A Letter from Moscow

These are difficult days, everything is gone: our sense of life, of the future. I think a lot about the past – how did we allow this to happen? And I realise with great sorrow that I was one of those writers who wrote for my own people, for those who saw it all anyway, and not for the others, the ones who have been sitting in front of their televisions all these years. And now these people and I – well, we find ourselves in utterly different realities, each feeling that the other’s position is absurd, lacking all logic. 


What is happening in Ukraine, to my friends there, makes my own fears and worries seem petty and unimportant – our dangers are simpler, we might lose our livelihoods, be put in prison, become a pariah in our own country (an especially bitter fate) and in the world. But they fear for their lives. And that alters things. If I didn’t have a child perhaps I’d be the Brave Little Tailor from the fairy story, but I do and so I’m afraid.


Yesterday there was a meeting of the heads of all the Moscow theatres with a representative of the Presidential Administration. All the directors and artistic directors of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow Arts, the Union of Theatre Workers and others sat there trying to work out whether they would lose their jobs if they didn’t support the government. The day before, the Meyerhold Centre was demonstratively closed down for its clear anti-war position. The artistic director was fired, the theatre building was given to another theatre. This is simply unheard of – nothing like this has ever happened and everyone knew what was meant by it. At the meeting there was talk of Russian troops advancing on Ukraine in order to prevent the Ukrainians making a nuclear bomb with America’s help. Then it was said that in Europe Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky had been banned – and finally we were shown some kitten memes. The talk was illustrated with slides. In other words we were shown ‘television’; exactly what the rest of the country watches.


The artistic directors said nothing. They had come to the meeting to work out how dangerous it was, and what consequences it would have for them and their staff to call for peace. At last someone was brave enough to ask this question. The representative from the Presidential Administration didn’t deny anything, but he didn’t confirm anything either. He merely gave a few examples from history showing how unjustified the West’s behaviour had been towards Russia. The question was reformulated and asked again. The same answer, and the request that those who weren’t in agreement with their country when its army was fighting should keep their counsel. After the meeting I overheard conversations, mostly along the lines of: ‘We must keep going, not allow them to destroy what has taken years to create.’


So, in short, Russians were preparing to hibernate. I’m referring to that part of the intelligentsia that has always been active, gone to protests, and was, in principle, thoughtful.  Everyone was certain that it would be a long time before something happened, that the country would have to be impoverished before anything changed (and that wouldn’t happen in the immediate future).


My friends are all fleeing to different countries. There are farewells every day, but mostly I find out by chance that someone has left. I get no answer to a message, and then an answer comes suddenly, a couple of days later, from Tel-Aviv. Many, many people are leaving like this. 


My wife doesn’t want to leave. She believes she can find work. It’s easier for her to find work than for me, a writer. I’m completely stuck. But I don’t have anywhere to go, really. The world is not welcoming to Russians. We’re not loved. The situation at the moment is unbearable, inescapable. 


There is a growing feeling of depersonalisation. I feel as if I’m in a film about Stalin or the Civil War or something of that sort. I think it will take a long time before we can even start to be aware of what has happened to us. And then to accept it – I am not sure life is long enough. The country we have known all these years no longer exists and her future here is without us, and quite different. I hope at least I will be here to see it.




A few days ago I went to say goodbye to a colleague who was leaving for Istanbul. She’d been very active in the first few days of war, writing a lot, recording videos, creating petitions and sticking up flyers. She made contact with the heads of some big companies and sent them messages: ‘Why are you supporting this war when it’s destroying your business?’ But then she started going up to people on the street to talk to them about what was going on, and it broke her. She realised that it was only her who existed in her own private hell. It wasn’t even as if people supported Putin and the war, they simply didn’t let the negative information in, they didn’t care enough. This really hit her, and a few of her friends also wrote to her at the same time to try to persuade her to keep her head down, as the new laws made her activism dangerous. So she decided to flee, to leave the home in which she’d lived only six months, that she was paying a mortgage on, to leave her life behind her, to leave everything behind her.


I went to see her before she left. She gave me her record collection and a packet of frozen chips. Now she sends me pictures from Istanbul. She says there are lots of Russians like her there, she hears Russian being spoken everywhere. 


I don’t know when people will wake up, or even if they will wake up. I can’t imagine what needs to happen first. The Finns say there are so many saunas in Finland the whole country could fit in a sauna all at once. In our case you could say that everyone, the whole country, could fit into police vans all at once.


But in Ukraine people are dying, they are dying every day in war, and our country is to blame for their deaths. And in Russia it is forbidden to use the phrase ‘no to war’. Just think about that. So what is allowed then? Yes to war? Even the word ‘war’ is forbidden now – in Russia it’s called a ‘Special Operation’. The level of absurdity and cynicism is just completely unbelievable. I know that the people will rise up when they are completely destitute, when they begin to starve. I know that any possibility of peaceful regime change is gone, and change will be accompanied by violence and bloodletting and it will be on a massive scale. I’m so scared for my family and my close friends, unbearably scared, but I still hope that this change comes at any cost. And it will never happen until Europe stops buying oil and gas from Putin. 


Yesterday I overheard a conversation on the street:


Man: So much chatter, so much television and it’s all so totally depressing.


Woman: Yeah, we just have to learn how to ignore it all. 


And while they ignore it all nothing will change.             



Sasha Dugdale is a poet and translator.



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