In my days as a magazine editor in Russia, I used to write about movies Volodymyr Zelensky starred in. I thought of him as a decent actor and a nice enough person. Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen him turn into a towering historical figure. Watching his impassioned address to the UN Security Council, in which he spoke about war crimes committed by Russian troops in a town of Bucha, I caught myself thinking that I want Russia’s next leader to be just like him – courageous, principled, and boundlessly empathetic.
In the fall of 1993, I began my first semester at NYU. Just one year earlier, I’d been a regular Moscow teenager, whose wildest ambition was to own a nice pair of jeans. But my father had been offered a job at an American company, and our family relocated to New York. With the move, the world suddenly opened to me, possibilities beckoning. My father, ever the practical man, told me to study business. Ever the obedient Soviet child, I didn’t protest, despite the fact that nothing could interest me less — but fortunately for me, there was no such thing as a business major at NYU, and, when I got my BA in philosophy, I moved back to Russia, leaving my parents and younger brother behind. The fact that I did so was testament to how profoundly I’d changed in four years.
I was barely 20, but my reasons for returning were clear. I’d fallen in love with a man who lived in Moscow, and I longed for the glorious city which I still considered to be my home. In 1997, Moscow was an exciting place where everything was changing at an incredible pace. New lives were being built on top of the remnants of the USSR. I also felt drawn to Russian intellectual culture, having started writing my first novel in Russian, and I wanted my child, whom I was already carrying, to speak my native language as fluently as I did.
My marriage to the father of my son didn’t work out, as was perhaps expected of a union between people so young. But I was busy becoming who I wanted to be — a writer and a mother — and quickly bounced back. Meanwhile, Russia continued to change. In August 1999, I saw Vladimir Putin on television for the very first time, introduced as the new prime minister. I’ve never been particularly politically astute, but at that moment, I saw in his face, as in a crystal ball, what was going to happen in the years to come: the scheming, the corruption, the crackdown on independent media, the police state.
In September of that same year, a series of explosions destroyed several apartment blocks in the cities of Moscow, Buynaksk, and Volgodonsk; over 300 people died and 1700 were injured. I remember watching the news late at night, my two-year-old son asleep in the next room, and trembling in fear as I wondered if my building would be next. I imagined the most horrible thing – not that we’d both be dead, but dying, separated by fallen walls, him calling me, pleading for help. In a few days, rumors abounded that it was Putin who’d ordered the explosions with the aim of blaming them on Chechen militant Islamists. He became president in 2000, after starting the second war in Chechnya and famously having promised to “snuff ‘em in the outhouse,” to the delight of the majority of the population of Russia.
Had I believed my initial premonition, I would’ve left right away, but I liked to think of myself as a rational person. And so I tried to convince myself that I was being paranoid. It wasn’t easy.
Over the next ten years, Putin’s regime took away people’s freedoms in tiny steps that were probably meant to be unnoticeable, while he gathered enough power for himself that he could change the constitution and effectively be president indefinitely. Meanwhile, I built up my Moscow life. I was a writer, but I was also a single mother whose relatives lived across the ocean, and I worried about what would happen to my son if anything happened to me. So, though I wanted to report on the shrinking of democracy, I wrote instead about beauty and culture. In this way, I thought, I’d protect myself from the dangers of those who covered nationalist movements and wars. I wouldn’t end up dead, like Anna Politkovskaya and countless others.
But self-preservation under a regime like Putin’s can only take you so far. In 2014, when the people of Ukraine ousted their pro-Russia president Victor Yanukovych from his office, Putin swiftly moved into the neighboring country and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Russian society split into two opposing camps, one cheering Putin’s maneuver and the other incensed by it. The question “Who does Crimea belong to?” became the most salient marker of “them” versus “us.” Marriages crumbled under the weight of this question; friendships were irreparably broken; people became estranged from their parents. Later that year, a provision to the criminal law obligated all dual nationals to report to the authorities. I made a copy of my American passport, filled out the requisite forms, and went to my local branch of the Federal Migration Service. The man who inspected my documents had the unmistakable air of someone who was embroiled in Russian state bureaucracy, at once condescending and menacing. He made it exceedingly clear what he thought of the likes of me, and when I came home that evening, I told my partner that, finally, I wanted to leave Russia for good.
It took us another two years to make the move, and we arrived in the United States in 2016. I began writing fiction in English and continued to work for Russian media outlets that didn’t support Putin’s regime. Still, I was careful not to write about politics, knowing that, if I went back to Moscow, I could face prosecution. Everything changed this February, however: Putin’s invasion into Ukraine — a country that I’d visited often and love, a country where many of my friends hail from — made it impossible for me to keep silent. I need to say publicly that this war is abhorrent and that Russians do not equal Putin –– even those of us who, like me, have been afraid to speak out in the past.
I do realize that I’m able to take this risk because I’m in New York, protected by my American passport. A law has been passed in Russia that prohibits its citizens from using the word “war” to refer to the “special operation” that’s taking place in Ukraine, and effectively prevents them from saying they’re against it under the threat of imprisonment. My heart goes out to all the people back home who feel the same way I do. I know that there are many of them and that they are experiencing crushing guilt for failing to somehow stop Putin, the president they didn’t elect. And while we’ll agonize for a long time over the question of what more each of us could have done, it’s beyond clear that peaceful protests don’t stand a chance against Putin’s weapons and his complete disregard for human life.