On the morning of February 24, the day the war began, I went to work as usual. That day, I was to give a lecture on aesthetics. I walked into the auditorium and realized I just couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t teach — for the first time in 15 years.
It was clear that none of the students knew anything yet. Most of them, alas, do not read independent media. I addressed the audience: “Dear colleagues, unfortunately, today is a terrible day.” I told them in general terms what I knew.
Then I started a conference on aesthetics in art. One of the slides showed Picasso’s “Guernica” [Pablo Picasso’s painting about the bombing of the Spanish city of Guernica by the German Legion during the Spanish Civil War in 1937]. The first four rows of the audience wept.
This lecture turned out to be my swan song, but I didn’t realize it at the time. During the break, many students came to me. Some hugged me, others expressed concern. A young girl in the audience had relatives in Ivano-Frankovsk, where military operations were taking place, and her family had been evacuated.
The students asked me to leave time at the end of the course to answer their questions about the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations. It was perhaps the first time in their lives that many of them asked real questions about the relationship. I said a few words about the events of 2014 and what happened next, whether Russia had objective reasons to fear NATO aggression and whether the Western world wanted to conquer the country.
At one point, the students in the back rows began to fidget nervously. A burly man had appeared behind them on their staircase. He looked a bit like a security guard, but he wasn’t—I know them all. He stood with his arms crossed over his big belly and looked at me, shaking his head disapprovingly. I summarized the results of the conference while this man watched. I never saw him again. I don’t know to this day who he was, but it all started with him.
The next lecture to the same students was a week later. I barely slept all week; I was filled with despair, grief, guilt, fear and tears. I started to stutter and felt dizzy. I felt very bad and apologized to the class if my lecture was not as good as usual.
During the five-minute break, I received a call from the dean of the arts department informing me that one of the students had written a whistleblower about me. They threatened to take action if I didn’t immediately stop “talking politics” because “university is out of politics.”
I then turned to the audience: “Dear colleagues, we were just discussing Mamardashvili’s concept of ‘means of effort’, according to which nothing in culture exists by itself, but only through the efforts of people. This also applies to tradition, a long tradition, which many people love today, the tradition of the Gulag. And it, indeed, can only be reproduced by means of effort, that is, -say by denunciation. Someone in this audience just called the dean’s office and demonstrated Mamardashvili’s means. effort. Thank you. Now I will continue.
The students were reassured that everything was fine and we continued with the conference. But I knew everything had changed.
When I walked out of the auditorium, a video was playing on a giant screen in the hallway, showing the rector’s quote: “I estimate the complete defeat of the fascist regime at 10 days.”
And it wasn’t the most radical of the videos played on the huge screens in the lobby.
The university slowly but surely embarked on the path of propaganda and support for all the gestures of the regime. Soon students began to be pulled from class for political propaganda lessons, censored, and vetted for loyalty.
I realized that I couldn’t work in such an environment anymore and that I didn’t want to. I decided to quit my job. However, the law required me to work two more weeks.
Students told me that student leaders were asked to point out how I was abusing my position. They asked what they had to write so that it wouldn’t hurt me. I told them to write what they thought: did my classes have all the curriculum materials, was the teacher prepared for each class, was there enough material covered and their visual aids and other media were they available? They realized that I had two options for answering their questions: not answering at all — and not fulfilling my obligations as a teacher — or lying, which I couldn’t do. It would have undermined everything I had told them. I had to tell the truth. And then, when I started school, I promised myself to work until I had to deal with my conscience. I felt like I was at this point.
In my last lecture, I said, “Thank you. You are excused.” There was a pause. Nobody left. And then everyone started rising from their seats, saying words of support and clapping. It lasted about five minutes, then the students came down from the amphitheater, shook hands, cried and hugged.
At the time I was laid off, my college salary couldn’t even feed a cat. Two years ago, I was earning 17,620 rubles (about $272) as a full-time instructor: six days a week for four or five classes plus the exams that had piled up after the pandemic. It was about 18 hours a day. I switched to a part-time job so as not to collapse and managed to accept other part-time jobs. My salary then was 4,000 ($62) rubles a month. However, in December it was increased to 14,000 ($215) with all grants.
Lately, my paintings have allowed me to continue: I graduated from an art school and I can sell my works. But working in contemporary art institutions as an artist is now also difficult because of censorship. When I tried to exhibit a series of works in memory of Soviet artist Sergei Paradzhanov as a political prisoner, some people demanded that I remove anything embarrassing (“too much politics”) and that I leave in the “pretty flowers”. Other people pointed out that Paradzhanov was gay and had no place in the pantheon of great Russians. Very soon, it will only be possible to exhibit “Swan Lake”.
Sometimes I wash the floors. People tease me about it, but I’ve never been embarrassed by it.
When I was writing my doctoral thesis, I did a lot of housework, because I spent all my salary on printing. I could have gotten financial aid, but each time I applied, the superiors made me write “no” under the question: “Are you writing a doctoral thesis?” They just didn’t believe that I would write my thesis and defend it.
No academic is separate from what is happening in the country. When there were protests against constitutional amendments, most academics did not participate in civil society actions. They thought they were in the ivory tower, but they were touched even though they were sitting in their comfortable offices.
When I was working on my doctoral dissertation and teaching several classes a day, I spent my day off in the rain or snow demonstrating with a bunch of “passionate lunatics”. I was furious that so many people thought they didn’t have to go to the snowy square and face the batons of the National Guardsmen. But if more of us went out, that probably wouldn’t have happened. As Sartre wrote: we are responsible for what we have not tried to prevent.
Russian society lost this battle with Leviathan. Society is defeated, crushed and divided. He will continue to die and lose his people. But maybe some people will gain new experience of social activism through this grieving experience, and a new underground will form. But I doubt that this is possible under the current powerful regime.
With everything so desperate, of course I’m thinking of leaving. But again: if someone took over my house, why should I be the only one to leave?
If I stay, I’ll be a janitor or a security guard. I will no longer serve this diet with my mind or my heart, because it turns everything into a deadly weapon. From my humble position, I will continue to bear witness to the new stages of the disaster for the future – by taking photos and writing, even if I cannot publish anything.