[NetBehaviour] Fwd: [spectre] Fwd: 'The Situation of Unfreedom': final text by Ukrainian poet Konstantin Olmezov

Alan Sondheim sondheim at gmail.com
Fri Mar 25 15:23:42 CET 2022

Cross-posted from spectre, from nettime

---------- Forwarded message ---------
From: Andreas Broeckmann <ab at mikro.in-berlin.de>
Date: Fri, Mar 25, 2022 at 10:06 AM
Subject: [spectre] Fwd: 'The Situation of Unfreedom': final text by
Ukrainian poet Konstantin Olmezov
To: spectre <spectre at mikrolisten.de>

crossposted from nettime.

-------- Weitergeleitete Nachricht --------
Betreff:        <nettime> 'The Situation of Unfreedom': final text by
Ukrainian poet Konstantin Olmezov
Datum:  Thu, 24 Mar 2022 16:08:05 -0400

Ukrainian poet and mathematician Konstantin Olmezov died by his own hand
four days ago, following an abortive attempt to escape Russia and return
home. This is his final text, and in my view it deserves to be widely
read and pondered.


by Konstantin Olmezov

>From N+1 magazine


[The following essay contains discussions of suicide.]

[Introduction by Maya Vinokour, who also translated]

Konstantin Olmezov, a young Ukrainian mathematician and poet, died by
suicide on March 20. He had come to Russia in 2018 to study a branch of
mathematics—additive combinatorics—that was not well represented in his
home country. He was a student at the elite Moscow Institute of Physics
and Technology, whose list of alumni includes numerous Nobel Laureates.
As his Telegram channel attests, he also wrote poetry on a large number
of topics and in a variety of styles, meters, and moods—from moral
tales, to ironic allegories, to sincere lyric.

Two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Olmezov tried to go home but was
apprehended by the FSB at a Moscow bus station. He was questioned and
detained for fifteen days on trumped-up administrative charges. The
experience shook him deeply. Fearing being trapped in a Russia he no
longer recognized—and isolated from a Ukraine he couldn’t save—he
tragically took his own life.

Olmezov’s death was first reported on Telegram by his lawyer, Dmitry
Zakhvatov, who had been actively working to put together a second, more
effective escape route for him. Olmezov had already secured a position
at a university in Austria and purchased a ticket to Istanbul, but
ultimately could not bring himself to face the terrifying prospect of
further “unfreedom” at the hands of the Russian authorities.

Olmezov had created his Telegram channel [https://t.me/s/const_poems
<https://t.me/s/const_poems>] on March 15, shortly after his release
from FSB detention. The vast majority of the entries are poems copied
over from his page on VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook. Perhaps
Olmezov, observing the wholesale destruction of Russia’s independent
media and the blocking of platforms like Twitter and Instagram, wanted
to preserve his art in a safer-seeming forum. Just before his suicide,
he left a series of final entries of shattering clarity and impact,
mostly in prose but ending with a poem.

After his death was announced, passages from these final notes went
viral on what is left of the free Russian internet. Olmezov’s Telegram
channel doubled its subscriber count overnight. In translating his final
missive, I hope to transmit his message to an even wider audience. It is
not a hopeful message, but the world is not currently an especially
hopeful place.

Olmezov is circumspect, but his circumspection is ironic and
contradictory. He avoids the word “suicide” just as he largely avoids
calling Russia’s war a war, a linguistic choice he negates through
constant bitter emphasis on the new prohibitions in Russian public
discourse. His circumlocutions are devastating, calling screaming
attention to the very topics they ostensibly skirt. They are part of the
euphemistic language of shock and trauma, which cannot name the things
that hurt the most.

—Maya Vinokour

* * *

Hello. My name is Konstantin Olmezov. As of this writing, I am of sound
mind and memory, and if you are reading it, most likely I will never
write anything again.

Once, a long time ago, when I was first thinking seriouslyabout
thatwhich cannotbe named on the Russian internet, I started looking for
self-help videos. In one such video, a psychologist says 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 took
this idea to heart and realized that, given the situation at the time,
such a position was inappropriate—and the problem was solved. I returned
to life relatively quickly.

But now, I think exactly this: “The world owes me and the world has not
lived up to my expectations.”

The world should strive to correct errors. And it doesn’t. The world
should be comprisedof thinking, empathetic, and responsible people. And
it isn’t. The world should permit creative freedom and freedom of
choice. And it constantly takes them away. The world should consider
these demands normal. And it considers them excessive.

That which began on February 24 changed certain existential positions
within me. It is more than horrible how people who only yesterday seemed
to be leading quite mundane lives so easily acquired all the
characteristics I’d read about in books. I am afraid our language
doesn’t yet have words to reflect the extreme nature of what is
happening. It turns out that in order to start resembling characters
from books and songs, all you have to do is not read or listen to them;
and millions of people are capable of doing this.

I came to Russia in 2018 to study mathematics. I came because I had
fallen in love with a type of mathematics that wasn’t represented in
Ukraine—additive combinatorics. I fell in love for real, I was head over
heels—the way people fall in love with people. I spent days and nights
with it. My love wasn’t especially diligent, my mathematical
achievements are very modest, but there’s actually no contradiction
there, because I do even worse when it comes to regular love.

I was always critical of Russian politics and always thought Russian
culture was on a higher plane. I thought it capableof transcendence.
This illusion inside my head was almost unshakeable, but now it has
dropped away, all at once and irrevocably. Vysotsky, Filatov, Shpalikov,
Astrakhan, Tarkovsky, Mikhalkov (before his recent demonic possession)
[1] Vinogradov, Linnik, Shkredov, Tchaikovsky, Rakhmaninov, Scriabin—I’m
afraid that these and many other names mean absolutely nothing to the
majority of those whose actions the majority of Russians currently
support. They mean nothing to them to a point we can’t even imagine. But
regardless, they support them.

It’s so ridiculous that everyone still believes that you can achieve
everything by force. That if you break people hard enough over your
knee, you can force them to forget what is happening right in front of
them. That if you gag everyone, you can suffocate their thoughts, too.
You would think these observations belong in the realm of politics or
psychology, but no, it’s culture yet again—it’s not a strategy for
working with reality, it’s an expression of an attitude toward the
phenomenon of subjectivity as such. That’s what it means when “being
determines consciousness.”

On February 26 I attempted to leave Russia. This was a somewhat stupid
act, but only insofar as it was poorly planned. I don’t regret it, I
only regret that I didn’t do it on the 23rd, when there was already
every reason to do so.

I was leaving to defend my country, to defend it from those who wanted
to take it away from me. To defend my president, whom I myself elected,
the same way a boss feels obligated to defend a subordinate. Speaking of
which, I didn’t vote for Zelensky in the first round of elections in
2019. And I wouldn’t have voted for him in 2023, either. But however
unpleasant I found him, what matters to me is freedom of choice and the
freedom to take responsibility for that choice, responsibility up to and
including fully experiencing the consequences. This is very difficult to
explain to many Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians—how violent changes
from the outside, even if they improve well-being across all possible
parameters, might be unacceptable just by virtue of being violent and
coming from outside. It’s a little bit like rescuing someone from their
helicopter parents.

They arrested me as I was getting on the bus. The fault for this lies, I
think, with my own big mouth and one person with whom I rashly shared my
plans. Once arrested, I concluded that my freedom had been taken away
forever, and told the FSB everything I thought about what’s going on,
right to their faces. That was stupid, but it couldn’t have been
otherwise. It was the last thing I could hit them with, and I lashed out
with all my might. I was even amused at how helplessly they tried to
answer me, how absolutely innocent their faces looked as they repeated
the crudest propaganda clichés with total guilelessness.

Once confined to a cell, I sought only one thing—death. I made no fewer
than ten attempts using seven different methods. In retrospect, some of
these seem silly and obviously doomed to fail, but they were sincere
attempts. And the only thing I dreamed of, sitting there, was to be
released in order to gain the opportunity to make a final attempt, this
time with a fair chance of success. (By the way, I still don’t
understand why they released me in the end.)

To me, unfreedom is worse than death. My whole life, I’ve tried to have
freedom of choice in everything—in food, in my profession, in my place
of residence, in the type of soap I use to wash my hands and which party
I vote for. I only ever ate food that tasted good to me, and if I didn’t
have the opportunity to do so, I preferred to go hungry.

There are only two methods of fighting unfreedom—displacement and
rejection. Displacement is when you’ve been able to choose freely all
your life, and then, when they lock you up, you start to pick out books
to read during your imprisonment. I can only fight unfreedom by
rejecting it, by refusing to remain in the very situation of unfreedom.
If I am prevented from choosing how and where to live, I prefer simply
not to live.

I love Donetsk very much, even if it is with a strange love. [2] Despite
my vile childhood, it’s still the city where I wrote my first computer
program, my first poem, went onstage for the first time, earnedmy first
paycheck. It’s the city where every little bench, every twist and turn
of the path in every park is saturated for me with its own kind of
rhyme, with some problem that I worked to solve there, with names,
faces, with pleasant and terrible events. Every corner of every path.

I love Kyiv very much—it’s the city where I first attained an
independent life, where I first endured hunger and loneliness, where I
first fell truly in love, where I wrote my best poems. While I lived
there, there was a period when I wrote two poems every three days, more
than ever before. Every bridge over the RusanivskyChannel, every tree in
the woods behind the Lisova metro station, every bench in Victory Park
are suffused for me withtheir unique forms of pain and love.

I love Moscow very much—it’s the city where I first stood on my own two
feet, became financially independent, where I proved my first and only
theorems, where I really and truly started believing in my own
abilities. Where there is Tsaritsyno! I feel pain for both sides in this
war, but I see with my own eyes who’s defending their own land, and
who’s trying to seize someone else’s.

I see with my own eyes who’s defending their right to be responsible for
their own life, and who seeks to justify their own degradation.

There’s this hackneyed question: “to be or not to be.” I always tried to
ask myself that from time to time. I feel like if a person doesn’t ask
themselves that question on a regular basis, then the continuation of
their life cannot be a conscious choice.

It’s a well-known question, but the author follows it up with another:
“whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of
outrageous fortune.” The answer to that question is unequivocal for me
today: to be silent, to lie, to pretend that nothing is happening either
in the world or in my soul—is indecent; to put myself in harm’s way and
spend my whole life in prison, helpless—is indecent; to live in hiding,
thereby bringing trouble on the heads of others, to constantly seek
help, to fear everyone—is indecent; to act as a partisan, doing harm to
another nation while on its territory—is doubly indecent. I’m a
Ukrainian, a person of another culture. (I know that some will think
this is a weakness; so be it.) I don’t see a way to continue to live

At some point I became hopeful that my second attempt to leave would be
successful. I am immensely grateful to the people who gave me the gift
of that attempt and apologize for not being able to make use of it. I am
too afraid of being imprisoned again, for real this time—I did too many
stupid things during my first arrest.

Not to mention that I am disappointed in both individual people and
humanity as a whole. When, in the 21st century and in the middle of the
night, an army attacks a completely foreign country that presents no
danger to it and every soldier understands what he is doing but pretends
he doesn’t. When a government official says, “We didn’t attack,” and
journalists amplify that message. And every journalist understands that
it’s a lie but pretends not to. When millions of people look on and
understand that what is being done will be on their conscience and their
history, but pretend that it has nothing to do with them. When black is
called white and softness—bitterness, and not in a conspiratorial
whisper or with winking irony, but seemingly from the heart. When
Zadornov’s joke about the American who says that “Russians are cruel
because they attacked the Swedes near Poltava” ceases to be a joke and
stops being about an American talking about Swedes. [3] When the world
seriously considers the possibility of the very thing it has been trying
to prevent for seventy-five years, but doesn’t consider any new models
of prevention. When force once again claims to be the main source of
truth, and betrayal and hypocrisy—the main source of peace.

When all of this is happening all around us, I utterly lose hope that
humanity will take a different path. I utterly lose the desire to do
anything for or with these people. I knew that we would backslide sooner
or later, that the beast is incorrigible. But I couldn’t imagine that it
would be so quick or so simple, like the flip of a switch.

Does what used to lend meaning to our lives make sense any longer? Of
course everything will return, but it will return just as weak as
before, and fall just as easily as soon as some thug takes a swing at it.

I can’t say I’m ashamed of my life, but I could have done better. I
mostly didn’t have time to accomplish the things that only I can do and
that would have improved people’s lives. But would they even be useful now?

I wanted to create an app that helps people make conscious decisions,
that enables people to hold what I thought of as internal referenda,
answering the same question many days in a row. This idea gave me life,
but who needs elections and referendanow? Who is actually interested in
even their own opinion? I wanted to “color in” Szemerédi’s theorem,
transforming a mathematical proof into a creation at the intersection of
the arts, into something on the scale of a film. I am certain that
mathematics deserves as much.

I wanted to help people escape cognitive distortions and logical
contradictions, to seek and formulate their own models of the world. I
feel like I was good at that.

None of that matters anymore, and I’m writing about it not to arouse
pity, but to insist on its significance.

I was unforgivably lazy and thought I had a lot of time. That was a big

I feel somewhat ashamed before my Ukrainian friends. Please believe that
I never wanted or did anything to hurt Ukraine and always kept in mind
my readiness to leave if, by chance, what is happening now were in fact
to occur. Unfortunately, I was simply unable to do so, my approach
wasn’t savvy enough . . . The FSB agents who detained me spoke to me as
though I were a traitor, but on the morning of February 24 it was I who
felt betrayed. Yes, it may seem silly—but even having acknowledged,
rationally and out loud, that war was possible, on an emotional level it
was a shock, to a shocking degree. I was naively certain that juridical
tact toward Ukrainians would make it possible to escape when things came
to a head. But I had stuck my head too deep into the tiger’s maw. That
was the second big mistake; I’ve certainly made a few, and now I have to

I hurt from every shell that falls onto the streets of Kyiv. Reading the
news, I keep seeing those streets and neighborhoods in my imagination.
 From the first day to this moment I was with you heart and soul,
although, of course, that didn’t save any lives . . .

I am an absolute atheist. I don’t believe in hell, I’m heading into the
void. But that void appeals to me more than a reality in which half the
people have devolved into savagery, while the other half indulges
them—even if they throw up their hands in collective insanity, even if
they “evacuate” far away from the front lines. I don’t want any part of

And last but not least, a little poem:

Do Russians want NO WAR posters?

Ask the armored riot police;

Ask those diving down into the metro;

Ask the one clinging to the throne.

Do Russians want broken cities?

Ask the overstuffed trains.

Do Russians want destroyed hospitals?

Ask the dried-out eye sockets of infants.

Do Russians want to change anything at all?

Ask what few news media are left.

Do Russians want to root out Nazism?

Ask the students emblazoned with the “Z.” [4]

Your calling card will be this awful year,

You truly unwavering people,

Prepared to bathe in blood or shit,

So long as all NO WAR posters disappear.

Translated from the Russian by Maya Vinokour


1. The famous film director Nikita Mikhalkov, already a controversial
figure, has been banned from entering Ukraine since 2015. Most recently,
his commentary in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led a
Ukrainian court to arrest him in absentia. —trans.

2. Here, Olmezov is referring to Motherland by the Romantic poet Mikhail
Lermontov, which he wrote in the year of his death. It begins with the
line “I love my homeland/ But it is with a strange love.” —trans.

3. These lines refer to a bit by the Soviet and Russian comedian Mikhail
Zadornov that mocks the Western view of Russians as aggressive,
caftan-wearing barbarians. In the Battle of Poltava in 1709, it was in
fact the Swedes who first attacked the Russians, not the other way
around, so the joke here is that the American is comically “Russophobic”
and ignorant. —trans.

4. The Latin letter “Z,” or “zwastika,” as some journalists have styled
it, has become the symbol of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Its meaning has not yet fully stabilized, but it could stand for “Za
pobedu [for victory]” or “Za pravdu [for truth].” —trans.


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