Lying about my nationality

I’m afraid to tell people that I’m Russian

May 08, 2023
Moscow. Image: Sergey Borisov / Alamy Stock Photo
Moscow. Image: Sergey Borisov / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s weird to feel hated by everyone, especially when that hatred is based solely on your nationality. You try not to think about it, but the discomfort creeps in, even in places like London, where I now live. Whenever I meet someone, after the usual pleasantries and commentary on the British weather, comes the question: “So, where are you from?”

“Russia,” I reply, and then my conversational partner goes through all five stages of grief. 

“Oh, that’s cool,” they say because they’re polite, and well, British. But I immediately feel compelled to apologise, “I’m sorry for what my country is doing to Europe!” and explain myself, “Not all Russians support Putin! Not all of us drink vodka! Not everyone is gloomy and unhappy.” 

OK, maybe that last part isn’t entirely true.

I began lying about my nationality when my wife and I lived in Georgia (the country, not the US state). It was what my shrink calls “a defence mechanism”: Georgians, who had lived through the 2008 war, weren’t particularly fond of Russians. So I would introduce myself as being from my wife’s country—Ukraine—and most of the time, I got away with it, even though I’ve never actually been to Ukraine.

After the war broke out, one irritable old Georgian informed me, “You Slavs are all the same to me. Russia, Ukraine, who gives a damn.” But others, more worldly, would easily detect my Moscow accent, with its pronounced “a”s and rough consonants. 

One Tbilisi taxi driver even tested me. Once I had told him that I come from Odesa—a Black Sea port city in Ukraine, where my wife grew up—he inquired, “Oh yeah? And what is the name of that lovely cobbled street that goes through the city centre?” I bit my nails, terrified of being exposed. Sweat dripped down my forehead. This is what KGB double agents must have felt like in Soviet times, I thought. Suddenly, the answer came to me, from a childhood memory that belonged to my wife.  

“Derybasivska,” I replied, feeling self-assured and maybe just a bit cocky. Kim Philby must have felt the same, working for both the KGB and MI6 all those years. The taxi driver grumbled something under his breath, clearly disappointed that he couldn’t test me more. Maybe he, too, had never been to Ukraine.

When the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, many Russians fled to Georgia, causing an unprecedented rise in inflation. They also behaved in a stereotypically “Russian” way: getting drunk and acting as if the Georgian people owed them something. It became difficult to walk down Rustaveli Avenue, the central street in Tbilisi, and not see at least one anti-Russian sign. My wife and I moved to London in April 2022. 

You can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was when we arrived and saw no such hostility. For most Brits, Ukraine only appeared on their radar in 2022. (Before that, my UK colleagues seemed to think that Kyiv was in Russia.) Except for moments when I hang out with Ukrainians, I have no need to hide my nationality.  

On an island, safe from prejudice and a war that is occurring hundreds of miles away, I could reflect and assess what it meant to be me and why I was afraid to tell people the truth: that I am Russian. 

The answer is, “because I want to belong.” Yes, I’ve found a home in London. And I know that Ukrainians are the ones really suffering. Yet expatriate Russians scattered around the globe, finding home in places like Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Bali, are like pets thrown into the wild forest. They can survive. But nothing will ever be the same.