On March 1, in a Moscow therapist’s office, Alevtina “Alya” Borodulina chose to leave Russia.
The invasion of Ukraine had begun five days earlier. People called the new world “After 24,” marking the invasion’s date and the ruthless and irrevocable division of time it had created. Daily routines no longer structured life but instead gave way to existential concerns. Nostalgia now tinted the immediate past. It was her first therapy session, scheduled prior to the war’s outbreak in response to anxieties that had lost their relevance. She had recently turned 30. In the office, Alya spoke only of the war. The therapist replied by discussing the structure of fairy tales: a rupture giving way to acceptance and a determination to venture forward in order to restore a broken world. “Should I leave the country?” Alya asked point-blank. The therapist had no answers to give, but she also did not scoff, and perhaps this made all the difference. “In this story, what would the character do?” the therapist replied. Within 48 hours, Alya would be in Istanbul.
After the session, she walked through Gorky Park on her way to work. She called an Armenian friend who had been thinking about leaving for Yerevan. Alya suggested they take his car and drive. “I’ve already bought plane tickets for March 9,” he said. The prices for nearer dates had been too high. Eight days seemed an eternity. She felt as if she were stuck in a horror film. “We don’t have enough time,” she said. His flight would eventually be canceled.
When Alya arrived at her office, ashen faces greeted her. A comatose trepidation had hung in the air for the past five days. She worked at Moscow State University’s Institute of Anthropology, researching the effect of extractive industries on Russian populations. Her job allowed her the freedom and funds to travel throughout the country conducting interviews. Over the years, Alya had seen many of the researchers get their doctorate degrees and leave Russia in order to make careers and enjoy higher standards of living abroad. When colleagues had asked if she planned to do the same, she would name a remote region of the country and reply: “I can’t leave Russia. I haven’t been to Sakhalin Island yet.” After Alya had traveled to Sakhalin Island twice, she began to use Kamchatka, a peninsula abutting the Sea of Okhotsk in eastern Russia. In autumn 2021, when she finally made it to Kamchatka on a research trip, Alya dreamed she was standing in a friend’s apartment in Berlin, painting the walls white. The friend, who had once tried to entice her to apply to a German university, asked, “Why are you still in Russia?”
Alya had never aimed to make her career abroad. Russia and its furthest reaches, its various cultures and languages and topographies and climates, had always captivated her. Her colleagues had been a second family. The institute’s director had been like a father. At her desk on March 1, she thought back to the interviews she had conducted with fishermen on the coastal town of Poronaysk in the far east — many of them drank heavily and her director had insisted she take a male colleague, citing the town’s seedy reputation, but she had gone alone and nothing had happened. Alya had cherished the opportunity to embed herself in these remote spaces, even if she felt pained by the decay, the inequality and the suffering. She called it a masochistic love. As an undergraduate university student, she had first been drawn to anthropology while interviewing former factory workers in the towns dotting Lake Onega in northwestern Russia. The exercise had been designed to teach students how to conduct ethnographic research. Many of the men had gone blind because of chemicals used in the manufacturing processes. She could no longer remember what they had built. [Continue reading…]