Standing up for what’s right sometimes means sacrificing everything.
It’s hard to comprehend the ramifications of decisions that people make, especially when those people are coming from a place that is far removed from where we are. Such is the case with the oppression of the Russian regime, both in its war of aggression against Ukraine and its hard line against its own people.
What happens when speaking out is dangerous?
The people of Russia who are against the war cannot speak up for fear of retaliation from the very same regime that is so visibly hurting the citizens of Ukraine.
It’s important that we understand that many people in Russia are against Putin. Many people are against the war. Many people are against the whole breadth of atrocities committed by this regime. Just as we see here in the United States, brave people want to speak out against wrongs that they see happening. The difference between America and Russia is that here, you can go out and protest. Here you can post on the internet about how you disagree with what our government is doing. There are many problems in the United States, but we have the freedom to speak out against the ills of our government.
Can you imagine what it would be like if your family was in danger because you criticized your government? If you could be thrown in prison or worse for even being suspected of harboring resentment against the rulers of your country? What if you are imprisoned because your ten years old child drew a picture against war? Imagine you can be thrown to prison for holding a blank sign because police thinks you renounce the war? For calling the war a war, people were are sentenced to 25 years in prison. Even elderly people can be arrested for speaking up against the war. Not talking about opposition, which can be poisoned and, if still alive, sentenced to life in prison.
For many people, the only way for them to speak out is to leave. About 1,000,000 people left Russia in 2022. By leaving the country, they are standing up. But it doesn’t happen in a single day. It takes a lot of time, a lot of preparation, a lot of resources. It’s not an easy thing to do, and it is undoubtedly a dangerous thing to do. The risk for the families of those who leave is a burden as well. Totalitarian regimes are known to retaliate against the loved ones of defectors, so making the decision to go must be weighed against the possibility of collateral damage to your family. Even if their loved ones are safe, those who leave won’t be able to go back to the place that they’ve known for their whole lives, not even for a visit. You cannot unmake the choice – once you leave, there is no way back home, otherwise, you go to prison for 25 years. Even American journalists who are doing their job and are protected by International laws aren’t spared by the Russian totalitarian regime.
A person who moves secretly to the USA from Russia because they cannot stand this regime is a brave person. It’s a person who can’t live with the regime anymore because the regime is aggressive and totalitarian. The regime is committing genocide and war crimes. Leaving this place means facing huge danger. Their personal well-being is at stake. They are putting their lives in jeopardy because, at any point in time they could be intercepted by the security forces of Russia with the real possibility of a very severe punishment. The higher your profile, the greater the risk.
The mere fact that they left is a statement of their renouncement of the war and policies of the country they have fled.
The conundrum of professional athletes and soldiers
One common misconception about professional athletes in Europe is that they are members of the military. This is a foreign concept for Americans, where we have a distinct separation between athletics and the government. Across Europe, professional athletes are woven into the military structure to give them support as they pursue their sport.
Professional athletes are employed by the government in many countries – Italy, France, Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia. As athletes, they hold some kind of military rank. They usually get a salary or a stipend from the military for their living expenses. In the United States, athletes are on their own to raise money and figure out how to train by acquiring private sponsorships, but in Europe, the government sponsors them.
Their military rank does not mean that they are fighting in a war, nor are they training to either. In these countries, they receive salaries from one of the military organizations so that they can focus on their sport. It’s one big reason athletes in Europe can have such a big advantage against athletes from other places – they don’t have to hold down day jobs or hustle to pay their bills. It’s simply how things work in these countries.
We don’t consider the best fencing athletes in West European countries to be soldiers. Yet they all hold military rank due to their work as professional athletes in their respective countries. When we look at a totalitarian regime, we must look at the reality of the situation. Professional athletes have nothing to do with the army, even when they technically hold a rank.
It’s important to look at things from this angle because there are complexities at play.
High-performing athletes in Russia hold a very high place in society there. They have financial support and cultural significance. They will not have that same level of lifestyle should they leave. They are also a bigger target should they speak out. It’s a lot of money to give up, a lot of hard-earned social capital. Athletes of a high rank have a huge amount of opportunities in Russia. Leaving all that to come to the United States equates to a step backward, often a huge one. It means starting over again, leaving behind a lifetime’s worth of work, and in most cases, completely giving up their athletic aspirations. But they do it because their conscience is more important to them than their status and money.
People who are doing nothing are thrown into prison for ten or twenty years or even shot. Instead of condemning these athletes as soldiers, we must consider their experiences. These defected athletes are professional athletes who have nothing to do with the war. They are against these terrible things, and because of that, they escape. It takes a lot of bravery, a lot of time, a huge amount of sacrifice, and a huge amount of risk to do it. I think they deserve our respect.
The crimes of Russia are inexcusable
Taking a hard line with the unconscionable acts of the totalitarian regime in Russia is important. There is no room for excuses, no way to justify the continued atrocities they commit. There is no “middle ground” – there are only two sides: right and wrong.
This is a moment for both words and for actions. We must keep the conversation going, we must push for change by lifting our voices. We must raise money to send to the people of Ukraine who are fighting for their lives, supporting them in every way possible. We must also support all the people who stand against the regime. By doing that, we help to put an end to the war and to change this regime for good.
It’s a difficult situation and a complex one. The best that we can do is to meet each other with compassion and understanding, all while staying true to our own beliefs in freedom and autonomy.