On expat’s exile

I left my home country when I was 17. I left with a promise to return that I gave to the organization that sent me, to my boyfriend, and to myself. It fitted in the vision of the future I had at the time: going to a prestigious university in Moscow, getting a prestigious degree, then a prestigious job, a respectable pant suit, and a grown-up lipstick. Eight years later, and the thought of return is horrifying.

How much of it is rooted in the past is hard to say. My memories of the most life-changing experiences from home are so different from the reality I live in, they feel like fiction. Thinking of going back to Russia right now is rather shaped by what my country looks like from the outside. I am looking inside the room through a keyhole, and everything is distorted, but that’s all I can see.

Increasingly deteriorating relations between Russia and the U.S. have marred my perception of both countries, and of my future prospects in either. U.S. media is [un]surprisingly reductionist in its view of Russian politics. It’s painted as a simple vertical of power, where all decisions, actions, and events are thought up or authorized by a single individual. I even wrote a thesis about it, curious to see if it was true. So far, doesn’t seem so.

The political forms the individual in the same way there is no emptiness without something to contain it. Policies on all levels have become increasingly extreme, and they aggressively target women and minorities. The same politician, Yelena Mizulina, who is behind the anti-gay propaganda law, wants to decriminalize domestic violence, and is motioning for anti-abortion legislation.

These are the things I see from the outside. When I visit home, I have my guard up, ready for the displays of these tendencies in public spaces. Unfortunately, my experiences back home fit right into the image I have in my mind. I have been accused of being a “traitor” for leaving Russia, to the U.S. of all places. My body has been policed, commented on, and violated in public spaces. I have been witness to inflammatory comments targeting minorities and women, and they were accepted and even cheered on.

I live abroad, for now. I view returning home as a dreadful challenge, a battle. All I can do now is hope that I am equipped to handle what comes my way when I try to enter the workforce in a nepotistic society with no connections. What hell will break loose when I try to get my voice heard. The constant stress of policing my language and thought in order to not break the laws and practices threatening freedom of speech. Even on social media. In the words of Solzhenitsyn, probably the best-known Russian exile,

“We are faced with incredible hardship for years to come. I am sure that I will not have the chance to work so calmly again. I know that I will be torn apart by people’s tragedies and the events of the time.”

(Source for the quote: “The Red Wheel”, 1991, quoted in The New Yorker.