It's getting a bit political, or is it?
I've been a bit reluctant to talk about the war and its consequences for me, partially because it's hard to digest and properly formulate my thoughts, partially because I think I don't have the moral right to do so. My suffering isn't substantial enough to truly say anything and complain about it — my suffering is psychological, and even calling it "suffering" feels wrong. Comparing different sufferings to each other also feels wrong, perhaps even more wrong, as if it devalues both compared sufferings, and is counterproductive to the discussion and helps no one. I thought that "getting political" here, in my publication where I mostly share silly stories, would also be wrong because, perhaps, it's not why most of you are here, but well, I decided to adopt a no-fucks-given attitude and write something. You've noticed that many of my stories this year have negative, nay depressing, mood (and more to come) so to deny it and pretend that my life isn't affected in several aspects would be wrong as well. It is.
Although we, my wife, our friends, and I, attended many protests over those 452 days of the war, donated money and goods to various organisations, and wrote letters to political prisoners, it never felt enough. I, at least, still feel like a mere observer, peering through the peephole of my door as people in dark uniforms torture a neighbour in the corridor. Many people do more than I, and many more people are right there, at the epicentre, having to deal with it daily and hourly. But despite being in the UK, I often feel empathy for those affected by the war: both my Ukrainian friends and their families, and my family and my friends. Apart from empathy, I experienced a vast range of other emotions, including grief, guilt, shame - most of which were new to me in the intensity and way they appeared. I believe they have reshaped me, if not instantaneously then through a slow, gradual process. I find myself often drawing parallels with famous historical figures and artists, not out of a desire to also be seen as a renowned dissident, émigré, or victim of the regime, but because it offers a means to make sense of a situation that often seems surreal and absurd.
I used to call my immigration voluntary — I simply went to the UK for work, nobody forced me — but recently I realised it's not anymore and probably never was. I can't return to my country, and I must witness from abroad how my parents age while I'm away, how my relatives die and I can't attend their funerals, how old acquaintances convert to Putinism or receive draft notices, and other events that lead to the odd choices one must make. But I've already, after a year of intermittently contemplating it, reconciled with the fact that I might never be able to go there again and see those people. Not because I physically can't do that — it's also a choice, for I can buy a ticket to Istanbul, then a ticket to Moscow, then to my hometown, etc. — but mentally. After five years away, I don't know how to live there anymore. I'm too accustomed to speaking my mind (i.e. shit-talk about the government and the war, or, as they say, to muddy the motherland), and I've said and done enough of things that would potentially get me arrested in Russia, or even imprisoned for up to eight years for violating various novel laws, or while I'm there the country could simply close its borders and I wouldn't be able to leave (one the novel thing is they can take away one's passport on the border if it seems suspicious). This chance is low, but it's not illusory and the consequences are asymmetrical. It's terrifying, for it can not only ruin my life but also the lives of people who depend on me or people I love and people who love me. You might call it cowardice and furthermore advise me to go there, protest against the dictator, and die for freedom, and that's your right.
So, it might be getting too political for you, but for me it's not politics anymore. It's life, it's history, and perhaps, if fewer good people said that politics is "a dirty business", we'd lived in a better world.
I thought it would be appropriate to end this short note with a poem, which was one of the triggers for the chain of thoughts above (other reasons, I don't want to state explicitly). It's a poem by Vladimir Nabokov, which he wrote in Berlin in 1927, and Olga Dumer translated into English some time ago. For me, it's another reminder that, although some say that history repeats itself and others say it rhymes, it's neither the latter nor the former; it's just that some things haven't fucking changed after almost 100 years, but hopefully, soon, they will.
Some nights, as soon as I lie down,
I'm back in Russia in my dream;
My hands behind my back are bound
They're taking me to the ravine.
Then I wake up, and from the chair —
Where my wrist watch always lies —
Its glowing face through darkness stares,
Like a gun muzzle in my eyes.
It's aimed at me; now it will fire!
I cover my head and neck, aghast,
But from the dimly lighted dial
My glance away I dare not cast.
And then the rhythmic ticking sound
Calms down my benumbed mind
The fortunate exile I found
Around me is safely twined.
And yet, my heart would still desire
To make it true, this Russian scene:
The starry sky, a gunshot fired,
White hackberries in the ravine!