By: Sofia Dewey

I have about 400 drafts of this scattered across journals and loose-leaf pages and Word documents and notes app entries. Some are relatively analytical and others are almost embarrassingly mopey. I’ve oscillated between those categories rather consistently over the past year and a half – maybe it’s the teenager in me. When I wrote a variation of this for my Commonapp essay last fall, my counselor warned me against having a “cinematic” entrance: give the facts, not the scene. So here are the facts. 

My mother and I are the only members of our family that live in the United States. She was born and raised in Moscow and immigrated to New York in January of 1991 – a three-week tourist visa turned student and then green card by hasty marriage and absurdly lengthy divorce. My grandmother, Marina, followed in the late nineties, and worked as a researcher in a Yale laboratory for nine years. 

I owe a great deal of my traveling to Marina Konstantinovna, who did not enjoy staying in Cleveland for any longer than she had to: there was always someplace more interesting – and warmer. And still, there was never a question that it would be Moscow that she returned to. I think there is a level of discomfort that accompanies her everywhere else when she comes to visit. While my mother has established a firm sense of place over the past thirty years, my grandmother’s life remained (and remains) in and around her apartment on Leninsky Prospekt. Before Covid hit and before my homeland was officially designated a terrorist state (whopper of an introduction, I know), I spent my summers on our family’s Dacha, attending performances at Teatr Koshek Kuklacheva (the best and only cat theater east of the Mississippi), taking evening walks with my grandmother in Gorky Park and dropping coins into the cups of the beggars that populated subway stops and squeezed my small hands in thanks. In the winter I walked through Christmas light tunnels and went ice skating with friends and watched Kremlin buses be dispatched to arrest protesters near the Red Square. I had always believed that, in the name of an internal ache to lead a life as interesting as the eccentric women that raised me did, and to brush up on my grammatical and cultural fluency, I would eventually come back to Moscow for good, and fulfill some prophecy of returning to the motherland. My grandmother and her friends were delighted at this: I was promised that her apartment would be willed to me – a statement that my mother scoffed at. She never wanted me to go back. 

My mother could never stay in Russia for more than two weeks. I think I found it strange that she could have left a country that her own mother loved so deeply. But people find comfort and freedom in different places. And Russia has never been an easy place to love. That’s a fact I am familiar with. 

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24th, 2022. A war waged against sovereignty and sleeping cities, it began in earnest seven hours early in Cleveland. At 10 PM on February 23rd, 2022, CNN’s Matthew Chance, wearing an oversized bulletproof vest on top of a rooftop in Kyiv, told me there were explosions in Kharkiv. In short (sticking to the facts), I didn’t sleep for two weeks. I watched my best friend send videos of missile remnants in his front yard and in return sent demands for proof of life every six hours – met with a picture of buckwheat (grechnaya kasha) and two mattresses stacked in his apartment hallway to avoid shrapnel and exploding windows. This is the abridged version. I want to tell you more: about the terror that I had no choice but to live with and the Wednesday that I stayed home from school to cry in a jumbled heap on my kitchen floor and the three-day train ride that my friend, who slept standing up, took to escape. The issue with most of the 400 drafts of this article is that in all of them, I am desperate to keep going. It won’t help. In some twisted sense, I am sure that I am trying to instill my trauma in my reader so that you might understand why I have tried to write this for eighteen months and could not. So that you might understand why it is so important.

Overnight, the language and country and culture that had made up the ground on which I found my footing became as foreign and evil to me as all those Bond movies portrayed. This is not to say that I was unaware of Russia’s brutality. I protested in Public Square after Navalny was arrested and kept up to date on the painfully laughable prison sentences that his fellow oppositionists received. I knew then and now that the country as a whole was largely isolated and uneducated about the reality of the international world and that many had outdated views. I knew that it was an imperialist beast that stripped the cultures and languages and religions and independence of millions. My great-grandfather was one of them. I knew that not every Russian fit that bill; I had hope that I would still return and work at a human rights organization and, at the very least, ensure that my youngest cousin was free to speak her mind when she grew up. 

A day after the war started, my oldest cousin reached out to me over Twitter DMs. He was organizing protests on the Boris Nemtsov Bridge in Moscow. His father was living in a bomb shelter in Dnipro. Both of us hate(d) our nation. Two days after the war started, the internet went dark and my family and friends disappeared from social media. My aunt stopped answering her cell, and then the landline. Two weeks later, she resurfaced: she and her husband had managed to pack their three children and standard-size poodle into a car and cross the border into Lithuania. My grandmother was on a convoluted Moscow-Yerevan-Frankfurt-New York-Cleveland flight. Half of my friends were in Warsaw. 

Fact: my worst fear is that when I tell this story it comes off as a pity plea. If it does, I don’t deserve it. For years I have shouted that my people are not the problem; that the Russian government is at stand-alone fault for the crimes and oppressiveness of its regime. Type “2+2=5” into Google and the glory of the internet will prove you wrong over and over and over again. I watched videos before physics class of mothers calling into wells to their children who died before graduating eighth grade and I spent a bathroom break last Passover reading an article about makeshift torture chambers in bombed-out subway stations. My mother and I base our memories on the question “Before or after Bucha?”

“My people” have dwindled down to a select few, and then still less. How can I defend it – the culture, the place, Teatr Koshek Kuklacheva – when its inhabitants have become murderers and sadists on a world stage? When my grandmother arrived in Cleveland in March 2022 she called the Russian troops nashi, ours. Vashi, I corrected. Yours. My mother held firm in her opinion that someone should bomb Moscow, if that’s what it took. 

Reader, I’m a Jew. I feel like a German most of the time. Ironic, isn’t it? But it’s a strange identity that I’ve had to accept. I have internalized the understanding that I am an oppressor and enemy by definition: by blood. I assume everyone knows it, and I do not immediately protest when others denounce Russians on the basis of their nationality. When I started virtually tutoring Ukrainians in English last year, I had to break the news that I spoke Russian. It was intended to be a peace offering: forget a word and I’ll offer you the translation. Olena, my first student, flinched when I told her. Nastya, the second, stared. They relaxed when I mentioned my friends from Kharkiv. I assume all of my Ukrainian friends and acquaintances hold resentment toward me even though I know it is unlikely. Maybe it’s because I can’t separate the identity from myself; I can’t separate the guilt. Why would anyone else be able to? There is blood on the hands of my country which is where I grew up which is in my veins which is in me. 

I brought this up to my friend last month and he didn’t understand what I had asked him. 

“Why would I blame you?”

He had spoken of how he knew Mayfield Road better than the subway lines in Kharkiv. How he wanted to go back to his hometown to learn to love it better. I told him it would happen soon. He warned me not to believe everything I see on the news. 

“There are enemies on both sides. There are people that hurt on both sides.”

I asked him how to tell an enemy from a defender – the difference between stray and targeted bullets. I did it fearfully: I don’t have the place to question him all the way, I think. He didn’t have an answer. I fiddled with the handmade Ukrainian pin sitting on my desk. 

On the topic of guilt, I am so often told that I have no reason to feel responsible; that I am not guilty of anything. But I have realized that my experiences are individual. Yes, I am sad and dark and brooding, and sometimes (a lot) I am happy – but more often I am still all of the former. It is my home base. And I am guilty on a bone-deep level. I always will be. I am anger and shame and tired in my blood. My nose still bleeds red. 

But my family is there. My childhood is there and so is my grandmother’s apartment and Gorky Park and Zvinigorod, where I had for so long planned to take my lovers and children. And now I must make decisions. My oldest cousin will not leave. A man on Twitter said he will never go back. My 23andMe (20% Ukrainian) does not and will not change the way Ukrainians flinch when I tell them where I am from and I will not stop chewing my lip before I tell them. I am full of loss and that will not change. So when I say I am guilty and my well-meaning friends throw their hands up in the air and tell me I cannot possibly be, I want to shout and run and give up. Because it is individual. They cannot understand. I am grateful that they will never have to. 

I spoke with a math professor from CSU and he was surprisingly quiet and did not genuinely smile much. He said something like “My sister has been in Latvia since the war – a year – since Russia invaded Ukraine”. It was intentional and definite and almost felt like a mix between a Whitehouse spokesperson and a kid naming names on an AP exam. We spoke in English. 

“It is nothing compared to the horror that Ukrainians face”, he followed his family’s story with. And he is right. His stories and mine are nothing compared to Olena’s friend, whose hometown does not exist anymore. So of course I am guilty. We are guilty. Russia is a terrorist state. It was the Germans and now it is me. Us. Nashi.  

My name is Sofia Dewey – not Irina Alexandrovna or Marina Konstantinovna – and (fact) I don’t look anything like who I am. I know most people don’t think I am the enemy, or blame me, or hate me. I know that. But I wouldn’t blame anyone if they did. 

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to return to Moscow. Not the way it was and not with the same love I had for it. I don’t know if I want to. We leave a chair and pour a glass of wine for Evan Gershkovich during Passover anyways.

Слава Україні. Героям слава.

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