WATCH: Russian Immigrant shares poignant memories about the war

Ekaterina Korsounskaia sits in her favorite cafe in Manhattan, New York. (Ivy Fan/Medill Reports)

By Ivy Fan
Medill Reports

Ekaterina Korsounskaia, born in Moscow moved to the United States more than 30 years ago. She now teaches Russian as a clinical professor at New York University. Coming through several emotionally draining months since Russia invaded Ukraine, she speaks about the war’s impact on her home country, the complication of her Russian roots and the bleak future.

Ekaterina Korsounskaia: I never wanted to emigrate. When I was young, I thought that I loved Moscow, I thought that I would always be there.

Ekaterina Korsounskaia moved from Moscow to New York in 1993.

Korsounskaia: I’ve been living here for 30 years. So I’m really from New York. But every time I say I’m from New York, something in me feels that I’m hiding something, you know, that I’m hiding that I really, really from Moscow.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, she contacted a Unkrainian organization offering help.

Korsounskaia: And then I wrote that, but I don’t speak Ukrainian. And the woman who was writing to me, wrote back and said, but I where I’m from, and because a lot of Ukrainians speak Russian, historically, they wrote down from Moscow, and she wrote back saying, “I’m sorry, I understand everything, but our Ukrainians at the moment don’t want to deal with kind of people from Moscow.” And I said, “But I’ve been here for 30 years.” And she said, “Look, I understand but it’s just they are so traumatized they don’t want to, sorry.”

Ekaterina teaches Russian language at New York University. She’s deeply concerned about the war in Ukraine, and sees it as a reflection of Russian history.

Korsounskaia: Knowledge will break the chains of slavery. That was something that was supposed to happen after the revolution. But we still under slavery, the way of looking at the world, it’s still there. So Russia has been attempting to break its own chains of slavery for more than once in its history. And now is again, the same. Same task.

My brother was a so-called dissident. So he was kind of an active member of dissident circles. He would bring literature sometimes for us to read like Solzhenitsyn or magazines that were published abroad in the States and in Europe. And we would read them, and my mother, who is not of the brave kind, was terrified of this, scared to death. But she didn’t, of course, it never entered her mind to throw this print material away. So she would put it between sheets and towels and hide it.

Inside prison of Lubyanka of KGB, the KGB arrested no less than 24,382 people.

There was always this double life because then you came home, and at home you heard political anecdotes, or people will come to my parents and they will read aloud forbidden books, let’s say, oh, letters of protest that somebody published abroad. And then after it, your parents will tell you, “But, you know, you don’t tell anybody that you heard it. Not in school. Never in school, you know this.” So you grew up with understanding that there are things that are left at home that you can never tell at school. But because I grew up with this, it kind of felt for a child, it felt OK. I don’t tell anecdotes about stupid government officials in school.

[Translating flyers] Ukrainian Musical Institute of America. Resources for people of New York of Ukrainian descent: help of lawyers, services, you can look for details on this site. You see “Ukraine resources.”

There was anticipation of the war before it, and everyone talked about the war, but no one believed he (Russian President Vladimir Putin) would really do this. It’s impossible to believe that in 2022, you have the war with a bomb in the middle of Europe, with tanks, with killings of children? It’s just, sane person cannot believe it.

This is an old store, it was opened in the ’50s, I think. You see? “Close the sky.” And there’s Ukrainian food here. You see, bread. [Speaking Russian.] He recognized me. He said, “You used to come here before.” And I remember him also, because I spoke Russian with him then, and I spoke Russian with him now. And I said, “How come all you guys speak Russian?” And he said, “Well, that’s how it goes.”

When the war started, I was very distraught and even depressed. I found out in the evening when the war started. The next day, I had classes, and I teach Russian, so I thought, I couldn’t just have a class, you know, as if nothing happened.

I think also because I wanted them to understand that there are different Russians and there are certainly people who think that it’s all right, that Ukrainian territory does belong historically to Russia and or whatever, whatever. They believe whatever they’ve been told by the television, which is poisonous in Russia, just poisonous, is just pure poison that goes into your ears, into your eyes. But there are different people, people who are horrified and depressed and outraged because of this.

When you’re president for, I don’t know, 30 years, you become a tsar, and you will completely lose any connection and any touch to the relative, no idea what’s going on. So when you can hold onto power for such a long time, you change. Apparently there was no other way. Apparently that’s what happens to people, because he’s cooped up in the Kremlin or in his bunkers. People say he doesn’t know what’s going on and he’s being reported facts that he would like to hear, as many people believe also.

There is a friend of mine. I talked with her yesterday. She’s in Moscow. She told me the whole generation is disappearing from here. That’s what she told me. The young people. And she said that she asks her friends, and she’s my age. You know, “How old are your kids?” and she says that the majority of them say, “Oh, they’ve left,” or “They’re leaving.” Because they don’t want to spend their life, you know, in a country like this, so they are leaving.

People in Russia are more pessimistic. When I tell my friend it can’t go on for a long time, it just can’t, it’s impossible, the whole world is against you, it’s just impossible. And she says, “Look, look at Korea. Look at North Korea. They still go on and on. Look at their ancestors. All sanctions, hundreds of sanctions upon them. It’s still eroding away very slowly, but somehow …” To this, I don’t know what to say. I hope it will explode into something, but I don’t know.

Ivy Fan, who specialized in Video and Broadcast, graduated from Medill in Summer 2022. You can follow her on Instagram at @lumiere_ivyfan.