On 20 March 2022, Konstantin Olmezov ended his life in Moscow. He was 26 years old. Born in Donetsk, he had been in Russia since 2018 in order to pursue graduate studies in mathematics at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. On 26 February he had made an attempt to leave Russia, but was arrested while boarding a bus and given 15 days detention on made-up charges of ‘hooliganism.’ Once released, an offer to continue his work in Austria and a ticket to fly out via Turkey had been quickly arranged by his supervisor and associates, but Konstantin no longer felt capable of making a second attempt to leave. On the morning of his suicide, his supervisor and a number of others received a letter and poem, a translation of which I present here. He explicitly stated that he would like the letter to be shared among interested parties, relatives, and in case it was going to be deleted from his social media accounts, where the letter was posted automatically at 9 am the same day. Ending his note on a poem is not accidental – Konstantin was a very passionate poet who gave readings in Russia and Ukraine, and his telegram channel is full of examples of his work.
As a close friend of his supervisor’s and others trying to find ways for him to leave Russia, I initially made the decision to hurriedly, feverishly translate his final words as a way of making sense of his decision, and to bear witness. While it is important to locate his decision in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine, and to see him as a person whose life and work were cut short by the war, it is also possible and perhaps necessary to see it as a political act – as a contradictory exercise of free will in a situation of unfreedom.
While war leads to trauma that spreads out in concentric circles of pain, and with multiple echoes, it would be reductionist to read his act only from this vantage point. In his letter, Konstantin speaks of prior preoccupation with ‘that which cannot be named on the Russian Internet’ (i.e. suicide and its high rates in Russia, which the ‘Russian Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing’ prohibits from publicizing), but he asks us to read it as a choice which is never taken lightly, and the exercise of which he had reserved for himself should he ever find himself in circumstances in which no other options are available.
Some commenters interpreted his death as another symbol of war crushing the weak and vulnerable first. I think Konstantin would have rejected this reading. His letter is an attempt at giving a sober account of his life’s successes and failures, of his perceived weaknesses, strengths, memories and passions, all of which were deprived of meaning for him in the context of the current war, and his own sense of helplessness and horror. He is not encouraging others to join him, and he offers no romanticisation of the struggles that pushed him into the emotional and political dead end at which he found himself. But he does ask us to inhabit the thoughts of a person, a Ukrainian, who was pushed to this state by the murderous war machine that is Russia in 2022.
– Maria Brock
Hello. My name is Konstantin Olmezov, I am writing this text in possession of sober mind and memory. If you are reading this, I will probably never write anything again.
Once upon a time, when I was becoming seriously preoccupied with that which cannot be named on the Russian Internet, I started looking for some self-help videos. In one of them, a psychologist stated that the main thought that drives almost everyone who intends to do this is “the world owes me and the world has not lived up to my expectations”. I embraced this idea, realised that for that situation such a position was inappropriate – and the problem was solved, I returned to life rather quickly.
But now this is the very thought that fills me: “the world owes me and the world has not lived up to my expectations”.
The world should strive to correct its mistakes. And it doesn’t. The world should be made up of thoughtful, compassionate and responsible people. And it is not. The world should allow freedom of creativity and choice. And it takes them away all the time. The world must consider these demands as normal. And considers them excessive. What began on 24 February has changed some existential positions in me. How easily all the facets I’ve read about in books have been adopted by a people who seemed to lead a perfectly ordinary life only yesterday, is more than horrifying. I am afraid there are no words yet in our language to express the extent of what is happening. It turns out that in order to resemble characters from books and songs, all you need to do is not read or listen to them, and that millions are capable of doing so.
I came to Russia in 2018 to do scientific work. I came because I fell in love with a science that was not represented in Ukraine – additive combinatorics. I fell in love truly, madly – the way people fall in love with other people. I spent nights and days with her. I was not too diligent in this love, my scientific discoveries are very modest, but there is no contradiction in this, because in regular love my successes are even more modest.
I have always been critical of Russian politics, and I have always considered Russian culture to be on a plane above, as capable of rising above it. This illusion had hardly faltered in my mind, but now it has fallen away once and for all. Vysotsky, Filatov, Shpalikov, Astrakhan, Tarkovsky, Mikhalkov (outside of his demonic turn), Vinogradov, Linnik, Shkredov, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Skryabin – to that majority of Russians who now support those actions, these and many other names, I am afraid, mean nothing at all – we cannot in fact imagine how little. And yet they are given support. The funny thing is that everyone still believes that anything can be achieved by force. That by crushing life hard enough they can make people forget what happened before their very eyes. That by shutting everyone’s mouth you can suffocate thought. It would seem that this is something from the realm of politics or psychology, but no, it goes back to culture. This is not a strategy for dealing with reality, but an expression of the relation to the very phenomenon of the subject. This is the true ‘Sein bestimmt das Bewusstsein’.
On February 26, I tried to leave Russia. It was partially a stupid act, but only insofar as it was ill-conceived. I do not regret it, I only regret that I did not do it on the 23rd, when I had every reason to do so. I was going to defend my country, to protect it from the one who wanted to take it away from me. To defend my president, whom I had chosen myself, feeling the same obligation as a boss feels towards his subordinates. By the way, I did not vote for Zelensky in the first round in 2019. And in 2023 I wouldn’t have voted for him either. But as much as I may dislike him personally, what matters to me is the freedom to choose and the freedom to assume responsibility for what you choose – responsibility up to the point of fully experiencing the consequences. This is very difficult to explain to many Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians – how violent change from the outside, even if their aim is to improve well-being on all parameters, could be unacceptable simply because it is achieved through violence and by external forces. It’s like suddenly being pulled from a state of overprotection. I was arrested while boarding a bus. The fault, I think, was having expressed myself too freely and due to one person with whom I had shared my plans in the heat of the moment. Being arrested, I felt that my freedom had been taken away from me forever, so I told the FSB straight to their faces everything I thought about what was going on. It was stupid, but there was no alternative. It was the last thing I could hit them with, and I punched as hard as I could. I was even amused at how helplessly they tried to respond to me, how they were clearly repeating the crudest patterns of propaganda with completely innocent faces. Once I was in the cell, there was only one thing I sought: death. I made at least ten attempts in seven different ways. Looking at them now, some of these were silly and their failure inevitable, but they represented sincere attempts. And the only thing I dreamed of while I was there was to be set free, to be able to make a last attempt, with a decent chance of success (by the way, I still don’t understand why they let me go).
Being deprived of freedom is worse than death for me. All my life, I have tried to have freedom of choice in everything – in food, in my profession, in where I live, to what kind of soap to wash my hands with and for which party to vote. I only ever ate food that tasted good to me, and if that wasn’t an option, I preferred to remain hungry. There are only two ways to deal with unfreedom – displacement and non-acceptance. Displacement is when you spend your whole life freely choosing how to live, and then you are locked up and start choosing what book to read while locked up. I can only fight against unfreedom by not accepting it, by refusing to be in a situation of unfreedom itself – if I am prevented from choosing how and where to live, I would simply prefer not to live.
I love Donetsk deeply, though with a strange love. Despite a horrible childhood, it is still the city where I wrote my first programme, my first poem, where I first went on stage, where I earned my first money. The city where every bench and every bend in every park was imbued with its own rhyme and its own problems that I solved there, with names, faces, with pleasant and horrible events.
I love Kyiv deeply – the city where I first lived independently, experienced hunger and loneliness for the first time, fell in love for the first time, wrote my best poems. In one period there I would write 2 poems in 3 days on average, when I had never written so much before. Every bridge over the Rusanovsky channel, every tree in the forest behind Lisova, every bench in Victory Park imbued me with its pain and its love.
I love Moscow deeply – the city where I first “stood on my own two feet”, achieved financial independence, where I proved my first and only theorem, where I first truly believed in my own strength. Where there is Tsaritsyno! I hurt for each side in this war, but I see with my own eyes who is defending their land and who is invading another’s. I see with my own eyes who defends the right to assume responsibility for their own lives, and who justifies their own degradation.
There is this hackneyed question: to be or not to be. I have always tried to ask myself this question from time to time. It seems to me that if a man does not ask himself that question regularly, continuing to live is not a conscious choice. The question is well-known, but the author followed by another: “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. The answer is unequivocal for me: it is dishonourable to keep silent, to lie, to pretend that nothing is happening around you or in your heart; it is dishonourable to get caught, to spend your life in prison, being powerless – dishonourable; to hide from everyone, to cause trouble for others, to constantly seek help, to be afraid of everyone – dishonourable; to go into partisan war, to cause harm in another country on its territory – doubly dishonourable, I am Ukrainian, from another culture (I understand that someone will see it as weakness, and that’s fine). I don’t see any way to continue my life with dignity. At some point I had the hope of a second attempt to leave. I am immensely grateful to the people who gave it to me, and I apologise for not taking advantage of it. I am, however, too afraid of being imprisoned a second time, and for good reason – I did too many stupid things the first time I was arrested, not to mention being disappointed in humanity and humanity in total.
When, in the twenty-first century, an army is attacking a completely foreign country in the middle of the night, a country that poses no threat to it at all. And every soldier understands what he is doing, and pretends not to. When that country’s minister says “we have not attacked” and journalists broadcast it. And every journalist understands that this is a lie and pretends not to understand. When millions of people are watching this and they understand that what is happening will be on their conscience and history and they pretend they had nothing to do with it. When black is called white and sweet is called bitter, and not in a conspiratorial whisper, and without a wink, but as if coming from the heart. When Zadornov’s joke about an American saying that “the Russians are cruel because they attacked the Swedes at Poltava” ceases to be a joke and ceases to be about the American and the Swedes. When the world seriously discusses the possibility of what it has been trying to prevent for 75 years, and does not discuss any new models of prevention. When force once again claims to be the main source of truth, and treachery and hypocrisy the main source of tranquillity. With all this going on around me, I completely lose hope in a different path for humanity. I have absolutely no desire to do anything for or with these people. I realised that such a setback would happen sooner or later, that the animal follows its instincts. But I had no idea it was possible so quickly and so easily, as if at the flick of a switch. Does how we were living before make sense? Clearly it will come back, but it will come back just as powerless, and just as easily fall before the swagger of any thug.
I can’t say I am ashamed of my life, but I could have done better. I have not managed to do many things that no one else will do for me, and that would have improved people’s lives. However, is that what is needed now? I wanted to make an app that promoted conscious choice, allowing people to hold “referendums” within themselves, answering the same question many days in a row. I was living for this idea, but now who needs elections and referendums, who is seriously interested in their own opinion? I wanted to give colour to Szemerédi’s theorem, to turn a mathematical proof into artistic work, into something on the scale of a movie. I am certain that mathematics is worthy of this.
I wanted to help people escape distortions and logical contradictions, to find and formulate their own model of the world. I think I was good at it. This is not important now, and I am not writing about this to evoke pity, but to insist on its relevance. I was unforgivably lazy and thought that I had plenty of time. That was a great mistake.
I partly feel shame before my Ukrainian friends. Believe me, I have never wished nor done anything bad to Ukraine and have always kept in mind a readiness to leave if things start to go as they are now. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for me, I just didn’t approach the matter skilfully enough… The FSB men who detained me talked to me like I was a traitor, but on the morning of February 24, I felt betrayed myself. Yes, as ridiculous as it may be, but even though I recognized rationally and out loud that war was possible, emotionally it came as a surprise to me. I had a naïve belief that legal tact in dealing with Ukrainians implied the possibility of pulling out at some critical juncture. I stuck my head too far down the tiger’s maw.
This is the second big mistake, and I pay for it dearly. Every shell that falls on the streets of Kiev hurts me. Reading the news bulletins, I imagine the sights of these streets, these districts. From the first day until today I was with you with all my heart, although it is clear that I have not saved anyone…
I’m a complete atheist. I don’t believe in hell, I’m not going anywhere. But that is still more appealing to me than a reality where some people have retreated into savagery, while others indulge in it – either by throwing up their hands in gleeful lunacy, or by “evacuating” further from the front lines. I don’t want to be with either of them.
Finally, of course, a poem:
Do Russian people want a "no war" placard"? Ask a cyborg from the National Guard Ask a no-one, diving in the metro, Ask the one cemented to the throne. Do they like cities going up in flames? Ask the driver of a refugee-packed train. Do they like ruins in place of a maternity ward? Ask a child's eye, arrested by the void. Do Russian people want things to change? Ask what of their media has remained. And is it Nazism that they rise against? Ask their Z-banded youths to state. This ghastly year has stamped your fate, People, adamant not to capitulate, People, going down in shit and gore, To drown a placard that says "No war".
Maria Brock is currently a Maria Skłodowska Curie Fellow at Malmö University. Her research examines traditional values rhetoric in Russia and Germany, and the instrumentalization of the figure of the innocent child in political rhetoric.