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My grandma on dad’s side (right) and the neighbours are about to cook up a storm as they welcome my mom’s side of the family from Moscow sometime before the wedding. Delen’ (Делень), Odessa, Ukraine, 1983.

My grandpa (on mom’s side) raised me. He looked after me full-time since I was about five until I left Russia to become a Canadian when I was fifteen. He was a respected architect who travelled all over the Soviet Union building the post-war dwellings and infrastructure. He died from a stroke in his 60s without ever being able to visit me in Canada. His wife, Nina, outlived him by a decade until succumbing to her illnesses just before the pandemic took over the world. I was lucky enough to visit my old home in Moscow when the disease was still barely known.

Grandpa (on mom’s side) at his cottage near Moscow.

I wish I had more time with my grandpa before he passed. But in a twisted way, I am relieved that my grandparents are not alive to witness what came next. Not just the pandemic, neither of whom may have survived as my family would’ve found ourselves unable to visit or call. The war.

For as long as I remember, Russia was involved in some sort of military conflict. The most impactful for me was the war with Chechnya that’s been vividly described as a living nightmare by Russian media. And even though it was far and away from Moscow, suicide bombers managed to bring it to the city anyways. I still remember inspecting the tight basement crawlways under our high-rise building with grandpa and other men, searching for explosives — this was following a few high-profile incidents when entire residential buildings were brought down with hundreds of people perishing in the process.

Today, over twenty years since I left Russia, the river of blood that Putin fills with willing ease is finally overflowing. I can smell death five thousand miles away from home; I can’t help but feel dread, shame, and anger.

The privilege that I have as a white, male Canadian with a well-paying job, who can speak without an accent, who only heard the sounds of bullets leaving the barrel during target practice with friends feels burdensome.

My dad’s nephew and neighbouring kids. Делень, 1983.

I don’t feel conflicted about the war — it needs to end; Putin and his cronies have to pay for their crimes. But I can’t cheer for the Ukrainian soldiers’ impressive ability to kill Russian invaders either. I imagine the young boys taken against their will to fight a war they do not need. I see the faces of my schoolmates, the kids I remember from the village not far from Moscow where I spent summers back in the day — there’s no way they could afford to pay their way out of mandatory conscription — burning, ripped to shreds, or worse: as indiscriminate murderers.

My dad’s favourite aunt and her grandson. Делень, 1983.

Russia and Ukraine have always had a complex relationship. Much of modern Russian culture is rooted in racism and nationalism. Ukrainian language and accent are often made fun of in Moscow; Putin isn’t the only one perpetuating the narrative that Ukrainians aren’t a “real nation.”

But despite the ugly view many Russians hold towards Ukraine and its people, the countries remain remarkably close in language, traditions, history, and people. My Russian isn’t as good as it used to be, yet I can understand and read most Ukrainian. I still remember the history lessons from grade school when we were taught about Kyiv, the former capital of Russia and the Cossacks who defended Russian interests centuries ago.

Like many other Russians, I have family members living in Ukraine. I still remember my dad’s relatives visiting our Moscow home when I was little. Yesterday, my dad relayed their terror and fear as they shared the details of the nearby airport’s bombings. They have no basement in their home. All he could tell them is that Russians will probably not shell civilian dwellings — which isn’t true. Money is no good there; there’s nothing either of us can do.

Today, he shared the word that the Russians will attempt to take Odessa, and the village where they live will partake in the battle.

The wedding party. My parents, grandparents, their friends, relatives and neighbours. Делень, 1983.