For weeks, I’ve been playing the wicked child, “Rasha,” with Russia, asking the same question over and over: What is the meaning of all of this to you? As a Russian immigrant to America I have been trying to distance myself from my country of origin, but still wrestling with the Russian part of my identity. It has become so difficult since February 24. To find answers, I keep returning to the narratives and themes of Passover.
First, the well-loved and famous tale of matzah, the bread of affliction: this is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt… the Haggadah tells us. We all know that the Israelites left Egypt in such a hurry that there was no time for the bread to rise. They took what they could to sustain themselves during the first hours and days of their journey. I always thought, What powerful imagery; what’s it like to hurriedly pack and flee death? These days, I’m sickened to see the exact scenario playing out in Ukraine. Over 6 million refugees and displaced people have left Ukraine. Not thousands of years ago, but yesterday, last month. I imagine them, just like the ancient Israelites, deliberating what to take and what to leave behind. Surely, when you know that Russian bombs or the Egyptian army are behind you, there is no time to lament or hesitate.
But how do you part with the love letters of your youth? Your goldfish? Your nice glass storage containers you bought just a few months ago and yet haven’t fully enjoyed? How many pairs of shoes do you take? Underwear? Do you have space for your kid’s favorite toy? Your mother’s cookbook? What do you feel when you close your door on everything you’ve built over the years and rush out? Before the chariots, or the Kalashnikovs, harm you? Knowing that this might be the last time you see your home? And when the Sea of Reeds parted, how did disabled people cross? What about pregnant women? Cats? Toddlers? What if you ran out of gas mid-sea? What if your phone died? What if there was no more insulin, because all the drug stores were bombed?
Every day, I think about my Ukrainian friends and their families running away …to nowhere. I think about the plight of the ancient Hebrews; their fears, their disbelief, and their punishment. Now, finally, I can understand their feelings. To be a stranger in a strange land without language, money, or work. How can we judge the Israelites who wanted to remain in Egypt, with the horrors they knew?
Second is the concept of a “generation of the wilderness.” The 40 years of wandering through the desert. The reason why these people, even Moses, weren’t allowed to enter the Promised Land. Personally, I argue that every person born in the Soviet Union belongs to this generation of the wilderness. We were born in a sort of bondage in one of the most evil and corrupt regimes in human history. We internalized it in our DNA. We breathed it. We ate it. A beloved Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, beautifully articulated this narrow mentality over a century ago. He wrote: Write about this man who, drop by drop, squeezes the slave’s blood out of himself until he wakes one day to find the blood of a real human being–not a slave’s–coursing through his veins.
A generation must die off and regenerate so that only free people merit entry to the Land of Israel. Putin is 69; a KGB agent by training, the embodiment of the worst traits of late Communism: paranoia, fear of the new, hatred of the West. The spying, the vulgarity, the ambition to colonize and absorb your neighbor, to expand while neglecting those in your care. The megalomania. The Napoleon complex.
And I’m sorry to report that I still see the same traits in many of those Russians both living in Russia and abroad, those who support the Kremlin and “special operation in Ukraine” While I realize they are, themselves, victims of the totalitarian regime, what they say is identical to the spies’ reply to Joshua. The ancient Israelites were terrified of the giants and mighty warriors inhabiting the Promised Land. Similarly, I hear other Russians say, this is all we know. Our whole lives we lived without travel, tampons, McDonald’s, and bananas. Oh well, we can continue living like this, no problem. (I’m sure this comes as a shock to the younger generation, which is so integrated into the globalized world.)
Putin’s idea is that Ukrainians have no national identity; they are all simply “lost” Russians. He is wrong of course, but oddly enough,until February, very few people could distinguish between Ukrainians and Russians, and point to Ukraine on the map. Abroad, all of us from the former USSR are just Russians. Internally, we, of course, are aware of the differences: I barely understand the Ukrainian language; the food, the traditional dress, and even the holidays differ. This said we have been fraternal nations, living side by side for centuries. This is why this war is so horrid, it’s an international war and a fratricidal, civil war, simultaneously. It’s a war in which families stop talking to each other and relatives start killing each other,
Why? Because of the major difference distinguishing the two countries: Democracy, its institutions, and processes have failed in Russia and succeeded in Ukraine. Because Russia, a larger, hulking behemoth of a country, is still in Wilderness; 30 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, it has not squeezed that blood from its veins. We are still ambling about the desert, forbidden from entering the land of the free.
But Ukraine, a smaller, more flexible, younger country, unburdened by the enormity of Soviet baggage, neighboring Western Europe–it certainly seems to have grown closer, much closer, to the proverbial promised land.
I do not want to be Rasha and wonder, “What is this? Why is this?” I don’t want Ukrainians to eat the bread of affliction for days and months more or ever again. Most of all, I want Russia – the country of my birth — to finally walk out of the desert. Hopefully, soon, in peace. Next year, may Ukraine be rebuilt, and Russia renewed.