It’s been six months of Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine, and the fact that I am still alive, free, and at home—unlike so many others—has never seemed so completely random. A privilege of living on this side of the border, where the horrifying sounds of shooting are still fireworks. A different—lesser!—kind of horror: the reality of silence, state oppression, guilt, and isolation are starting to grow into me. The question is: How much adaptation and conformity is needed to survive in this totalitarian bubble—but not surrender to it?
The protest in Russia is no longer loud and obvious—most opposition leaders who are still alive are either imprisoned or have been forced to leave. Anti-war protesters now operate from underground, and the action takes mostly partisan and obscure forms: from sabotaging railways to going on a personal strike (the “anti-war medical leave”). And protests are occupying all forms of art and media communication that are accessible.
“No to war” is scribbled on walls and written on dusty windows, as opposed to the Z’s—the Russian version of a swastika—triumphantly presented on billboards. There is endless explaining to one’s neighbors, colleagues, family, and social-media followers about how propaganda works and what can be done against it. There are poetry readings, plays, and art exhibitions in cellars.
How much adaptation and conformity is needed to survive in this totalitarian bubble—but not surrender to it?
Almost all unsanctioned art is now happening underground. No gallery or theater will risk giving a platform to members of the opposition anymore. Luckily, we still have those cellars—there are holes in Putin’s totalitarianism, fragile little safe spaces, ways to escape and quietly form independent communities.
There are also ways to easily find a platform, money, and support if you are pro-war—more easily than before, because propaganda is short of workers and welcomes everyone. Especially my fellow poets—the state has suddenly realized that the cachet of our having a great literary tradition can be used to boost patriotism, too. Some writers and artists who are tired of feeling unneeded by their state choose this path, taking part in big concerts and TV shows. There they recite satirical doggerel about anti-war intellectuals, such as: “The poets are loyally sucking on NATO, / but are only hit with a rotten tomato,” along with lamentations about Ukraine’s supposed “suicide,” meaning its separation from Russia.
There is also a whole subgenre of poetry—and discourse as a whole—about how they are “not ashamed of being Russian.” Am I ashamed? I don’t know. Doesn’t it seem insanely narcissistic to make our country’s violence against another country all about us and our self-justifications?
So, places, activities, and moments in which one can breathe freely are scarce. Mostly you walk the streets dodging state-propaganda ads, hearing patriotic songs from passing cars, knowing that everybody you encounter, from complete strangers in coffee shops to people you trust, at any time can go on autopilot: “There are Nazis in Ukraine,” “We’re defending the Russian-speaking minority,” and so on.
“The poets are loyally sucking on NATO, / but are only hit with a rotten tomato.”
Large photos of crying children are exhibited on the city’s boulevards—the inscriptions say they are the children of Donbas, and have you no heart to not feel sorry for them? As my girlfriend says, “My thoughts and prayers are with all children of Donbas, apart from the L.G.B.T. ones”—the anti-queer propaganda has also grown immensely, probably in the state’s attempt to draw people’s attention away from their sons killing and dying in Ukraine for no good reason.
Another thing the government is struggling to distract everybody from is how much poorer we generally are now. The job market may seem to be slowly recovering, but you’d better cling to your job, because finding another one is not easy. Many of my freelancer friends have lost clients and are looking for new ones, or for an office job, without much success. I have lost some of my students, too, and agreed to a proofreading gig, which I’d never have done in my previous life—it involves loads of work for little money but is still better than nothing. Prices have gone considerably up—little did I know when trying to lose weight before that it was malnourishment that I needed. (Don’t try this at home!)
The sense of going back to the Soviet system is made really ridiculous and postmodern by the fact that capitalism is very much still here—but in a wild, completely off-the-rails version. Foreign brands that have left are hastily replaced by bland copycats: for example, in the new Russian McDonald’s there are posters with offers of employment, saying, “Some things change, but that same job is what remains.” Imports that were considered accessible and mass market, such as H&M or Zara garments, are being sold online for four times the usual price. The gray market and indirect imports are thriving at the same time that Putinists are shouting that we don’t need Western things.
The sense of going back to the Soviet system is made really ridiculous and postmodern by the fact that capitalism is very much still here.
A new cargo cult of foreign products is emerging, resembling the one that existed in the Soviet Union, but with a twist. The Soviet people never experienced the comforts of Western consumerism and, while some could be hunting for contraband jeans and cola, for most Russians such things were unheard of. We, on the other hand, had everything for two decades and are now watching in awe as our used Ikea chairs are becoming a heritage preserved for future generations.
Whenever I have a little spare money, the beautyholic in me cries to buy some good lipsticks and perfume as long as our stores still have a bit of it in stock and don’t charge millions for it. (I know it is a whim, but nowadays I’m probably more dolled up than ever, always thinking about how I still have the opportunity to shine while not being in prison.)
Watching in awe as our used Ikea chairs are becoming a heritage preserved for future generations.
The truth is, you adapt even to things that seem grotesquely not normal. You learn to feel isolated and alone and not fit in, which is a bit unnatural for a human—it’s like you’re stuck being bullied in middle school with your government as the bully. You learn to be invisible in the most dangerous and hopeless situations, and outspoken and furious where you feel you can change something or persuade somebody.
You learn to make everything of the things that the government can’t ban or still hasn’t banned. For example, talking to people, even those believing the propaganda, and trying to understand their feelings and find the right words to bring them doubt. Also hope, love, friendship, cute cat pics, and the insights into how much we’ve been lied to since our childhoods. Whatever may follow, we’re learning to be free, responsible, and caring right here and now.
Katya V. is a poet, a feminist, and a tutor of Russian and English