From the first days of the war
I’m typing this from an apartment in Yerevan, Armenia. I’m one of the tens of thousands of Russians who left their country since it started a war with Ukraine. On the day I left, the President seemed to have also declared a war on me and my kind.
I hope I will soon be able to say something useful about our new reality. For now, I want to share some notes from a few weeks ago, when the complete inability to be of any use was one of dominating feelings.
I got this letter from Glenn Loury on the third day of war, Feb 26:
My wife just made a suggestion with which I agree: We'd like to hear from you on a regular basis -- a brief note, daily if possible, just to be reassured that you are OK!
For the following week, I’ve used this invitation as an excuse to write a kind of a journal. I wouldn’t have been able to write for my own sake, because words seemed worthless and inappropriate. But knowing that Glenn was expecting a note gave me a permission to start typing, and once I did, it was hard to keep my notes “brief.”
Now, three weeks in, I’m starting to feel it is time to use speech and writing responsibly. I’m going to try to say something productive the next time I write.
But today, I’m just sharing a record of what these first days were like for me.
2/27, Day 4
Glenn, LaJuan, thank you so much for this amount of care and support. I’ll try keeping these updates regular. It would be good for me too, having to keep a record.
We are OK. The situation changes quickly. SWIFT is still working, but it might stop soon (apparently there’s an agreement on disconnecting “some of the banks”). Country after country close their air space for Russian airlines. The Russian authorities continue to say cartoonishly evil things. Putin called on the Ukrainian army to seize power because he'd have “better chances at finding common ground” with them than with "the neo-nazis and junkies" that make up today’s regime. Medvedev said that Russia being expelled from the Council of Europe (which is one of the many recent news of this sort) is a good excuse to bring back the death penalty. This, as the war itself, sounds eerily similar to the joke from a few years back: “As a retaliation for the Western sanctions, Russia decided to bomb Voronezh1.”
We’re looking for ways to leave, hoping we’re not being too slow. I think the most realistic options are either Armenia or Turkey in April. The first priority is just leaving Russia, because this will be getting harder as time goes by, and might become close to impossible fairly soon. Once out, we can start thinking about our next steps.
(I checked in with a couple of friends today, their attitude is different: one said, “I will be burning in shit, but I’ll stay,” and the other “I don’t want to rush things. If it is my fate to be trapped here, so be it.”)2
One good thing that came out of all this is I realized I should stop “waiting for the right moment” and proposed to Karina (she said yes). I made the decision on the first day of war: I thought, first, there’s no time to waste anymore; but second—and I know many of my friends don’t share my sensibility—this actually feels like a
moment to me, our private love story set against the backdrop of the horrible drama of history. It’ll be something to share with our kids.
I’ll stop here. Let me know if this is too detailed an update than you wanted.
Thank you again,
P.S. Glenn, I’m still not sure if I should take your offer of transferring me 3 months of pay in advance: on the one hand, it might be wise to do it while transfers still work, but on the other, the money might end up trapped in a Russian bank. I might even ask you to do the opposite—hold onto my salary until we are out and can figure out a new way of transferring money. In any case, the earliest the transfer can be made is on Monday, and things change so quickly that Sunday news might answer this question for us.
2/27, Day 4
The entire EU has closed its skies for Russian airlines. Putin put Russia's nuclear forces on high alert. Any aid (defined so vaguely that even public pronouncement of support might do) from Russian citizens towards Ukraine is now considered treason. The very news of new, harsher economic sanctions is already having effect: the dollar, which used to cost 75 rubles a week ago, now costs from 113 to 190 dollars, depending on the bank. Negotiations between the Russian and Ukrainian delegations were supposed to start some hours ago on the border between Ukraine and Belarus. About 4 hours ago the Ukrainian side said these talks had begun. The Russian side did not corroborate. A Belarusian source just said they hadn’t started and won't start soon.
The mayor of Kyiv told AP that the city was surrounded. His spokesperson said this is "bullshit and manipulation," and that a retraction will be published shortly.
We got our dog chipped today—the first condition for travel. Going to hopefully figure out the other rules and buy plane tickets (Armenia or Turkey) tomorrow, for a week or two from now, so that we have enough time to get the paperwork ready. The closest available date for getting married is April 1, so the current plan is to do that abroad, if we indeed are able to leave.
We spent some time with Karina's family today. Her step-dad (who was drafted to fight in Afghanistan in the 80s) thinks the current situation is part of a well-executed plan by the US, and that Putin—who is both "scum" and an "imbecile"—was played like a sucker; now Russia will be rightfully hated by the entire world and completely isolated; in time, perhaps with Putin's death, this will lead to the entire system collapsing, at which point, he
, other nations will take over: China will grab the east, and Europe the west. He thinks Russians are a nation of slaves and snitches who are simply incapable of building a functioning state.
However depressing this sounds, we feel lucky that that's his perspective. We know a number of people our age whose parents think this is a just war and that Putin is waging it well. They themselves are crippled by sorrow and shame. Many have stopped talking to their parents entirely.
My mother, who was born in 1952 (Stalin died on the day of her baptism) and has lived through many a crisis, including the disintegration of the country she was born in, says she is scared now for the first time.
All that said, we're keeping our spirits up. We're lucky to have each other, good friends, a dark sense of humor.
Glenn, please don't send any money until further notice from me.
Thank you again for giving me an opportunity to share this with you.
2/28, Day 5
Our current, tentative plan is to go to Armenia on March 10 or thereabouts (March 9 is when I hope to get the rest of my USD out in cash), then take a pause there—to vaccinate the dog, and to take a breath—and move on to Georgia. From what I understand, I'll be able to open a bank account and create a legal entity there, which would allow me to get paid without having to rely on Russian banks.
Some of today's news has to do with money. One, Russians getting paid from abroad have to sell 80% of their foreign currency right away. Second, Russians are not allowed to transfer money abroad (even to their own accounts). They have to make these laws because the only thing that kept the ruble from going into a free-fall was interventions from Russia's Central Bank; and one of the sanctions imposed by the West makes it impossible for the Central Bank to use its international reserves. Which is most of its reserves. They also have some gold and some yuans, but who's going to buy that gold now?
What I hear from Russian economists is that these sanctions are unprecedented and will be completely crippling. Another example: most of our planes are leased, not owned by the Russian airlines, and the owners want them back. The rest of our planes have some foreign tech in them, which is not going to be sold to Russia anymore. This means that, unless these sanctions aren't lifted, Russia will have no planes. There are similar examples from other industries.
But more troubling than any of that is the footage we're seeing of the devastation in Ukraine. The Russian army is bombing the civilian population of Ukraine. Several Americans told me they relate to my feelings of horror and shame because that's how they felt about Iraq; but an average American doesn't have Iraqi relatives or friends. My mother's from Ukraine. Her aunt is there, being bombed. Karina's step-father is Ukrainian, his mother is in Kryvyi Rih3. I have a friend in Kyiv—an ex-friend now, perhaps—who's hiding in the basement of her apartment building.
Putin continues to talk to even his own people across those very long tables. His conditions for a ceasefire include "a de-nazification of Ukraine." I'm not sure what that means. Maybe it's the removal of the current government. Or maybe he's cosplaying the evil king from a Russian fairytale who ordered the hero to get him "that which cannot exist" and threatened execution in case of a failure.
Somebody joked on a Russian website: "What if he's terminally ill, and the long tables aren't there to protect him from Covid, but to protect others from his disease? And then, what if going nuclear is his last wish—he just always dreamed about dropping the bomb, and he knows this is his chance?"
Glenn, LaJuan, thank you again for giving me a reason to write this down daily. It has a grounding effect. I wouldn't be able to do it for my own sake because of the shame that's involved.
Glenn included this question in his response to this last letter:
Can just one man create and sustain such enormities? What is it about the system that makes this possible?
I started my next by answering it.
3/1, Day 6
I think he’s surrounded by spineless, opportunistic people—those who know how to align themselves with the powerful, prioritizing this over everything else—and that’s a result of two decades of active filtering for these qualities.
Or a century. Many dissenters left the country after the revolution, then many others were killed or exiled by Stalin, and then the soft filtering started: you didn’t have to have a career in the party, but if you wanted to, you had to develop a sense for the zeitgeist. There’s an old joke about a career Communist who, when asked at the trial if he had ever wavered when carrying out the party line, replied that he had only wavered
the party line.
I got in touch with my friend in Kyiv (I was relieved to see she doesn’t hold my country’s actions against me). She just moved apartments—the old one was on the top floor, and that scared her too much; she spent most of her time in the basement hiding with others. In her context, moving means a half-hour walk, with a bag and a backpack, across an empty city, being stopped and questioned by a military patrol once or twice on her way. In some of the videos she posted on Instagram, I can see her trying to ignore explosions in the background.
A friend in Moscow is trying to develop a better way to organize protest rallies. In talking to him, I said something I hadn’t articulated before: I think these rallies are held not to affect the situation, but to appease one’s conscience. This is because we’ve lost all of our organizers over the years. There’s no planning, no strategic thinking, no attempts to be creative.
If we want to be effective, I said, we need to rethink the whole thing from scratch. For instance, maybe, instead of gathering 5,000 people in a square only to get 1/4 of them arrested a couple of hours later, we could organize 500 people to cover the entire city center in anti-war stickers; and maybe we should think about the exact images and messages we would want to put on these stickers, to make them stand out and grab people’s attention.
This was a throwaway line to illustrate a broader point, but, after I said it, I decided I needed to try sketching something out.
Here’s my first draft (it says “Isolation”):
On the more mundane side of things, we’ve been struggling to find definitive answers on how to get our dog past the customs. The Armenian embassy doesn’t pick up their phone, and the Russian services keep giving us a different number to call. But, from what we’ve managed to learn, it sounds like the 10th might be doable.
There are rumors of FSB questioning people at the airports. I’m advised to delete Twitter and Telegram before going in.
The one independent political radio station that’s been in operation since 1990 was just taken off the air. The Internet regulator threatened to ban Wikipedia. Apple Pay stopped working.
Tomorrow there should be another round of peace talks, but I don’t think anybody has high hopes for them.
3/2, Day 7
The rumors of FSB questioning people at the airport, prohibiting some to leave, are not rumors anymore. There are many credible reports of this. They check people's phones, read their private messages, talk about Ukraine, even ask "Do you love Putin?"
The new rumor is that the border is going to close completely starting tomorrow. But Karina can't leave the dog, and I can't leave Karina, so we're sticking with getting Leo’s paperwork done first. We might be able to do that tomorrow, leave on the first available plane after that... if planes are still available.
Not going to lie, this is pretty nerve-racking.
In his next letter, Glenn sent me a link to Larry Kotlikoff’s article about “Putin’s Self-Made Trap And A Way Out“ and asked what I thought of it.
3/3, Day 8
I think Larry's analysis is broadly correct, though his proposal to the peace terms seems very strange and far-fetched, especially the idea of Russia joining NATO.
It's hard to know what's in these people's heads, but my sense is Putin wants a regime change, and I don't know how that can be accepted by the regime itself. I suppose it all comes down to the situation on land, which is also hard to analyze because there’s no way of checking the information reported by the two sides. But I'm pretty sure what we're seeing is not what Putin planned for—I think he wanted the war to be over by now, with the Russian army having seized the capital. But the capital stands.
Today's update: yesterday's rumors of the border closing completely haven't materialized, though I've just read about a plane to Yerevan—we booked tickets to Yerevan for March 20—that was turned around and put on land in Russia. They're checking passports, muttering something about men eligible for the draft.
The next rumor is that martial law will be established tomorrow.
A new bill was introduced into the Duma, which would make serving in the military in DNR & LNR a punishment for taking part in anti-war protests or spreading "misinformation" (=anything that's not Russia's official position) about the "special operation."
I finally started doing some work, writing out the draft of the '
creative director report
' I had started earlier. Unfortunately, I can't give you an ETA, since I can't predict how productive I'll be on a given day or even hour.
3/4, Day 9
Glenn, FYI, BoA is not making transfers to Russia anymore.
OK. No surprise. I'm awaiting further instructions. How are you?
Getting a little desperate. Our flight got cancelled. Karina is suggesting I leave without her, because men are in more danger of being prohibited from leaving completely, but I can't leave without her. Looking for other tickets.
Sorry to hear this. What a dilemma. Having just proposed marriage, you can't leave her behind. I can understand that. I only wish I could help. I'm "praying" for you both (as a way to convey solidarity and deep concern, not as an expression of religious belief.) Keep me posted as best you can. Btw, I'm interviewing Sam Harris about "free will", Joe Rogan, Charles Murray and war this afternoon -- another of your suggestions that has made TGS worth following. And I am looking forward to seeing your production of the initial installment of "Glenn reading the news", whenever you're able. This is by way of saying how much our collaboration means to me! So, do take care of yourself.
Thanks so much, Glenn.
I did just manage to buy new tickets, for March 15, Moscow to Yerevan. 11 days is a long time, here's hoping they'll still be worth something by then, and that no new obstacles emerge.
The Duma and the Federation Council just approved a new bill that will make public pronouncements about the actions of the Russian military that don't match the official narrative a criminal offense, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. My
conversation with Horgan
certainly fits this profile...
I'm back to working on the '
creative director report
.' I'm hoping to finish it sometime today.
Thanks again for all your support.
This is where the daily habit of writing these emails has tapered off. I thought that maybe I was oversharing and, in a sense, overstaying my welcome. I was also too busy trying to organize our escape.
On March 8, Glenn sent me an email:
Hoping you and Karina are ok. Not wanting to intrude, though. I'm sure you have your hands full... Just give me an update when you can. GL
3/8, Day 13
Thanks, Glenn. We're ok. It looks like we finally got some clarity on the rules for transporting dogs to Armenia, and we seem to be in the clear. (It's very hard to get actual government officials on the phone, but then I remembered I met a girl at my brother's birthday party who's a vet and works at the airport; I rolled cigarettes for her, and she told me how they used to kill mice in vet school, to study what happens during death. So I contacted her and she said Armenia is easy to get a dog in—we'll figure out future steps, to get into other countries, once we are out of Russia.)
Another problem was booking an apartment in Armenia. First, the place is overrun with Russians escaping the regime, so there's just not a lot that's available. Second, both
decided they're not going to work with Russians and Belarusians anymore. (I feel especially bad for Belarusians: I can sort of see the case for sanctions against ordinary Russians—like, they're trying to force us to rise up against the regime—but Belarusians have already risen up, they've just recently had an incredible wave of mass protests and strikes, and they were beaten, imprisoned, and tortured for that, and I think at least a few people were killed.) But I reached out to Mark, and he was kind enough to book an apartment for us—I'll pay him back once I figure out how to transfer money; or, if we do get stuck in Russia and can't find a way to send money between Russia and the U.S., I will have to ask you reimburse him out of my salary.
So then, we have a week to go here. Our chances for getting out seem pretty decent, we just need a bit of luck. If we do land in Armenia, the next issue to solve is money transfers. That too is complicated: paypal,
, and other services of that sort have joined the anti-Russian boycott; and I'm not yet sure what the situation is with Armenian banks. One option I'm thinking about is opening a
account with some European or American friend's info, and asking you to send my salary there. It'd be as if we're pretending to be some rich kids traveling with their parents' credit cards...
Those are the updates for us personally. As for Russia and Ukraine more broadly, the fighting continues in Ukraine, cities are being destroyed, more than 2 million people have left the country; in Russia, the combination of new draconian laws and Western sanctions / corporate boycotts seem to add up to a kind of a time machine, bringing the country back into 1984 or thereabouts... which wasn't a good time to begin with, and feels even worse for those who have gotten a taste of freedom and luxuries such as modern tech or medicine or IKEA furniture or imported foods. One dollar costs 140 rubles. If this continues for a couple more months, the country won't recognize itself.
On the TGS front, I just sent you and Mark a work-in-progress for a new animation template. I'll go walk the dog now and then look into the graphics for the comedy taping...
This was the last email of this genre.
I’ve written to other friends in response to their letters of concern and support, for each of which I’m deeply grateful. I’ll include one because it mentions the new symbol of Putin’s Russia, the letter Z.
This is in response to Edith Zimmerman, author of Drawing Links, who wrote:
Just thinking of you, hope you’re doing ok over there.
3/12, Day 17
I’m trying to get myself, my fiancé, and our dog out of Russia—we have tickets to Armenia for next week, and I think we have decent chances of actually using them (we won’t be sure until we’re on a plane). Most of our friends have either left, or are trying to leave, or are thinking about trying to leave later and wondering if it will be too late.
We’ve all been in shock for these last 17 days, on a rollercoaster of shitty emotions. Apart from the war and the sanctions (which make it impossible for me to get paid) and the new draconian laws (the word “war” is prohibited, all independent media is banned, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram too), there’s also the fact that there are a lot of people who either genuinely support the war or display such support for opportunistic reasons. Every now and again we see the letter Z—a symbol, which reliably makes me think of the swastika, that Russian vehicles in Ukraine are marked with—taped to the rear window of somebody’s car. That’s one of the harder things to stomach.
We do get a lot of support from one another and from our friends; and your email is an important piece of it too.
It’s very comforting to think about all the different people around the world that I have some kind of a connection to, who are going about their lives, raising kids, doing art, struggling with emotions, getting married, getting divorced, having dreams, having coffees, zoning out because of a lack of sleep, day-dreaming, and sometimes thinking of me or of my part of the world.
I hope you, Tom and Georgia are doing well.
So this is it. We are out of Russia. We’re taking a breath.
Armenians in Yerevan are being very friendly to us—friendlier, in fact, than Russians tended to be back home.
We have a place to stay until the end of April. Still haven’t figured out the money question, but are looking into a couple of options.
I’m going to stop by an electronics store today to see if I can buy myself a cheap mic to keep doing my podcasts.
I feel that, with the old reality having been torn apart, I now have a daily, urgent task in front of me—to keep inventing and articulating a new one, to think about individuals, groups, nations and states, and how one is to navigate his relationships with them all.
This will likely be the main topic of my future letters to you.
A huge thank you to everybody who has reached out with messages of support and offers of help. The connection I feel to you all is very grounding.
Until next time,
A city in southwestern Russia.
Both have adjusted their thinking since then. One has a ticket to Iran and is hoping to get an Estonian visa. The other is staying, but not for any ideological reasons—his wife is pregnant, they just bought a new apartment in Moscow.
The largest city in central Ukraine.