Behind the Wall

Trigger warning. Suicidal talk

Prayers requested, if you’re the praying type. Good thoughts requested if you’re not. Hope requested. Love requested.

Slava Ukraini, but also long live all the brave Russians.

My dear Russian friends are breaking down. They are being crushed. All the midnight messages that I sneak out of bed to take or reply to. My haulting Russian. Their choked English. The terror of banks crashing, the food running out. The begging of God to take them before it gets even worse. I can only sit with them now on Telegram and read the unraveling of their minds inside the memories of the Soviet Union. All I can do is sit with them in those memories. I cannot stop anything or help them in any way. I cannot say anything helpful. I cannot give them any advice. It does no good to simply promise them my love. Everything I try is blocked. They cannot receive my money. They cannot receive my packages. They cannot defect.

I fear I will never see them or talk to them again. Every day, another method of communication between us is broken by a madman. First Facebook, then Instagram, forget email. We never used it anyway. It was always a bad idea. We cannot speak on the phone anymore. Then WhatsApp makes them nervous. We always speak in code. No longer in English. Certain words and names omitted. Everything is back to riddles and enigmas. Now the messages are, “I have to delete this chat. There are warning us of martial law. We have to surrender our cell phones on demand.”

And they are gone. We are now enemies again. We have been siblings, beloveds, a group of friends with one soul, for 31 years. And now we are behind the curtain again. There is only silence after the fear.

I tell them, “If you get to a US Embassy, give them my name. My phone number. I will always have this number.”

They say, “It doesn’t matter. It won’t help. Nothing matters anymore. It is over.”

I share only a small portion of memory from that time with them in the USSR. The majority of our friendship has been after the Fall. But now I am so grateful to God that I can, at least, offer them that pitiful shared experience in the darkness. And when they say in Russian, “The lines are back. The middle of the night raids are back. The disappearing is back” I know what they mean. I can smell that fear. I can close my eyes and see the lines. I can smell the musty apartment on the 14th floor of Hotel Novosibirsk. The one in Moscow Oblast where the KGB had the keys. The one by the Volga, where the radio recorded our conversations. I can see the bald men in stripes, marching like ants around the camp for political prisoners in Perm, the gulag that wasn’t supposed to exist. But we saw it from a train high in the blue Ural Mountains. We saw them in the town, where they were forced to live alone if they survived their 25 years of hard labor. “This is God,” said one of the inmates to me and he spit on the ground and then in my face when he found out there was an American behind the Russian words. “He is for you. He is for the West, not the East. We are His bastards. He wants to crush us like a bug.”

My friends, writers, painters, university professors, museum curators, journalists, they are the political prisoners now. Will they be the ones in the stripes now? Will they starve to death? I want to keep my stupid, happy American hope, but I know their reality, and I know that there is no positive manifestation in Russia.

I can see it all, and I’m trying hard not to forget that we remained friends, some of us, from that time till now. We survived revolutions, economic collapses, a country with no name. Some became Americans and joined me here, seeing that my stories were true. There really is a place where people are free. Where they can live their lives and make mistakes and have great ideas and bad ones without dying for them. But now, the ones who remained behind to repair the Motherland, I don’t know. Will they survive this madman? They tell me another one will just replace him.

“Don’t let the West say we wanted this!” they tell me. “Tell them we fought him.”

Two of my friends messaged me tonight to say that they are threatening to leave this world before Putin can take them.

“I love you,” we told each other. “Ya lubit tbya.”

They are not being dramatic. They don’t want to end up in Lubyanka. Pray for my friends, please. Pray for my friends. I barely remember a life without them.

My heart is broken in so many places. I thought this was over. They thought it was over. My beloved Russians are back in chains. My oldest and dearest friends are being separated from me. Maybe forever, and the world still turns and we eat takeout and watch Netflix and sleep soundly in our beds just like we always have. We soothe our Western souls and practice self-care and they’re making suicide pacts. It’s all back. It never really went away. When Russians are brave, they are very brave. The ones who survive will pay for this. The ones who do not will be saints. I thought it was over forever. I was wrong. They were wrong. When can they just be normal people who pay bills and live the life of their choosing?

“Tiff, I am praying Psalm 90 every day. It is all I can do.”

“My dear, L. I will pray it with you. Come quickly and find me when you can defect.”

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