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A Farewell to Russia

From Tchaikovsky’s harmonies to Pushkin’s verses, Russian culture has been besmirched by people whose atrocities have negated their ancestors’ achievements. Russia has been dragged back to the barbaric customs of Muscovy, as if the nineteenth century had never happened.

BERKELEY – It has now been a year since Russia, my birthplace, invaded Ukraine. For 365 days, we have been waking up to news of Russian missile strikes, bombings, murders, torture, and rape. It has been 365 days of shame and confusion, of wanting to turn away but needing to know what is happening, of watching Russians become “ruscists,” “Orks,” or “putinoids.” For 365 days, the designation “Russian-American,” previously straightforward, has felt like a contradiction in terms.

For those in my situation, some methods of adapting to the new circumstances have come easier than others. Russian books still crowd my bookcase, but I no longer have any wish to re-read them. Chekhov and Nabokov cannot be blamed for the aggression against Ukraine, but it nonetheless has stolen their magic and their capacity to teach. These authors were my friends, as were the old-country rituals like Russian Easter vigils and New Year’s screenings of the Soviet classic Irony of Fate. I feel the loss acutely, but perhaps it is for the better. It helps me concentrate on the present.

Other changes have required more soul-searching. Every Russian in the West used to feel like an envoy of a great culture and a great country. Though things had gone badly wrong with Bolshevism and the Gulag, Russia had managed to straighten itself out and rejoin civilization by the end of the twentieth century, offering its own “special” virtues for everyone else to behold. In the West, the romantic appeal of Russia’s stated priorities – communal over individualistic, socialist over capitalist, spiritual over material, heart over head – was so strong that I, too, became convinced of Russia’s hidden goodness, even though I had left the country as soon as I could in the 1990s.