Before the novelist Victoria Amelina was killed in a missile attack in Ukraine on July 1, 2023, she wrote about what it was like to grow up in the shadow of Russia as a Ukrainian. In this piece, published posthumously by The Guardian, Amelina considers the true meaning of home and brotherhood as she recounts her transition from a wide-eyed child enthralled by Moscow to an activist who documented Russian war crimes against her homeland.
When I was 15, I won a local competition and was chosen to represent my home town, Lviv, at an international Russian language contest in Moscow. I was excited to visit the Russian capital. Moscow felt like the centre of what I considered home. My library was full of Russian classics, and even though the Soviet Union had collapsed almost a decade earlier, not much had changed in the Russian school I attended, or on Russian TV, which my family had the habit of watching. Additionally, while I didn’t even have the money to travel around Ukraine, Russia was happy to invest in my Russianisation.
At the contest in Moscow I met kids from all those countries Russia would later try to invade or assimilate: Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova. The Russian Federation invested a lot of money in raising children like us from the “former Soviet republics” as Russians. They probably invested more in us than they did in the education of children in rural Russia: those who were already conquered didn’t need to be tempted with summer camps and excursions to Red Square.
I remembered this story in 2022, watching an interview with an elderly man in Mariupol. He was desperate, disoriented and disarmingly honest. “But I believed in this Russian world, can you imagine? All my life I believed we were brothers!” the poor man exclaimed, surrounded by the ruins of his beloved city. The man’s apartment building was in ruins and the illusion of home, the space he perceived as his motherland, the former Soviet Union where he was born and lived his best years, had been crushed even more brutally. The propaganda stopped working on him only when the Russian bombs fell. The border between independent Ukraine and the Russian Federation arose in his mind as a crucial barrier, just like it did in mine when I realised I had only been brought to festive Moscow to lie about my home town in Ukraine, so that the Russian viewers could hate it even more.