How It Feels to Be Russian
I asked Arina Petrova how it feels to be Russian. This article is her response.
How does it feel to be Russian?
I am turning twenty three years old this year. When Putin first came into power I was five months old. Now he has successfully raised an entire generation of adults that have never had a choice. And of course, he will re-elect himself in 2024 too.
Me and my peers in Russia never had the democratic privilege of having our voices heard. For more than twenty years, Russian citizens have been taught that their opinions don’t matter. The biggest country in the world full of people who don’t have hope. Putin has managed to take it away from us bit by bit, till almost nothing was left. Not enough to fight, at least.
When people ask me how it feels to be Russian right now, I never know what to say. How could I speak for millions of people from different ethnic groups, religions, ages, political views, and life experiences?
I can only speak for myself and other young Russians, that have dreams for a better future, that never voted for Putin and never wanted this Ukraine war, yet feel guilty, angry, even responsible, and absolutely miserable with the suffering our president has brought upon our countries.
When we found out there were thousands of Ukrainian citizens brought from the war zone into Russia by Putin’s forces, we wanted to be there to help the best we could. At first we assumed the majority would be trying to leave Russian ground as soon as possible and we were determined to help. A few families were relocated to Europe with our help. But, to our shock and disbelief, most of them wanted to stay. Be that Stockholm syndrome (explanation below), PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or the effect of heavy propaganda, I have talked to dozens of Ukrainians who told me they wanted a future in Russia and support Putin.
Out of our group of around 15 active volunteers I was the only one without a criminal record, because I moved out of Russia when I was 17. For example, the volunteer that was in charge of our storage place and sorting out donated clothes, spent two weeks in jail for a Facebook post in which she predicted the war a few months prior to its start.
This revelation caused a moral dilemma (difficult choice) for our volunteering group. We were spending countless hours, a ton of money, and a lot of effort and energy on people who were pro-Putin. Were we doing the right thing?
But we had to push these doubts aside. People in trouble, people in pain, people who have lost everything – these are people that need help regardless of their political beliefs.
And so we organized a system to process their requests – to meet their needs. Members of our group divided the responsibilities and tasks at hand. Some would gather items of clothing, getting all the essentials for babies and kids, finding psychologists and organizing support groups. Others would be looking for job positions, booking doctor’s appointments, helping with documents, looking for lost relatives, and so on. There were countless things to be done, and the more we did the more we felt that we weren’t doing enough.
Some Ukrainians didn’t understand we were an independent self-organized group. They assumed we were from the government. They would say Russia was wonderful and that the people were so helpful.
Were we convincing them to stay by doing this much? Would they be happier abroad? At some point our volunteering group started seeing a psychologist, because we were all mentally drained.
While we were busy trying to be useful, things kept changing for the worse. Huge companies left Russia, we got disconnected from many social media platforms, could no longer make money transfers abroad, prices started rising, and people kept losing their jobs. Families and friends stopped talking, torn apart by the differences in their views on the situation. Many left Russia, hoping to find a home elsewhere.
I see the people who have already been anti-regime for a long time, who speak English, and are connected to the outside world suffer the most from the sanctions. At the same time, the people who have supported Putin before and keep doing so now, have yet another reason to say: “See, the West hates us. We are better off in Russia.”
What are they achieving? I was denied a student loan because I have a Russian passport. Am I being punished for wanting a better future for myself? My friends have lost jobs in companies that used to be sponsored from abroad but are now forced to let their workers go.
Meanwhile, Europe is losing money, Russia is just making money and the environment will suffer from the world swapping gas with coal to avoid buying it from Russia. Yet none of the sanctions actively target Putin. Are the sanctions meant to put pressure on the Russian citizens, so that they would protest?
When foreigners ask me why Russians are not doing enough to stop Putin – to stop the war – I try to explain with the help of the following Biblical (Bible) story.
The Jews, when freed from slavery in ancient Egypt, had wandered around the desert for forty years to raise a new generation of free people, that would be ready for their free land. The previous generation remained slaves in their minds and hearts.
If you have never experienced freedom it is really hard to fight for it. And yet, there are ones that have tried. Most are now in jail or dead. As a Russian, you get arrested over wearing yellow and blue shoes and holding up a blank sheet of paper. I post a story on Instagram from abroad, and my grandma calls me crying because she is scared for me and asks me to delete it.
Every time I think we have reached rock bottom, there is news of yet another event that leaves us speechless and in pain. One could compare it to a Russian doll. You keep thinking it’s the last one, but they open it up to reveal more. Surprise – there are more ways to bring unreasonable suffering than you could have thought.
So how does it feel to be Russian? We are tired, heartbroken, and scared.
I have tried to put it into words and I do not think I have succeeded. That day back in February was a merciless reminder – a reminder that the world is not for everyone. It seems that the world only exists for a small elite group of people that strategize their power games and do not mind occasional bloodshed.
I do not know where to find hope these days. We all struggle with it. But maybe it would be easier if we were looking for it together. I believe, we could all try and channel (direct, carry) that desperation and thirst for justice into helping each other – supporting one another. I urge you to help Ukrainian refugees, offer opportunities to struggling people, and talk about your feelings. Darkness is just the absence of light, and everyone is capable of lighting a small candle.
Stockholm syndrome – The condition where a victim trusts or desires their persecutor/abuser because they’ve been brainwashed or persuaded to do so in order to survive… “Many Ukrainian refugees in Russia experience Stockholm syndrome and seem to love Russia’s government despite their atrocities against the Ukrainian people.”
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