Witnesses Against War #28: Urban researcher, 30s. Relocated to EU

14 August 2022 (Part 1) and 16 August 2022 (Part 2)

Sources: Part 1 [Witnesses Against War]; Part 2 [Witnesses Against War]

Witnesses Against War is an anonymous international group of journalists, writers, historians and translators, who live in Moscow and London. For reasons of security, their project is anonymous. In addition to the above websiste, you can also find them on Instagram  and Telegram.

Urban researcher, 30s. Relocated to EU

Part 1

I did not celebrate the New Year holidays before the war, on the eve of the arrival of 2022, as I was ill. All day on December 31, I lay all day and read the chronicle of the storming of Grozny, New Year’s Eve 1995; I deeply immersed myself in the events of the First Chechen War. While reading, I thought about how incompetent and cruel our state can be towards its own soldiers, chucking them into tanks and armoured infantry fighting vehicles without air support or cover to storm the areas of Grozny, where all these assault columns of equipment were quickly burned. This is contrary to basic military know-how, after all.

In the last days before the war, a sense of premonition hung in the air, and in fact everything became clear when Putin delivered his historical lecture on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine. If I’m not mistaken, it was February 22nd or 23rd. That’s when it became really frightening, and on February 24th I woke up with the feeling that – well, that’s it – curtains. On the 24th, I felt ashamed of the actions of the state. One of the dominant feelings of those days was that I’d been set up, that some scumbags had gone on the rampage on my behalf. It’s a bit of a self-centred feeling, but I think it’s healthy human self-centredness.

In all my jobs, I have always been engaged in activities aimed at the creation and improvement of urban spaces, that is, the quality of life of society, and of people. On the 24th and afterwards, there was a persistent feeling that all this had in a single moment lost its value. The priorities of the state had suddenly and completely, without any explanation, simultaneously changed. And it suddenly became evident to me that this state simply does not need people like me.

Another one of the first thoughts, was that it is useless to do anything in Russia, to create, to develop, to build a life. Every 20 years, some sort of nullification of everything that has been achieved is sure to take place, and every generation experiences some kind of historical shock. In 2012 or 13, I believed that I was living in Russia at the happiest time, that our generation was luckier than all the others. Because we live in a calm, peaceful time with opportunities and indications of rapid development. And in ’15, despite the annexation of Crimea and the sanctions, I generally continued to think the same way, to consider it a more benign and prosperous time than any other.

Everything happened gradually. At first, I and many of my friends had the hope that we could change something for the better from the inside, with the help of various projects, working in various non-shameful government agencies that were engaged in the development of the urban environment and cities, and did not require you to negotiate with your conscience. Then I sensed that it was still possible to be choked by this. But that’s the Catch-22 of the architect’s profession – whether you like it or not, if you are engaged not only in private commissions, but in the improvement of the environment, the development of cities – you will have to intersect and interact with the state, with its various structures and representatives.

I identify myself less with the country of the Russian Federation than with Moscow – at some point, me and my architect friends thought it over and realised that we identify more with cosmopolitan Moscow, where we were born, grew up and lived, than with Russia as a country and state within its current borders. We are much closer to the local identity of Moscow. This is important.

In the very first days, I faced a dilemma – on the one hand, the cosmopolitan identity with which I grew up, which was embodied, among other things, in the history of bringing our standards of urban infrastructure and quality of life closer to European ones. The feeling of Russia being included, in spite of everything, in some kind of global worldview. On the other hand, my belonging to Russian-speaking culture, part of which is my Moscow identity with its cosmopolitan urban culture. And then it turned out that this war was putting before me the need for a harsh choice between my cosmopolitan European values ​​and my Moscow identity.

Part 2

What irritates me most about this personage, who has taken all of Russia hostage – if you carefully follow the timelines of his statements and words, recall what he said yesterday, a week ago, a month – he begins to look like some kind of gambler or swindler who is trying to “con” you, to outfox you. He constantly changes the rules of the game, suddenly declares war, creates a fait accompli, and his explanations are in fact obviously dreamt-up justifications, such as – “we had no choice”, etc. Deluded thinking such as “propaganda is for the masses, and Putin, as an experienced secret service officer, thinks more rationally,” evaporated into thin air when he gave his chauvinistic history lecture on TV two days before the attack on Ukraine. It became clear that he was in the grip of a messianic worldview, and that “rational” Putin no longer existed .

After the outbreak of the war, I remembered a phrase that he had said a few years earlier about nuclear war: “We, as martyrs, will go to heaven, and they will simply snuff it.” (Valdai Forum, Sochi, Oct. 2018). Back then we all tried not to attach any importance to it and forget it as quickly as possible. But now I realise that he is not at all rational, that he is in possession of some kind of messianic psyche. Rational logic no longer works in Russia, and since rational logic does not work – who knows what might happen.

Russia, acting through Putin, is already sowing chaos … Bucha, Irpin, it’s pointless to try and list them all. But at that moment it became absolutely clear to me that since a person is irrational … anything can be expected from him, right up to nuclear or chemical weapons. Russia could provoke a nuclear war, and the first thing I imagined was that the retaliation system of Western countries would automatically respond with a hit on Moscow. And this is terrifying.

I clearly saw the prospect of an iron curtain and isolation – that Russia would joyfully disconnect from the whole world, which is what’s happening now. This made me very uncomfortable, because my whole life up til then had prepared me for something else. We have always talked about the Soviet Union in the past tense, and I categorically do not wish to return to it. The thought of spending the next 30 years in a fundamentalist country, an outcast with a peripheral culture, feeling like an alien element, really scared me. It was also scary that I was unable to buy needed medicines for parents. This frightened me a lot. In connection with the war, the already-small window of opportunity in Russia has now been greatly reduced; it is clear that there is no longer a need to choose between work projects: a severe economic crisis is beginning. And I realised that it was simply intolerable for me to continue to be in Russia.

I decided not to stay and to relocate, moreover as a result of these developments I no longer had a good job – the company more or less closed. I decided to relocate to the EU in order to keep the integrity of my perceptions, to not immerse myself in the fetid propaganda of Russian society, to not adapt to this new reality and norm.

In Russia, I see many people who had initially freaked out and been worried, but then calmed down and thought – we need somehow to continue to live – and who began to try to live, pretending that nothing was happening. There is a lot of this conformism in my social circle in Russia now. Some of them even rejoice at the easing of sanctions – the supply of components for aircraft (“well, thank God, we came to an agreement”), participate in urban forums, talk about well-being (“the problems of cities have not gone away, life goes on.”)

Speaking of my generation, I recently realised that my birth and growing up were in sync with the change of eras: I was born in the mid-80s at the very end of the totalitarian USSR, when Gorbachev began Perestroika; I went to school in the new Russia; at the beginning of adult-life, Putin came to power, and all my adult development took place under him. At first there was a phase of development, then there was noticeable stagnation. But even at that time, a certain illusion remained – a hope that there would be rapid development.

There was this bubble of cheerful and progressive Moscow life in which we existed, trying to ignore what was happening in the country, living our own private lives and participating in non-shameful projects that improved people’s daily lives. It was a cultural, social, and partly professional environment in which the dark arts and brutality of the state did not affect you, you simply did not come into contact with it.

But in the kitchen there was always a radio set, from which emanated jingles familiar from childhood and the voices of the presenters of Echo of Moscow. I had always perceived them as something permanent. And suddenly, a few days after the start of the war, Echo of Moscow fell silent – this silence was terrible and deafening, a turning point, marking a future which will never be the same as what went before.

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