‘I cried about Bucha’: Russians in exile express their anger and shame

A woman holding a placard reading "I'm Russian, I stand with Ukraine" takes part with others in a protest of Russians living in Switzerland against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Zurich, Switzerland, on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. (Keystone/Michael Buholzer)

Anger, guilt, incomprehension: Russian journalist Nigina Beroeva recounts the stories of four of her compatriots who fled their country because of the war.

‘I’m howling like a dog cornered on all sides’ 

Anna, marketing specialist, 30, Moscow.

“Yesterday, a foreigner came up to me in a cafe. He heard Russian and decided to chat. He himself did business in Russia in the ’90s and therefore knows Russian. We talked – about the war, of course. I told him that I had left, because I couldn’t live in a country that was at war, killing, raping, and robbing. 

He sympathised, but then he said: ‘You are responsible for this. Each and every one of you. You allowed this to happen. It was you who did it.’ And I couldn’t take it.

You think I don’t ask myself that question every day? You think I don’t look at my life under a microscope to find that moment when I could have changed something? I worked for a large Russian private high-tech company – the pride of the country. I volunteered for two charitable foundations. I never voted for Putin. I have never sat at the same table with Putin at meetings and conferences, never shook his hand, never negotiated with him, never made a deal with him, never hosted him as a guest. But your presidents did. They knew him, they had intelligence. They tolerated the war in Georgia, South Ossetia, Crimea, Donbas. And now they’re telling me I didn’t go out to rallies enough! I don’t deny responsibility, but are you sure we are the only ones to blame? 

I hear even more accusations from my compatriots. Russians are capable of hounding each other, better than anyone else. Some accuse me that I didn’t go to enough rallies, that I left late. Others say that I’m a coward, that I left and didn’t fight the regime inside the country. Others say that I betrayed my homeland and supported the fascists. Some accuse me of complaining when there is a war and people are dying. Others accused me of complaining when the country is in crisis, and I have a problem with bank cards, you see.

I’m not complaining, I’m howling like a dog cornered on all sides. They took my future away from me, too, and bombed my life. My ability to even dream and make plans have been taken away from me. And there are many of us like that. What should we do? Go back, work, pay taxes that will go to producing tanks? Have our husbands taken either to war or to prison? Is that what you want?

I will feel responsibility and guilt all my life completely on my own, without any reminders. But I want to live and be able to do good for people.”

‘This war has also taken my relatives away from me’

Kirill, 35, engineer, St. Petersburg. 

“Yesterday I talked to my grandmother on the phone. She said to me: ‘Kirill, we didn’t even say goodbye, and now we might not see each other again.’ I jokingly answered: ‘Grandma, you will have to live until the war is over.’ 

As a child, she already lived through one war. She remembers everything. And now I’m asking her to live through another one because we didn’t even get to say goodbye. I can’t even think about it. 

I left Russia two months ago. I was detained twice at anti-war rallies. The first time I got a fine, the second time I got 15 days in jail. The third time I would have faced a real criminal conviction. So I packed a backpack and left. I don’t want to sit in jail and I’m afraid that they will announce a mobilisation. Everything was left behind – my family, my apartment, my plans, my dreams, the city of Omsk where I was born, and St. Petersburg, which I love most of all. 

Two of my friends rejected me. They say I am a traitor and a coward, and they will go as volunteers to defend their country. One of them now spells his last name with a Z in social media. I don’t know how it happened. We studied together at the institute, we read Brodsky’s poetry together and sang songs around the campfire. We were like brothers. And now they support the war and think I’m a traitor. 

So do my aunt and my uncle. They watch propaganda from morning till night and believe that Russian soldiers don’t kill anyone, they only shoot at military targets, and that Ukrainian citizens are killed by Ukrainians. I can’t talk to them, and they don’t want to talk to me either. It turns out that this war has also taken my relatives away from me. 

I’m sorry, but I just want to make sure you write that: I don’t compare my misfortunes with what is happening to the Ukrainian people. I understand that they are a thousand times worse off.” 

‘Let us be poor, but in freedom and in truth’ 

Marina, 39, teacher, Ekaterinburg. 

“I am a physics teacher at school, but I quit my job before the war, last summer, because it became unbearable. As teachers, we had to work at the elections, which were held in the school buildings. When the votes were counted, we were forced to leave the office. We understood that there was electoral fraud, but we couldn’t do anything.

In the last election [in 2018], I refused to work. I was threatened, so I brought a doctor’s note saying that I was sick. I have a husband, two children and a mortgage. Like many Russians, I was afraid of losing my job. 

But it just became unbearable last year. I quit my job. When the war started, we sold the car, paid off some of the debt and gave up the apartment. I didn’t care what would happen to it. We left. 

We took the children. I don’t know how I could raise them in a lie. In the soviet years many people lived a double life –at home in the kitchen they told the truth, cursed the Soviet Union, and at work they made speeches about the greatness of the Communist Party. They either had to lie to their children or ask them to live a double life, too. 

Each of these options is a crime against children. Either you lie to them, and they feel it. Or they have the great responsibility not to blab, or the parent could go to jail. I don’t want that kind of life for my children. Let us be poor, but in freedom and in truth. 

Recently, I was talking to a former colleague. She told me how they are forced to explain to their students at school about the “rescue operation” that Russia is conducting in Ukraine. Telling them that fascism is back and our great country will defeat it again. All the teachers are afraid to even talk to each other, in case someone informs on them and a fine or something worse would follow.” 

‘I cried from pain for the people of Bucha’ 

Dmitry, 25, musician, Moscow. 

“I have always considered myself outside of politics. Politics is a dirty business, and I am a man of art. I grew up with the feeling that we, ordinary people, cannot influence anything. I did not want a revolution, I didn’t either like the government or the opposition. 

When the war started, I didn’t understand anything. They were talking about a ‘special operation’ on TV, and I decided it was better not to get involved. I tried not to watch the news. My mother was always telling me what they were saying on TV about fascism. And then Bucha happened and everyone was talking about it on social media. 

At first I didn’t believe it. Our soldiers wouldn’t do such things! They can’t, it’s a lie. I wanted to find evidence that this is not true. So I started following the news, looking at satellite images published in the New York Times and reading foreign media. I didn’t leave my computer for 24 hours. 

Everything came crashing down on me. The bombing of Kiev, Lviv, Kharkiv, murders, rapes, stories of Ukrainians… I don’t remember how much, but I cried from pain for the people of Bucha, from shame for the soldiers and for myself. I was ashamed that I tried to ward it all off [and pretend] that I didn’t do anything. I packed my things and left Russia on the next available flight. Now I work as a volunteer, helping Ukrainian refugees. I understand that it won’t change anything and won’t stop the war, but at least I’m doing some good. And I don’t know how I’m going to live, I don’t have anything planned at the moment.”

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