Should I regret being Russian? Should I be ashamed? These questions have been in the back of my mind for at least a decade. But ever since yesterday, when my country was in the headlines again for all the wrong reasons, I can’t seem to think of anything else.
I love Russia and want to be proud to call it my home, but how can I be proud when I can’t even remember the last time it did something good for its citizens or the world?
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, I was too young to fully understand the gravity of what happened. But I could still feel that it was wrong. And despite having absolutely nothing to say about it, I felt somewhat responsible for the actions of the Russian government. After all, during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which took place just days before annexation, I celebrated every gold medal Russia won as if it were my own personal achievement. I felt this should be no different: you can’t choose when you identify with your country.
In the months that followed, the Russian state continued to behave in a way that drew condemnation in the international arena, and Russophobia spread throughout Europe. I was studying in the UK at the time and experienced this first hand. I found myself explaining over and over again that “I didn’t vote for Putin”, that “I’m not homophobic”, that “I don’t support war”. Once outside a concert hall in London, my friends asked the members of a band when they would have a concert in Russia. “When you stop flying planes,” was the singer’s sarcastic response. He was referring to the Malaysia Airlines plane that was shot down by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine earlier that summer. Of course, we knew that as a group of teenagers we had no responsibility for that tragedy, but the singer’s comments still stung.
The scandalous actions of the Russian government did not harm us ordinary Russians, but only fueled Russophobia and turned the world community against us. These actions, which caused so much suffering to so many, also paralyzed our lives in much more concrete ways.
Around the time of the annexation of Crimea, I took a taxi from central London to Heathrow airport. Throughout that hour-long drive, I kept updating the exchange rate between the British pound and the Russian ruble and watched it grow in horror. When I finally got to the airport, the pound was worth a whopping 115 rubles, a 155 percent increase from a few months earlier when I first moved to the UK.
Suddenly, because of something my government did that I had no control over, my life, my education, my future was in jeopardy. My family’s tourism business came to a standstill. With all our savings in Russian currency, the cost of education in another country, the cost of living, the cost of rent had almost doubled. I wasn’t sure I could stay in the UK, that I could continue to put food on my table.
The Russian economy never really recovered from that blow. But life had to go on, and it did. We learned to live with much less, we accepted that we could no longer afford many things. Low exchange rates, economic stability, and frequent, visa-free European travel began to feel like stories from a different, distant time: stories told to us young Russians by the older generation who remember what life was like before Putin.
So we adapted, accepted life as it is, and held out hope that one day things would change, that our country’s reputation as an evil empire would eventually fade.
Perhaps as a result of this acceptance, in recent weeks, as the world speculated about another possible Russian incursion into Ukraine, life in Moscow was eerily normal. Hardly anyone mentioned the subject. After all, we have been living in a state of confrontation with Ukraine for eight years, and these speculations were nothing new.
It seemed that everyone wanted to simply avoid even considering the possibility of war and the consequences that would inevitably follow.
It was easier, and more reassuring, to believe that the Western media was dramatizing the situation and blowing it out of proportion, and that Putin was not deranged enough to invade. Even as we watched his televised speech in which he took an hour to explain why Ukraine should not exist and ultimately recognize the independence of breakaway Donbas territories, we hoped that was as far as he would go. .
So, on the morning of February 24, when the Ukrainian people woke up to the nightmare of an all-out invasion, the Russian people also woke up to our own nightmare.
Of course, the two situations cannot be compared in any way. We didn’t hear explosions outside our windows, we didn’t see tanks rolling down our streets, we didn’t fear for our lives. But when we turned on our televisions and watched the international headlines, we also realized that life as we knew it was about to disintegrate.
Just like our Ukrainian neighbors, overnight we ordinary Russians also became victims of the Russian government.
And we could not share our pain with anyone or seek support from anyone.
The global community, which had long been inclined to perceive all Russians as supporters and enablers of a destructive regime, did not take the time to turn on us.
Suddenly, the internet was filled with hate, harassment, and abuse directed at all Russians, including millions of us who never wanted this war, never supported this war, never had a chance to stop this war.
My partner, who is in desperate need of a job, told me that he decided to hide his Russian nationality on his resume because he feared that Europeans would be reluctant to hire a Russian citizen. He would have dismissed it as paranoia if several EU states hadn’t stopped issuing visas to Russians, telling us we are no longer welcome.
Everyone – people on the internet, pundits and politicians on TV, protesters in Europe’s cities – made it clear that they hold us all responsible for Putin’s actions. They made it clear that they believe we have the power to stop all of this and that we are doing nothing.
Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed a similar sentiment: “Do the Russians want war? I would really like to answer this question, but that is up to you, citizens of the Russian Federation,” he said in a widely praised speech, urging us to protest against the invasion.
The truth is that the overwhelming majority of Russians do not want this war. We don’t want any war at all. We held our breath as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) forces marched into Kazakhstan this winter. We sighed with relief when, against all odds, Putin did not send troops to Belarus during the 2020 unrest.
And, perhaps surprisingly to many, the Russians heeded Zelenskyy’s protest call. People took to the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg and 40 other Russian cities to tell Putin and his regime that the Russian people do not want this war. We did this despite knowing full well that we could face arbitrary arrests, police brutality, or worse. And we did. More than 1,800 protesters were arrested in 24 hours. Some will soon be released after paying a fine. Many others will spend at least a few weeks behind bars. But we went out into the street knowing these risks. We wanted to show the world that this regime does not represent us.
I can’t imagine how Ukrainians feel today. Because I don’t know how it feels to wake up to sirens, to hide in subway stations, to be afraid that the next shell will hit your apartment. But I share his indignation, his disgust, and I hate his. And I know that many Russians like me feel the same way.
It is despicable to attack a peaceful state, no history lesson could justify it. It makes me sick that our sister nations are fighting each other. I hate that my beautiful country, full of brilliant and wonderful people, is forever tainted by the unforgivable actions of the government.
Today we Russians who do not want this war stand in solidarity with our Ukrainian brothers and sisters. And we understand the world’s anger at our government. But we just hope that since people are legitimately angry with the Russian government, they don’t direct their anger at us as well. We also suffer from this war; we too are victims of this increasingly totalitarian regime.
But still, I can’t shake my embarrassment. So for what it’s worth, I finally know the answer to that question that’s been on my mind for so long. Sorry. Sorry, I’m Russian.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Exquisite Post.