but thanks to international cooperation was transported to Germany where he recovered. In January 2021, he returned to Russia and was imprisoned for 2.5 years. His documentary investigation about Vladimir Putin came out as Navalny was awaiting sentencing — a bombshell with now over 120 million views. A new trial against Navalny is underway as we speak — a trial which will almost surely end in another 10+ year sentence.
But in April 2017, many of these events were still ahead, impossible to fathom — at least for me. Back then, Navalny held the second weekly livestream of his presidential campaign. He was green (literally) from being recently attacked with green dye and apologized for his appearance: he didn’t have a tie on like he said he always would in the first stream. I was sold.
Navalny always urged Russians to protest against corruption and lawlessness in the streets. Even though it’s a constitutional right to do so, local authorities required a petition for each protest and banned those that were planned for downtown areas. At unapproved protests, many people were arrested. Some were fined, some jailed and some imprisoned for years to disincentivize others. The Russian government machine was boiling a pot of water with a frog in it — the water got just a little hotter every minute, and the frog didn’t notice until it was too late. Repressions, elections, surveillance of social media, obstruction of the press, the spread of propaganda — everything got a little more insane, absurd and Kafkaesque, little by little. But every time it was possible to adapt to fewer freedoms and pretend like it was okay.
With thousands of people currently dying in Ukraine and hundreds of thousands displaced, the scope and level of insanity have skyrocketed and blasted out onto the world. For many regular Russians, the trauma is manifold. Their houses are intact, but their world — that of international relations, societal norms, working politics, stable economics, a constitution that’s more than just a piece of paper — is getting shattered. It may have been a half-imaginary world for a while, but now it’s gone for good. That’s good — being awake is good — but it hurts. For me, it means losing some very elusive but very real understanding of “home.” It means not knowing when I’ll see my family and worrying that I can’t help.
Suddenly finding yourself in or affiliated with a seemingly foreign totalitarian state affects people in different ways. Hopefully there can be a time when a calm scholarly community can inspect the intricacies of our trauma, but for now, it feels like Russians are glued to sources simply documenting the present — the sources that are able to stay afloat amid all the recent rampant blocking of the press — a privilege, really. We’re looking at the amount of physical destruction, the closing of the skies, the Russian ruble falling off a cliff, propaganda lessons in schools, departures by seemingly all foreign companies and subsequent layoffs, import restrictions on things ranging from luxury items to essential medications and an uptake in political prosecution. Since the start of the conflict, as of March 13, over 14,800 people were arrested at anti-war protests across Russia. When I went to an anti-war protest in the Ithaca Commons on March 6, I felt solidarity and pain, but I knew that at the end we’d all be able to enjoy the 60 degrees Farenheit weather without the potential of torture and humiliation in a dingy police precinct.
In preparation for writing this piece, I reached out to the Russian-speaking Cornell community to hear their thoughts. Many are united in anxiety and fear — not just for Ukraine, Russia and their friends and family — but for the world. But even putting their name to a message like this instills worry for some, as the Russian government has made it clear that calling the war anything other than a “special operation” will have consequences (to be determined by the arbitrariness of the court system). Clearly a wider range of people at Cornell are affected by this, but on my end, I can say that I have received nothing but support from friends and colleagues here. That was the nice part of the madness.
As a Russian with a Ukrainian last name, and as someone suffering from the human condition, I hope that this comes to an end and we can recover from this somehow. Everyone who’s lost a piece of themselves through facing a war outside their window or inside their head deserves a right to “just live”: love, play, watch silly TV shows and look at the stars.
Anna Evtushenko is a Ph.D. candidate in Information Science at Cornell. Comments can be sent to [email protected] Guest Rooms run periodically throughout the semester.