I don’t know if this is the right place to post this, but none of my friends will listen to me anymore and I don’t know who else to tell. I don’t have any ghost sightings to report, and there aren’t any monsters under my bed, but I’m not afraid of that sort of thing. I’m afraid of what’s happening to my family, and even worse, that everyone sees it happening but does nothing. It feels like drowning at a pool party, struggling and shouting and begging while all my friends silently watch.
It started a year ago with dad’s YouTube channel. He used to work as an aide for a political leader (A.N.), but then the campaign started traveling and dad decided not to move. My mom is a teacher, and she tried to get him a job at her school, but he wouldn’t have it.
“Мертвые не сражаются. Я мертв?” he used to say. Dead men don’t fight. Am I already dead?
Papa is not the kind of man you can argue with. His voice is low and measured, rumbling out of his barrel chest like he’s patiently explaining some irrefutable law of the universe to a child who isn’t expected to understand. He always seems exhausted, grunting and groaning when he has to stand up or do anything, but you only have to see his eyes to know there’s a bottomless reserve of spirit that could march him through an endless winter night.
He kept contact with all his political friends, and whenever they’d uncovered corruption or scandal, they’d tell my father. They were too afraid to mention it over the phone, not daring to speak above a whisper even in person. I’d sit at the top of the stairs out of sight while they talked though, and all those things they were too afraid to even think out loud would be spoken clearly on papa’s show.
First came the letter. Polite, formal, from the Ministry of Communications. I’d picked up the mail and opened it because I was impressed by the official government stamp. I thought dad had won some kind of award for his show. He didn’t smile often, and I wanted to be the one who made it happen.
Instead, I found a generic letter informing papa that his channel was in violation of slander laws and needed to be closed. It thanked him for his “attempt at public service”, even listing a variety of other “safe” topics that he could talk about instead. That same night, after everyone but papa had gone to sleep, we were woken by a splintering-crashing sound. We found papa standing in the living room holding a brick, staring out our broken window, his bathrobe fluttering in the freezing wind like some kind of battle flag. Mom was horrified, but papa was grinning from ear-to-ear.
“Они только пытаются заткнуть вас, если вам что-то стоит сказать.” They only try to shut you up if you have something worth saying.
It was another four months before the next incident. My older brother was expelled from the University. They told him that they’d received multiple anonymous reports about his disorderly and rebellious behavior, but he swore up and down that he never did anything. We all thought that he was covering up something until that night when a second brick came through our window. The message couldn’t have been clearer, but neither could papa’s response.
His influence was expanding. He had several investigators reporting to him at all hours of the day and night. Over 10,000 subscribers. Every day a new video, a voice of reason cutting through the miles of red tape and political side-talk. Turning on the TV, or reading the newspaper, it was impossible to tell what was real. Papa says uncertainty is a seed which grows into fear. That must be true, because I didn’t know what was going to happen next, and I was afraid all the time.
Mom lost her teaching job shortly after. The school said that parents were concerned she wasn’t sticking to the syllabus, instead feeding her own propaganda into the class. No-one had ever complained to mom about it, and she said she’d never so much as mentioned politics (she taught math). She tried to get an appeal with the board, but after the meeting there were tears in her eyes and she wouldn’t say a word about what happened. She’d taught at that school for the last 21 years. There wasn’t another brick that night, but there didn’t need to be. In the morning I found her teaching award from the governor in the trash, along with a carefully folded Russian flag.
Papa didn’t stop, and no-one asked him to. Not even when he started receiving death threats in the mail. He was arrested twice, first taking him at the grocery store for spreading libel. He was only gone a few days that time, but when he came back he was more insistent than ever. He was working on something big. Something that would change Russia — change the world, even. Wherever someone in power feared what the truth could do to him, things would change.
They didn’t give him the chance though. The second arrest happened at our house with someone knocking on the door. They didn’t even bother to tell him why he was being arrested that time, but he didn’t resist. That made me angry. Someone coming into our house and dragging him away from his family — he always told me he was a fighter. The silent, willing man who they marched into the night didn’t look like a fighter to me.
The harassment only got worse while he was gone. Friends and neighbors who had known us for years stopped talking to us, turning the other way when we said hello. People at school treated me like I had an infectious disease. There was a rumor going around that my father was an anarchist. I heard everything — about his treason, his hatred for Russia, even accounts of how he raped and killed someone.
Defending him only made it worse for me, but I couldn’t help it. I hit a boy in the mouth when he kept telling me I had to go to the station and suck someone’s cock to get papa out. I wasn’t even sure I wanted him to be released. That’s what I was thinking sitting outside the principal’s office, waiting to be expelled like my brother was. I wanted papa to disappear — to have never existed at all. I was so angry that I almost stormed off right then, but I’m glad I didn’t because I was able to hear what the principal was saying behind his door.
He was talking about my father. The person he spoke with sounded like he was giving the principal orders.
“Уничтожьте его семью,” he said. Destroy his family.
Then the man starting listing things off, as calm and clear as though he was ordering food at a drive-through.
“Скажите ученикам, что его сыновья тоже предатели.” Tell the students his sons are traitors too.
“Его дом должен быть сожжен.” His house must be burned.
“Его жена должна быть изнасилована.” His wife must be raped.
All done before next week when papa was to be released. The principal didn’t even hesitate.
“Будет сделано,” he replied. It will be done.
I didn’t wait for the door to open. I ran home — 7 miles, but I didn’t stop once. I wasn’t even angry anymore. I understand how pointless it is being angry at something that big and powerful. It would be like cursing the ocean for its waves. I also understand why papa was so compliant with being arrested. You can’t fight something like that. It was fear, not anger, which kept me moving — desperately trying to think how I could explain this to mom, and where we could sleep tonight where they wouldn’t find us.
That fear — that numbing, helpless, lonely fear — was all I had to keep me company while I ran. And when the pain in my side came like a knife between my ribs and my legs trembled as I lifted them from the concrete — that fear was stronger. I just kept marveling at how powerful a thing fear can be — stronger than pain, or loyalty, or even human empathy. I thought it must be the strongest force there is in the world, and that must be why the government uses it to control us.
The fear that right and wrong don’t matter when you are one and they are many. But it’s a ridiculous fear, because the cowering people are the ones who are many. And it seems to me the government must know that too; they only try to frighten us because they are frightened of us. They’re scared of us not being scared anymore. And how do we stop from being scared?
Papa said uncertainty grows into fear, so we must leave no doubt. I warned my mom and brother, but neither of them have left yet. They’re helping me sort through papa’s notes and recordings. We’re going to find what he was working on when they took him. We’re going to find what they were so afraid of, and we’re going to release it to the world.
There’s no uncertainty about it anymore. I’m not afraid, even though I know I will be arrested or killed for this. And when the word gets out, that uncertainty will be gone from the people too. We are many and they are one. And it is their turn to be afraid.