When the world falls to pieces, it’s hard to stick to a single story. The best I could do in these three weeks was to put up signposts. It’s my way of trying to remember some important things.
The first day of the war, I woke up and read the news. The world had crumbled around me. It seems so stupid now: I had believed all the talk was bluffing, and that the invasion couldn’t really happen. Knowing that my country was bombing Ukraine at that very moment was unbearable. I spent the day in a fog of panic. My husband went out to buy milk. When he came back, he told me that people in the grocery store were cheering and congratulating one another on the invasion.
Some friends and family members came over to our place—then, we kept our doors open for anyone to visit—and we just sat there, in silence. In the afternoon, I went to see my father’s family. At the same time, my husband went to an anti-war demonstration. I was relieved that my stepmother and sister, who had never been interested in politics (as they say in Russia), felt the same way I did. They were shocked to discover that some of their friends supported the war, and that many more were uninterested in the news.
The people in the streets seemed completely unaware of the tragedy that was happening. They were walking around as if it was a regular day. There was an unbelievable number of police officers in the center of Moscow.
I drove home and had a panic attack, my first in many years. When I got home, I realized I was supposed to be giving a Zoom lecture, a history of music course I taught at a center for talented, high-school-aged music students. It was too late to cancel, so I improvised. I talked to them about war, about protest. I put on a recording of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” and Boris Vian’s song “Le Déserteur.”
Then I got a text message. It said that my husband had been arrested. He was going to be kept at the police station overnight. It wasn’t the first time he had taken part in anti-government protests, but it was the first time he had gotten arrested. In the morning, they let him go home to await trial.
The first time you get arrested for protesting the government, you usually get a fine (worth about half a month’s salary). The second time, you can go to jail for up to a month. The third time, you can get up to 15 years in prison, according to a new law.
My husband had two jobs in Moscow, as both a high school teacher and a deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church. The school he worked at was one of the few where teachers could still admit to having liberal political views and even to going to protests. Both preaching and talking to young people were hard before the war started, but my husband was never forced to speak against his convictions; he always found ways of telling the truth without getting in trouble, even if he had to speak obliquely, metaphorically.
Once Russia invaded Ukraine, it became obvious that it would be impossible to compromise. Schoolteachers received instructions on what to say to students about the “special operation.” A new subject was even added—“mindful reading”—and propaganda texts provided for it. The church patriarch took a stand supporting Putin’s war. There was no place left in Russia for my husband.
My memory skips forward to Sunday, February 27, the fourth day of the war. I had a recital planned for that day. At first, I wanted to cancel it. But by Sunday morning, I knew we were going to leave Russia. We’d managed to get tickets for Yerevan, Armenia, departing March 1. I decided to play the concert as a farewell.
Six years ago to the day, Boris Nemtsov, probably the brightest politician of the Russian opposition, had been killed on a bridge a few hundred yards away from the Kremlin walls. Many of my friends went to leave flowers at the memorial on the bridge, only to find it blocked by the police. They brought the flowers they couldn’t leave at the Nemtsov memorial to my concert instead. I put a bouquet of roses on the floor, in front of the harpsichord, in Nemtsov’s memory.
I tried to talk before I played; I could only cry. Between the pieces, I finally found some words. I felt that it was important to play music, as a vigil to the life we had. It was a good life, in a city full of art and energy.
We had thought that by playing music we were making the world a better place. But we were also numbing the pain of the tightening coil of propaganda and lies, imitating freedom in a small enclave not yet under control of the totalitarian state. It was only a matter of time before that changed. Now I wonder if these years made me almost an accomplice of the terrible things happening to my country–even though I was speaking, writing, and demonstrating against the regime.
I said goodbye to a life I loved; to so many people I hold dear. At the same time, other people were hiding with their children from the bombs. I felt as if I was with them, in the basements, in the subway stations. I watched my three sons sleep peacefully in their beds that night and cried.
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I spent the next 24 hours packing, signing legal documents, and saying goodbye. It was like a mechanism had been triggered in me: Drop everything, grab your children and go. My family and my husband’s family, like most families from the ex-Soviet Union, both knew repression. During the “dekulakization” of 1929-1930, when wealthy peasants were designated class traitors, my grandmother and her family were forced to flee in the night, leaving everything behind. Their property was confiscated, and they were at risk of deportation.
My childhood was full of stories of people leaving Russia in the 1970s, when Jewish families were permitted to emigrate. It was as if a sort of genetic memory was guiding me. We saw friends and family and packed suitcases, mostly with books, photographs and documents; the children were told that we were going on a long vacation to visit many interesting places. The next morning we were gone.
The two weeks that followed were a whirlwind of packing, unpacking, apartment-hunting, meeting friends who have also left Russia. Most of us felt totally lost. I was clinging to a plan, but just for the sake of having a plan. Plans change.
Yerevan was welcoming to Russians and full of friends from Moscow. But it felt too close to the Russian government. During the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, Putin had played savior to Armenia. It was a trick. He stationed his troops in the country’s border regions and subdued the democratic government. It’s painful: My family has Armenian roots. I can’t help but feel the suffering of this small country, caught between two powerful enemies, Russia and Turkey (allied with Azerbaijan).
On the third day of our trip, I made a post on Facebook saying that I had left Russia and explaining why. An hour later, I received a call from the head of my department at the Moscow Conservatory, saying that my absence had been noted and that I needed to make a decision about my post. By that time, the rector of the conservatory, Alexander Sokolov, had already signed a letter in support of the “special operation” in Ukraine. The law against “fake news,” prohibiting the use of the word “war,” was about to be passed; another law, forbidding people who held passports of the “enemy countries” (the ones that sanctioned Russia) from buying, selling, or donating property, had already been enacted. We had no illusions. I wrote my letter of resignation.
I said that I could not go on teaching music if I wasn’t allowed to tell the truth about the war, and that leaving my job in protest was the best lesson I could teach my students. The letter was rejected twice and was accepted only after I posted it on Facebook and Instagram.
From Yerevan, we continued to Tbilisi, Georgia, only to find another flock of demoralized compatriots and a local population traumatized by the 2008 war with Russia and by the wave of Russian émigrés. Their government may compromise with Russia, but ordinary Georgians can’t help but resent both the Russian invasion of their land and the heedless Russian tourists who have continued coming to Georgia as if nothing had happened.
We had thought of staying in Tbilisi for a while, but we changed our minds. We couldn’t ignore how much our presence was hurting people. I asked a baroque orchestra to let me practice on their harpsichord, but they said no. The person I talked to implied that it was because I’m Russian.
We are now in Budva, Montenegro. A group of Russians here have created a foundation that supports both Ukrainian refugees and Russians who are fleeing the regime.
Over the last three weeks, I went over and over in my head what I would say to the first person from Ukraine that I’d meet. When I realized that the people who were helping us move in, get local SIM cards, and buy food were from Kharkiv, and had only escaped a few days before, I was speechless.
A few days later, I organized an improvised party for the refugees at the foundation. I brought drinks and pizza. I was so grateful that some of the Ukrainian refugees came and broke bread with us. Talking to them, crying together—this was the most healing moment we’ve had since we left our home.
How can I finish my story? When I see the Ukrainian women and children who have fled their homes, or what is left of them; who have said goodbye to their husbands and fathers who are staying to fight; who travel without money or a destination—I have just one thing to say: I am so sorry.
We were raised in a peaceful world. We were not ready to suffer, to risk our health or our lives to stop the regime in Russia. We thought we were doing our best. But the truth is, we were doing only as much as we felt we were capable of. Could we have stopped the war from happening? I don’t know. But we could have died trying. We didn’t, and now people are paying with their lives. As for music: I wish that music could make a difference, but now I’m not sure it can. It certainly didn’t make the difference we hoped it would in Russia.
There are still things to be done. We have to use all possible means of communication to pass on information to those who stayed behind. To show them the truth, to remind them of the ideals we all believe in, even if they are now twisted by propaganda.
I have resigned from all my jobs, except the one where I can talk to an audience of young people. I hope I can remind them that war is a crime; that art speaks truth and cannot live amid lies; and that there is still hope.
We must also tell the truth about ourselves: about the Russians who tried to change things, even though we failed. About those who left their lives behind and fled, because staying was unbearable, because there were children to be saved. We must remember those who stayed at home, too; who still hope to make a difference, who are risking their freedom and lives to speak up, and those who couldn’t leave and who are under threat now more than ever. Let this be my personal prayer for Russia. ¶
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