Russia’s Bitter Pill

Today marks the 86th day of the war in Ukraine, but who’s counting anymore. The war has become a habit. The shock and anger of the first few weeks has morphed into complacency.

The Ukrainian soldiers feel it too, with one recently posting a humorous video of himself eating chocolate while artillery is flying around him.

While I’m vehemently opposed to this war, I find the shock of the first few weeks has subsided and I feel relief, more than anything, that Ukraine is holding on.

Some Russians in my community, who initially supported Ukraine, are becoming tired of the sanctions. One Russian teacher, who lives in Europe, complained about the inconvenience of the workaround for paying Skype to support video calls with her mother in Russia. Once an adamant supporter of Ukraine’s sovereignty, she is tired of the personal inconveniences.

“Anyone who says, ‘you deserve it’ will be blocked,” she writes on Facebook.

Sometimes it feels like the war never happened. My daughter’s Russian language school recently offered a course called“Meet Russia,” which invites children to learn about “major cities, nationalities, geography, and animals in Russia.”

Here’s the promotion to the course: “Russia is so huge, immense, mysterious and beautiful, that when a person first thinks of her, he doesn’t know from what side to begin to discover her.”

That’s not how I think about Russia right now. Something about describing Russia in glowing terms made me ill, and I’m Russian. While true in isolation, I found it grossly inappropriate given current events, but the class received support.

“We are with you!” wrote one parent.

So what do we say to our Russian children in this politically dicey environment? How do you reconcile your country’s atrocities? What do you teach your child about their cultural homeland when that homeland invaded a sovereign country and purposely murdered civilians?

One could just ignore the current war, cover it up like it never happened, except that it did happen, and hiding it will at some point turn to ignorance.

The more conscientious teachers ask parents for their input. Here’s a message from one teacher to parents last month, which I think captures the angst some Russians feel about the war. (Translated from Russian and edited for brevity).

“I want to consult with you. I had planned to teach about the architecture of ancient Russia…. In light of of recent events and feelings of some people, to my great regret, toward everything that at this moment is connected with the word Russia, I want to ask you if you want this lesson for your children. I can tell you my position. I consider myself a world citizen. I was born in Russia and…. I feel myself at home where I live now, that is Germany. I am against war and aggression. During my classes I focus on art and do not discuss anything except architecture. The question, which is bothering me, is: “How should I be?” Move with the lesson plan toward architecture of ancient Russia? There is a big section there about Kiev Rus during 9th to 12th centuries, architecture of ancient Moscow, Moscow Kremlin, ancient Russian architecture, Cathedral of St. Sofia in Kiev, and so on…. What do you think? Can I present on the topic of ancient Russian architecture? Or do you have other opinions? Please don’t respond publicly. I don’t want discussions. There are already enough. Your opinion is important to me. Please direct message me. You can do it succinctly. Do you want for me to present on the topic of ancient Russia, or do you have another opinion?”

My response was already welling up inside of me:

“In my opinion, this is not the time to present Russian architecture. When you teach, you also honor the culture in which the architecture was built. It’s natural, but at this time, Russia is bringing a lot of grief to people. It’s like studying German architecture after the Holocaust. This is not the time for praise, even if in respect to architecture it is deserved. Over time, yes, but currently, what the army is doing (with few exceptions), what the leadership is doing, the lives Putin is destroying both in Russia and abroad, he is not much different from the one we defeated 80 years ago. Whole districts are destroyed and theaters with refugees, hospitals, schools and residential buildings are deliberately bombed, not once but many times, in different cities, without pity for those who are inside. Lives are broken. What Russia is committing at the moment is a crime and there can be no glory.

I write the word “Russia” instead of “Putin” conscientiously, because every ruler has the consent of the people. There have been reports of families in Russia not believing their own relatives in Ukraine about what is happening. Is it possible to imagine that propaganda is stronger than eyewitness accounts, even from family members? There is no ruler who governs alone. Each of us can do something, even the smallest thing, in protest. On the other hand, children don’t understand everything about the current policy…. I show [my 9 y.o. daughter] pictures of destruction because it has become part of the history of Russia. The feelings I write about are mine. Maybe I should cry separately and let my daughter study. She is currently taking a course on the history of Russia…. I think your lesson would strengthen her knowledge BUT, it will be important what and how you will teach. Talking about glory without the cruelty of history doesn’t seem fair to me. But it is also dangerous to get involved in politics. I will say that the Russian history teacher has sympathy for the union of Slavic people. She doesn’t discuss current events, but her point of view is clear to me. We continue in the class because people have a right to their point of view, and [my daughter] will encounter this point of view again. But next year, she will take the same course in history from another teacher who is more objective. You have easier options. You taught a lot about Europe and the surrounding countries. Maybe it’s worth getting to know another part of the world, like China. If there are other options, it’s easier to choose something else if you don’t want to enter politics or talk only about fame. This is my opinion.”

The war doesn’t have to be a part of the conversation for children that don’t experience the war, but politics is just contemporary history. It can be a learning experience and give purpose or framework to our lives. You want milestones to be good, maybe even adventurous.

But what Russia is doing is sickening.

As someone once commented, we [Russians] have to swallow a bitter pill, but this bitter pill will heal us.

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