A Farewell to Russia
It has now been a year since Russia, my birthplace, invaded Ukraine. For 365 days, we have been waking up to news of Russian missile strikes, bombings, murders, torture, and rape. It has been 365 days of shame and confusion, of wanting to turn away but needing to know what is happening, of watching Russians become "ruscists," "Orks," or "putinoids." For 365 days, the designation "Russian-American," previously straightforward, has felt like a contradiction in terms.
For those in my situation, some methods of adapting to the new circumstances have come easier than others. Russian books still crowd my bookcase, but I no longer have any wish to re-read them. Chekhov and Nabokov cannot be blamed for the aggression against Ukraine, but it nonetheless has stolen their magic and their capacity to teach. These authors were my friends, as were the old-country rituals like Russian Easter vigils and New Year's screenings of the Soviet classic Irony of Fate. I feel the loss acutely, but perhaps it is for the better. It helps me concentrate on the present.
Other changes have required more soul-searching. Every Russian in the West used to feel like an envoy of a great culture and a great country. In the West, the romantic appeal of Russia's stated priorities – communal over individualistic, socialist over capitalist, spiritual over material, heart over head – was so strong that I, too, became convinced of Russia's hidden goodness, even though I had left the country as soon as I could in the 1990s.
Now, I am reminded why. Russia is special, but mainly in the sense that it is uniquely capable of destroying, in a matter of days, what took centuries to build. From Tchaikovsky's harmonies to Pushkin's verses, Russian culture has been besmirched by people whose atrocities have negated their ancestors' achievements. Russia has been dragged back to the barbaric customs of Muscovy, as if the 19th century never happened.
As someone who was shaped by Russian and Soviet literature, I have been made to feel like an unwilling partner to Russian crimes. That is why, since last February, I have abandoned any pretence of being a cultural envoy. In some ways, it has been liberating. I now know that one's search for meaning need not – and sometimes must not – be confined to any cultural tradition.
Still, it isn't easy questioning your own past. Flipping through family albums, we used to see our grandfathers as heroes who had survived the great terror, won the great war, and built a great country. They suffered so that their grandchildren could live in peace (and "they," of course, included Ukrainians).
But those sacrifices have been squandered. We now must consider the possibility that our grandparents' achievements merely extended the life of a totalitarian monster, imparting to it the legitimacy that it craved. How should we think about the 23-27 million Soviet citizens who died in the 20th century's war against fascism? Many of them were the grandparents of the 21st century's own fascists.
This answer wasn't so straightforward just a few years ago. After the end of the Cold War, Russia seemed like the freest country in the world. It was also believed to be a country capable of repentance. The fact that nobody was called to answer for the communist regime's crimes was viewed as proof of our collective desire for national healing, rather than as a deliberate effort by the new authorities to clear themselves of any blame.
Today, Putin's war on Ukraine is being directed, supplied, and supported by Russians who, like me, lived through perestroika and glasnost. They have wasted that era's promise and built another prison "on the ruins of despotism." What felt like a conscious national choice in the 1990s turned out to be an aspiration of the few. The very idea of "national choice" seems like a hollow concept now. Russians exist only as subjects, their society an atomised mass where some just try to survive, and others cheer on the regime's crimes so that they can forget about their own misery for a while. Those brave few who stand up to defy the system end up being swallowed by it.
To be Russian today is to be culturally hollowed out. For those of us with half our lives behind us, it is not as though we can simply adopt a new set of favourite books, movies or holiday traditions. You can read Gogol and explore Ukrainian folk songs, but you cannot adopt a Ukrainian identity, because it would feel immoral even to try. All you can do is dissolve into the background and hope nobody asks where you got your accent. When you cheer for Ukraine, you do it quietly from the sidelines.
What are we to do with our memories, family sagas, and earlier exalted perceptions of our place in the "historical process" (as the Marxists used to put it)? Since the past cannot be cancelled, it must be either repressed or deglamorised for the sake of the present and the future. Everything now hinges on the outcome of the war. If Ukraine wins and Putin's regime falls, it may still be possible for Russia to rehabilitate itself someday – as Germany once did.
That will be a task for every decent person – Russians and everyone else – to advance when the time comes. But even with a hoped-for Ukrainian victory, there will be no return to the past when Russia existed as a unique civilisation. That Russia, real or imagined, expired on February 24, 2022. Let us drink to the departed.
Anastasia Edel is the author of Putin's Playground: Empire, Revolution, and the New Tsar.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023