The Russian invasion of Ukraine muted me for several days. Shame has a powerful silencing capacity. The words with which to talk about this war come to me in English and not in Russian, my mother tongue.

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I spent the first weekend after the Russian invasion of Ukraine with two Russian friends (things are not that straightforward, one is actually better described as an American Jew and the other as a half-Ukrainian, half-Russian living in France) and one of their children. Their car still has Russian plates, and as they stopped to refuel, an Eastern European truck driver approached them to insult them for being “Russian murderers.” They had to rush away, mostly to avoid scaring the children any further.

As he recounted the incident, my friend was hiding his eyes; his shame was palpable. His pain resonated with me, amplifying my own. Walking in silence on the windy Normandy beach, we looked at the reddish sunset, which evoked for us the cruel bloodshed taking place in Ukraine. In the evening, with a glass of wine around the fireplace, we talked. Before leaving, one of them went out in the night to put white tape above the small Russian flag on his plates. His hands were shaking as he came back.

“Dogili—this is what we have come to,” he kept repeating, his whispering sounding like sobbing.

His young son was incredulous, confused about his father’s meddling with the car plates. He did his best to explain, avoiding his son’s inquisitive eyes.

“I am terrified about him being bullied at school,” he whispered.

When my friends left to return to their lives, shattered by the consequences of this pointless war, the house felt empty. In the silence, the question of the highest dramatic order resounded within me with a sense of great urgency: Who am I in relation to these events?

Even though I left Russia more than two decades ago, in the eclectic construction of my emigrant self, the ‘Russian me’ has been a structural and defining element. Even if other multiple self-narratives have developed over time, sometimes taking precedence over the original simpler version—the ‘me-therapist,’ the ‘me-mother,’ the ‘me-French,’ etc.… Today this foundation pillar of my identity has been undermined, sending my whole self into turmoil.

This is not the first time I have not exactly been proud to be Russian. My original place, like an abusive parent, keeps rocking my sense of self-worth, constantly tainting it with shame.

As a therapist, I do know that the emotional axis of shame and pride is central to the human psyche. I also guess that one of the secrets of Putin’s political success and longevity has been his promise to restore the greatness of Russia, give a sense of national and perhaps personal pride back to Russians—a pride of belonging to a great place. Rebuilding an empire is the easiest narrative trick that a politician can perform- to create and then dangle this alluring psychological carrot before the masses.

The days that followed the beginning of the war sent waves of shock through my life and my therapy practice. Some of my clients are Russian, and they are in disbelief. Some of them have been to street protests, some have just sat in their kitchens until the grayish Moscow morning, drinking and talking with their friends, sharing their confusion, their fear, but mostly trying to cope with their shame.

With their lives wrecked by the dirty war initiated by their motherland, they are wrestling with the immediate questions of survival, not only pragmatic but also psychological.

They will find different ways to cope with their humiliation. Some are leaving Russia in a desperate attempt to escape this feeling. Creating enough geographical distance can alleviate shame temporarily, but it never quite does the trick of entirely canceling it. The shame we were made to feel by our parents has the lingering power to transcend time and space and forever undermine our self-worth. This is what many of my emigrant clients wrestle with.

Russia will remain the pariah of the West and the world for the foreseeable future. We, the Russians living inside and outside of the country, will have to bear the shame of this situation for years to come. We can do very little to turn down the volume of this feeling, no matter how many Ukrainian flags we display on our social media feeds or either publicly or privately in our daily lives.

We will have to learn how to live with this shame, and if we listen to it carefully, we may gain a chance to do better, to learn from the terrible mistake of giving power to a monster, letting him take over our country, and use our language and our history for personal gratification, propaganda, and war.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections