I Evacuated Russia When The War In Ukraine Started & All I Feel Is Guilt

"The loneliness made it difficult to even talk."

Contributing Writer
​​Rebecca Grenham feeding a reindeer. Right: A snowy mountainous landscape.

Rebecca Grenham feeding a reindeer. Right: A snowy mountainous landscape.

Rebecca Grenham

This Essay article is part of a Narcity Media series. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Narcity Media.

I’d been living in Moscow for a few months when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Though some people may dream of living in Paris or Rome, living in the former Soviet Union had always been my dream. I’d studied Russian for five years mostly through private tutoring or evening classes after work.

A true nerd, I’d even travelled to Kyiv to take a two-week intensive language class and had been blown away by Ukraine’s unique, beautiful culture and the kindness of Ukrainians I met. I made a plan: I’d move to Russia, get super fluent in the language, then travel around the former Soviet Union, visiting cities like Samarkand and Yerevan. Maybe later down the road, I’d learn Ukrainian and move to Kyiv. If I worked hard enough, I really thought I could do it.

My dream of living in Russia was turning into reality

When I won a fellowship to live in Moscow for almost a year, I was stoked. Being American, finding ways to get out to former Soviet countries wasn’t super easy. Finally, I could turn my dream into a reality.

I spent weeks in a glow, annoyingly reminding all my friends that dreams do come true. Since I got into the program during the middle of the COVID pandemic, my initial departure date was postponed a few times. I began to worry that I wouldn’t go at all. When the notice finally came in that we were going that November, I could barely believe it. It felt too good to be true.

Rebecca Grenham in front of Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.Rebecca Grenham in front of Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.Rebecca Grenham

During my first few months in Russia, it really was too good to be true. I spent Christmas and New Year’s out there, observing how locals celebrated (i.e., massive parties). I travelled into the Arctic Circle, where I fed reindeer, went snowmobiling and saw the northern lights. I was so excited for the rest of the year when I’d travel to St. Petersburg, to Tolstoy’s estate, to Kazan, to Samarkand and Yerevan and all the other amazing places I’d dreamed about.

I was travelling when Russia invaded Ukraine

I guess it’s not surprising that I was travelling when Putin announced that Russia was invading Ukraine.

My fellowship group was out in Altai, a gorgeous Russian republic that borders Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia. As we drove between rolling mountains covered in snow, we barely noticed the landscape, too busy scrolling Twitter to see the latest reports from Kyiv and Kharkiv.

I felt all the things: anger, depression, disgust, but most of all — guilt. Here I was, safe, healthy, and living my life while friends in Kyiv were hiding in bomb shelters. It was wrong.

On the final night of the trip, we got a notice from our program that the fellowship had been cancelled. The program’s organizers put us all on flights to Istanbul the next day since Turkey was one of the only places nearby that hadn’t shut its airspace to Russia. I spent that morning crying alongside other members of the cohort. The dream was over.

As stressful as it was, I knew I was so privileged

Once I got back to Moscow, I immediately began packing. My neighbour spotted me and invited me over for tea next week, and I simply nodded, unable to break it to her that I was off. I packed for ages, only taking breaks when the crying got in the way. I was so tired that I didn’t know what was making me cry anymore — the videos of Ukraine, the end of my time in Moscow, the guilt.

As stressful as it was, I knew I was so privileged that I really had nothing to cry about. I never feared for my physical safety, I still had a home to go to, and I didn’t even need to make my own travel arrangements. As long as I didn’t lose my passport, I’d be fine.

After finally stuffing everything into my bags, I went to the mall to buy my kind landlady, who had insisted on driving me to the airport at 3:30 a.m. that morning, a small gift. People lined up outside of ATMs since cash shortages were growing in Moscow. Once I got to the mall, I was thrown off by how quiet and empty it was, the opposite of its usual bustle. I’d come to this mall regularly during my fellowship to pick up things to make Moscow feel like home. Now I was leaving, and home had never felt so far away.

A few hours later, my landlady picked me up as promised. I was exhausted — I’d barely slept for days and felt like I’d wrung all the tears out of my body through my crying fits. When we hugged goodbye, part of me wanted to promise to come back and visit, to stay in touch. Instead, I just thanked her for the ride. If there was one thing I knew, it was that I was in no position to promise anyone anything at that point.

Someone else from the program was already at the airport. We chatted about all the basic stuff, like the weather in our final destinations — she was heading to Berlin, and I was going to Helsinki, Finland, where I had a friend. Our flight was packed, mostly with Russians en route to Europe. After we split up in Istanbul, I felt more alone than I had in months, like, early-COVID loneliness. Too tired to cry, I only sniffled.

I was struck by loneliness once I made it out

By the time I arrived in Helsinki, the loneliness made it difficult to even talk. Part of me had hoped to travel Europe after Moscow, to make the best of this weird situation and live out my old dream to the extent that I could. When I landed in Helsinki, I realized that all I really wanted to do was go home.

I passed a sign on the way out of the airport that read: “Welcome to Finland. Welcome home.” I posted it on Instagram with a note that I’d made it out of Russia. Friends from all over replied, noting how happy they were that I was safe. I couldn’t bring myself to respond — think of Ukrainians, I wanted to say, think of those Russians getting thrown in jail for protesting the war, I wanted to write.

A welcome sign at the Helsinki airport.A welcome sign at the Helsinki airport.Rebecca Grenham

When I woke up the next day, it took me a few moments to realize where I was and what had happened.

I went for a walk, skating carefully on the icy roads, a skill I’d nailed in Moscow that I realized I’d probably lose quickly once I got back to the U.S., since D.C. hardly gets cold enough for consistent ice and snow. It was surreal to be somewhere that felt normal. People were going about their day — walking their dogs, driving their kids to school, buying a morning coffee. For a moment I felt normal, too, until I opened my phone. The world was still going to shit, and here I was in the outskirts of Helsinki, doing nothing about it.

My friend and I met in front of a museum. She asked me, naturally, how I was doing, adding that she knew I probably wasn’t doing too hot.

“I feel…,” I started, trailing off. Tears were coming again.

She put a hand on my shoulder. “I can’t even imagine. I know you’ll be OK, though.”

“Thanks.” It was all I could say.

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