“My Shame Has Turned Into Righteous Anger”: We Talked to a Russian Living in the U.S. Who Says She’s Been Wronged by Her Country. Here’s What She’d Like Americans to Understand Right Now


When Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine, the act of war drew widespread condemnation. And as I watched the unprovoked invasion in real time—terrified Ukrainians fleeing their homes, devastated parents waving goodbye to their children on trains—I felt pure hatred for the Russian president.

I gleefully read about Russian vodka boycotts, New York Metropolitan Opera’s Putin-supporting singer getting the boot, and sanctions aimed at devastating Russia’s economy and making life miserable for the oligarchs and middle class alike. Then, I read about the rise of anti-Russian hate both here and abroad. It started having a similar flavor to the waves of anti-Asian hatred after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and I realized it’s on all of us to stop knee-jerk hatred from spreading.

So, I reached out to a woman from Russia who’s living in the U.S. to talk to her about the crisis unfolding in Ukraine right now. I wanted to understand what she thinks about the war and what she’s been hearing from her friends and family in Moscow. Given the sensitive nature of the topic—Russia’s crackdown on dissent means you can spend up to 15 years in prison for spreading “false information” about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—the 27-year-old graduate school student I spoke with insisted on remaining anonymous.

What she shared with me helped me better understand Russia’s authoritarian regime, how the sanctions against Russia have nuanced ramifications that may not be all good, and why we all need to pay close attention to what’s happening in Europe right now. I’m hoping it helps you understand things in a new way, too. Because while we can hate Putin, I think we can also find a way to be compassionate toward not only the Ukrainians going through this unthinkable atrocity, but also the Russians who are being misled and mistreated by their dangerous leader.

You are from Russia, living in the U.S. When and why did you come to this country?

I was born in Moscow; that’s where I lived until I was 15. I wanted to study abroad and was lucky that my family had the opportunity to make that happen. I came to the U.S. in 2010 for boarding school in New England.

After I graduated, I attended college on the east coast and now I’m in graduate school. I used to go back to Russia during school vacations each winter and summer. That got harder to do because of grad school and visa constraints, and then the pandemic. My parents and grandparents still live in Moscow; the last time I was there was in 2019.

What was life like growing up in Russia?

As a child, I got the sense that a lot of my peers wanted to leave Russia and study abroad. It was a common dream. One thing that felt like it was getting worse over the course of my life was a sense that there wasn’t a future in Russia. There was a feeling of hopelessness that I felt and that a lot of my peers felt as well.

I did not think at any point that Russia was a democracy, but I recall things getting worse. Putin came into power when I was 6 years old, so I haven’t experienced Russia without him. Yet as soon as I was able to think about politics, my view of his foreign policy was negative. I especially thought things were getting worse in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. I thought that was a big mistake for Russia on the international stage.

What were your first thoughts of America when you landed here for boarding school?

I hadn’t visited the U.S. before I arrived and I had these very abstract notions of what it would be like, all influenced by pop culture. I watched Sabrina the Teenage Witch growing up, and I was mostly afraid of bullying teenage cheerleaders and that all there’d be to eat in the school cafeteria was hamburgers!

One of the biggest culture shocks for me was interacting with queer teenagers. Before I started attending school in the U.S., it didn’t cross my mind that teens could be gay. It’s borderline impossible to come out in Russia. If someone outs you, people stop talking to you. It’s very dangerous to be openly queer. In college I figured out I was bisexual, and I found out that a lot of my Russian friends in Moscow were queer.

What are your family and friends saying about the events unfolding in Ukraine?

I fought with my father about the war. I was taken aback because my father has not supported Putin for most of my life. I don’t think he supports him now. But for some reason, something about the war struck a chord within him. A month ago, we were talking about how horrible it would be economically if there was a war. But then a day after Russia invaded Ukraine, I talked to him again and he said, “Don’t you know the people in power in Ukraine are fascists and that they’re killing Russians?” It’s so difficult to debunk misinformation. It’s like trying to talk to anti-vax relatives, who tell you to Google something specific because they know it’ll lead you to some weird website filled with false information. You’re talking to someone who you know isn’t getting correct information.

With my father, it’s really hard. We’ve had disagreements over the years; I’m definitely more liberal than he is. But his stance on the war is genuinely surprising.

I’ve spoken to friends in Russia who are devastated. Like me, they can’t sleep. They’re crying a lot over what’s happening. They are in shock. I try to check in with them and offer them all the help I can give if they decide to flee. They haven’t left Russia because of different reasons. One of my friends has an elderly grandmother and she wants to support her. I also have a friend who lives in a one-bedroom apartment with both parents, and her dad is really pro-Putin—so things are very tough for her right now. Another friend wants to leave but can’t find a job right now that would allow her to work remotely.

We’re reading a lot about how the sanctions are starting to impact middle-class Russians, not just the ultra-wealthy. What have you heard from your friends in Russia?

The recent sanctions that make it so that Visa and Mastercard credit cards issued in Russia don’t work outside the country is especially punishing for those who’ve recently fled Russia. That puts those people in a really difficult position.

Similarly, with PayPal discontinuing service in Russia, a lot of artists and those who make a living on commission money have had their livelihoods destroyed. I follow a Russian artist who said these sanctions don’t make her more likely to protest Putin, because now she has to worry about day-to-day things, like getting enough money to buy groceries. And of course, everyone is worried about getting basic products and life-saving medications.

It’s easy to think that sanctions will solve the problems, but there are so many nuances that are important to consider. Netflix and Steam have left Russia. But when media companies do this, they may be inadvertently furthering Putin’s goals, because he wants to cut off Russia from the outside world. So, no movies or gaming in Russia? It may actually be inadvertently strengthening the authoritarian regime.

What do you most want Americans to know about this unfolding situation, and about Russian people both here in the U.S. and in Russia?

First, I’d urge Americans to think critically about sanctions and who they affect. I support those sanctions that affect the Russian elite. But I think there’s a blanket sentiment that more sanctions will hurt Putin, and the truth is that there’s more nuance in that regard.

It’s also important to remember that a lot of Russians are trying to flee an authoritarian regime. Yesterday, new law went into effect that makes it so that simply calling the war in Ukraine “war” means you can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. So, when Americans say it’s up to Russian people to stop the war and overthrow Putin, it’s important to understand there are authoritarian tactics being used.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of a Russian with a job, a family, maybe a dog or a cat—and empathize with how difficult it might be to go out and protest when you could be beaten, tortured, and sentenced to prison. And you don’t know who else supports your stance! While many Russians will talk with their family members and close friends about their thoughts on Putin, it’s not common to share your thoughts with your neighbors or colleagues. There are real consequences for making a public statement that you’re against the war.

How are you doing emotionally right now?

My initial reaction was a lot of shock—and shame. I think that a lot of Russians my age feel this way. When you grow up in Russia, you hear about World War II—or as it’s called in Russia, The Great Patriotic War. You learn that the Soviet Union was a liberating force; you learn about the importance of preventing war because it’s so devastating. You learn that every Soviet family lost a loved one in that war. To go from that education to our country being the aggressor is absolutely devastating. There is a lot of deep shame, knowing we are repeating history and we’re not on the right side of it.

More recently, that shame has turned into righteous anger. I feel as if I have been wronged by my country, and I want to do what I can to change that.

Here is a list of organizations the subject of this story is supporting by donating money:

Humanitarian Aid for Ukraine:
Razom for Ukraine
QUA (an aid network to help queer Ukrainians)

Legal support for Russian protesters:
Apologia Protesta

Russian independent media:
Holod Magazine


Meghan Rabbitt is an editor at The Sunday Paper, and a writer and editorial strategist whose work is published in national magazines and websites. You can learn more about Meghan and read her work here.

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