When the war broke out, I stopped sleeping through the night. I have to witness every devastating detail. This war is taking place in the country I come from. I watch the buildings get bombed. I watch the people, terrorized, forced to flee by the millions seeking safety, leaving behind homes and photos, husbands and sisters.
Some of my friends here in America are confused. i thought you were russianYou say. Are you Ukrainian now? But it is not that easy. Maybe I’m both – but I’m not sure I am.
I’m from the Soviet Union. And in our Soviet passports before we handed them in, when I was nine years old and our refugee status was granted, where my friends’ nationality said “Russian,” mine said “Jewish.” After living under pervasive anti-Semitism, my family made the decision to emigrate to the United States—and my beloved elementary school teacher relegated me to the bottom grade when she learned of my family’s impending betrayal of the motherland. She started calling me by my last name only.
Go back to Russiasaid some kids when I entered fifth grade as a newcomer to the United States. But no, no, we are not Russians, I tried to explain it with the few English words I knew. We are Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union. But I couldn’t say it, and besides, it was too difficult to explain. Instead, I focused on teaching them how to pronounce my name correctly so it didn’t sound like broken sticks. No, not Yulla, not Ulla. Юля. Ю-ля… ля… Neither does Yulia, not really. This sound doesn’t exist in English, so I finally settled on the American version: Julia.
When the Soviet Union collapsed two years later, my identity confused me even more. We came from Leningrad, but now it was St. Petersburg. And although I lived in Leningrad, I was born in Odessa, which was now in a different country: Ukraine.
Odessa keeps the happiest memories of my childhood. Every summer, my family would take the 36-hour train ride, packing boiled eggs for the journey ahead, down to our dacha, a small house my grandfather built himself. The train rolled through village after village, and every platform was full of ladies in headscarves pushing home-made pirozhki through the open train windows. Very warmThey called. Fresh apples…pickled tomatoes. We chugged through Russia and through Ukraine; it was the whole Soviet Union. There were delicious smells at every platform and I begged to try what they were selling. In one of these villages we bought fragrant plums. In another, we bought salty sunflower seeds in little newspaper bags and cracked them with our teeth.
In Odessa – where my mother and aunt grew up, where my sister and I were born – in that place that was paradise to me, on our porch surrounded by grapes, I listened to my grandparents tell countless stories about the Second World War told. The war broke out on their prom night. (They had been together since fifth grade.) They married during the war. They told about trains, about distant relatives, about hunger, hunger, hunger. Letters and fear and uncertainty and love and perseverance. My grandfather’s two brothers who died in battle. This city held so much pain, so much heartache. But for me, as I sat on the roof picking sour cherries from our tree for the vareniki we would later make together — popping some sun-warmed ones in my mouth right there on that hot little roof — and as I dip in the salty water of the frolicking around the Black Sea, this city was pure bliss.
I see this beach on the news now. It’s full of Czech hedgehogs meant to block tanks; it is full of deep ditches and sandbags. The sandbags are piled up in front of the opera house as my grandparents described it during the war they witnessed.
Every night I wake up at 2 or 3 a.m. and check to see if our friend in Kyiv has done her “morning lap” on social media. Is she alive? Which buildings will be destroyed? How many new civilian deaths? The collective fear of my ancestors and every refugee rushes through me.
Now my American friends are asking: Why don’t the Russians oppose this war? There are so many people there, of course you can’t arrest everyone. I’m trying to explain decades upon decades of systematic right-wing oppression. I’m trying to compare it to systemic racism: it’s hard to change an entire system of thought, centuries of expected behavior. I am speaking of our own fragile democracy here in America. We have seen that our institutions are not as strong as we had hoped. Any security that we thought would hold up were thrown out of the way like houses made of straw and sticks by the previous government. The people who supported the uprising, the attack on our own Capitol, still hold positions of power. I speak about the power of propaganda, controlled messaging, lack of access, disinformation. Look what Russia has achieved here in our own country, look how it got people to believe such lies, look how they got so many to question election results, look how they divided us – and that’s here in America. The Russians are also victims of their own country, but of course the suffering is not comparable.
I don’t know a single person here in St. Petersburg who supports this war, my third grade friend tells me in a private message. And I get nervous that she’s going to use the word “war” if the government sees it. And I don’t ask her if she protests. A bomb killed my friend’s mother in Kharkiv. What you see there is not true I tell her. You will never tell us the truthShe answers, but we know nothing to believe. She needs medication every day, but she says she can’t get it now because of American sanctions. So many of my friends are losing their jobs She adds. The shelves look empty and I can’t find any sugar.
“We made a terrible mistake not to go when you left, not to follow you outside,” my father’s cousin in Moscow says to my father on the phone. “I’m scared,” my cousin writes to me. I don’t feel sorry for the Russian people, but I do.
In my childhood I did not know when I crossed the border between Russia and Ukraine. One place was cold, one place was hot. One had school and tennis lessons, the other fruit trees and the sea and joy. A long train ride, cold legs wrapped in foil, sleeping. I paced back and forth.
Now the lines are clear. There is no confusion as to who the attacker is and whose life is being destroyed. My heart and soul are with Ukraine. I’m still confused as to whether I’m Ukrainian or Russian – both or neither? – but I know that the pain of everything is cumulative.
https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/russian-ukrainian-americans-putin-protest-b2039032.html When my American friends ask why the Russians aren’t standing up to Putin, I’ll say so