By Ilya Sinelnikov, Vice President of Product at Superpedestrian
Ilya Sinelnikov leads our product and design teams to deliver the ultimate user experience through the design of our scooter, mobile app and internal tools. Originally from Moscow, Ilya and his wife moved to the United States in 2013. He’s been working at Superpedestrian since 2018. In this blog post, which is very different from our usual content, Ilya provides his perspective on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and how he (and we) can support Ukrainians.
A real-life nightmare
The title of this post “2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine” is a copy of a Wikipedia page created on the first day of the war. It’s a phrase I could only imagine to be true in my wildest nightmares. For more than a month, the Russian army following Supreme Commander Putin has been invading Ukraine and holds the blockade of Mariupol, destroying humanitarian convoys. Ukrainians are facing a shortage of food, water, and medicine.
I haven’t lived in Russia for the past 9 years, but it is my motherland. As a Russian, I understand my part of the responsibility for the current political situation. If Russia ended up starting a war and threatening a nuclear war to the whole world, it means we all didn’t do enough to prevent it.
I have mixed feelings now — fear, anger, despair, powerlessness, bitterness, and uncertainty about the future.
Growing up in Russia, summering in Ukraine
I grew up in Moscow in a typical post-Soviet environment that started with very limited resources in the nineties but then turned out to get better at the beginning of the 2000s despite the corruption on all levels — police, courts, universities, medical institutions, business — everything. Everyone was so used to it, so it seemed to me like the way the world works.
Every summer since I was 2 years old, my family spent the summer in Berdyansk, Ukraine. Many Russians went to Ukraine for the summer to meet friends and relatives and for its two seas, beaches, fruits, and sun. We stayed in a house a 3-minute walk away from the port.
A week ago, a Russian warship with tanks and ammunition onboard was destroyed and two other ships were damaged at the Berdyansk port.
Thanks to the new financial freedom of 2000s, I had some great career opportunities and founded my first startup when I was 21. I thought it was a natural way of things and didn’t care much about politics believing it didn’t really affect me. But, Putin’s rise to power and his third unconstitutional term and rigged election in 2012 made it clear that politics were more important than I’d thought.
I’ve never supported Putin or voted for him as I thought a man from the KGB (Soviet Security Service) could never be the right choice for the country. But I believed he was a legitimate president elected by the majority.
Putin became president in 2000, quickly starting with the war in Chechnya and shutting down the biggest independent TV channel NTV. In 2004, Mikhail Khodorkovsky showed political ambitions and Putin immediately dropped him in prison for 10 years and nationalized his company (the biggest company in Russia).
In 2008, Putin invaded Georgia. For me and for many others, that was another warning sign that Putin was dangerous. Then starting from 2010, Putin started to push on opposition movements, civic activists, and the independent media. He started to kill independent journalists, human rights activists, political opponents — Anna Politkovskaya, Yury Shchekochikhin, Stanislav Markelov, Natalia Estimirova, Boris Nemtsov– and many more.
For the last 15 years, there were a lot of new repressive laws adopted in Russia: a ban on many websites with free information, a ban on children adoption by foreigners, a ban on LGBTQ propaganda, and more. In 2014, Russia invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. The United Nations General Assembly rejected the annexation, adopting a resolution affirming the “territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.”
Following that, Russia artificially created separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine. The separatists’ leaders in Luhansk and Donetsk are not natives to those regions. They were actively supported by Kremlin with one aim — destabilization of Ukraine.
I was one of many Russians who believed that through peaceful demonstrations we could force Putin to establish honest democratic elections and save the future of our country.
In February, 2012, more than 150,000 of us gathered in Bolotnaya Square protesting against rigged elections and unconstitutional third presidential term for Putin.
All our beliefs were dashed in the crackdown after the Bolotnaya Square case when 37 peaceful participants of the demonstration were arrested and sentenced to years in prison. The European Court of Human Rights issued numerous verdicts wherein it ruled that the case is politically motivated and recognized the defendants as prisoners of conscience.
As more and more people were protesting, Putin felt an increasing threat to the regime, so he continued arresting and sentencing activists and further destroying basic democratic institutions — independent media, independent court, independent election. He started to introduce more suppressive laws banning anyone and anything that disagreed with his governing ideology. Alexei Navalny, the leader of the opposition movement, was poisoned by the Security agency, spent 16 days in a coma, and then was thrown in jail when he bravely returned to Russia after a long health recovery in Germany.
After witnessing people suffering for simply speaking their views, seeing injustice, aggression, and propaganda it became increasingly clear to me that I have to leave. It was not an easy decision for me as I was leaving not only the country but my hometown, my parents, my friends, my colleagues.
In 2013 I arrived in Boston as a master’s student at Northeastern University. After graduation in 2015, I co-founded a startup in car rental sharing space, and after that I joined Superpedestrian in 2018. My wife and I also started our family here, and we are raising two beautiful children.
Now in 2022, I understand that I left the country when it was still safe to do so. But many Russians who continued to live in the country and who are against the war are in a much worse position now. People in Russia can’t protest, can’t share information, can’t even say the word war when talking about current events in Ukraine. And by new Russian law, if a person decides, for example, to share this post or any post about current events in Russia that does not support the Kremlin’s point of view, on social media Russian people risk being sentenced to up to 15 years in prison for misinformation and fake news.
But even today, when the regime is much more cruel to the opposition, people keep protesting and keep speaking out the truth. I want to express my respect to them as to brave men and women who keep fighting even under the threat of losing their job, freedom and sometimes life. This is a beautiful side of Russia which I hope the world can recognize and appreciate as I do.
Unfortunately, the hard truth is that many people in Russia support the government’s aggression and it is not rare that in one family, one person may support the war while the other protests against it and gets caught by the police. The propaganda in Russia now is stronger than ever and some political scientists compare it to what was happening in Germany right before WWII.
I believe Russia can’t win this war even if Putin fully occupies Ukraine. The Ukrainian people proudly fight for their land and freedom and the entire independent world supports them.
I do not agree with the idea of “the collective guilt of all Russians” that I read and hear about a lot these days — one doesn’t choose where and when to be born, but one chooses his/her actions.
Right now is a time to speak out loudly. Above all, we can’t get used to the war. We must do all we can to call on Russia to immediately #stopthewar.
One way to support Ukrainians right now is to donate to the True Russia Fund, which helps Ukrainian refugees.