Imagine a world where there’s no truth. Anything anyone says can be misinterpreted, doubted, and punished. Everything you’d relied on has perished, the future is completely uncertain, and you’re isolated and hated by the rest of the world. This is how I feel since February 24th, 2022. I live in Moscow...
... Russia, and on that day the leaders of my country initiated a “special military operation” on the territory of our neighbour, the sisterhood nation of Ukraine. Using the word “war” is illegal in Russia, I can be put in jail for 5 to 10 years if I use this term to describe the tragedy that is happening right now, because it is perceived as spreading false information that discredits the Russian army1. So I hope you’ll forgive me for being cautious about the words I use. Still, it’s undeniably devastating for everyone involved and my sincerest sympathies go to Ukrainian citizens and families who were stripped of their basic right for safety, justice, and freedom in their own home. Even though it seems immoral to compare it, it’s also a catastrophe for Russian citizens who will have to reap what our leaders have sown for decades to come.
Repeating the mistakes of the past
Think of any movie or a TV series with a Russian character in it. There’s a good chance that this character is either a mobster, a serial killer, or a spy. They are usually depicted as those grim inarticulate hulks well trained in murder and organized crime. When my family and I watched American action movies in the 90s, we always laughed at their ridiculous accents and Cyrillic letters spelled wrong because no one ever consulted real Russians to make those characters more realistic. We were monsters to be cautious of, and somehow it seemed normal. To be ridiculed and feared was a natural thing if you were a Russian.
It pains me to admit that this image is partially true. The horrors of the 20th century drained our sense of mutual trust and community but made us proficient in survival and self-protection. Our collective trauma was integrated into our mentality: as a nation we were as proud of being the first to fly to space as we were to be the ones who lost the most people during the Second World War when 20 to 27 million Soviet citizens lost their lives2 . There isn’t a single family in Russia that didn’t lose someone then. The Victory Day is still widely celebrated on the 9th of May as a public holiday, with huge parades, themed lessons at school and war movies on television. Apparently, there needs to be something more than celebrating the trauma to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past...
Hope gained – and lost again
Later, when the Iron Curtain fell, Post-Soviet Russia was submerged in globalization and capitalism, bringing with it not only tons of plastic and idealized corporate brand names, but also dreams of democracy and liberalism. We tried our best to fit in, we began fighting for human rights and social justice, we started learning English at schools, which had been prohibited or simply unavailable in the years of my grandparents. We strived for connection and acceptance in the world.
It's obvious now that we failed.
In my work I deal a lot with international relations. I’ve had the pleasure of working with distinguished practitioners, teachers, and speakers from all over the world. I am deeply grateful to my foreign colleagues and friends who have shown tremendous support and welcomed me into their midst. I did my best to acquaint them with Russian culture and history, to share that even here there are people who keep fighting and doing what matters in the service of our planet. Now I feel as though I lied to them all.
When I saw the news about the attacks on Ukraine early in the morning on the 24th of February, it struck me almost immediately that this was the end. The end of attempts to build bridges and create a new identity of Russia as a nation. We’ve confirmed the image of wild militarized brutes that I’d seen in those action movies when I was a kid. And this will make every other nation hate us for a lifetime. I don’t know if my 7-year-old son will ever live to see a world where a Russian person can be invited safely into a home and be seen as an equal somewhere across the globe. We are isolated and ostracized yet again.
But what do you think happens to a bully when he is alienated and exiled at school? Will he become a kinder person and realize his mistakes as a result? Will he suddenly care for others, for the planet and other beings, become a vegetarian, and install solar panels to atone? Or will he only get nastier, angrier, and more vengeful because of heartbreaking loneliness? The bully will not learn ways to repair the ruptures, he will only receive a message that the world is a cruel place and others will abandon him. This is what’s happening: the grim Russian brutes are receiving a vivid confirmation of their assumptions that the world doesn’t want to welcome them, so their response is to withdraw and attack back. Fight or flight instead of care and repair. Do you want to live in a world like that?
While many countries keep buying Russian fossil fuels, multiple international companies have decided to terminate their business in Russia – partly because of their fear for reputational risks; partly, I suspect, in hope that people will suffer without their usual comfort and overthrow the regime in a united public outburst. As a result, around 2 million people are about to lose their jobs by the end of 20223, only contributing to our already extreme levels of poverty and inequality. Many non-profits and socially responsible businesses that relied heavily on donations and support of international organizations are on the brink of bankruptcy. But this will not lead to revolutions. We are too used to being outsiders and enduring lack of comfort and luxury that the West has been advertising so convincingly these past several decades. The well-intended calls to action and revolution are not unlike those that a woman caught up in a domestic violence situation can hear. “Why can’t you fight back? Why don’t you just leave him?”, say the well-wishers. And many do leave – with this new flow of emigration4; I might never see many of my friends and colleagues again. All the while we know from research that hostility and aggressive conflict resolution will only increase the level of aggression and violence in a relationship5. There’s no way to overthrow a tyrant when all who disagree are put in jail. And this is not even a metaphor.
The slogan of the Russian branch of Fridays for Future is “Plant trees instead of putting activists in jail” (the verb describing these two processes is the same in Russian). Despite remarkable achievements of Russian eco-activists who win bureaucratic fights for nature reserves and forests to prevent illegal extraction of resources, they are arrested awfully often for one-man protests, public campaigns, and even innocent cycling marathons. This is the reality that we live in: any kind of unsanctioned public gathering is prohibited6, so there’s no way for people to express their views peacefully without being arrested and beaten up.
Path to redemption
Unlike Europe and the US, Russia is still blind when it comes to climate crisis. Our general population is mainly troubled by day-to-day survival rather than such confusing long-term problems as CO2 emissions and global heating. When I write an article on how to deal with depression or trauma, I get hundreds of views in a day. When I write one about climate crisis, I get none. It’s very tough to promote ecological events, sustainable lifestyle, and care for environment when the whole topic is almost never covered in the media, except when it comes to dramatic natural disasters like record-breaking Siberian wildfires or heat domes last summer. It’s obvious that with impending economic downfall and steadily growing oppression the climate agenda is going to be left aside for years. And yet you and I know how desperately our planet needs urgent actions.
This brings us back to the unprecedented wave of worldwide rejection and hate that Russia is facing right now. I understand, as do many of my friends and colleagues, that this won’t pass until the actual attacks and murders end, and even then it will take decades to regenerate and redeem ourselves. But what if the sanctions, hate, and ignorance are not the solution, but rather a reflection of the state the world is in?
When I attended international summits and conferences dedicated to either psychological or ecological topics, I almost never heard Russian speakers or even mentions of Russia. This was always surprising for me, considering the impact that Russia has on the rest of the world. Our territory constitutes 1/9 of Earth’s land and is spread across 8 geographical zones, from Arctic plains in the North to prairies and deserts in the South, which means that political and economic decisions of our leaders have an impact on hundreds of ecosystems tightly connected to the rest of the planet’s life. Russia is not only the people who know how to kill, it’s also millions of other forms of life that need our protection. What we need is unification of effort worldwide, mutual understanding and support, shared innovations and solutions, rather than isolation and punishment. I’m not a religious person, but I pray to all the higher powers there are that the “special operation” will be over as soon as possible so that we can start rebuilding the bridges between all of us to ensure a kinder future for all living things and for the children of our children.
Daria Suchilina is a psychologist in private practice located in Moscow, Russia. She is also a trainer in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Compassion Focused Therapy. Daria serves as a Board member at Climate Justice and Action Special Interest Group within the Association of Contextual Behavior Science and is a member of Green Psychology Russia, a climate psychology project that joined CPA International in 2021.
Lead Image: The Demon Defeated by Mikhail Vrubel
(1) Russia criminalizes independent war reporting and anti-war protests
(2) World War II Casualties by Country 2022
(3) Bloomberg predicts a two-fold increase in unemployment in Russia in 2022
(4) Russian emigration following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine
(5) A Systematic Review of Risk Factors for Intimate Partner Violence
(6) Russia: No place for protest