“Ukrainians don’t have to pay!” I am trying to buy three shawarmas in a market in Tbilisi, Georgia, but the street vendor emphatically refuses to take my money. I try to explain, even though I was warned not to say this: “I am sorry, I am not Ukrainian, I am Russian.” The vendor looks at the Ukrainian flag pin on my lapel; he doesn’t believe me.
Before 24 February, I never thought about what it means to be Russian. Now it’s all I think about.
I was born in Moscow and, until recently, lived there all my life. But “I am Russian” would literally be the last thing I would answer to the question, “Who are you?” I am a father, I am a creative executive at a film company, a writer, a journalist, a podcaster, a friend … a Russian? Well, yes, but it’s just the name on a passport that I have, nothing else.
I grew up in the 1990s and 2000s, when people of my generation – or at least the people I knew – thought of themselves as citizens of the world. After my first year at university I hitchhiked across Europe. The only time I thought about my nationality was when I was had to apply for visas. I know, however, that this was ultimately down to privilege. Unlike my friends from Dagestan, Buryatia, Yakutia or North Osetia, I could afford not to think about my Russian identity. With a Slavic face and a Slavic name, I was not subject to the everyday chauvinism that saturates Russian society.
I loved my country, but I never waved a Russian flag at a demonstration or publicly expressed my patriotism – it was just not something that people like me did. We thought about patriotism in terms of politics – if you care for your country you try to make it better. So I tried. For over a decade I went to all the opposition rallies, I protested against injustice. Like-minded people and I tried our best to make our country a better place. But I never fell for the patriotic mantras about how great Russia is or how great it used to be and should be again.
Why should I be proud that the Soviet Union was the first country to launch a man into space? Yuri Gagarin or Sergei Korolev should be proud of that, it was their achievement, not mine. Why should I be proud that the Soviet Union won the great patriotic war? My grandfathers fought in it. The war broke them, but they won: they should be proud of that. I know they were. These achievements were certainly never part of my identity in the same way that they are for the “Putin majority”, my compatriots who build their sense of self on past victories to which they are associated only by an accident of birth.
But now these questions do feel important to me. “I am Russian,” I repeat to the street vendor. “But you are with them?” he asks, nodding in the direction of my companions. Maria Belkina and Kirill Zhivoi are the people who run Tbilisi Volunteers – a movement that has already helped thousands of Ukrainian refugees in Georgia. Yes, I am with them. We had just finished buying a car full of supplies – food and hygiene products to be distributed among refugees in one of the Tbilisi Volunteers help centres. “I am with them – but I am Russian.”
The day of the invasion – 24 February – is a day that will be forever seared into my memory. The enormity and the irrationality of the war was like a physical blow. In my carefully constructed social bubble, there wasn’t a single person who supported the war. We felt like leaves, scattered by a hurricane. We still feel like this.
Some of us left Russia and some stayed. I left with the film director Kantemir Balagov. It was past midnight when we were sitting in the deserted food court of Istanbul airport, waiting for our flight to Yerevan, Armenia. Nursing a glass of water, Kantemir asked me: do you think we should stop speaking in Russian? Do we have to be ashamed of our language? That is probably the only question to which I have an unequivocal answer: “No!”
Let me try to explain. Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskiy both speak Russian, but their languages could not be more different. Zelenskiy’s Russian is passionate, emotional and vibrant – alive. The language of Russian propaganda is dead: a senseless pile-up of obscure bureaucratese. The great Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev made a powerful film, Loveless, about an absence of love in everyday Russian life. The Russian that Putin and his cronies speak reflects this – it is deliberately un-alive. So no, we will never be ashamed of Russian: we speak a different language.
It’s not quite the same with our passports. In the line to the border control in Istanbul, I overheard a conversation between a Ukrainian mother and daughter. They were standing right behind me – they were trying to fly back home to Kyiv. They left for a holiday in Turkey before the war and now they were going back to a world in which their grandmother was hiding in a bomb shelter and their father and brother had joined the territorial defence forces. I listened to their conversation and felt an overpowering sense of shame. My Russian passport burned like hot coal in my pocket.
I don’t think I will be able to read any of my favourite Russian books or watch Russian films or TV shows that I loved any time soon. They all have has the same ending now: 24 February and the robotic voice of President Putin announcing his “limited military operation”. Bucha, Irpen, Hostomel, Mariupol … We will have to write new books and make new films. And, step by step, we will figure out what it means to be Russian now.
Back in Tbilisi, I finally convince the vendor to take my money. “You don’t support the war, do you?” he asks me suspiciously. No, of course I don’t. How can anyone support this bloody madness? But while I am very much against the war and against Putin, I am Russian. For some reason, it is important for me to say that. As I am about to leave, he gives me an extra kebab for free.