polina

“In 2021, after three years of a bureaucratic nightmare, I gave up my Russian citizenship to exchange it for a German passport. Germany doesn’t recognize double citizenships (with some exceptions) and I didn’t have a choice. However, by the end of 2021 dropping the Russian citizenship felt like an even stronger priority than getting the German one; a Russian passport became a source of risk. I am a journalist working for an independent, regime-critical platform and being the subject of Putin’s law made me very vulnerable to prosecutions and even arrest when I was traveling into the country.

I savored the day I would walk out of the Russian embassy on Unter den Linden as a free woman, no longer having to have Vladimir Putin for a president of my state. In my phantasies I imagined myself dancing and singing right in front of that gray, scary building, waving my papers in the air. But when it actually came to it, and the paper claiming that I was released from Russian citizenship was passed to me via a plastic window in a crowded embassy office, I found myself crying. I stood in that room, staring at a notice board pinned with announcements formulated in poor Russian, and howled like a child. How could that be that all these people in this room were no longer my countrymen? What was left of my Russian-ness? Sputnik V in my blood? Russian grammar in my neuronet?

I never hated Russia, I think I was a good citizen and I think I tried to do what I could to make it a better place: publishing, editing texts by political activists, speaking openly to mass media about injustices and violence I felt were inacceptable. My school on Vasilivesky island in St. Petersburg, my dacha with 33 pine trees and an old wooden cabin, long rides on upper bunks of slow trains, my two books published in Moscow, all of this is Russia to me, whether I have a passport or not.

Thinking of who I am and what I am now, I believe that the most appropriate way to describe myself is as distinctively “post-Soviet”: the collapse of the USSR determined the way I came of age and shaped my ideas of the world. It catapulted me into a world where walls were falling one after another and curiosity was the most necessary skill. This was, perhaps, a dangerous world but also an exciting one. I live in this world now, a Russian-speaking German Jew.

The war left me feeling homeless in the world, for the first time in my life.

Here an important distinction must be made: homeless, as the protagonist of “Nomadland” has succinctly put it, is not the same thing as houseless.

Ukrainians whose kitchens, living rooms, gardens and cellars are now in flames, destroyed or occupied by the enemies, are houseless. They are drifting around the world, trying to find a place to stay. They are terrified and desperate but they are not homeless. Most refugees I speak to consider Ukraine their home, they want to go back there, they want to rebuild it and make it beautiful again. Ukrainian women on social media discuss how they will clean their apartments once they return and calculate budgets for renovations. They are houseless, and that hurts. But homeless they are not.

It's not the same with Russians. Many of them still have their houses intact, whether they have left them to emigrate or not. And yet they are homeless. Home as a place where you invite friends, make love, shout out what you think, turn the telly on and off when you feel like it, does not exist for them any more. The walls are there but life is gone from them. I, too, feel that my home was invaded and destroyed. I thought I ran away from the rapist, I thought I severed all ties, but they still came and found me here in Berlin, in my apartment in Prenzlauer Berg.

I don’t feel guilt but I feel responsibility. I suppose that should I have still been a Russian citizen I would feel differently. But it does help to some extent to remember that I stated my disavowal to that regime in the most clear way I could: I left.

Yet I feel responsible for helping people who are suffering from that regime I ran away from. Whether I am guilty or not, it is not so important, what is important though is what I can do here and now to repair whatever damage I can.

I am trying to provide whatever help I can to Ukrainian refugees and to Russian activists who left the country and are now suspended in various parts of the world with very little prospects for the future.

Here in Berlin I am in touch with two Ukrainian families. One family are friends of friends from Kiyv. I take their 8 year old son to football trainings along with my own kid, help them with some admin stuff and just chat. My mother who also moved to Berlin a few years ago (the annexation of Crimea was the reason she made up her mind) hangs out with their grandmother, too.

The other family I met by chance when I was asked to translate for them at the doctor’s. It’s a couple in their sixties, from Belaya Tserkov. Me and mother take them shopping, do errands with them and translate their papers. They live in a hostel next to my house. The hostel is clean and all-rightish but they can’t cook there. We invited them to our house to make dinner a few days ago, and I must say I never saw people peeling beetroot with such enthusiasm and vigor. This did almost make me cry.

We also host people who just need a shelter for one or two nights and we try to find better accomodation for them. At the moment I am assisting a Mariupol family of 8 people, 6 cats and 6 dogs to make their way from Germany to Sweden where a whole house is waiting for them and where they can live for free for at least a year. I have never seen these people, we are chatting on Telegram with a group of other volunteers but I already know the names, race and weight of all their dogs. My favorite is Misha, a mix of every race out there, 34 kilos and huge eyes. I hope Misha will be happy in Europe and that in a few years he will be able to pee on some Mariupol street lantern again”.