March 27, 2022

Loving the Homeland and Leaving It Too

Loving the Homeland and Leaving It Too
Chulpan Khamatova Tell Gordeeva YouTube channel

Exactly twenty years ago, in Russian Life's March/April 2002 issue, we profiled the actor Chulpan Khamatova as one of our 100 Young Russians to Watch. The article focused on her work as an actor, but three years later, in 2005, she and a colleague started Gift of Life (link to US affiliate), a nonprofit aimed at helping Russian children suffering from cancer. It was one of the first successful nonprofits in Russia, and it changed the trajectory of Khamatova's career, giving her even greater societal prominence.

In 2012, Khamatova supported President Vladimir Putin's reelection campaign, reportedly under duress, fearing repercussions to Gift of Life if she did not. She later said she would not have supported Putin had she known what he had in store for Donbass.

This year, in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Khamatova made the difficult personal decision to flee Russia for Latvia. And last week she sat down for an interview with Ekaterina Gordeeva about her decision, and the video is embedded below. Thankfully, Gordeeva's fine interviews are being translated and transcribed by able volunteers, and you can simply turn on the English subtitles via the CC button on Youtube.

The interview is notable for exploring the issues that all thinking Russians are grappling with today, from the simple "Do I stay or do I go?" to "How will I support myself and my family?" to "What about those that I leave behind?" to "Are the sanctions good or bad?" to "Can I ever go back?" Khamatova is excruciatingly articulate and honest in her answers and it gives a telling insight into what Russian intellectuals are struggling with, on how you can love your homeland yet leave it, how you can speak truth to power and ignore the inevitable cries of "traitor."

"There are two ways for me to return to Russia right now," Khamatova says early in the interview, "to stop speaking about the fact that this is a war and a tragedy, to pay no attention – though I don’t know how – to ignore what I see with my own eyes and what I receive from my Ukrainian friends. All the information about what is going on there. To lie to myself, to lie to the rest of the world. To live a life that isn’t true. In the best-case scenario, they won’t make me say that black is white. Basically, to become totally indifferent to the current events. To ask for forgiveness for failing to support the start of military operation. And to simply go along with the rules that have been set for me. This is my only way of returning to Russia without going to prison."

She talks about how her decision, fraught as it was with consequences for her foundation, was a singularly personal one. "In the course of the first 4-5 days," she says, "I somehow quickly realized that you can only listen to your own heart. It’s only me now. I am responsible for all of my actions. Me alone."

It was not until the invasion happened, Khamatova says, that she realized that Russia saw its strength not in its well-being, but in territorial expansion. Until February, 24, she says, "I still thought that our common goal was to make the quality of living the power of our country. And I could not imagine it that way until… until the recent days."

She also notes how past waves of emigration and persecuted artists gave her support, reciting the powerful poem by Osip Mandelshtam:

For the rattling valour of future centuries,
For the highborn tribe of people,
I am deprived of the cups on the pyres of my fathers,
Of their pleasures, of their marks of esteem.

Like a wolfhound the century leaps on my shoulders,
But my skin is not the skin of a wolf.
Stuff me rather like a cap into the sleeve
Of a yellow sheepskin coat from Siberian steppes —

So that I see neither cowards, nor shallow dirt,
Nor the bloody bones on the wheel,
So that the blue foxes in their primitive beauty
All night long may shine at me.

Carry me off into the night where the Yenisei flows,
Where a pine tree reaches up to a star,
For my skin is not the skin of a wolf
And my mouth is not twisted with falsehood.

Translated by Peter Russell

“People die with poems like these on their lips," Khamatova says. "You see, for me, it’s the other way round, it gives me strength.”

When Gordeeva asks her what we should be doing now, Khamatova says that "Right now, we have to stop the war. But if we can’t stop the war… we need to do everything to create humanitarian corridors."

Earlier in the interview, she responds to the same question with broader advice to those not in positions of decision making power. "If we think back to the theory of little actions," she says, "now’s the time for micro-actions. Any support for each other matters - listening, advising, calming down – it’s very important. Just to keep all the personal relationships. No matter what happens, don’t get any hard feelings towards each other, avoid conflicts… I’m certain that every little breakdown we have, every aggression or complaint flies up there and spreads darkness. And right now the balance between light and darkness is fragile enough as it is, so I don’t think we should let this darkness feed on our negative energy. Now we need to spread the light."

As to how one should respond to the sanctions (which Gordeeva notes are creating great economic hardship for Russians), Khamatova says she does not feel this is the time to focus on that, as hard as it may be: "right now to say in a dialogue - while there is war in Ukraine, while people are literally dying - let’s review your sanctions to make sure they don’t hurt the people of Russia, I think that’s impossible. Whatever we say, we won’t be heard… I, for one, cannot think of an option right now to say… 'think about the people.' The people are forgotten, that’s always the case in geopolitics - the people are forgotten. Individuals, persons are not considered in this formula. First, the war needs to be stopped, to be heard."

At the end of her interviews, Gordeeva likes to pose an intractable Hobson's choice for her guests, and her effort with Khamatova (who is her close friend; the two authored a book together), fails utterly. Yet it is a very powerful moment, and Khamatova shines.

"We have a special question for you: homeland or truth?" Gordeyeva asks.

"I can’t answer that, Katya," Khamatova replies after a long pause choking back tears, "because it would mean that I see the two things as opposites. For me, my homeland is not the people who sent others to die. For me, inside my homeland, there is a truth as well. And I know that homeland and those people living there. People intervene with this truth, they are the truth. And it’s going to be very hard for them now."

We highly recommend the full interview, embedded below.


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