The Situation of Unfreedom

Does what used to lend meaning to our lives make sense any longer? Of course everything will return, but it will return just as weak as before, and fall just as easily as soon as some thug takes a swing at it.

That which cannot be named on the Russian internet

photograph of a forest
Photograph via Flickr

The following essay contains discussions of suicide.

Konstantin Olmezov, a young Ukrainian mathematician and poet, died by suicide on March 20. He had come to Russia in 2018 to study a branch of mathematics—additive combinatorics—that was not well represented in his home country. He was a student at the elite Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, whose list of alumni includes numerous Nobel Laureates. As his Telegram channel attests, he also wrote poetry on a large number of topics and in a variety of styles, meters, and moods—from moral tales, to ironic allegories, to sincere lyric.

Two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Olmezov tried to go home but was apprehended by the FSB at a Moscow bus station. He was questioned and detained for fifteen days on trumped-up administrative charges. The experience shook him deeply. Fearing being trapped in a Russia he no longer recognized—and isolated from a Ukraine he couldn’t save—he tragically took his own life.

Olmezov’s death was first reported on Telegram by his lawyer, Dmitry Zakhvatov, who had been actively working to put together a second, more effective escape route for him. Olmezov had already secured a position at a university in Austria and purchased a ticket to Istanbul, but ultimately could not bring himself to face the terrifying prospect of further “unfreedom” at the hands of the Russian authorities.

Olmezov had created his Telegram channel on March 15, shortly after his release from FSB detention. The vast majority of the entries are poems copied over from his page on VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook. Perhaps Olmezov, observing the wholesale destruction of Russia’s independent media and the blocking of platforms like Twitter and Instagram, wanted to preserve his art in a safer-seeming forum. Just before his suicide, he left a series of final entries of shattering clarity and impact, mostly in prose but ending with a poem.

After his death was announced, passages from these final notes went viral on what is left of the free Russian internet. Olmezov’s Telegram channel doubled its subscriber count overnight. In translating his final missive, I hope to transmit his message to an even wider audience. It is not a hopeful message, but the world is not currently an especially hopeful place.

Olmezov is circumspect, but his circumspection is ironic and contradictory. He avoids the word “suicide” just as he largely avoids calling Russia’s war a war, a linguistic choice he negates through constant bitter emphasis on the new prohibitions in Russian public discourse. His circumlocutions are devastating, calling screaming attention to the very topics they ostensibly skirt. They are part of the euphemistic language of shock and trauma, which cannot name the things that hurt the most.

—Maya Vinokour

Hello. My name is Konstantin Olmezov. As of this writing, I am of sound mind and memory, and if you are reading it, most likely I will never write anything again.

Once, a long time ago, when I was first thinking seriously about that which cannot be named on the Russian internet, I started looking for self-help videos. In one such video, a psychologist says that the main thought that drives almost everyone who intends to do this is: “The world owes me and the world has not lived up to my expectations.” I took this idea to heart and realized that, given the situation at the time, such a position was inappropriate—and the problem was solved. I returned to life relatively quickly.

But now, I think exactly this: “The world owes me and the world has not lived up to my expectations.”

The world should strive to correct errors. And it doesn’t. The world should be comprised of thinking, empathetic, and responsible people. And it isn’t. The world should permit creative freedom and freedom of choice. And it constantly takes them away. The world should consider these demands normal. And it considers them excessive.

That which began on February 24 changed certain existential positions within me. It is more than horrible how people who only yesterday seemed to be leading quite mundane lives so easily acquired all the characteristics I’d read about in books. I am afraid our language doesn’t yet have words to reflect the extreme nature of what is happening. It turns out that in order to start resembling characters from books and songs, all you have to do is not read or listen to them; and millions of people are capable of doing this.

I came to Russia in 2018 to study mathematics. I came because I had fallen in love with a type of mathematics that wasn’t represented in Ukraine—additive combinatorics. I fell in love for real, I was head over heels—the way people fall in love with people. I spent days and nights with it. My love wasn’t especially diligent, my mathematical achievements are very modest, but there’s actually no contradiction there, because I do even worse when it comes to regular love.

I was always critical of Russian politics and always thought Russian culture was on a higher plane. I thought it capable of transcendence. This illusion inside my head was almost unshakeable, but now it has dropped away, all at once and irrevocably. Vysotsky, Filatov, Shpalikov, Astrakhan, Tarkovsky, Mikhalkov (before his recent demonic possession)1, Vinogradov, Linnik, Shkredov, Tchaikovsky, Rakhmaninov, Scriabin—I’m afraid that these and many other names mean absolutely nothing to the majority of those whose actions the majority of Russians currently support. They mean nothing to them to a point we can’t even imagine. But regardless, they support them.

It’s so ridiculous that everyone still believes that you can achieve everything by force. That if you break people hard enough over your knee, you can force them to forget what is happening right in front of them. That if you gag everyone, you can suffocate their thoughts, too. You would think these observations belong in the realm of politics or psychology, but no, it’s culture yet again—it’s not a strategy for working with reality, it’s an expression of an attitude toward the phenomenon of subjectivity as such. That’s what it means when “being determines consciousness.”

On February 26 I attempted to leave Russia. This was a somewhat stupid act, but only insofar as it was poorly planned. I don’t regret it, I only regret that I didn’t do it on the 23rd, when there was already every reason to do so.

I was leaving to defend my country, to defend it from those who wanted to take it away from me. To defend my president, whom I myself elected, the same way a boss feels obligated to defend a subordinate. Speaking of which, I didn’t vote for Zelensky in the first round of elections in 2019. And I wouldn’t have voted for him in 2023, either. But however unpleasant I found him, what matters to me is freedom of choice and the freedom to take responsibility for that choice, responsibility up to and including fully experiencing the consequences. This is very difficult to explain to many Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians—how violent changes from the outside, even if they improve well-being across all possible parameters, might be unacceptable just by virtue of being violent and coming from outside. It’s a little bit like rescuing someone from their helicopter parents.

They arrested me as I was getting on the bus. The fault for this lies, I think, with my own big mouth and one person with whom I rashly shared my plans. Once arrested, I concluded that my freedom had been taken away forever, and told the FSB everything I thought about what’s going on, right to their faces. That was stupid, but it couldn’t have been otherwise. It was the last thing I could hit them with, and I lashed out with all my might. I was even amused at how helplessly they tried to answer me, how absolutely innocent their faces looked as they repeated the crudest propaganda clichés with total guilelessness.

Once confined to a cell, I sought only one thing—death. I made no fewer than ten attempts using seven different methods. In retrospect, some of these seem silly and obviously doomed to fail, but they were sincere attempts. And the only thing I dreamed of, sitting there, was to be released in order to gain the opportunity to make a final attempt, this time with a fair chance of success. (By the way, I still don’t understand why they released me in the end.)

To me, unfreedom is worse than death. My whole life, I’ve tried to have freedom of choice in everything—in food, in my profession, in my place of residence, in the type of soap I use to wash my hands and which party I vote for. I only ever ate food that tasted good to me, and if I didn’t have the opportunity to do so, I preferred to go hungry.

There are only two methods of fighting unfreedom—displacement and rejection. Displacement is when you’ve been able to choose freely all your life, and then, when they lock you up, you start to pick out books to read during your imprisonment. I can only fight unfreedom by rejecting it, by refusing to remain in the very situation of unfreedom. If I am prevented from choosing how and where to live, I prefer simply not to live.

I love Donetsk very much, even if it is with a strange love.2 Despite my vile childhood, it’s still the city where I wrote my first computer program, my first poem, went onstage for the first time, earned my first paycheck. It’s the city where every little bench, every twist and turn of the path in every park is saturated for me with its own kind of rhyme, with some problem that I worked to solve there, with names, faces, with pleasant and terrible events. Every corner of every path.

I love Kyiv very much—it’s the city where I first attained an independent life, where I first endured hunger and loneliness, where I first fell truly in love, where I wrote my best poems. While I lived there, there was a period when I wrote two poems every three days, more than ever before. Every bridge over the Rusanivsky Channel, every tree in the woods behind the Lisova metro station, every bench in Victory Park are suffused for me with their unique forms of pain and love.

I love Moscow very much—it’s the city where I first stood on my own two feet, became financially independent, where I proved my first and only theorems, where I really and truly started believing in my own abilities. Where there is Tsaritsyno! I feel pain for both sides in this war, but I see with my own eyes who’s defending their own land, and who’s trying to seize someone else’s.

I see with my own eyes who’s defending their right to be responsible for their own life, and who seeks to justify their own degradation.

There’s this hackneyed question: “to be or not to be.” I always tried to ask myself that from time to time. I feel like if a person doesn’t ask themselves that question on a regular basis, then the continuation of their life cannot be a conscious choice.

It’s a well-known question, but the author follows it up with another: “whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” The answer to that question is unequivocal for me today: to be silent, to lie, to pretend that nothing is happening either in the world or in my soul—is indecent; to put myself in harm’s way and spend my whole life in prison, helpless—is indecent; to live in hiding, thereby bringing trouble on the heads of others, to constantly seek help, to fear everyone—is indecent; to act as a partisan, doing harm to another nation while on its territory—is doubly indecent. I’m a Ukrainian, a person of another culture. (I know that some will think this is a weakness; so be it.) I don’t see a way to continue to live decently.

At some point I became hopeful that my second attempt to leave would be successful. I am immensely grateful to the people who gave me the gift of that attempt and apologize for not being able to make use of it. I am too afraid of being imprisoned again, for real this time—I did too many stupid things during my first arrest.

Not to mention that I am disappointed in both individual people and humanity as a whole. When, in the 21st century and in the middle of the night, an army attacks a completely foreign country that presents no danger to it and every soldier understands what he is doing but pretends he doesn’t. When a government official says, “We didn’t attack,” and journalists amplify that message. And every journalist understands that it’s a lie but pretends not to. When millions of people look on and understand that what is being done will be on their conscience and their history, but pretend that it has nothing to do with them. When black is called white and softness—bitterness, and not in a conspiratorial whisper or with winking irony, but seemingly from the heart. When Zadornov’s joke about the American who says that “Russians are cruel because they attacked the Swedes near Poltava” ceases to be a joke and stops being about an American talking about Swedes.3 When the world seriously considers the possibility of the very thing it has been trying to prevent for seventy-five years, but doesn’t consider any new models of prevention. When force once again claims to be the main source of truth, and betrayal and hypocrisy—the main source of peace.

When all of this is happening all around us, I utterly lose hope that humanity will take a different path. I utterly lose the desire to do anything for or with these people. I knew that we would backslide sooner or later, that the beast is incorrigible. But I couldn’t imagine that it would be so quick or so simple, like the flip of a switch.

Does what used to lend meaning to our lives make sense any longer? Of course everything will return, but it will return just as weak as before, and fall just as easily as soon as some thug takes a swing at it.

I can’t say I’m ashamed of my life, but I could have done better. I mostly didn’t have time to accomplish the things that only I can do and that would have improved people’s lives. But would they even be useful now?

I wanted to create an app that helps people make conscious decisions, that enables people to hold what I thought of as internal referenda, answering the same question many days in a row. This idea gave me life, but who needs elections and referenda now? Who is actually interested in even their own opinion? I wanted to “color in” Szemerédi’s theorem, transforming a mathematical proof into a creation at the intersection of the arts, into something on the scale of a film. I am certain that mathematics deserves as much.

I wanted to help people escape cognitive distortions and logical contradictions, to seek and formulate their own models of the world. I feel like I was good at that.

None of that matters anymore, and I’m writing about it not to arouse pity, but to insist on its significance.

I was unforgivably lazy and thought I had a lot of time. That was a big mistake.

I feel somewhat ashamed before my Ukrainian friends. Please believe that I never wanted or did anything to hurt Ukraine and always kept in mind my readiness to leave if, by chance, what is happening now were in fact to occur. Unfortunately, I was simply unable to do so, my approach wasn’t savvy enough . . . The FSB agents who detained me spoke to me as though I were a traitor, but on the morning of February 24 it was I who felt betrayed. Yes, it may seem silly—but even having acknowledged, rationally and out loud, that war was possible, on an emotional level it was a shock, to a shocking degree. I was naively certain that juridical tact toward Ukrainians would make it possible to escape when things came to a head. But I had stuck my head too deep into the tiger’s maw. That was the second big mistake; I’ve certainly made a few, and now I have to pay.

I hurt from every shell that falls onto the streets of Kyiv. Reading the news, I keep seeing those streets and neighborhoods in my imagination.  From the first day to this moment I was with you heart and soul, although, of course, that didn’t save any lives . . .

I am an absolute atheist. I don’t believe in hell, I’m heading into the void. But that void appeals to me more than a reality in which half the people have devolved into savagery, while the other half indulges them—even if they throw up their hands in collective insanity, even if they “evacuate” far away from the front lines. I don’t want any part of either.

And last but not least, a little poem:

Do Russians want no war posters?
Ask the armored riot police;
Ask those diving down into the metro;
Ask the one clinging to the throne.

Do Russians want broken cities?
Ask the overstuffed trains.
Do Russians want destroyed hospitals?
Ask the dried-out eye sockets of infants.

Do Russians want to change anything at all?
Ask what few news media are left.
Do Russians want to root out Nazism?
Ask the students emblazoned with the “Z.”4

Your calling card will be this awful year,
You truly unwavering people,
Prepared to bathe in blood or shit,
So long as all no war posters disappear.

—Translated from the Russian by Maya Vinokour

  1. The famous film director Nikita Mikhalkov, already a controversial figure, has been banned from entering Ukraine since 2015. Most recently, his commentary in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led a Ukrainian court to arrest him in absentia. —trans. 

  2. Here, Olmezov is referring to Motherland by the Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov, which he wrote in the year of his death. It begins with the line “I love my homeland/ But it is with a strange love.” —trans. 

  3. These lines refer to a bit by the Soviet and Russian comedian Mikhail Zadornov that mocks the Western view of Russians as aggressive, caftan-wearing barbarians. In the Battle of Poltava in 1709, it was in fact the Swedes who first attacked the Russians, not the other way around, so the joke here is that the American is comically “Russophobic” and ignorant. —trans. 

  4. The Latin letter “Z,” or “zwastika,” as some journalists have styled it, has become the symbol of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Its meaning has not yet fully stabilized, but it could stand for “Za pobedu [for victory]” or “Za pravdu [for truth].” —trans. 

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