Mikhail’s story

After Russia
8 min readMar 22, 2023

In February I returned to Russia. Three weeks later war broke out

Seven years ago I left St. Petersburg to study at the conservatory in Germany.

In February 2022, I returned to Russia. Three weeks later, the war broke out. I am a native Petersburgian who grew up in a family of strong democratic views, so I’ve been absorbing opposition to Putin’s regime since childhood. When I was 12 years old, I went with my father to my first protest. There, I happened to meet my former BLS teacher. By observing from the sidelines this meeting probably looked very colourful: a little boy in a funny hat and a huge man two metres tall, chanting slogans in a deacon’s bass.

I walked up to him and said: ‘Hello, you taught the subject of life safety at our school!’. In response he said: ‘And do you know why I got fired? Because I refused to vote for Vladimir Putin’s “United Russia” party. Since then, I went to school every day with a badge on my jacket on which was written ‘Disagree!’. One day I was walking down the school corridor and the principal came toward me: ‘What is this? Follow me to my office and tell me what do you disagree with?’! Then she and I had a long discussion, in which I, a fledgling sixth-grader, proved to her that she served the criminal authority.

It should be mentioned that six months later she was fired for corruption. I became politically active for the first time in 2008 at age 14 when on presidential election day I was called to the blackboard and, instead of doing my math assignment, I wrote “Medvedev is a thief!” on the blackboard to the applause of the class and the silent approval of the teacher. And since 2011 I have attended every protest, and even went to the “March of Millions” in Moscow on May 6. I can still see the images of Navalny calling for a sit-in in front of the riot police, and Nemtsov being thrown from a pole with a megaphone by the police.

In 2014, my father called me and said: “Misha, think about going abroad, because Russia will soon be recognised as a terrorist state”

In 2015, I went to study in Germany. After the Russian military, fighting on the side of the separatists, shot down a Boeing and killed about three hundred civilians, my father called me and said: ‘Misha, think about going abroad, because Russia will soon be recognised as a terrorist state’. His prediction, albeit late, turned out to be correct: last October PACE finally recognised Russia as a terrorist state.

After the annexation of Crimea, all illusions about the abyss this government was leading the country into disappeared. Everyone was expecting the big war to start already then, in 2014. But in the end, it dragged on for eight years. I can tell you right away that for eight years I’ve been where I’ve always been: at protests against the criminal regime. But in 2015 I went abroad because the level of teaching in my specialty is not comparable in Europe and Russia. I was not planning to leave forever. I really loved my country very deeply and always planned to return. For the last two years I’ve worked in Berlin State Opera under the direction of Daniel Barenboim. In January 2022, I won an audition at St. Petersburg Philharmonic orchestra, and got a permanent place as a principal oboist.

I woke up at 7 a.m. I looked at my phone and the first thing I saw was the word “War”

On February 1, I returned to Russia, as it seemed at the time, forever, in order to be with my country in its difficult years, to get a second education and to be creative in my hometown. Because I never thought of myself outside the context of Russian culture. I pondered the fate of Sergei Prokofiev, Arseny Tarkovsky, and Sergei Dovlatov, who had also emigrated but then suffered far from their homeland. I even drew Descartes’ square and calculated in percentages that this would be a little better. Just a little bit. It seemed to me to be a rational and balanced step. But then the catastrophe had not yet happened.

I didn’t believe to the end that a real war would begin. It seemed to me that the Putin regime only knows how to make hybrid wars. That Putin’s elite was too fond of its stolen property, too fond of the fates of its children who lived and studied in the West. But it turns out that this so-called elite is a scorched earth, that everyone there is willing to sacrifice literally everything in order to satisfy the ambitions of one insane dictator. On February 23, my mother and I heatedly argued about whether or not there would be a war. I argued that it was impossible, while she was already planning what to do if I was mobilised (my parents, as it turned out, saw everything several steps ahead of time).

I woke up at 7 a.m. I looked at my phone and the first thing I saw was the word ‘War’.

I was driven in a police van along the sun-drenched Neva embankment and I read Mandelstam’s poetry: “I‘ve returned to my city, it’s familiar in truth to the tears, to the veins, swollen glands of my youth…”

In the evening, of course, I was already at the anti-war protest, and along with other people, I was expressing my position while running away from the police. That same evening I had a concert at the Philharmonic, playing Beethoven “s Ninth Symphony. And I could hear the audience discussing among themselves that the words from Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” “Embrace, Millions!” sounded very relevant to the events that were going on. To me, the words seemed like a terrible contrast to the nightmare that had begun. All my acquaintances, friends and relatives were against the war and were in deep shock. Everyone understood that it would never be the same again. I went to every anti-war protest that was held in St. Petersburg, but I was lucky and was not arrested. Time passed, and the realisation that I was not doing enough made me feel more and more ashamed. So I made a banner, wrote “No War” on it, and went out to the city centre.

I managed to walk 500 metres with this poster, and then a police bus stopped next to me, out of which the policemen ran out, tore up the poster and put it in a police van. I was driven in a police van along the sun-drenched Neva embankment and I read Mandelstam’s poetry: “I‘ve returned to my city, it’s familiar in truth / To the tears, to the veins, swollen glands of my youth…”

When they brought us to the police station, I escaped. I was running on the ice in the freezing cold, and I was being chased like a hunted hare by black hound-carriers in shoulder straps. A police car with flashing red and blue lights raced across my path.

Saint Petersburg in Winter

I managed to get away for a block, but unfortunately, the policemen were in good shape and had a good winter sole that did not slip on ice, so they caught up with me, handcuffed me, threw me in the car, and took me to the police station, bleeding to death. Theoretically, it could have ended in a criminal case, but fate kept me safe. They didn’t even make an additional report on me, despite the threats, and I got the standard 10 days along with everyone else.

In prison, I spent one of the best hours of my life: I read, pondered the eternal, and wrote poetry. My conscience was finally at peace.

During that time I almost lost my job. But the decisive word, apparently, came from the director of the orchestra, who, after I was released, summoned me to his office, had a serious conversation, and insisted that I take a leave for family reasons.

I left Russia the day after the mobilisation was announced. That was the red line I had drawn for myself back in March. I doubted all spring if I should go back, but several things stopped me. And internally I drew myself several important lines after which I would leave immediately: it was any kind of a nuclear strike, mobilisation, or the beginning of a criminal case against me.

I am no longer in Russia physically, but mentally I’ve never left. The state forcibly deprived me of my family, my hometown, my interesting studies, and a good job, but it did not take away the last thing: the sense of belonging to the ongoing tragedy.

Russia has infinite potential. But it is wasted on misguided, deceitful, and criminal things

Russia must admit that it has committed a terrible historical crime. And the feeling of guilt must prevail among all other emotions experienced by the people of our country. We must become a repentant Germany after the Second World War. Otherwise, we will never get out of this cursed circle of imperialism. Without admitting our historical mistakes, everything will repeat itself over and over again. It seems to me that Russia is now experiencing its last days of relative prosperity. This is 1916 (note: a year before the Revolution), if you may. Or 1605, just before the Time of Troubles. I think every nation exists for a purpose. For example, the purpose of the German people is to bring a little order to the chaos of our world. The supreme goal of the French people is to fight for freedom and to do it beautifully. If we talk about the mission of the Russian people, I guess we have always taught and shown the world how to feel and love deeply.

Lenin in October by Eisenstein. Source

But for nearly a century, during which all the country’s best people were killed, imprisoned, or driven out of the country, Russia has lost this main quality, this supreme goal. And since then, we have simply been an example to the world of how not to live. And until this paradigm is changed, Russia will not come out to the light and find its own special way, about which Russian philosophers so loved to write. We will still be a scarecrow for the world when it comes to respecting the rights, individuality, for freedom of creativity. Russia and its people have infinite potential. But it is wasted on misguided, false, and criminal things. It seems to me that we are so infected with hatred for people and for one another that we have lost all of the depth that was a distinctive characteristic of Russian culture. Because hatred and evil cannot be deep, but only superficial. Because as it is written: “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil” Romans 2:9

Mikhail’s Telegram channel, where he shares his thoughts: https://t.me/besotechestva

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