"Yes, Chekhov and Dostoevsky are to blame." Art historian from Moscow on the abolition of Russian culture
Valeria Kharitonova is an art history teacher from Moscow. She now works as a bartender in Tbilisi. Lera decided to leave Russia after she and her husband went to an anti-war rally, and she found herself constantly waiting for a knock on the door. As an art historian, Lera believed that the "abolition of Russian culture" was a temporary phenomenon, and gradually the names of prominent writers, composers, and artists would be heard again all over the world. Nonetheless, she maintains that Russian culture was historically constructed as imperial, and today's pretensions to it are no accident. Watch a conversation with the new "Eyewitnesses" character on TV2.
Tell us about yourself
My name is Lera, I'm 22. I am currently a bartender in Tbilisi. Before that I was a teacher in Moscow schools, in the lyceum "Vyshki", I prepared olympiads. I am an art historian, and I taught art history. I have been doing this since 2017, since I was seventeen. In fact, I've been a teacher for five years. A teacher is a bit of a mouthful, a teacher.
Why did you leave Russia?
I wanted to leave Russia for a long time. Probably my first thought was when I was eleven years old. My mother and I were in Paris, we walked to the Sorbonne. I fell in love and said: "Mom, I'm going to the Sorbonne!" I didn't get into the Sorbonne, I didn't even try in the end. But from that point on, I always knew I wanted to go somewhere. My mother kept pushing me to go somewhere, wanting me to move too. And so finally I saved up some money, my husband and I decided to move to Riga in the summer. We bought a pottery school franchise, but it did not work out. We had to leave in an emergency. We didn't have much luck going to the rally. We went out a long time ago, and that was actually the reason, too, because I was really hit hard by the nineteen nineties. I was very badly shaken by the elections to the State Duma, where we were observers, members of the electoral commission with advisory voting rights. And when Navalny was arrested and poisoned and put in jail, I was already completely insane, I could not be in Moscow, it was very hard. So we were getting ready to move and when the war started we were not very lucky to go to the rally, because it was a big, actually, revelation for me. The first people who came to the rally were not the old opposition people, 30 to 40 years old, and not the fifties, but the young girls who had obviously come to the rally for the first time came. They were heartbroken, they did not understand what was going on, and there were few of them, while there were a huge number of cops and all those cosmonauts. Well, at some point we had to start coordinating the column. They just put us in front, it's not the first time, come on! So we waved. Every 3 meters there were "tihushniki", we were filmed, a traffic police car was behind us, filming and smiling at us, and I was hysterical. We went home, I said," we took the tickets, and two days later we left. It was very stressful, I kept waiting for the knock on the door, and until we got on the plane and took off, I couldn't calm down.
Whose fault is it that the lives of millions are ruined?
It's a difficult question. In fact, this is a conversation that has been going on for four and a half months, in all immigrant hangouts, every meeting eventually comes to this question. And in the beginning, when we were discussing all this, we had just arrived with Ilya, we were invited to a birthday party with a girl we didn't know, with some strangers. My husband Ilya started to say that here, it was all our fault. Everybody was like, "No, none of us are to blame, it's Putin's fault. Since then, I think it's very important to separate the words "responsibility" and "guilt. And I place the blame solely on Putin, on the people who serve him, on the people who give criminal orders, on the people who don't refuse to go to war under contract, on them. I hold everyone responsible.
Was it Chekhov's fault that Russia started the war?
I believe that yes, that we have all been brought up on this culture, this imperial culture, this culture of violence, this culture of disrespect for one another. We are people who have been brought up on these books. Yes, Chekhov and Dostoevsky are to blame. Yes, they are responsible. That said, I can't say that I'm happy or embarrassed by, how should I say it, "canselling," because I don't think that's what the story is about at all. First of all, that "canselling" won't always be there. Yes, we are now in the peak of emotions, in the peak of war, and it is clear that now everyone conditionally "hates Russians", which is not true, everyone "hates Russian culture", which is not true, and that all this will return, because in fact, no one has cancelled anything. This kind of canselling seems completely justified to me at a time when we need to give the Ukrainians a stage. This, it seems to me, is the same story as, for example, not clogging up the airwaves on Instagram with your personal life, but giving activists this space to speak out. And the same thing, it seems to me, is happening with Russian culture.
What can save Russia?
Education. Under the article you might say? The collapse of the country. The collapse of the country and good education, because until we all start living the way we want to live, not the way Moscow told us to live, we're not going to get anywhere.
How do you see the future of Russia?
Putin dies, the military junta dies, and then we come to something good after many years.
Honestly, I probably have such emotional swings after I moved, but at this point I probably don't see any future. It's really hard for me, and I don't think anything good will come of my life with Russia. There will be fighting, maybe. You see, I had hoped for a very long time that people would realize, people would come out, people would stand up for their rights. With the outbreak of war, I realized that these are such illusions. These people, they will never come out because they don't know how. They've lived for a hundred years with the fact that it doesn't have to be done.
My fear is that no one will come out anytime soon, no one will fight, and even if Putin conditionally dies, it's still some way of life that we have, that we are used to, and something is unlikely to happen to it.
What are you afraid of?
I am afraid of the takeover of Ukraine. I do not believe in it, but I am afraid. I fear for the lives of my friends in Ukraine. I fear the death of Alexei Navalny, oddly enough. I caught myself recently thinking that this is one of my main fears right now. I'm afraid of the crazy grandfather who might press the conditional red button and fucking destroy the whole thing. I'm afraid that people won't realize. I'm afraid that my grandfather will completely distance himself from me and I'll never meet him or be able to talk to him properly. Such fears.
If the regime falls, will you return to Russia?
No, I don't want to go back. I know there is a popular opinion that everything will be over now, and that we will go back to rebuilding Russia, a new Russia, the most beautiful Russia, the most educated Russia, and so on. I don't know if this is a period of disappointment or if this is already some kind of final decision, but I understood that if you go back to Russia and rebuild something there, then you're laying down your life for it, because it will not happen quickly. And that's, first of all, putting your life on it, and secondly, I'm not sure that anyone needs it in Russia, these people who support the war, who watch TV. They're not bad people, but I'm not sure they want it.