“You don’t think the Americans would just let Russia take the city, do you?” My cousin asked me this while we were smoking on the balcony of his old apartment in Kyiv, in the summer of 2014. I was working in Moscow but making frequent trips to the city of my birth. Usually, these trips happened in the aftermath of my husband raising a hand to me, or whenever I was seeing other men. Physical violence inspired me to stray, which in turn inspired more physical violence. Back then, I never called it abuse. I would say, “We have a tempestuous relationship.”
Russia was in the midst of ratcheting up its own “tempestuous relationship” with Ukraine—having already annexed Crimea and destabilized parts of the Ukrainian east. The two countries were at war with each other while taking pains not to refer to what was happening as war. There were repeated rumors in Kyiv that Russia would go much further west. Russian nationalists and other unpleasant people were calling on the Kremlin to do so.
Because I grew up in the US, my Ukrainian family members frequently turned to me for wisdom about what the Americans would and wouldn’t do. I disliked those conversations even more than I disliked their repeated suggestions that I should leave my husband. My denial was a cloak I wore, it was almost a physical space I could occupy, like the bomb shelters I had begun to take note of on my long walks through the Ukrainian capital.
My cousin had been a police detective before getting into the financial sector. When I was younger, we’d go shoot pool together with his handsome cop friends whenever I was in town. “I heard Americans can’t drink,” they’d goad me. “Watch this, bitches!” I’d scream, chugging a liter while balancing on the edge of a pool table. “You know, you don’t have to show off for them,” my cousin would say as he inevitably carried me to the taxi. He saw my need to be cool as a vulnerability a man could exploit.
When I got older, I moved to Moscow for work as a journalist and playwright. I was looking for other pieces of my family then—“exploring my Russian heritage,” as I might have written in a grant application, if I were the sort of person who applied for grants. Russia was not home, no matter what my Russian mother—who sometimes reminded me of a character from Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” in love with a mythical city that existed mostly in her head—told me at the time. There were no loving cousins who looked after me in Moscow. A talented and important theater person raped me, and then a talented and less important theater person asked me to marry him. I made the latter man’s talent my project. I would, I decided, make him important. My husband was funny and handsome, with swamp-colored eyes, and I loved him very much. The first time he bounced my head off a wall, our son was two weeks old.
“They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money,” the narrator of The Great Gatsby says about Tom and Daisy Buchanan. In my decade abroad, I would sometimes use that line to explain U.S. foreign policy to people at parties. It felt clever and satisfying. I’d always known that other countries could and did do worse given even half a chance—a fact especially true of regimes that don’t have a real opposition to answer to—but this wasn’t quite driven home until Ukraine was invaded.
Moscow never engendered the same playground feeling in me as it did, for example, in American expat men—but I became a playwright there; I gave birth to a beautiful child; I posed for artists; I stood in the dim back stages of old theaters and heard ghosts; I put dents in other people’s marriages as surely as dents were put into mine. I received both punishments and gifts. After the war started, I clung on for three more years in the “tempest,” thinking we could “work it out.” Then Russia’s laws on domestic violence were loosened, and my husband attacked our child practically in the same week. Publicly, he acted outraged about the legal shift on domestic violence in his home country. Privately, he was saying that if he stabbed me, the courts may take the view that I’d “provoked” him and give him a lighter sentence. He would also say that the legislation affected “real” victims, i.e. women who weren’t “bitches” like me, and didn’t “force” their husbands to raise a hand to them.
I had to ask for help to leave, not from the Russian authorities, who could not be trusted, but from friends—never be too ashamed to ask your friends for help, I don’t care how strong you think you are—and I would like to say that “I never looked back,” but looking back is my job, of course. You must look over your shoulder in order to be able to write, and to periodically rip out the stitches that hold you together. I would argue that the same goes, or ought to go, for journalism. I had come to Russia with brilliant, airy-winged illusions in my head, but I came to understand the country, and the mechanisms that drive its failures of governance—a topic that all Americans who care about their country should be paying close attention to—through learning to work my way backwards.
This is why much of the demagoguery in American politics today feels to me like a reverberating echo of life in Russia, with Trump as a wannabe Putin—though ultimately too coddled, too addled, too vain a man to be anything like the Russian president. Putin is entrenched, already looking like a marble bust of himself, and Trump is more like a fast-acting virus, convulsing the body of the republic.
In Washington DC, where I live now, people ask me how Ukrainians are “dealing” with their country being in headlines related to the Trump impeachment probe. I typically respond in a vague, angry way: “Most Ukrainians are focused on survival,” I say, which is probably true enough, but it’s also the case that most Ukrainians are used to chaos and political instability. While the United States celebrated at the end of the cold war, the people of the Soviet Union believed that they had slain their own monsters. They didn’t expect to be humiliated, or to be plunged into poverty and lawlessness. Ukraine especially had a hard time of it, and even on those occasions when the Ukrainian government did what seemed the right thing—like giving up its nuclear weapons—it was eventually punished, as a revanchist Russia angrily decided that Ukraine was straying too far from its sphere of influence.
In fact, a Ukrainian should probably write the next self-help book for Americans, something along the lines of Girl, Launder Your Money or The 7 Habits of Highly Corrupt People—as there is something almost gleefully post-Soviet about the Trump administration, both the lack of taste and the sneering contempt for the law. Ukrainians have been dealing with the same exact bullshit for years, and can inject a welcome sense of reality in what’s happening.
But realism is not the same as nihilism. This is why Americans who point to the Trump years as “proof” that this country is irredeemable annoy me almost as much as his most delusional supporters. The election of Trump and his clown car of an administration’s parade of indignities and criminal investigations is a small triumph to everyone who both rages against this country and/or insists with pure, idiotic optimism that things will be just fine if our entire system simply collapses, as if unicorns as opposed to monsters will emerge from its ashes.
Ukrainians tend to take American power more seriously than many Americans do themselves—they know and feel its bleeding edge, how it can mark the difference between life and death—and I think it’s time to begin changing that. Not taking that power seriously is a consequence of not understanding how fragile civilization can be, how you can feel it, rickety, never quite reliably still underneath you, as you stand on a balcony in the gathering dark, wondering if Russia will invade.
Abuse of state power and an abusive relationship are different in terms of scale and proportion, which is why it’s easy to overlook the fact that these two phenomena have the same DNA. Both require a state of unreality in order to perpetuate themselves. The abuser and the autocrat both reject responsibility and embrace the standard defense: “Look what you made me do!” The first step to solving the problem is seeing it clearly.
What I told my cousin years ago in Ukraine, what I want to tell you now, is that I don’t think the cavalry will ride in to save us. There are no “adults in the room.” No “cooler heads” that are likely to “prevail.” Those people are not real, but we are. The realization that nobody in power is necessarily coming to save you can be a sad, terrifying feeling, but it can also be something strangely hopeful, a beginning. We can let our fear become a clarifying force—that which will help us save what we love, help us forge better horizontal ties in society, and maybe set some realistic fucking goals for ourselves instead of sitting around and complaining about how we’re not living in a utopia.
Not that I needed to explain any of this to my cousin, of course. I remember I just put my arm around him. I remember the light was amber and the future felt long written. I’d like to say we said something profound to each other but all that happened is that he hugged me back and we stood there for a while, listening to kids race each other in rapturous joy around the shabby playgrounds of that neighborhood.