Just over a month ago I watched the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony, and within seconds my doubts about the very worthiness of the enterprise began to wither away. The main character of the show, a girl named ‘Lyubov,’ ran through the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet, each of them illustrating just a few of the country’s endless list of cultural luminaries and accomplishments. I was floored by the scene, on the verge of tears, realising all of a sudden how often superficial so much of my pessimism about modern Russia is, rarely taking a step back to appreciate those subtle aspects which truly mark a wider culture and its people.
The euphoria lasted for a week or so, during which I was transfixed by the weird and wonderful sports on offer, at times plotting how best to pursue a belated career in curling, now so far removed from the rinks in Scotland. But by the second week, as was the case of much of the watching world, my attentions suddenly veered towards the unfolding bloodshed in central Kiev. The games now seemed irrelevant. And then we swiftly rewound to Anschluss or the Sudeten Crisis, to put it mildly.
Over the years I have been continually questioned about my keen interest in affairs in Russia, especially by close relatives and friends. I have previously been told I shouldn’t pretend to ‘feel so Russian,’ given how long I’ve spent outside the country and my largely Western upbringing. When the Federation Council, the upper house of the national legislature, voted to go to war with Ukraine three weeks ago, I took to social media to declare that never had I ever felt this ashamed as a Russian citizen; I was promptly informed that this was just the latest in a long succession of hopelessly irrational statements brought about by my purportedly exclusive consumption of Western journalism.
On occasion I may overstep the mark when pessimistic about modern Russia, and have been suitably reprimanded; I am happy to recognise as much. I also accept that my life experiences, education and outlook are vastly different from those of most in Russia. Perhaps I am not able to channel my frustrations here in written Russian as accurately as in this language. But I am a Russian passport holder and am fully entitled to wonder as to what is done in my name, and seemingly on my behalf, by those holding the reins of power, legimately or not.
I can first remember picking up a newspaper and reading anything of remote political significance at the turn of the millennium, the International Herald Tribune reporting on the presidential handover from Yeltsin to Putin. Fourteen years on, this man has remained a perpetual feature of my life. The Kursk disaster, Nord-Ost siege, Khodorkovsky’s arrest, Beslan, war with Georgia, return to the presidency in 2012; I can to this day describe in minute detail where I was at the time and my reactions to events such as these, even at a tender age. I cannot claim to have maintained a similar level of concern for the socio-political context of any other country I have been intimately connected with.
I watched Putin’s speech on Tuesday, as a close friend requested I do, perhaps in the ever unlikely hope of persuading me of the merits of military intervention and annexation in a neighbouring, brotherly land and on the most spurious of grounds. It was a masterful speech, I make no bones about that; probably the best I’ve ever seen him deliver. I could be critical and comment on his insistence on the merits of last Sunday’s drill in Crimean democracy, the validity of the so-called Kosovar precedent and Kiev interim government’s supposedly avowed aim of an ethnically pure Ukraine, but I’ll leave that for others to assess.
This speech, however, was entirely at odds with my own individuality and outlook. Talk of a ‘fifth column’ and ‘national traitors’ means my views, on military deployment for instance, are eminently unacceptable and dangerous in whatever Russian society is nowadays meant to constitute. Born in 1991, I fully cherish Ukraine’s existence as a distinct, sovereign country. As a Jew, I am not aware that my people are in any need of Putin’s so-deemed protection in Ukraine, and am appalled and bemused that military aggression is partly justified on the most absurd allegations of anti-Semitism I have yet to hear, inevitably serving to spark wider ethnic tensions and violence there where they have of late been largely dormant or non-existent. The proffered and continuing narrative of imperial, military and Orthodox expansion, neatly suiting the latest conquest of Crimea, sits uneasily with my improbable hopes for a tolerant and pluralist Russia, reconciled with its complicated history, at peace with its neighbours and respected worldwide.
I have never wholly taken to the development of Russia on Putin’s watch, but the crisis in Ukraine has now made everything clear to me. I am already exasperated by representatives and officials hoovering up billions upon billions out of an impoverished population’s pockets, only to ply us with tales of their modesty and piety. I am tired of hearing the same dogmatic historical narratives of the past ninety years continuing to dominate our everyday discourse, any hint of revisionism immediately labelled as blasphemy and treason. I am sick of hearing about my favourite news outlets and journalists being continually cut out of the picture. I am troubled by the encroachment of Orthodoxy and its marriage with the state, blurring the constitutionally enshrined notion of a secular and multiconfessional country. I am nervous about my movements in a police state where the security services and law enforcement agencies rule the roost. I am infuriated by people of late sticking their noses into others’ bedrooms. I cannot stand lies after lies blasting on a periodic and systemic basis from the airwaves, poisoning the minds of millions upon millions and insulting their very human intelligence, narcotising them to the extent that war with Ukraine appears in the blink of an eye to be an acceptable likelihood. If this is now not on any objective analysis an authoritarian regime bearing palpable fascist tendencies, I struggle to understand what it is.
Last Sunday I protested in front of the Russian embassy here in London alongside the Ukrainian community. The message on my placard, taking a spin on the events that day in Crimea, read “I demand a referendum to enter another Russia.” My plea remains unchanged for the very foreseeable future. The only consolation from all this, however, is that the Crimean adventure will certainly be the death knell for Putin’s Russia.