by Anastasia Edel
“Russia is not Putin.” As a lecturer in Russian history, and an ex-Soviet Russian American, I have said these words many times. But now the treasures of Russia’s culture — its poetry, novels, movies, theater, symphonies — must be weighed against the current regime’s premeditated murder of the innocent. In this new world, the rest of Russian history and culture is reduced to mere backstory by Feb. 24.
Start with what Ivan Turgenev called the “great, powerful, righteous and free Russian language” that should comfort me in “days of dreary musings.” As a writer whose sensibility was shaped by Russian and Soviet classics, I took great pains to teach Russian to my American-born children. I wanted them to read Alexander Pushkin’s verses, Anton Chekhov’s stories and Mikhail Bulgakov’s novels — all those books my husband and I brought with us to America — in the language in which they were written.
But I cannot view Russian today as righteous or free. I hear it as the language of Russian occupiers and officials telling Ukrainians to surrender, or of Ukrainian defenders swearing at a Russian warship: a tool for battlefield exchanges. It’s the language wielded by mothers in Kharkiv, Kyiv and Bucha to curse the killers of their children. The war, cynically unfolding during the Great Lent, has tainted the Russian language, just as it has the Russian Orthodox Church, whose head blessed the invasion. I haven’t picked up a Russian book in seven weeks. Nor did I buy egg decoration kits for the Russian Easter last Sunday.
Then there’s what I was taught to view as “Russian character” — my character. Teachers, movies, plays and textbooks told me that wars of aggression were the lot of other nations; that the very purpose of our existence was to heroically defend the Motherland. We were the nation of “Peace to the World” (a giant sign next to my house in the U.S.S.R.), of “Ask those soldiers lying under the birch trees if Russians want war” (a line from a song we learned in school).
But Vladimir Putin has hijacked the real suffering that World War II brought to the U.S.S.R. and used it to feed the cult of Russian victory. For years, his propaganda machine stoked aggression under the guise of celebrating heroism. But how can Russia be a nation of heroes if it kills and tortures its neighbors? As bombs pummel Ukrainian cities, the Russian part of my Russian American identity is slowly dying.
I held hope during the first days of war that at last Putin had gone too far. The Russian people would rise up, sweeping away the regime that deceives them, abuses them, steals their children’s future. Russia would “wake up from its slumber,” as Pushkin would put it, and do away with “oppressive reign” — with a popular movement to stop the death and destruction, cracking open the door to redemption.
Two months in, the war shows no signs of abating. Thousands are dead, mutilated, brutalized. The hope for revolution is gone. The nation of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky has failed to stop the atrocities waged in its name. Plenty of Russians oppose the war, but whether deceived by propaganda or frightened by the ever-worsening repression in their country, many have been cowed into outward support or even acceptance. “If there’s no nuclear bombing,” a relative in Moscow told me, “one can live.”
Most of the Russian Americans I know are in a state of shock, disbelief — and guilt by association. As we follow the plight of our Ukrainian family and friends, it feels as though we’re sleepwalking. It doesn’t matter how strongly we have opposed Putin’s regime or how long ago we left. We know that there’s no return to our pre-war selves: Our identities have to be rebuilt. I’m not sure who I will be when I start sifting through the rubble.
Hope, however, is a stubborn thing. From a picture-perfect California college town, my older daughter sends me her poem. “My heart beats,” it starts, “at the same fluttering pace as one that breathes the fumes of evil in Kyiv, and breaks the same, across the vast Pacific.” My younger daughter, a high schooler, records a Ukrainian folk song and asks me to send it to my colleague in Odesa as he shelters in the underground garage of his apartment building from Russian airstrikes.
My daughters, born an ocean away, take this tragedy as their tragedy. They think about the world deeply. They are against this awful war. And they insist that they are Russian.
Since Feb. 24, I have felt like the words “good” and “Russian” can scarcely coexist. But as my first-generation Russian American daughters pray for peace and fundraise for Ukraine, I can envision a different Russian identity: humbler, freer and with a stronger sense of collective responsibility. First, we must end this war.