Life in Moscow, where I’ve lived since I was 17, today resembles a Surrealist collage. Nobody believed that this war would ever happen. Many in Russia still don’t believe it has, and are trying to go on living as if nothing has changed.
There is a layer of pre-war “normal life” that persists. There are people in coffee shops discussing which movie to stream that night. (But not on Netflix; that’s gone.) There are parties with balloons in business centers. You can still go to work, then grab a beer and chat with your friends. You can even go out to the cinema, although only to see an old classic—foreign releases are mostly unavailable now, and the domestic film industry has been severely censored for some years.
Everywhere you hear the same words, repeated like a chant: Nothing bad is happening. Russia is carrying out a “special military operation” in Ukraine. No civilians are being killed; all reports that say otherwise are fake. As for our economy being sanctioned—we are going to overcome it quickly.
If you say otherwise, according to new legislation, you can be put in jail for up to 15 years. Many people, in spite of the danger, are speaking out. Apart from facing arrest, they are very likely to lose their job, something that has already happened to some in my circle.
There are hours-long lines for A.T.M.’s and even longer lines at stores that will soon be closing for good because many popular companies are leaving Russia (Ikea, Apple, Nike, Louis Vuitton, and most fashion retailers). Delivery orders are being placed to every online grocery store for huge packs of buckwheat, canned meat, pasta, and toilet paper, because people are getting prepared for possible economic collapse and famine. I myself have never before lived in a room where every corner was stashed with food and household supplies, as mine now is.
Facebook, Twitter, and all independent media sites are blocked and subject to prosecution, but people are fast learning how to use V.P.N.’s (virtual private networks), which still work, for now. Russia’s last independent outlets, such as the radio station Ekho Moskvy and Dozhd (TV Rain), are completely shut down. Meanwhile, Novaya Gazeta, a printed newspaper very well known in Russia, has decided to yield to the government’s requirements but continues reporting using innuendos and hints. In Russia we call this kind of oblique political talk “Aesopian language.”
The sense of deepening shadow and isolation contrasts perversely with the other reality outside, where the city is still sparkling with spring sun. There are hundreds, at times thousands, of people in central squares demanding peace in Ukraine and opposing Putin’s government. These protesters are being detained, bullied, and sometimes tortured by the police. They are fined (for approximately half a Moscow monthly salary or up to 20,000 rubles) and threatened with imprisonment. If they catch you “spreading misinformation about the war” or “discrediting the military” by calling on them to lay down arms, they can put you in jail for up to 15 years. The law is still new, but more than 13,000 people have been detained for attending anti-war protests in Russia so far, including a priest who said in a sermon that killing one’s brothers was not the most Christian behavior.
Many people are fleeing the country in a hurry: activists who are under surveillance and have already been threatened; ordinary citizens who do not want front-row seats in this spectacular theater of evil; those with a burning conscience; those with some money and privilege. Leaving is not easy. Borders are mostly closed; flights are being canceled. Prices for plane tickets and for housing in neighboring countries such as Armenia and Georgia are going up every minute.
But many others are staying. They do not have any choice, lacking money, proper documents, good health. Or they do not want to say good-bye to family and friends for who knows how long. Or they choose to stay to support others and do everything they can to fight at home.
Many people are fleeing the country in a hurry. Borders are mostly closed; flights are being canceled. Prices for plane tickets and for housing in neighboring countries such as Armenia and Georgia are going up every minute.
I, and most Russians I know, have been protesting against Putin’s government for years. Keep in mind, my friends and I are young, relatively privileged (although not wealthy), people with art and humanities degrees, and democratic values. I come from a rare strata of Russian society which actually encourages political outspokenness in a world where silence is the norm. I realize that the likelihood of going to jail for me and my loved ones is higher now than ever. I cannot say that there was no such possibility in the past—we already have our fair share of political prisoners—but the government still pretended not to openly impose tyranny.
That has changed. Our previous protests failed. There never was that much at stake. In the past it was mostly something that had to do with domestic policy. We had not had a fair election in years. We had seen activists, journalists, and politicians get mysteriously killed or unlawfully imprisoned. Those things were heartbreaking enough. But when a full-scale genocidal war was launched on our behalf, it drove some to the verge of hysteria and left others drowning in denial.
Those granddads in the Kremlin, who stole our votes, took our right to speak up, and promised to figure everything out for us instead, appear to have only figured out how to destroy the world. This realization brings feelings of helplessness and shame that certainly can never be compared to the horrors being endured by Ukrainians. Nevertheless, they clearly present a historic challenge for all responsible Russians now. Especially when there are still so many of our relatives, colleagues, and neighbors who continue to believe the state-television propaganda.
There was a day last week when I broke down, and the fear began to eat me alive. I bought a ticket to Yerevan, Armenia. I didn’t have enough money, but a friend offered to give it to me. I went on the crazy ride of asking for help, looking for housing, gathering information for emigrants from numerous Telegram chats. But when I went home to my small rented room, I absent-mindedly petted my cat, which I did not have documents for and could not take with me. My cat’s name is Russia. (Naming her that seemed funny at the time.) This simple gesture of touching her fur—so visceral, so real—brought me back to reality, its heavy burden, and made me cry.
I knew at that moment that I should stay. I have friends, family, students, and a role to play here. I have my reality, and even if it proves to be disastrous, then I must gather all my integrity, pull myself together, and determine to make it otherwise, forgetting the words learned helplessness. I’m a language tutor, a troubled girl with depression, PTSD, a book of poems, and a broken heart. I relate to Penelope Scott, Elizabeth Wurtzel, and the movie Ghost World. I never dreamed of any other future than sitting in the basement with friends making and discussing art for hours. I cannot leave Russia—not the government but my community—and if it means I must become stronger than I ever expected, so be it.
Every night before I go to sleep I check to make sure my Ukrainian friends are safe and my protesting Russian friends are free. They are, for now. Luckily, the days that have already passed have brought me this one kind of comfort.
Katya V. is a poet, a feminist, and a tutor of Russian and English