Ilya Sychev: "My land is overgrown with hogweed

Ilya Sychev is 26 years old. He was born in Tver and studied in Moscow. For several years he worked as a teacher of history and social studies in schools in the capital city. After February 24, he participated in anti-war actions. Fearing prosecution, emigrated to Georgia. Now he works as a cook in Tbilisi. Ilya discusses what can and can't be said in history classes, how the current historical period differs from others, and whether Russia has a future, in a new episode of Witnesses to February 24.

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Ilya, I am 26 years old, I am from Tver, from the Upper Volga region. I lived there till I was 17, like most of my coevals, finished school and went to Moscow to study, I entered the History Department of the Higher School of Economics, graduated from it, became a history and social studies teacher. Now I am living in Tbilisi and I have been working as a cook in the kitchen for five months since the beginning of March. You have to earn money somehow.

Why did you leave Russia?

My wife and I were going to emigrate back this summer - to Riga - we were going to open a pottery school as a franchise, and there were actually many other reasons. The main one, the most important one, is both the closed and aggressive nature of our society, and the passivity, in terms of socialization and communication between people. I did not want to raise my children in this. I personally have problems expressing my opinions in school, in class. I was told what I could and could not say. I didn't see any prospects. On February 24, when the war started, Lera and I went to rallies. Then there was another one, and it happened so casually, honestly, that we helped a large group of people get oriented - where to go, where the police were. And all this was caught on camera, as we were waving our hands, and from experience in Moscow and the palace case, it was clear that if necessary - these videos will not do good. We got home, Lera said, "No, that's it, we're packing up and leaving. Why Georgia? Because my father had served here and he had a friend, a fellow soldier, whom we had visited before. That is, the country is familiar enough for our family, and my father said, "That's it, go to Tbilisi and they will help you there."

What can and cannot be said in history class at school?

That the Soviet Union and Germany signed a treaty on the partition of Poland in 1939, and the Soviet troops, just like the German troops, entered Poland on September 1, 1939, occupied part of it, destroyed the flower of the nation - I am from the Upper Volga region, I know this, I was in all the camps - Katyn, Ostashkov - I told my children all this, but if all this had gone public, it would have been a criminal article. I don't remember what the article is called, whether it's equalizing the role of Nazism or... Some nonsense they wrote in their laws. And they didn't come up to me and tell me what's allowed, what's not allowed, but here you start snapping at yourself - "Is this allowed? Is this allowed? Is this allowed?" And it's disgusting, that's not how people live.

What was going on in school when the war started?

We had a February 23 holiday in preparation - it was canceled. But on the whole, everything was going according to schedule. There was a lot of talking - me and the teachers, the tutors were discussing a lot, what was going on in general. On the second day of the war I started discussing it with the kids, because I felt that I couldn't keep quiet and the kids didn't understand what was going on.

How did the children react?

They were very frightened, and so was I. In fact, we reacted in about the same way, only I understood that I had to save face, while they sat there with goggled eyes and didn't know what to believe, what was going on, what kind of Nazis they were. I couldn't understand anything at all from Putin's lecture, which lasted an hour and a half. Someone was somewhere, someone did something, Lenin was an asshole, I apologize. They were scared, they didn't understand, but we didn't talk to them about the war, we didn't talk to them about what exactly was going on, they had access to information, we worked with them, they were able to verify information and analyze it. We talked to them about the moral theory of war. What ideas were presented to people to justify wars in terms of morality. And we talked about pacifist theories, from ancient China to modern Bertrand Russell. They haven't really changed very much. We discussed with them what justifying war looks like in general.

How is the current historical period different from similar ones?

War is always disgusting, it never changes, as there was the killing of civilians, so it remains. I think the context has changed. We live in the information age, we have fake news - a scary thing. But in general, nothing has changed, they are still lying, just the scale has changed.

Whose fault is it that the lives of millions are ruined?

Putin, all those who serve his regime. It's hard for me to say who is to blame, I think it's not for me to decide, but for the court in the future. I can say who is responsible - all of us.

Do you feel personally responsible?

Of course I do. From the level of the taxpayer, that I gave money for all this. Responsibility should be shared by all.

Why do so many people support the war?

Brains polluted by propaganda, poverty, the cult of power - these are all components of our modern culture, the mass culture of Russia.

Is the war going to last?

Hopefully this will be over before winter, and hopefully it will end with the complete de-occupation of Ukraine.

What are you most afraid of?

I am afraid that 50 km away from Tbilisi there are tanks and artillery. I am afraid of the fact that I have friends in Zaporizhzhya, friends in Krivoy Rog. I am afraid of nuclear war. I am afraid of death.

Does Russia Have a Future?

Of course, people will live, where will they go? Everyone has a future, the only question is how they organize themselves. Russia, this leviathan, a colossus on clay feet, probably has no future. I did not want decisions in such a huge country to be made from the center. This is our political culture, and culture is not to be abandoned, it cannot be abolished, it can be changed, setting the framework so that we can live more easily. The way out of all this is seen in the independence of the subjects of the federation. First you have to learn local politics, understand what's going on around you, in your hometown, in the neighbouring towns. What's going on with agriculture, because right now my native land is overgrown with hogweed. Once the richest region. You look at a map from the 19th century, there were a lot of villages, a huge church in each one, and now you look at the hogweed, and it's all ruined.

Going back to Russia?

I don't know if I would like to live in Russia. Of course, I would like to go back to Russia, to help people, because when Putin's regime falls, there will be as many freaks as we can't even imagine right now. Because always after such autocratic regimes all sorts of filth crawls out and you have to help people fight it.

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