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I was a proud Jew in Russia. When the war in Ukraine began, I knew I had to leave.

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BUDAPEST, Hungary (St. Louis Jewish Light via JTA) — It has been more than a month since I fled Russia with my two daughters, a cat and a dog. Like thousands of other Russians horrified by the senseless war in Ukraine, we left with few suitcases and no plan.

The decision to leave my country was excruciating. Our life in Moscow was full and happy. I had a job I loved as the Jewish community center’s creative director. My daughters — Varya, 14, and Katya, 12 — loved their school and the many friends they had there. Our cozy flat, with two balconies in the center of the city, was a cherished home. Why would I give all that up? Why would I leave everything I had worked for — and leave my father?

I am still coming to grips with the answer. All I know for sure is that I simply couldn’t stay in Moscow. The war against Ukraine, and the accompanying laws aimed at silencing all dissent, broke my relationship with Russia, perhaps forever. Day after day, I was hearing about friends being arrested for attending peaceful demonstrations. One friend was asked to leave her job after her boss found out that she had gone to a protest. A sociology professor from the university I attended was badly beaten by police for speaking out against the war.

I feared I could be next, or worse, my oldest daughter, who insisted we take to the streets and revolt. I had already signed a letter condemning the war. I had put up anti-war flyers on buildings in my district. I had posted unflattering comments about Vladimir Putin on social media.

At the same time, media from outside of Russia was being censored. People around me feared talking openly on the phone. I was seriously afraid of being cut off from the rest of the world, stuck behind a newly erected iron curtain. I started to feel claustrophobic in the biggest country in the world. I couldn’t sleep at night. In the day, it was literally hard to breathe.

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All this to wage war against Ukraine, the place where my great-grandparents are buried and home to some of my dearest friends and colleagues. I spoke to the mother of one of those friends on Viber, a secure messaging app, as she hid in a bomb shelter. It was heartbreaking. I love Ukraine and I am ashamed that my country has caused so much pain and destruction.

This is why I decided to leave Russia, despite the many obstacles in my way.

As a result of Western sanctions, I was unable to use my credit card to buy airplane tickets, book a hotel or do much of anything that might help me escape Russia. International travel was mostly halted. Prices for flights that were taking off skyrocketed tenfold, with demand far exceeding supply.

I stayed online late into the night, desperately looking for tickets to take me anywhere, from Uzbekistan to Casablanca. My friends........

© The Jewish Week

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