“YoKreiner doesn’t have to pay! “I try to buy three doner kebabs at a market in Tbilisi, Georgia, but the street vendor vehemently refuses to take my money. I try to explain, though I was warned not to say it: ‘I’m sorry, I’m not Ukrainian, I’m Russian.’” The seller looks at the flag pin. Ukrainian on the lapel; he doesn’t believe me
Before February 24, I had never thought about what it meant to be Russian. Now I only think about it.
I was born in Moscow and lived there all my life until recently. But “I am Russian” would literally be the last thing I would say to the question “Who are you?” I’m a father, I’m a creative director of a film company, an author, a journalist, a podcaster, a friend… Russian? Well, yes, but it’s just the name on the passport I have, and nothing else.
I grew up in the 1990s and 2000s when people of my generation – or at least people I know – considered themselves citizens of the world. After my freshman year, I took a trip through Europe. The only time I thought about my nationality was when I had to apply for visas. I know, however, that this was ultimately due to the privilege. Unlike my friends from Dagestan, Buryatia, Yakutia or North Ossetia, I could not think of my Russian identity. With a Slavic face and a Slavic name, I was not subject to the everyday chauvinism of Russian society.
I loved my country, but I had never waved a Russian flag at a demonstration or publicly expressed my patriotism—that was not something people like me would do. We thought of the patriotic spirit in terms of politics – if you care about your country, you try to do better. So I tried. For more than a decade I have been to all opposition rallies to protest injustice. Like-minded people and I have done our best to make our country a better place. But I have never fallen in love with the patriotic phrases of how great Russia was or how great it once was, and should be again.
Why should I be proud that the Soviet Union was the first country to send a human into space? Yuri Gagarin or Sergey Korolev should be proud of that, it was their achievement, not mine. Why should I be proud of the Soviet Union’s victory in the Great Patriotic War? My ancestors fought in it. The war broke them, but they won: they should be proud of it. I know it was them. Certainly, these accomplishments have never been so much a part of my identity as for the “Putin majority,” my countrymen who build their self-confidence on past victories that have only been linked to a birth accident.
But now I feel these questions are important to me. “I am Russian,” I repeat to a peddler. “But are you with them?” he asked, nodding his head toward my comrades. Maria Belkina and Kirill Jevoy are the two people who run the Tbilisi Volunteers – a movement that has already helped thousands of Ukrainian refugees in Georgia. Yes, I am with them. We had just bought a car full of supplies – food and hygiene kits to distribute to the refugees at one of the volunteer assistance centers in Tbilisi. “I’m with them – but I’m Russian.”
The day of the invasion – February 24 – is a day that will be engraved in my memory forever. The scale and irrationality of the war was a physical blow. In my carefully created social bubble, no one supported the war. We felt like leaves were scattered by the hurricane. We still feel that way.
Some of us left Russia, others stayed. I went with the film director Kantemir Balagov. It was past midnight while we were waiting in the food court of the deserted Istanbul Airport for our flight to Yerevan, Armenia. Cantemir sipped a glass of water and asked: Do you think we should stop speaking Russian? Should we be ashamed of our language? This is probably the only question I have a definite answer to: “No!”
Let me try to explain. Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky both speak Russian, but their languages couldn’t be more different. Selenskyj Russian language is passionate, emotional and energetic – peppy. The language of Russian propaganda is dead: a pointless accumulation of opaque bureaucracy. The great Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev directed Loveless, a scary film about the lack of love in everyday Russian life. The Russian language spoken by Putin and his cronies reflects this – it is not intentionally alive. So no, we will never shy away from Russian: we speak another language.
This is not quite the case with our passports. In line at the border control in Istanbul, I overheard a conversation between a Ukrainian mother and her daughter. They were behind me – they were trying to go home to Kyiv. After vacationing in pre-war Turkey, they are now back in a world where their grandmother was hiding in an air raid shelter and their father and brother joined the Regional Defense Forces. I listened to their conversation and felt an overwhelming sense of shame. My Russian passport burned like coal in my pocket.
I don’t think I will be able to read any of my favorite Russian books or watch Russian movies or TV shows that I loved anytime soon. They now have the same ending: February 24 and the robotic voice of President Putin declaring his “limited military operation”. Bucha, Irpen, Hostomel, Mariupol… We have to write new books and make new films. And now, step by step, we will find out what it means to be Russian.
Returning to Tbilisi, I finally convinced the seller to take my money. “You don’t support war, do you?” he asks me suspiciously. No, of course not. How can anyone support this damned madness? But even though I am vehemently opposed to war and anti-Putin, I am Russian. For some reason it is important for me to say this. When I want to leave, he gives me extra doner kebab for free.