Should I stay or should I leave?

My exchange semester in Moscow has not been going like planned at all. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions imposed by the West have changed people’s daily lives once and for all. Even though the community of international students in Moscow is not affected by the war itself, the events do have an impact on their living situation. Therefore I, too, had to ask myself the following question: Am I staying or leaving? In the end I have decided to stay.

I am aware of the fact that many people in Switzerland and even in Russia do not understand why I want to stay in Moscow. Some of my Swiss or Ukrainian friends consider it morally unacceptable to stay in Russia any longer. I actually struggled with my own decisions and whether it was legitimate to stay as well. On the one hand, according to the Swiss embassy, it is still “an individual decision” to leave Russia at this point, it is just not recommended at this point. On the other hand, I personally think that a break of connections with Russia, be it only temporary, is no peace-promoting strategy at all – on the contrary. From my experience so far, I have learned that cultural and social exchange can achieve peace and prevent hatred. The Kremlin, which wants to separate itself from the influence of the West in an extremely aggressive way, has been trying to cut all ties with the West for a long time, including cultural cooperation, media, and social forums. This has manifested itself in the closure of numerous NGO’s, joint projects, and the suppression of critical Russian and foreign media, all of which is conflict-promoting. But now that the West has also imposed sanctions, which affects not only the Russian economy but also education and culture, I fear that the people in Russia will be further isolated. The fact that sanctions have been introduced is absolutely plausible and legitimate to me, I just do not approve of the sanctions that affect education and culture.

I have also not met a student or artist who is in favor of the war.

Some of them protest and take great burdens upon themselves, but others are afraid of being arrested or punished, and others simply try to completely forget about the on-going war. I appreciate the exchange with all of them because it helps to understand the thoughts of all kinds of people in Russia. All their voices are important as most of them are suppressed by the Russian government.

Since communication with Russians will be difficult from now on, I feel even more the need to stay in Moscow – as I still have a study visa and probably won’t get another one in the next few years – and listen to the voices of these people. In Moscow I am surrounded by people who share the same opinion as I do, although in some kind of parallel reality: we are all against the war. At the same time, though, we all want to stay in Russia. We support the sanctions, but not those that affect cultural exchange and education. We should not abandon the critical Russian students who are already suffering from their government. In these times it would be even more important for young Russians to be able to study in Europe, broaden their horizons, realize that kind people can be found all over the world and war is not needed.

Moreover: what about all the scientists, artists, students, and activists who are all categorized together with the Kremlin supporters, called simply “The Russians”?

The sanctions hit those who are against the war, the hardest. Those in favor of the war would not have been interested in studying abroad anyways, forego Coca-Cola and MacDonald’s burgers for their national pride without any problems, were hardly employed by international companies anyway, and have not lost their jobs.

Then there are the people who believe the Kremlin’s propaganda. I can’t even be mad at them for believing Russian state media. They have never learned to think critically, most of them have never been abroad, have never spoken to a foreigner, and most of them have probably never crossed the Russian state border.

Consequently, I live in a parallel reality in Russia. Society in Russia is divided in two camps. Some are in favor of the so-called “special military operation” and others are against the war. I of course belong to the former. Being in Russia and not in Switzerland at the moment, I live in another parallel reality, because many of the people I know do not understand why I am staying in Moscow. I, on the other hand, am afraid of returning to Switzerland. I am afraid of encountering pure incomprehension and Russophobia. I am afraid that no one will understand me.

Those who understand me are my fellow students from the international student community in Moscow, the ones who have decided to stay even though we do not support the war. We find ourselves in the same situation, we share our feelings and concerns. Together we deal with the terrible news about the atrocities committed by the Russian army in Ukraine. We help each other with getting money, which is getting more and more difficult because of the sanctions. We support each other and have become a real schicksalsgemeinschaft. That would be another parallel reality which I find myself in, along with the other international students. At the moment, I feel comfortable in my bubble of people in Russia who are against the war.

The thought of returning to Switzerland keeps me thinking. I do not know what expects me at home, what reactions I will meet, and how I will deal with my experiences from my semester abroad in Russia, shaped by the war.

Berenika Zeller

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: