Cold, Ashamed, Relieved: On Leaving Russia
A Russian writer describes the journey of those, like himself, who chose exile rather than remain as their country invaded Ukraine.
Editor’s note: This article has been translated from the original Russian by Boris Dralyuk. It was written by Maxim Osipov as he made his journey into exile from his town of Tarusa to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where Russians are allowed to enter without visas, and finally to Berlin.
Cold, ashamed, relieved. These three words close Defying Hitler, Sebastian Haffner’s memoir about the rise of fascism, written before the Second World War and published posthumously. It was a book that held us rapt last year. In it we sought and found coincidences with our own recent situation. And now many of us who have gone elsewhere—to Yerevan, Tbilisi, Baku, Nur-Sultan, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, Samarkand—have also gotten to experience firsthand, on our own skin, those three words: frostig, beschämt, befreit.
We are those who left (escaped, fled) Russia shortly after it invaded Ukraine. We hate war, hate the one who unleashed it, but we also weren’t planning to abandon our homeland (motherland, fatherland)—every word, whichever you choose, starting with whichever letter, capital or lowercase, feels dirty, dishonored. The temptation to look at yourself as the flower of the nation (“We took Russia with us,” and so on—one hears such immoderate expressions from time to time) must be dismissed as dangerous nonsense. Some say that when you lose, you learn your true worth. Soon we will learn—because that’s what we are, losers, both historically and spiritually. Hundreds of thousands, millions of people who share our values have stayed behind, and they are busy at work: treating the ill, taking care of elderly parents, of one another. But no matter how ashamed those of us who have left are before those who have remained, it would be good to remember that the dividing line between us compatriots is drawn on another field: between those who are against this war and those who are for it.
“Where are you flying to?” they ask at the border.
You’d like to respond, Not where to, but where from. Instead you say, “To Yerevan, on vacation.”
Those who are younger and traveling alone are taken aside and interrogated, the contents of their bags and cellphones searched. The rumor is that they’re looking for people who plan to fight on the side of Ukraine, but (the excesses of performers) they get carried away, take pleasure in humiliating boys and girls from good families: If you’re really going on vacation, why do you need your diploma, your birth certificate, old letters and photographs, your dog or cat? Why a one-way ticket, and was it worth $1,000? Comrade, you bet it was.
Most of the passengers are young. For them this is a biographical twist, and perhaps not the worst of its kind, but for us older people it’s life collapsing. Funny thing: There isn’t a single Armenian on the flight from Moscow to Yerevan. The fun ends there.
The first days of the war were spent numbly listening to the news, writing and signing anti-war letters, drinking large amounts of water (alcohol did nothing to calm), struggling to fix important details in your mind (your short-term memory was shot), and trying to get through to friends in Ukraine.
On the mood of your fellow citizens: Those who have relatives in Ukraine (a minority) are terribly depressed. But a great many are belligerent, explaining away the failures of attacks on Kyiv by stressing the humanity of the Russian army. “Vegetables for borscht”—that’s what they talk about on TV, saying that prices might go up and we can’t allow that—is a good, sonorous designation for all those who support this war and whatever else the government initiates. His blood be upon us and on our children: What was it made of, the rabble that, instead of the paschal seder, dragged itself to Pilate’s court? They were “vegetables for borscht,” who are present at all times and in all nations. At moments like the present, common citizens, the support and basis of civilization, become a hulking pile of vegetables. And here’s the result: Innocent blood be upon us, on our children, and on our children’s children.
The use of the words vegetables and they puts us on shaky ground (do not dehumanize your opponents), but this is a war—partly a civil one—and we, the dissenters, did not start it. The time for talking is over, and everyone must choose a side. It’s also too late to blame yourself: You couldn’t offer anything more attractive and didn’t compose the right democratic songs, while the idea of living like a human being turned out to be alien and unappealing to them.
Sometimes even relatives give up on one another.
“Mom, they’re bombing us!” a young woman in Kyiv shouts into the phone.
“You’re wrong, baby girl,” the mother replies from St. Petersburg. “TV said no civilians were harmed.”
There is another form of support for the war—a relatively gentle, genteel variety: We just want it all to be over as soon as possible, honestly, but we’ll never know the whole truth, because only God knows that. Fine, but does that absolve us of the responsibility to seek the truth? God’s not a wild card to be pulled out of your sleeve at a convenient moment.
Suffocation, shame, and hatred are the words that characterize those days. At the very beginning of March, a rumor spread that martial law was about to be declared. The letter Z appeared on the streets, along with the previously unimaginable slogan “We are not ashamed.” You felt your internal spring compressing, refusing to decompress. And you began to sympathize with Jan Palach, the student who self-immolated when the Prague Spring was crushed. We were again being driven into a filthy, stuffy pigpen, even filthier than the one in which we were born. Would you let your children and grandchildren line up in Z formation?
No. Absolutely not.
It took only a day to pack. What would you take with you if you died? You stood in the dark, in silence, breathed the cool air of Tarusa, and bowed to the graves of your parents. Saying goodbye to your home and possessions was easy: Is it appropriate to grow sentimental when Russian bombs are falling on Kharkiv and Kyiv, Mariupol and Lviv? On the way to the airport, you drove through Moscow. Although this is where you were born, where you studied and lived, it has long been enemy territory. Parting with people is hard, nearly impossible; parting with Moscow is easy.
The flight to Yerevan departs on schedule. Feelings—do you just know that you should have them, or do you really have them? There’s no telling. Strongest of all is the sense of curiosity, as if you’ve been given a glimpse of life after death. Otherwise, the flight is perfectly normal, except that, by circumventing Ukrainian airspace, it takes four hours, rather than the usual two.
Yerevan greeted us with delicious food, springtime weather, skyrocketing rents, and the chance to catch our breath. Of course, we would never have found our footing—both physically and morally—without the help of close friends living here. All gratitude to them.
Groups of Muscovites roam the streets of Yerevan, with many familiar faces among them—you rush to shake hands, but stop: You can’t remember the names. We all hyperventilate and our mouths are constantly dry. We go around holding water bottles and cellphones (for directions). Many have chapped lips, from nervous licking. No one wears masks. Against the backdrop of this war, even the coronavirus feels like a thing of the past, distant and harmless.
The scale of the catastrophe (recall: a week ago, no one thought of leaving Russia) becomes clearer to us on about the third or fourth day, when we finally have time to stop and think about our own lives, to assess the seriousness of what’s happened.
Conversations in cafés: “Should I stay here or move to Tbilisi?” “They don’t like Russians over there, but at least Georgia isn’t as dependent on Moscow.” “Why limit yourself to Europe? Consider Uruguay. Or Colombia.” “I was offered a job treating tuberculosis in Somalia.”
“How you doing, deserters?” an older Russian man shouts to a group of young, hipsterish people as he enters the café. The youngsters smile politely but do not laugh. The joke bombed.
Some have already gotten down to business in Yerevan, finding jobs in repositories of ancient manuscripts or in architectural firms, organizing theater groups, looking for Russian-speaking football coaches for their children, learning the Armenian language (so far only the alphabet) and reading signs and street names aloud. Others complain that they can’t withdraw money or open a bank account, but they do so quietly; everyone understands the need to measure their hardships against those of Ukrainians. Some cry: family falling apart; husband’s still in Moscow; son’s turning 18 soon, wants to go back and enroll in college. Others need a psychiatrist: guilt complex, suicide attempt. And all of this less than two weeks into the war. Think of the horrors this completely mediocre person (we prefer not to utter his name) has brought to tens of millions of people. To Ukrainians first and foremost. But think of the damage he has done to Russians, too—in some cases ruining their minds, and in others, like ours, their entire lives. Who is he and why did he make, despite his pedantry and caution, such grandiose mistakes? Which literary character does he remind us of?
A bland, unpedigreed security officer nicknamed the Moth, he watched the European world on West German television, probably dreaming of someday becoming part of it and living, for example, in Stuttgart. Then he tried his hand at a few other things, like driving a taxi—which for some reason causes him embarrassment—and later became the head of the nation. He got bored, started playing criminal ditties on the piano with two fingers and slamming 12 pucks into the net per match. For more than 20 years he corrupted people, but he got even more bored, and then this COVID thing came along. He didn’t only corrupt people, of course—he also killed them. But he did so without passion, being by nature more squeamish than passionate. And then he—this man without the faintest shadow of erudition on his face—read something (or was told something?) by one or another graphomaniac philosopher or fantasy author. And what happened to him is what sometimes happens to Russian people who don’t know how to identify a fairy tale, to distinguish fiction from reality—what happens to the heroes of Andrei Platonov, say, except that these are largely bright, pure people, while he is dark and no good at all. A closer analogy is Smerdyakov, the impressionable murderer in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov fools around and composes poems while Smerdyakov takes a paperweight and slams Fyodor Pavlovich on the head—once, twice, thrice.
Who, in our case, played the role of Ivan, spinning sweet yarns about the “Russian world”? We just don’t know: the philosopher Ilyin, Solzhenitsyn, the graphomaniac businessman Yuryev, the students of the “methodologist” Shchedrovitsky? Was it the current patriarch of Moscow or some unknown church elders who led our Smerdyakov astray (“It’s always worthwhile speaking to a clever man,” said Smerdyakov—and this one longs to talk to Gandhi)? We should note another point of resemblance with the literary Smerdyakov: Both have a preternatural sense for the lowest, basest instincts in other people, and can instantly find their weaknesses.
The fifth of March, Stalin’s death day. Great hopes were pinned on this date, as they would later be on the 16th (Purim).
A sigh at the next table over, with a quote from Pushkin:
“Our days are numbered by another …” A humanist, obviously.
“That bastard croaked, and so will this one.” Clinking glasses.
The death of the dictator is universally desired, including, of course, where he lives, in Moscow, and this gives rise to stories of the following sort. A very nice Muscovite editor has a pious friend; let’s call her Olga Vladimirovna (fake name, real patronymic). Shortly after the start of the war, Olga Vladimirovna sends the editor a message, asking her to go to a cathedral to request a memorial prayer for the recently deceased Vladimir. The editor follows her friend’s instructions and calls to express her condolences; she didn’t even know that her father, Vladimir Alexandrovich, had passed. “Was it his heart?” After a pause, Olga Vladimirovna answers: “You think me better than I am.” (Praying for the living as for the dead, ordering memorial services for them, putting candles upside down are traditional folk methods, verified over centuries, for getting a person out of this realm.)
In Yerevan, you’ve covered Tumanyan Street and Mashtots Avenue, looked around Echmiadzin, taken trips to Garni and Geghard. Touristic impressions, however, are fleeting even in the best of times, and now there’s simply no place for them in the soul. Better get back to the computer—write letters, watch the news.
The news is that our army faces defeat. It’s difficult to rejoice at this, but victory would be infinitely more terrible. The feeling of failure arose in the first days of the war and has only intensified over time. The might of the Russian army was clearly overestimated, and the very image of it, invented by propaganda (the soldiers as the “polite people” who annexed Crimea), is completely false. It differs not only from the true state of things, but also from what Russian literature, military songs, and Soviet cinema created: imperfect uniforms, a special sense of humor, a soldier carving a whistle for a little boy, a peculiar philosophizing attitude. A lot of humanity and not a lot of major heroics. He was just standing there, and then there were these dark spots on his striped shirt ... A “polite person,” by contrast, is absolutely cold, self-sufficient, with a balaclava covering the lower half of his face, a walkie-talkie on his belt, and the latest model of flamethrower slung over his shoulder. He feels neither thirst nor hunger, has no need of women or of anyone at all, and if he gets the order, he’ll destroy a whole city with a wave of his hand. We were presented a parody—either of a computer game or of a cheap Hollywood movie—but the people, following the Supreme Commander’s example, fell for it.
A passing consideration: The current war is also a serious blow to Victory Day. The children and grandchildren of veterans write that they’re glad their fathers and grandfathers didn’t live to see this. It’s now impossible to sing the songs of that generation.
No matter how warmly Yerevan has treated you, it’s time to leave.
“Barev dzez,” you say to the border guard.
He keeps you for a long time, examining your passport with a magnifying glass and asking hostile questions: Why are you flying to Germany? Where’s your return ticket? The guards here are closely connected with the Russian secret police, indeed are almost a part of it.
At last he lets you board the plane to Frankfurt, and that’s when you feel it—cold, ashamed, relieved. It’s chilling to live through the historical moment unfolding before your eyes, because every one of your actions, every one of your words can have immediate consequences. And among the reasons you’re ashamed is that you’re relieved. It’s like a Christmas goose: hard to enjoy when others are going hungry.
The plane flies over Germany, and the names of German cities appear on the little screen. A memory from long ago: military-training classes at medical school, first or second year. The teacher, a major, opens a box marked top secret and pulls out maps of Europe that note the location of troops. The enemy is in Dusseldorf, while our army is in, say, Koblenz. The enemy has delivered a nuclear strike of such and such a force on our location. Calculate how many beds, hospitals, and medical personnel are required. But wait, what are we doing in Koblenz? No one even thought to ask. And why would our enemies fire nuclear missiles at their own soil? “Oh, it’s just make-believe.” This is how they prepared us, from a young age, to commit crimes. There’s a children’s song every Russian knows: “And even if we hurt someone in vain, / The calendar will take away the pain …” That is to say, don’t trouble yourselves, boys and girls. Repentance isn’t for us. Like the old saying goes, shame isn’t smoke; it won’t burn your eyes. We are not ashamed. We’re Russians—God is on our side. And now the virtuoso pianist B.B. says on TV: “I’m a humanitarian, music and all that … I get it; we’re going easy on them … But can’t we just surround them and turn off the electricity?” From that moment on, he is a war criminal. And his bashful little smile (“music and all that”) brings to mind the hero of the movie Brother, who killed dozens of people but remained as sweet and charming as before. You sense, however, that even those who sincerely love Russian culture are beginning to see past this charm.
Here and there you hear concerned voices: “Did you see? They canceled Boris Godunov in Poland!” This concern seems highly inappropriate—at least while shells are bursting. Pushkin, Chekhov, and Tolstoy can stand up for themselves, and we too will manage. And the fact that Ukrainian writers don’t wish to participate in events with Russians, regardless of their political views, is also natural. After all, you went to Armenia and Germany, not to Mariupol and Kyiv.
A questionnaire. You reach the item “Nationality” and need to choose yours from a list. Albania, Algeria, Andorra … How nice it would be to choose Andorra or Gabon, but no, scroll down to Russia. Better get used to it. Now you have to listen to assurances until the end of your days: Russian, not Russian, doesn’t matter—there are many good Russians out there. You can consider this payment for the pleasure of reading Pushkin and Gogol in the original.
“You’re like those anti-fascist Germans who ended up outside Germany with a German passport in their hands. They too were seen as citizens of a hostile country,” says a German woman, the director of a major cultural institute.
An interview for a Belgian newspaper. The correspondent is obviously unprepared. He doesn’t know, for example, that Ukraine was part of the U.S.S.R., and keeps repeating the same question: So you’re against this war, is that right? You’re ready to explode. Calm yourself, buddy, pull yourself together, lower your voice.
“You’ll be back in Tarusa someday, and that will be a glorious homecoming!” writes a kind American friend. The return, if it takes place, will be anything but glorious. However, the future is less predetermined than ever before: You’ve never experienced such a catastrophe, and a dose of fatalism is inevitable, even necessary.
One of the oddities of the current emigration is the possibility—not for everyone, but for the majority—to return to the place we still call home, to look around without becoming a pillar of salt. No, don’t even think about going back, otherwise you risk turning into a comic character of a hundred years earlier: an impoverished nobleman in a café in Paris, Berlin, or Prague, ranting about the rotten Bolsheviks and the imminent accession of the Romanovs. Home is wherever you hang your hat—an outlook on life that has always appealed to you. It’s a lot easier to adopt it than you’d previously thought.
A dream from peaceful times (the house in Tarusa, lilac), from which you awaken gradually. You can linger in it for another moment, hold on to it. You’re still where you just were, but then you open your eyes and waking life, reality, grabs you with all its terrible force: The war has been going on for nearly two months. A man who has lost his leg plays football in his dreams, making the moment of waking that much more painful. You’ve already experienced this several times in the course of your life, with the greatest poignancy after your father’s death. But that was a private matter, yours, and now the whole living part of the Russian nation—those with, in Mandelstam’s words, a green grave, red breath, and supple laughter—is probably going through the same thing. You all need to find, every day, а reason to wake up.
April 17, 2022