Opinion open letter

An open letter on the war in Ukraine

As someone who still retains a Russian passport and, more importantly, has a strong bond to Russian culture and the Russian people, I’m overwhelmed with grief, shame, and guilt. Reports from Ukraine — “Kyiv under siege,” “Konotop taken” — bring back thoughts of Hitler’s 1941 invasion, a not-so-distant past for my generation, whose parents and grandparents lived through that war. A song from that era keeps playing in my head:

On the 22nd of June
exactly at four in the morning
Kyiv was bombed,
and we were told
that the war has begun.

The war started at dawn
in order to kill more people.
Asleep were parents, 
asleep were kids
in the morning when Kyiv was bombed.

This war also started at dawn and is killing parents and kids in Kyiv and all over Ukraine. It is striking how closely Putin’s rhetoric parallels that of Hitler — just replace “nationalist gangs” (from which Putin wants to “free” Ukraine) with “Judeo-Bolshevik gangs.” Regardless of how complex the situation in the Donbass region and the history of the NATO-Russia relationship might be, one thing is clear: what is happening now is a heinous crime on the part of Russia’s leadership. 

It may be tempting to say that I have never supported Putin and that this is his war, not that of the Russian people. Yet the sad reality is that Putin’s policies have been supported by large sectors of the Russian public, including some of my friends and extended family. Whether Putin’s supporters are in the majority is hard to judge in a country where dissent is increasingly persecuted; many are still in denial about the war (the very word “war” is censored out of the Russian media by the government).

Yes, there is resistance — in Moscow alone, over 3,000 people have been detained in the past few days for protesting against the war. The scientific community is resisting as well: thousands of Russian scientists signed an open letter condemning the invasion, as did thousands of students and alums of my alma mater, the Moscow Institute of Science and Technology. However, active or passive support for the war from a large part of the public is undeniable, and it is likely that without it, this invasion would have not happened. This is a catastrophe for Russia and for the Russian people: a dark night is descending, and those least responsible for this war will suffer the most.

I’m writing this from the safety of my Boston apartment, while people in Ukraine are dying and protesters in my hometown of Moscow face police brutality while attempting to salvage whatever may remain of our honor. Still I would appeal to my Russian friends at MIT and beyond: let us try to do what we can to support the Ukrainian people and stop the war. And to my beloved Ukrainians: I can only beg for forgiveness and pray that in a distant future — if humankind survives the current crisis — reconciliation will be possible.

A final note: 12 years ago, a group of climbers from the MIT Outing Club did a new ice climbing route in the Solu Khumbu region of Nepal and named it Ukrainian Strength.

Alexei Maznev
Research Scientist, Department of Chemistry