oDR: Opinion

Ukraine doesn’t need the Russian diaspora’s shame. It needs its voice

Russians abroad must not allow Putin to define them but must shape a new national identity, one that can take a stand against a perverted state

Polina Bachlakova
7 March 2022, 3.41pm
Pro-Ukraine demonstrators in Trafalgar Square on February 27 February
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Lucy North / Alamy Stock Photo

Russia invaded Ukraine over a week ago. And since then, Russians living abroad – myself included – have been talking about one feeling in particular: shame.

Although my family immigrated to Canada when I was a little kid, shame over the Russian invasion has grown to a constant gnawing within my belly. As Vladimir Putin sends rockets towards apartment blocks in Kyiv; as I obsessively watch videos of Ukrainians taking shelter in the metro; and as I imagine what it is like to take up arms to defend one’s home against, well, us, the feeling only gets more corrosive. I know that many other Russians and people with Russian heritage can relate.

But let’s face it: the world doesn’t need Russian shame right now. Shame immobilises. It implies embarrassment more than horror, inviting us to lick our wounds and look inward. That helps no one, least of all Ukraine. Instead, we should be taking a stand.

Putin has shown us the extent of the Russian state’s perversion, albeit in acid tones we’d never imagined we’d see. That needs to be pushed back against, and we in the Russian diaspora are in a uniquely sheltered position to speak up.

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So, I think that two things need to happen. Outwardly, we must move past our shame to embrace what I believe is our moral responsibility: to recognise our privilege compared to Russians living under Putin’s regime and act in solidarity with Ukrainians and the world. Inwardly, we need to confront our shame by accepting that our identities as Russian people have been shattered. We will see ourselves differently going forward, as will others. And so we must ask ourselves: how would we like to be seen – and what can we do about it?

Putting privilege to use for Ukraine

Nowadays, I live in Denmark. I can attend protests without fearing for my safety. I can post what I think on my social media accounts without having to worry about repercussions for myself or my family. And I can access any news source I want to gain the most thorough understanding of Russia’s invasion and its ramifications. Many other Russians living abroad are in the same situation.

The same cannot be said for many people living under Putin’s regime. The Russian police swiftly arrest those who protest their president’s war against Ukraine. Public access to information that doesn’t toe the state line is becoming more restricted by the day. And outspoken figures run the risk of being made an example of – as Alexei Navalny’s continuing imprisonment shows. Russians living inside Russia enjoy little space for dissent, so we must do our best to fill the gap. I deeply feel it is our duty to recognise our privilege and speak up against the Russian state’s actions.

What does that look like? Attending demonstrations and speaking out on social media are good starting points, as is donating money to organisations helping Ukrainians on the ground. What’s more, we must challenge our family members’ attitudes that partially excuse Russia’s actions in Ukraine. I’m not talking about the declaration of war per se – it’s clear that most Russian people are disgusted by this. But many of us heard a version of the ‘Russia against the world’ story growing up. I certainly did.

Whether they were complaining about Russia’s ‘stolen’ victory in the Second World War or American meddling in Russian affairs, my family gave me the impression that post-Soviet Russia is the world’s anti-hero and victim. Even though my parents were openly critical of the state, an undercurrent of pride in Russia’s status as the black sheep remained.

Moreover, the legacy of Soviet imperialism isn’t exactly gone. Even today, I hear my family members and their friends implying that Russia was and still can be the superior power, while ex-Soviet states like Ukraine are somehow lesser entities culturally and historically.

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Smoke over Gostomel and Bucha, north east of Kyiv
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Image: UNIAN. Used with permission

When it comes to Russia’s war against Ukraine, those attitudes can mutate into excuses for some of Putin’s behaviour. I’ve heard things like: “He warned the West to stop entertaining the idea of Ukraine joining NATO, but they didn’t listen,” and, “What Putin is doing to Ukrainians is horrific, but the world pushed Russia into a corner,” as well as “The West underestimated Russia once again; they should have known who they’re dealing with.”

On the one hand, statements like these show that some Russians still view Putin as a leader whose strongman stance is justified – even if they disagree with most of his actions and especially the horrors he’s inflicting on the Ukrainian population. On the other hand, people like my parents lived through communism. They know from experience that a Russian leader will rule with an iron fist, and value power and control above almost anything else – including human lives and wellbeing. The bottom line? Because of our history and culture, some Russian people can see where Putin is coming from. And, as a result, they might think that resistance is futile.

But right now, we desperately need to believe in resistance. I’m not saying it’s going to stop Putin. But, bit by bit, it can help unravel the attitudes that helped Putin come to power and hold on to it. So, if you’re a Russian person, I urge you to initiate the difficult conversations. Challenge those who, consciously or not, find a way to explain away what Putin has done. Russia is not a victim: it is the aggressor. To argue this line to family and friends can be deeply uncomfortable and comes with emotional and cultural risk, but it is one of the truest forms of solidarity that we can offer Ukrainians today.

Our identities have been broken. Now what?

I was born in 1992. When Russia slaughtered Chechens wanting independence from Russian rule and influence, I was too young to truly understand. The same goes for when Russia backed nationalist Serbs committing war crimes against Bosnians. Although I learned more about Russia’s past as I became an adult, my perception of myself as a Russian person was already cemented by what I was told growing up. And what I internalised was largely positive.

As a child and teenager, I viewed Russia as a welcome and willing member of the global, democratic community. The Cold War was over, communism was a relic of the past, and Russia and the West were allies. And, for most of my life, my identity as a Russian person never caused me strife or shame. That has changed over the past ten years. Crackdowns on domestic LGBTQ+ activists, KGB-esque international assassinations, Russia’s support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and the annexation of Crimea all eroded the security I had felt in my identity as a Russian. When Putin invaded Ukraine a week ago, it finally shattered.

I no longer know what my role is as part of the Russian diaspora. My family and upbringing are undeniably Russian, but both my feet are firmly planted in Western values. Nor do I know which parts of my Russian cultural memory are true – and which are propaganda that needs to be debunked. And I definitely don’t know how to accept that my deep bond with Ukrainians is now broken. Both my maternal grandparents are Ukrainian Jews. As I stood in front of Babi Yar in Kyiv – the site of large-scale Nazi massacres – in 2019, my heart stuck in my throat as I contemplated how many of my family members were killed by the Nazis. My story is not unique. Many Russians have Ukrainian heritage, or at least feel a powerful connection to the Ukrainian people.

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Inside Kharkiv Regional State Administration after Russian forces fired a missile at central Freedom Square
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(c) Ukrinform / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Moreover, most Russians are fiercely proud of our role in the Second World War and view it as a significant part of our cultural identity. The Soviet Union suffered the greatest number of casualties during the war, and it’s widely known that Hitler’s failed invasion of Russia was the beginning of the end for him. My family genuinely saw this as evidence that, ultimately, Russia was capable of doing more for the greater good of the world than most other countries.

Yet, just like that, Putin has undermined this legacy. Russia helped end World War II, but now it’s the one threatening to start World War III. For my family – and probably many other Russians – this is a deep blow that erases a part of our identity that we all used to cherish.

For all these reasons, I suspect many Russians abroad feel their identity shifting under their feet. Feel it breaking apart and becoming lost. How can we not after Putin declared war on people who, up until now, we’ve considered our brothers and sisters? So for better or worse, I feel that we in the Russian diaspora must start the process of defining ourselves again from scratch. We need to think about what we want it to ‘mean’ to be Russian today, and how we can convince both ourselves and others to perceive us in that way. If we don’t take the initiative, there will be little to stop Putin’s actions from tarring us completely. I, personally, will start by showing up for Ukrainians and everyone else with democratic and humanitarian values. And then I’ll take it from there.

Moreover, I am Russian, but I am also Canadian. Right now, it’s tempting to completely shun my Russian side and focus on my identity as a Canadian woman – to surgically remove myself from what Russia is doing to Ukraine. Many Russians abroad with dual nationalities or residencies have the same option. But I strongly feel that we need to resist this temptation. If we own up to the fact that we’re Russian, we can exercise some agency over our identities in the future. I don’t know what those identities will look or feel like. But I do know that we need to redefine the Russian parts of ourselves. To me, it’s not a matter of choice. It’s an urgent need for Ukrainians, for the democratic world and for ourselves.

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