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Going home


Istanbul airport, 31st January

I’m standing in a queue at passport control. It’s hot, and I’m sweating under my thick puffer jacket, but I’m too tired to take it off and hold it. I’m watching as the light above the window at the front of the line switches from green to red to green again, and the tired and perpetually annoyed officer flicking through the pages of someone’s passport.

I know this all so well: the uniform of the officers, their tone, the jingle of the airport announcements and the exasperated voice of a mother behind me telling her kids off for running around. All of this is home. Well it used to be, before I moved abroad many years ago and before the country that issued my passport invaded its neighbour. I hadn’t been back since.

I’m in a taxi, the Kyrgyz driver unlocks his smartphone. The female voice from the navigator says “your journey will take 1 hour and 45 minutes”. I had forgotten the immensity of this city.

He turns on the radio and new Russian pop music fills the car. I don’t know a single song. I don’t recognise the new voices. In the breaks between music, the radio host reads the latest news: the weather will get colder, a warehouse burned down in St Petersburg, a new metro station will open in the south of the city… No mention of the war that’s been going on for almost two years.

But as soon as I look out of the window, I’m reminded that here it has a different name. We pass billboards with soldiers saying “join your army! Join the Special Military Operation”, “our job is to protect our motherland!”. Now and then I see another kind of poster: “Presidential elections 2024, vote for Putin!”.

Outside, there’s a crazy snowstorm, the kind that my grandma last saw when she was a girl, she says. I walk along a grey khruschevka, one of those block-like concrete buildings from the 60s, trying to bury my face in my scarf. I think about how quickly I’ve gotten unused to this weather. I see the neon sign of a small supermarket. It takes all of my strength to pull the door open against the ferocious wind, but in the end, I manage.

There’s at least a 25-degree difference in temperature, the feeling you can only get in a country where nobody worries about how much gas they’ve used the past month. It’s empty. I pick up a “sirok”, a little sweet cheese bar coated in chocolate, and go to pay.

The card terminal looks different: in the corner of a colourful screen, I see a small camera. I remember seeing an ad in the metro: enable biometric payment and receive extra cashback on all your purchases. I realise this camera is for those who might want to pay for their groceries with their face. I shiver inside.

It was one of the things that stood out to me this time. There are cameras everywhere: at payment terminals, at the turnstiles when you enter the metro, in elevators. The feeling of being watched, an Orwellian, creeping feeling of eyes staring at the back of my neck, would only leave me when I boarded the plane back to Europe.

But the thing that shocks me most is not the billboards or the cameras. It’s the things that haven’t changed. People have gotten used to the war. In the metro, I watch people next to me turn on their VPN and open Instagram, an operation they now perform dozens of times per day. In shopping malls, Zara and McDonald’s now have different names but sell the same-looking, similar-tasting things. In the airport, people talk about the stopovers they take to get to Europe as if they’re talking about switching from car to metro on a day with bad traffic.

When I tell a friend how baffled I am that nobody seems to acknowledge that there’s a war going on, she tells me: “but what do you want people to do? Those who couldn’t leave don’t have a choice. They have to keep living in this new reality, they had to adapt, otherwise they’ll lose their minds”.

Moscow used to be a city I’d fall in love with every time I came back. The city that held a very special place in my heart because of how many “firsts” it harbours for me: first party, first cigarette, first date. But this time it was different. As I walked out of the passport control cubicle and headed towards the gate to fly home, the little pebble in my stomach was not made of nostalgia, as it used to be, but of bitterness and disappointment. As my plane took off, I breathed a sigh of relief: I was going home.


12 years ago, Masha left Russia to study and then to work and live in various European countries. She shares her impressions with us, from her ten-day trip to Moscow, where she hadn’t set foot since the invasion of Ukraine.

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