Do we have to leave Russia to learn about Russia?
My experience as a foreign student and civil rights activist in Prague opened my eyes to what life in Putin’s Russia is really like.
I was born in the Soviet Union. It sounds almost absurd to me today, but I was born in the USSR mere months before it collapsed, leaving millions of its inhabitants to wander the ruins of the evil empire. At last, people were able to enjoy their freedoms and rights, but poverty and violence became a serious threat to Russia’s young democracy. Bloody wars and uprisings broke out across one-sixth of the planet, while millionaires devoured black caviar in luxury homes on Moscow’s Rublyovka. Independent media - something completely new to the Russian public - began to establish itself in this environment. Dealing with censorship and lack of funding, Russian journalists covered the war in Chechnya and the emergence of a market economy. Television emerged as the main source of entertainment for most households, becoming a curious mix of analytical programs, Latin American soap operas, cartoons and gay music videos.
Now, when I remember my childhood, I compare the Russia of my memories with today’s Russia, disrupted by corruption, state violence and propaganda. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has little to offer to its citizens, apart from militarism and diminishing freedoms. The current violent crackdown on protesters, a struggling economy and intrusive propaganda depress people and encourage emigration. My story of migration, education and activism is an attempt to explain how these experiences can change our understanding of life in Russia today.
Ordinary Soviet city
I was born in the city of Perm, in the Urals, to a young, ordinary Soviet couple, who welcomed perestroika with joy. After she graduated from Kyiv state university, my mother was sent to Perm to work at a military equipment factory; she was given a room in a communal apartment, where I spent my first childhood years, from 1991 to 1996.
My early memories are very dim and mostly about dirt, long, cold winters and poor people. I remember our apartment: a large, four-bedroom place in a new, ten-storey house on a hill on the outskirts of Perm. In the neighbouring rooms lived a young woman, a friend of my mother’s, who dated a firefighter, and a lonely, one-legged old man.
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Most of my classmates were excited about future careers in management or finance, but I found such prospects boring and searched for a different path
To get to kindergarten – set up for the factory workers’ children – my mother and I had to take a long, narrow path down the hill to a tram stop. It was particularly adventurous on dark and freezing winter mornings. The trams were old and often broke. We had to wait and wait for that tram to come, in the street, every day, and it always seemed it would never arrive, and everyone waiting there just wanted to get on it to get warm.
I also remember how the local grocery stores began to change: they were clean and no longer smelled strange. Delicious yogurts in beautiful boxes and sweets with foreign lettering appeared everywhere. And then, when I was around nine, a huge four-storey mall opened in the centre of town, with a food court, clothes shops and even a cinema. This is how I learned life in Perm could be good; my parents and I were proud of our city.
St Petersburg, where we moved next, and where there were better schools, was nothing like Perm. My father’s mother had been born here, but she was evacuated to the east when the city was blockaded during the Second World War. And since people did not move around very much in the Soviet Union, she stayed in the Urals, where my father was born, and where I was born too.
My school was named after a celebrated writer and journalist, Ivan Krylov, who wrote short, didactic stories filled with mystical allure, ridiculing human vice. St Petersburg is sometimes called Russia’s cultural capital – a fair alternative to Moscow, the country’s political and financial heart. I studied, I went to the Hermitage, I went to the Russian Museum, I spent days in cafés and restaurants, making my first, very awkward writing steps. During the “white nights” in summer (when the sun never fully sets), I drank beer near the river with other teenagers. We were young, free and happy.
Of course, like teenagers everywhere, we were also stressed about grades and exams. Our parents – former Soviet citizens and now middle-class Europeans – expected a lot from us. Most of my classmates were excited about future careers in management or finance, but I found such prospects boring and searched for a different path.
Student in and of Europe
I left Russia as soon as I finished school, in 2008. My dream was to study political science, and I headed to the Czech Republic, where I studied Czech for a year in order to enter Charles University in Prague. My future career seemed very distant to me, a common problem for many foreign students. In the movies, migrants from eastern Europe are often portrayed as petty criminals, janitors, or prostitutes. They have bad accents, bad teeth and are always in trouble with the police and the mafia. Rarely are they promising students or part of the social elite; and I felt proud to be breaking the stereotype.
The next years of my life were filled with the magical ambience of the centuries-old university. My fellow students, almost all of them Czechs and Slovaks, accepted me wholeheartedly. We shared books and ideas. We went to pubs to talk politics – very often about Putin – and we organised and took part in protests. We stood in solidarity with refugees and migrants, protested against Russia’s annexation of Crimea and marched for gay rights from Wenceslas Square to Letná Park. Protests and civic engagement were a normal part of our daily life.
As a university student, I learned about the Prague Spring, about decades of Soviet control over the Eastern bloc, about prison and exile, concentration camps, spies, threats, lies, propaganda and all the sickening tools of control that persisted for decades, before the communist system finally began to fall apart. I don’t remember what our Russian school textbooks said about Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. But I remember that for us, Russian schoolchildren of the new millennium, the Gulag, mass executions, psychiatric abuses and other Soviet atrocities were just historical facts – no more than that. Unlike the crimes of the Nazis, we were never taught to denounce the unspeakable cruelty of the Soviet regime’s mass arrests, labour camps or forced relocations.
Hello, I am back
A year after graduating, I decided to return to Russia. Eight years of living abroad had become exhausting. I felt insecure with my degree in political science in Europe; the kind of jobs I was interested in seemed a better fit for European citizens. Bureaucracy, constant visa extensions, occasional misunderstandings with the locals can be frustrating and discouraging. But that wasn’t the only reason: I believed that at home, as a grown-up, educated and ambitious person, I could make a career and a contribution. I wasn’t aiming to join opposition circles or to become an investigative journalist, I thought there were many opportunities for young professionals. After all, we all spoke the same mother tongue, which makes many things in life easier.
But just a few months after my return, I felt disappointed. I couldn’t find a job: most of the available work was low-skilled and underpaid. People seemed apathetic and bored, and deeply unsatisfied. Civic engagement was sporadic, and often took the form of difficult and undervalued labour, both self-denying and heroic: taking care of the sick and poor or rescuing animals in the woods. The harder these activities looked, the more respected they seemed to be, and many people confused civic engagement with charity.
Despite seeming largely apolitical, I found Russian society deeply affected by the past twenty years, a period marked by blatant corruption, political fraud, murders, assaults, oppression by security forces and a perpetual war against independent media. Fuelled by propaganda, Putinism crept into the lives of people, leaving little room for political and human rights activists to operate. But I still believe that activism is possible in every environment, and that just by informing yourself and being curious and passionate about something, you can open doors and get people’s attention.
The future is too violent
As a global youth movement against the climate emergency grew, I was happy to discover a regional Russian branch, inspired by Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg. These young people inform society about the latest scientific developments and the Russian government’s reaction to the climate crisis and ecological catastrophe. I found it very moving. It has shown me – and the world – that non-violent activism is possible in Russia, despite state propaganda and the close attention of the FSB, the state security service.
But everything changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. All our plans turned into a series of long video calls. For many, the difficult, unpaid and stressful work of activism was too much to bear in these new conditions. Many became frightened and fatigued from spending hours making infographics or translating scientific articles while being completely unprotected in a violent country.
In a matter of months, Russia transformed from an authoritarian country with limited freedoms into a warmongering state. Despite many people remembering the regime’s numerous unlawful acts over the past twenty years – from the assassination of Boris Nemtsov to assaults on journalists and hundreds of fabricated cases against opposition politicians and activists – everybody was shocked by the recent restrictive laws, expanding censorship and adding more restrictions on public protests. And, of course, the most outrageous scandal in modern Russia: the poisoning of opposition politician Alexey Navalny.
As I followed Navalny’s miraculous recovery in Berlin, his dramatic return to Russia and immediate arrest in Moscow, and how these events have united thousands of people across the country in solidarity against police violence and corrupt courts, I suddenly felt hope and joy again. For me and for many other Russians, Navalny’s brilliant investigations remain unchallenged in today’s Russian political and cultural reality.
Independent bloggers and journalists today draw parallels with the Soviet past and compare Russia’s crackdown on protests to a situation in Belarus, pointing out Vladimir Putin’s generous $1.5 billion loan last year to support Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Putin himself must have predicted the current social unrest when he signed a new restrictive package of laws in the last days of 2020.
For many, inescapable poverty and systemic violence will be too hard to cope with in the post-pandemic environment. In these circumstances, migration may appear the best possibility to provide for yourself and your loved ones
In the context of Russia’s parliamentary elections later this year, protests and growing political awareness are crucial to defeating Putin’s party, United Russia, at the ballot box. But hardly anybody in the country believes in the possibility of an entirely peaceful transition of power.
For many, inescapable poverty and systemic violence will be too hard to cope with in the post-pandemic environment. In these circumstances, migration may appear the best possibility to provide for yourself and your loved ones. Once borders reopen and economies restart after lockdowns and restrictions, are we to expect a wave of migrants from Russia, escaping tyranny and looking for better economic opportunities?
As someone who has been a migrant, I can’t help but hope that everyone who is considering leaving the country they grew up in will have the same opportunities and experiences I had many years ago. And that access to high-quality education and experience with civil society will help them navigate the modern, post-pandemic world. Not only to assimilate into new societies abroad, but to be brave and ambitious enough to change them.
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