Escape from Moscow
Memoir by Sophia Fjuss
The author wishes to remain anonymous and has therefore written under a pseudonym. The editorial team is familiar with her real identity.
I remember my parents fighting: my mother wants them to finally get their own place, at least a 2 bedroom apartment in Moscow. She firmly believes it was my father’s duty to fulfil this wish. And my father... Well, he works continuously. He wants to save money and move to his mother’s town when he retires. They still rent, of course.
She smokes all the time, my mother. Like so many other Russian women, still dreaming about some Soviet ideal of the well-exercised, powerful woman. She would probably deny this description of herself, though. Did you know the Soviets were the first to lift the ban on abortion? They were generally rather progressive with gender equality.
There is something deeply excruciating in a Russian soul. While our colleagues to the East and West compose life-affirming pieces, classical Russian literature is about the quiet dismay. A great friend of mine feels trapped as a graduate student in the US because the Americans seem so shallow-minded to him, so devoid of deep philosophical suffering. But the suffering the Russians crave sometimes seems merely an excuse to complain; it is a coping mechanism, perhaps, for the greyness of the winter snow or the dust that envelops the capital in the summer. I remember enjoying the “why we are here” or “science has discovered everything” conversations; but then I realized, why not live actual life instead of sitting in a clumpy kitchen discussing it? I remember sitting like that with a friend in her parents’ kitchen: a sticky tablecloth, the howl of the teapot, and an endless philosophical discussion which serves no purpose but to make us feel smart.
So that is why, perhaps, my mother tried to shape me into a perfect person; to oppose the misery of the rest of existence; the misery, I must say, which was quite superfluous, if not made up. Whenever I would fail to bring home perfect grades from school, she would scream. She likes to claim that the sight of me sprouting a few gray hairs made her stop, but it did not, and I still have to pluck them out of my head. One of her particular quirks is an obsession with weight: I should, according to her, weigh no more than 45 kilograms. When I returned to Moscow after more than a year abroad, she couldn’t bear the contrast of a few extra kilograms, and my audacious attitude of wanting her to not go through my things. So, she started screaming ten minutes after my arrival. For two hours. From 3 to 5 AM.
It dawned on me then how a huge part of my identity was not my own, but hers. How she repeated to me that I should cook and clean for my boyfriends, or iron their shirts, and be as slim as a model, and always do my hair, do sports and vacuum, and dust my furniture every day. «Сидишь тут целыми днями в компьютере» (“You sit here all day on your computer”). But I earn four times as much you do right now, mother, and almost as much as father, after just a few months of work. And my boyfriend is perfectly capable of ironing his own shirts or cooking when I ask, and the floor is cleaned by a robot. When I claim I am happy, she says the West has corrupted me.
I find it funny how in my life, not a single man has tried to teach me how to live, it was always women. A man never told me to shave my legs; but my mother once tried to shave the hairs off a mole on my face while I slept. Ever woken up with a razor next to your eyes? And makeup. You know how boyfriends don’t really notice if you’re wearing it, and just tell you that you are beautiful even when you wake up early in the morning, all disheveled and covered in dreams? You can imagine my mother’s reaction is very different.
There is a blessing in how the modern world works for international students. The society you live in shapes you, but some lucky individuals can choose the society to their liking. So, I choose to live three time zones away, in the country of rain which welcomed me for my talents. I am still suspicious of the quiet, cheerful existence here, where I can be productive and beautiful without the constant screaming. And every morning, I ask hesitantly, “Will it not one day go away?” But it hasn’t, so far.
The former piece was written before the war. Lately, I wake up every morning anxious to check the news and find out how my relatives are doing on both sides of the conflict. It alienates me from home even more. Every neutral or pro-Ukrainian thought makes me a criminal according to Putin. Was it good, in a sense, that my mother pushed me away so quickly, if it allowed me to escape in time?
Despite being half-Ukrainian herself, my mother quickly picked up the Russian propaganda. It is fiercely tempered by my father, but still shining through. I wonder where the person who sang me lullabies has gone, or the docile child that I was to her. Because now, in her eyes, I am merely a fat and unmotivated puppet of NATO.
But despite the inexplicable toxicity of my relationship with her, I dread not being able to visit. I dread the Russian economy collapsing and falling on the already overloaded shoulders of my dear parents. It is very ironic that ordinary people like them have to answer for the crimes of their leaders. Especially when their only concern in life was making ends meet while giving me an education — and, as it turned out, seeing me off in the excruciating perfection that my mother imposed, only to ever be imperfect.