What does it mean to move to northwest Russia after four years in the dreamy, green sheltered-ness of Cambridge, where one’s intellectual world is endlessly vast, but one’s physical world fits snugly somewhere between one’s college and one’s faculty? It’s been six months of back-to-real-life-ness now – an uneasy state familiar to anyone who has ever lived in and then left Oxbridge; enhanced extraordinarily, I think, for anyone who has ever left Oxbridge for Russia.
One year ago, on February 28, 2014, I handed in my dissertation in a ritual commonly known as submission. It was a long Maidan winter. That month Twitter created a stunning visualization of all the tweeted mentions of Ukraine from February 1 to February 25. The explosion-like expansion towards the end is when people were getting shot in Kyiv.
A year later, I am halfway through the postdoctoral fellowship in Saint Petersburg. My dissertation on memory and identity in contemporary Kharkiv literature is turning into a monograph. Last month I signed a book contract with CEU Press, and a revised manuscript is due shortly. Two book chapters are coming out this spring — one on Ukraine and one on Russia. And the conference at Columbia is less than two weeks away.
But all this was far away the night of February 27-28, when the news about Boris Nemtsov seeped onto my laptop screen. With internet permeating our lives, most of us who were awake that night knew about his assassination within minutes, it seems. I stopped poking about an update I had been preparing for this blog, and stayed awake over live news feeds until dawn.
I have just returned to Saint Petersburg from Kharkiv, where three people were killed when an explosion hit a peaceful demonstration on February 22. Andrei Krasniashchikh, in whose kitchen this news reached us that Sunday, quickly wrote a piece about it, calling it ‘The Point of No Return’:
Kharkiv is used to explosions. Every week something gets blown to pieces or shot at. But everything will change now. This explosion […] is the first terrorist attack that took lives.
Indeed, the main feeling I picked up in Kharkiv this time is anger. With war an undeniable reality just a few dozen kilometers away, pensioners in shops stand in front of products they cannot afford and no longer talk about their favorite TV shows. Now, they discuss ‘the front’. It is real, it is more than real: for my generation, raised on stories of World War II, sending husbands and brothers ‘to the front’ is suddenly no longer a story.
I walked down Kul’tura street in Kharkiv this February, and passed a military hospital I had never paid attention to. Its territory was teeming with people. A young soldier limped along as I walked (both of us swerving to avoid patches of ice), telling someone invisible in his mobile phone: “I’m taking a stroll. Yes, yes, I am taking a stroll!” — what bigger news could a twenty-year-old hope to share?
I thought of that soldier now, in Saint Petersburg, as Nemtsov lay on a bridge in Moscow. Another march for peace was being planned in Russia, scheduled for March 1. Overnight, it transformed into a mourning march as well. I was planning to go.
And now, here it was — fear. Nothing big, nothing overpowering. Just a gentle, droning whisper in the back of your mind. What will you really change if you go to that march now, and another passing car leaves you without a leg? Or without an arm. Or without half a face. What will you achieve, other than delivering a colossal blow to your family? Nothing will change. Minus your leg. Really, is there a point? Look how people fall for this country, one after another. This country knows no count of bodies. You don’t need many reminders, you grew up with Andrei Sakharov and Anatolii Marchenko on your walls. “Russia carries its eternal cross as it counts fresh crosses,” sang a Moscow-based student music group I used to listen to (Белая гвардия), addressing this particular song ‘To Generals of the Civil War’ and dedicating it to Admiral Kolchak, executed in 1920.
How many crosses to go?
And what if everyone thinks these same thoughts, and no one comes? What then?
… This morning I headed over to the Gor’kovskaia metro station, where demonstrators were gathering at 2 pm. A helicopter circled overhead.
It was different from the sunlit walk in September. It was quiet. It was grey. It was post-murder.
Yet blue-and-yellow ribbons peeked out from the growing, darkly-dressed crowd. Hair ribbons. Hat ribbons. Scarf ribbons. I exhaled. There were many people — again!
As we waited to start walking, a young father and his son made their way past the metro station. The little boy stared at the printouts of Nemtsov’s photograph in some people’s hands, perplexed. “Daddy, look! Did someone die here?” he exclaimed, only to be led away hurriedly.
A friend from work found me when the procession reached the Troitsky bridge. “A strange feeling,” she said quietly. “What kind?” I asked. She responded: “Unsafe.” Two helicopters hovered above us now. But the people kept walking.
The worst moment was on the bridge. It was crowded, so one could only shuffle along. Yet traffic had been stopped only in one direction. In the other direction, cars kept driving by. They should have closed the bridge entirely. Or not closed it at all (reducing the crowd to a sidewalk trickle). Filling half-a-bridge with people, with unchecked traffic nearby, seemed like the worst solution. But, thankfully, no explosions today.
I had added an epigraph to my recent piece for Andrew Wilson’s What Does Ukraine Think? volume. It is a quote by Natalya Gorbanevskaya about her decision to protest against the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia:
The whole nation minus one person is no longer the whole nation. Minus one — that’s not an all-national approval. Minus fifty, minus one hundred — that’s not an all-national approval, either.
The whole nation minus these people is not the whole nation. That’s why.
One year since submitting my dissertation.
Featured image credit (image used for this post on this blog’s homepage): EPA.