Until recently, I had never perceived modern Russia as a dystopia – I imagined landscapes more grey than the Moscow snow. It never dawned on me how strange it was that we had school parades, school patriotic song concerts or even grenade throwing classes. If anything, I still boast to my European friends that I was rather good at throwing them.
But my life in Moscow was quite strange indeed. I was born there, and I lived there almost my entire life, so it is a difficult thing to admit. To be honest, Russia has been coming into this horrendous, dystopian shape for a long time. How did it happen? How did we let this happen?
It is hard to tell when some people have put their lives to making it different. The story of my family is how we had to fight against the injustice – starting with my great-grandmother describing how half or more of their neighbours were seized by the Bolsheviks, how her parents had to flee from the city for years to avoid the bloodshed, and how her father had to abandon his business as a shoemaker. Then come my grandparents: hard-working people from the North who lost everything during the nineties when the Soviet Union fell. And, finally, my careful parents who moved to Moscow and managed to have a peaceful, middle class lifestyle, and yet still heard gunshots under their windows when I was just a baby. Until me, my family didn’t have a chance to make choices – they had to survive. My parents made sure I receive an excellent education, and I left the country. I daresay Russia suffers from quite the brain drain nowadays. Most people I know are now scattered across Europe, Canada and the US. Everyone gives their own reasons.
Even in the most wonderful institutions, something was forced upon us. Most students in Lomonosov State University would make jokes about a certain subject we had, it was titled “The Russian Language and the Culture of Speech”. However, instead of being about language, it was mainly about… well, propaganda. Female students were told that it was good they’re getting higher education because it would make them interesting wives. We were also told that applying to foreign universities was unpatriotic, and it became a meme because the lecturer’s daughter was studying in Canada.
A few years ago, I went to my first protest in Moscow. It was before the Russian state had become as strict with the protesters as it is today: a peaceful, chanting gathering on the Pushkin square. The main chant was “Russia without Putin”. But even then, in that more peaceful time, sometimes the crowd would start running: representatives of the local forces, dressed in dark blue uniforms, would break the crowd and arrest the most prominent protesters. Navalny also tried to come to the protest – but he was detained before he arrived.
My parents were horrified when they learned where I went. They asked me not to stick my head out and not to seek trouble, and my father had spent the entire evening going through the different media features of the protest. He was worried that my face would show in the crowd and the authorities would find me.
Nowadays it is much worse. As many people know, Navalny is in prison for merely criticizing those in power; arrests during protests are much more widespread, and coronavirus was used as an excuse to put everyone under constant surveillance. New laws have been introduced which allowed the authorities to imprison people for social media posts by calling them “extremists”, and every independent news channel that says a word about politics is pronounced a “foreign agent”. Even when publishing this pseudonymously, I am putting myself in danger.
But it is not acceptable to be silent anymore. We stand with Ukraine, and we have stood against Putin for a long time. Russia is sick, Russia is becoming a dictatorship – one that has the potential to be worse than the Soviet Union, and we should do something about it.