Quieter Than Water,
Lower Than Grass:
Growing Up Afraid in Russia

On February 24, 2022, the day Putin ordered Russian forces to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I turned forty-three years old. As Ukrainians began to mount a fierce response to the aggressor, watching the bombs fall from afar, I was astonished and awed by their courage and determination to stop Putin’s army. I was also from-the-bottom-of-my-heart grateful. Like many of my peers who grew up in Russia, I have spent most of my life afraid of violence. I have not had the courage to face my fear but instead tried to outrun it.

I was born in 1979, in Leningrad, to a Jewish family. At about eight years old, when I decided I was old enough to pick up the family’s telephone, I took a call for “Nikolai Dmitrievich.” I told the caller that there was no such person in our house; he must have the wrong number. Proud of myself, I reported the incident to babushka, my grandmother. She turned pale and lowered her voice, “Did you ask who was calling? You should’ve given the phone to dedushka. It’s for him.”

My grandfather’s name was Isaac Davydovich (to a Russian, this name reveals Jewish origins). In his youth, he was a member of the Communist Party and fought in the Soviet army against Finland. During World War II, he was a superintendent of an airbase on an Estonian island, Saaremaa, then known as Ösel. When the airbase fell to the Germans, he was left behind and taken to a POW camp. He shaved his head, pretending to be Tatar, and hid his circumcision when the prisoners were inspected. Trained as a saddler in his childhood, he was assigned to an Estonian farm as a workhand and from there eventually made his escape. When he was reunited with his own unit in the Soviet Union, his commander did him a huge favor: he excised my grandfather’s name from the records, and he did it so thoroughly that in the 1990s, when Germany offered reparations to people who could prove they had been captured, my grandfather tried but failed to find evidence.

But with his record cleared, my grandfather avoided a sentence in the gulag—the Soviet Union treated people who had been to German POW camps as potential traitors. He stayed under the radar, taking menial jobs at factories under the safe Russian name of Nikolai Dmitrievich, and though he remained a die-hard Communist, he stayed away from Communist Party functions as much as possible. Physically he survived, but he spent the rest of his life in fear of everything and everyone. My mother remembers that in her childhood her parents talked to each other in whispers, fearing the neighbors in their communal apartment might hear them. She was born in 1949, and in the 1950s her parents kept a sack of dry bread in the corner of the kitchen in case of a sudden arrest.

By the 1980s the sack of dry bread was gone, and so, for the most part, was grandfather’s moniker of a Russian name. The fear, however, was hardwired. Whenever I told him of the smallest confrontation I had gotten into—with a woman on the bus who yelled at me for holding my backpack so that it took up too much space; with a teacher who made a mistake in a math problem but refused to admit that she was wrong—my grandfather told me that it was my job to behave “quieter than water, lower than grass,” in other words, to show total submission toward any and all authority figures. He gave me Dickens’s Little Dorrit to teach me how girls should behave: as though they didn’t exist.

My grandfather wasn’t alone in teaching me this message. My grandmother, herself a survivor of hunger and pogroms in the Jewish shtetls and of the Leningrad blockade, enforced the same agenda. My parents, dealing with the chaos of perestroika, encouraged my brother and me to take self-defense classes and made sure we never walked anywhere unaccompanied after dark. Violence was all around us. We watched on the news as Armenia and Azerbaijan took up arms against each other, as violence erupted in Fergana, Osh, Dushanbe, in Ossetia and Abkhazia, in Moldova’s Pridnestrovie. Later Russia went to war to force Chechnya’s obedience. Fearing violence against Jews and Soviet army veterans, my great-aunt and uncle moved from Riga to Leningrad. Businessmen, journalists, and politicians were threatened and murdered. In Leningrad, renamed St. Petersburg, several of my parents’ friends were brutalized by thugs over sums of money, large and small. Old people were being cheated out of their apartments. Kids sporting jackets imported from the West risked getting their noses broken.

Violence was not only all around us, it went largely unpunished. In 1992, at my school, my brother’s teacher tore an earring out of a girl’s ear, tore it “with meat,” right through the earlobe, because of a Soviet prejudice against earrings (“good” girls shouldn’t wear earrings or makeup; if you did, this marked you as a prostitute). That teacher remained at the school. I attended two different schools in Russia, and in each there was a teacher known to be a sexual predator, both targeting boys. One of these teachers was eventually pushed out of teaching, forced to retire, but the other remained and is still employed at that school. Every day on crowded public buses and subway cars, on the way to and from school, I was groped by men young and old, who forced their hands under my skirt, an act of violence so common in Russia that to this day it seems pointless to speak about it. I never said a word to these men; I tried to move away or use my backpack as a barrier. I remember two instances when older women interfered. One of them yelled at me that I should “take better care of myself.”

The public bus notwithstanding, I was a sheltered kid. I went to specialized schools (admittance based on who you know), and my family pooled resources so that in the toughest times of perestroika nobody went hungry. My interactions with people outside my family and schools were minimal. At sixteen, when I had to get my first passport, my family insisted that I try facing the authorities on my own. I took my birth certificate and went to the local passport bureau, and was immediately turned away to gather additional paperwork and a receipt from the post office. At the post office they sent me back to the passport bureau for a paper I didn’t have. Back at the passport bureau, they wouldn’t talk to me until I showed the receipt from the post office. Back again at the post office, trying to argue my point, I burst into tears and could not. I ran home, full of hatred for all the stone-faced people who refused to help with such an everyday task. (I hadn’t read Kafka yet, but a few years later, when I did, I recognized the world he was writing about.)

The next day, my grandmother came to the passport office with me. She fixed the problem as she always did, by begging and pleading. “I’m old and my granddaughter is young and stupid, could you please help us,” she said, with an inflection that horrified me. I refused to imagine how she had come to perfect the skill of begging. The only person I knew who was better at it than her was my grandfather. He began every telephone conversation with an authority figure, be it a pharmacist or a plumber, with, “Young woman (or man), I’m very, very old and very, very sick. I beg you to help me.” I hated him for speaking like this, but now I know that what I was feeling was pity, and I hated that he asked to be pitied. Overhearing it, I was embarrassed.

I left Russia at the earliest opportunity, at the age of seventeen. In the United States people often asked me, “Why did you decide to leave Russia?” and I couldn’t, and still can’t, give a succinct answer. I couldn’t deal with the complexity of all that I was feeling. I loved St. Petersburg. It was my home. My family was there and my friends. To this day, my birth city holds the strings to my heart and to my imagination. Back in the early 2000s I lay down to sleep to the same recurrent dream: it’s summer, and I’m in the countryside, at the cabin where I spent my summers, and I’m running toward the small glacial lake. I’m naming the hills and the puddles and the pine tree roots in the road, and I’m anticipating the joy of plunging into the cool water. Then I take the final turn—and find the lake covered with a sheen of pollution, a large factory piping smoke into the air behind it.

For many years my nightmare outpaced reality. I returned to Russia often and sometimes for extended periods. I considered: Could I live here now? Could I feel free and unafraid? There were years when I imagined I could. My father, raised in the relative safety of the Khrushchev years, had risked a steady job at a factory to start his own business. My mother, happy to leave her parents’ fears behind and embrace the new world, did the same. My friends graduated from universities and found themselves gainfully employed, the new economy providing a lot of young people with opportunities for fast advancement. Some started their own businesses too: all it took, it seemed, was some entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity at avoiding the bureaucracy and the thugs.

There’s a particular moment when I realized that things changed again in Russia, irrevocably so. It was 2013, a year after Putin had himself reelected president and brutally suppressed the mass peaceful protests and arrested many opposition leaders, including Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny. I had been closely following the news and especially the feminist coverage of the concurrent Pussy Riot performance, arrest, and trial. But it’s one thing to read the news, and another thing to witness how things are at home.

I was apprehensive when I landed in St. Petersburg in June of that year. The day after my arrival, I had to go to the Unified Document Processing Center to renew my passport. My father went with me—I was still afraid to face the authorities on my own. At eight o’clock in the morning every seat in the giant waiting room of a building, recently repurposed from a textile factory and elegantly refurbished, was occupied; people were lining up in the aisles and by the windows in the back. Yet, for no reason that seemed apparent, one section of seats near where my father and I sat was cordoned off with a retractable belt.

What happened next happened fast yet with time enough for me to take in every detail. A young man—twenty-two or twenty-three years old, born after the fall of the USSR—clad in neon-green windbreaker and skinny jeans snuck under the belt and sat in the middle of the row of empty seats, stretching out his legs in a relaxed pose. Almost immediately two security guards emerged from the side. Black batons swinging at their hips, they approached the young man. One of them ordered him to leave the area.

“You can’t force me to leave,” the man insisted. His words sounded absurd because clearly they meant to. In my notes from that day, I wrote that the young man seemed to be throwing around his privilege, that for some reason he behaved as though the rules didn’t apply to him.

But in that moment while I was evaluating the man’s attitude, the security guards pulled his windbreaker over his head so that he was instantly blinded and deprived of air. They twisted his arms behind his back. They worked efficiently and matter-of-factly, without exerting much energy.

“Help! Help!” the young man shrieked, trying desperately to wiggle out of their grip. “Why don’t you say anything, people? These thugs are murdering me!”

My father and I didn’t look at each other and didn’t make a sound. From the crowd behind us rose a sole angry female voice. “Leave him alone! You can’t treat people like that!”

A third man appeared near the security guards. His civilian garb betrayed him as the man in charge. He gave an order. The security guards drew the young man to his feet and half walked, half dragged him down the hall. He was still resisting, digging his feet into the floor and screaming. Soon he disappeared behind an unmarked door. We stopped hearing his screams.

The silence of the hundreds of people gathered in the waiting area was piercing. I looked to my father and saw that he looked a little smaller, back hunched over, fear in his eyes. He had always resisted his father-in-law’s credo of staying quieter than water, lower than grass, but was that because he had never been truly afraid for his safety before? Or perhaps until this moment I hadn’t seen him afraid. I had never seen my fear mirrored in his eyes.

Nobody in the crowd had done anything, except that lone brave woman. It never occurred to me that I should do something. What could I have done? I hardly even belonged to this country; my life was in America. The self-justification began right away.

Today, like so many people, I’m watching Putin’s army invade Ukraine, and first and foremost I am afraid. I’m afraid for what might happen to the people of Ukraine, of what might happen to those brave protesters who remain in Russia and resist the strongman. I’m also astonished and grateful to see that so many people, perhaps made differently than me, aren’t afraid, and that so many others are able to put aside their fear to fight.

I know many Ukrainians are asking why more Russians don’t come out on the streets of their cities to protest Putin’s war. They are right to ask the question. And, given what’s happening in Ukraine right now, fear is an unsatisfying answer. In my experience, however, fear is very real, all-encompassing and paralyzing. My heart is tightening with fear so many thousands of miles away, writing this. And yet again, I see others pushing through their fear and protesting on the streets of Russian cities despite the very real threat of arrests and brutal torture. I see the people of Ukraine resisting and the world waking up and coming together to act against the aggressor. The bully relies on and feeds on our fear. This is also real.

One other thing that’s clear. Fear masks itself as so many other things. Anger. Hatred. Cynicism. Alienation. “This isn’t about me.” “Why rock the boat?” “Why should I get involved?” “I shouldn’t do anything that might hurt my family.” I watch my mind going through these contortions. My mind isn’t comfortable with fear and tries to bury the feeling inside ever-longer chains of self-justification. I remind myself of the basics, of fear and something else: the danger that can’t be denied or outrun. Putin must be stopped.

Read on . . .

Odessa, Odessa,” an audio reading by Davíd Lavie