An Agent on the Home Front How I Became a Bastard Before Anyone Else

Empty hall in the Supreme Arbitration Court in Moscow
Our author has been declared a foreign agent - as one of the first. Many were to follow him. | Photo (detail): Thomas Köhler © picture alliance / photothek

The author of the text is a journalist from a non-capital Russian city. He was one of the first to be “awarded” foreign agent status. His text describes how the war in Ukraine is perceived by people who have already found themselves in the position of “enemies of the people”.

The Solution

My morning began, as many Russians do now, with a trial. The process to legitimise my label as a “foreign agent” dragged on for months. At the last hearing – at 4 A.M. Kyiv time – I said that a disaster would follow the ferreting out of the insecure persons.

When the judge finished her short ruling and looked up, she didn't seem to realise immediately what was wrong with me. All the “foreign agents” were denied complaints – why do you stand still? 

She asked me if the decision was clear. Of course I understood. On 24 February I was told again: “You are a stranger here”. The others were told the same thing – but for the first time so blatantly and unabashedly.

As Before

On the courthouse porch, my lawyer said something about an appeal and resented the lawlessness, not yet understanding what had happened. 

“We're fucked,” I thought.

We are Russian activists and journalists. The physical scale of “demilitarisation” was not yet clear. It was not clear exactly who would be “denazified” and how. But it was already clear that the “special operation” would also begin inside Russia. 

By 24 February, I had long since stopped working as a journalist and was an employee of a major company. But the “foreign agent” label swallows you whole. It leaves no room for manoeuvre. You are first and foremost an enemy of the people and then someone else.

The same thing happened to a huge number of people after the start of the “special operation”. The public has taken over the private: a political (or rather even ethical) stance has divided families and friends.

For many Russians, news has become just as important to their little lives, to everyday life, to weekend plans, as family chat messages. It is impossible not to read them, because it could be the last time they are hanging out with friends, the last day at work or even a day out – all because of some news.

Before 24 February, this was the case for “foreign agents”, opposition politicians and independent journalists only – now it is the case for everyone. The only thing that saved the day were the news reports. They provoked anger – and anger is the enemy of powerlessness. We are not fucked yet. We have hands, feet, head, internet. We are, after all, alive. 

I have never done anything publicly - from day one until now. My anger did not overcome my fear or helplessness, because they stuck to me along with the “foreign agent” label. Then I spent hours in the police, the journal where I worked was outlawed, and I was declared an enemy of the people. I lost my job, my profession, my confidence. And I barely retained my sanity. 

Only a few people I know picketed in support of foreign agents that day. And who was it all for? No one needs us and we can't prove anything to anyone. We lost, I decided, and shut up.

It's the same at the end of a dreadful February. We should write a post. Why? What else can I say? We should go out to a rally. For whom?
“Not many people came out in Moscow,” my foreign agent colleague writes, “all of us will be taken to the camps”. 
We have to leave.


Talk of emigration was everywhere: in all media, telegram feeds, bars, coffee shops. 

Almost all the “foreign agents” left, the IT people left, even an acquaintance of mine who worked in the regional government left. Without money, without a job, with one backpack, and people like us with the understanding that they cannot return. 

I too gave in to panic. But I did not want to leave as a one-way “foreign agent”, but rather as an IT guy - to sit tight and see what would happen. It was fear again.

Plans were thwarted by the loss of my job. The company I worked for was facing the consequences of sanctions and no one wanted to deal with my departure.

A little later, I did not leave a second time either – this time out of helplessness, out of an inability to change anything. The unbearable thought that I had to break up with Russia for good and not come back here again. And from the fact that it will not get any better either here or there.

Powerlessness didn't come to me right away. I opted for it when I decided to stay and shut up even after being recognised as a “foreign agent”. I decided then that I would stay and “keep quiet”.  

Home Front

Fear and powerlessness are now countered by only one thing – the desire to be human. Not an enemy of the people, not a fighter for truth and freedom, but simply a human being.

As a human being and I feel good here, in my city. When the worst was happening in Ukraine, the trees were already blooming here. A rare warm spring promised (and gave) a sunny summer. A summer when a broken and untended city becomes beautiful. A real home front here, no bombs falling here, there aren't even many refugees. We seem to be so far away from the centre of the world that nothing happens. 

Yes, a huge banner with the letter Z has appeared on the “house of culture” near my home. Buses are covered with Z stickers, local officials fervently support and endorse the “special military operation”, people participate in “patriotic flash mobs”. The police sometimes barge in and search someone under the new censorship laws or take them to the police station for innocuous expressions of discontent.

But it is possible not to speak out, to walk past government buildings, not to look at banners, and better still, not to look up at all to avoid an epidemic of eye diseases, and that is the only reason. One can just live, and then it seems that there is nothing to be afraid of. There is a beautiful, blooming, slightly dusty, but native city. 

It felt similar to the moment when I was dubbed a “foreign agent”. There was a rumble somewhere in the high offices of the Kremlin thousands of miles away. But here, all is quiet. 

But if it was about me personally at the time – then what prevents me from simply forgetting, falling out of public life, living peacefully. How people gradually forget everything, except those on whose heads rocket fragments fall. 

Because, as former President Medvedev unknowingly put it in a reference to the Strugatsky's, we are bastards. We are not affected by the uplifting cues of the TV towers or the soothing singing of the birds – through it all we hear only weeping. We see the black grief and the pit of disaster on the edge of which the world stands on tiptoe and is about to fall.* 

We cannot leave and we cannot integrate into this certainly new country, post-February Russia.

I became a bastard a little earlier than the others. There was an experiment being conducted on “foreign agents”. 
Not all test subjects agreed to become bastards and left. The emigrants will forever remain citizens of that pre-February Russia, like their predecessors from the first post-revolutionary wave. They have lost their homeland; we have lost our humanity. They can act openly, they can help, they can fight. We can only squirm in pain when the TV towers are once again turned on full blast. But the more accurately one feels the new environment and one's place in it, the sooner fear and powerlessness will go away. 

* Editor's note: The author refers in the text to books by famous Soviet science fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, especially to their novel The Inhabited Island, which was published in Russian in 1969.


The project “Dark Times, Bright Nights” (orig.: “Dunkle Zeiten, Helle Nächte”) by the Goethe-Institut in cooperation with the magazine dekoder invites authors and film and media professionals in Russia and in exile to document and reflect on the new everyday life since 24.2.2022. Further contributions can be found in the dossier on dekoder.