It takes me a while to acclimate to Russia’s white nights. As light peers through the windows and drapes across my face, my eyes stay wide open. I breathe in the air redolent of home. I can’t pinpoint the smell, but it gives me comfort. The ceiling is coloured with kaleidoscopic glares reflecting off the crystal vases carefully arranged in the glass cabinet.
It’s two in the morning.
The pull-out couch caves to my body’s rotation as I turn to face the wall. My mother and I’s bodies meet in the middle, sandwiched between the two stiff couch panels. I push her aside. She groans through her slumber.
I shift my attention to the peeling wallpaper. With my left index finger, I trace the floral patterns. I close my eyes and follow the outline of the large pink flowers like I’ve done so many times before. I examine where the flowers don’t line up. I fall asleep counting the number of flower arrangements in each row.
I wake to the smell of coffee. I can hear my family whispering in the kitchen two metres away. I attempt to rise from the pull-out couch. It launches me forward as it folds back to its daytime position. Body folded in half, I carefully get up and turn to face the monster that tried to swallow me whole. I pull the sheets out of the couch crevice and fold them neatly.
Four steps to the bathroom. Three to the kitchen.
My mother makes Russian pancakes. My grandmother cuts beets for her borsht. My grandfather toggles through the four radio channels on his soviet-time radio player. It blares at an ungodly volume.
I steal a pancake and leave the four-by-four-metres kitchen enclosure. Four steps to my grandmother’s room to change into a fresh tee-shirt and my dirt-covered running shoes. Six steps to reach the double bolted front doors.
I jog down 10 flights of stairs. Every apartment complex in Kirov, Russia, has the same graffitied and dust-covered stairwells, with their rusty stairs and moist musk.
I exit into the courtyard. I am greeted by the glaring summer sun and the blossoming weeds. The air smells of car exhaust and a hint of summer bloom. I walk out of the broken gravel driveway into the neighbouring park. As I walk along the dirt paths, watching my every step, I admire the landscape. To most, it is a direct cry for help at the hands of Russia’s failed urban economic system. To me, Kirov, with its faded golden-domed churches, broken sidewalks, and Lada-infested roads, is home. Home is not what I see; it is what I feel. I feel whole.
But home is messy.
So, what is Home? What does it mean to find Home? Is Home one thing, or many? And once you’ve found Home, can you find it again?
To me, finding Home means finding a space that allows for boundless growth. It is a space where belonging is not defined but implied. Yet, the hard truth is that Home is a double-edged sword. At one end, you have this safe, comforting, and heartening space, but at the other end, it carries history, ancestry, and a broken past or present.
Home is not perfect. It’s perfect in its imperfections and its messiness. I love Russia for making me who I am. I love Russia for making my mother who she is—an independent, strong, and resilient woman. I love Russia for its beauty, grace, strength, and rich history. But I hate Russia for its broken political system, for its deeply felt oppression, and for its inability to acknowledge its own corruption. Russia is populated with beautiful white birch trees yet infested with corruption and environmental carelessness. But if Russia was a person, I’d take a bullet for her.
I realize that all homes stand on this very fine line. As humans, we all long to find belonging. Home is like a garden—our personal magical garden where we bloom with the flower buds and feel safe within its enclosure. There’s so much beauty and serenity in our garden, even when weeds burst forth from beneath the blossoming sunflowers and budding roses. There are some weeds that we can easily pull out or look past, but there are others whose roots have grown so deep that there is not much to be done. We learn to manage these growing beasts. We take care of them and accept their monstrous appearances.
There’s something beautiful in accepting our garden’s flaws.
My home is 7,000 kilometres away, and I seldom get to feel its full power. Each summer, I pick my bouquet, and I take it back with me to Canada. Home can be like this. Home can be a faraway place, physically or emotionally. Home can be un-reachable or at the tips of your fingers. When working on this piece, I chose to reflect on the land. Both the land of my garden and the land I return to at the end of each summer.
Ontario, Canada, is steeped with rich Indigenous history. The history of this land bleeds deep cuts. Nonetheless, this land has welcomed me and allowed my mother to relocate from the depths of Russia and create a home where she can nurture me and develop her own career. I wish to acknowledge and pay my respects to the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation for sharing their home with me. I thank them for nurturing this Earth and for allowing me to share their space.
Dr. Debby Danard, an Anishnaabe-kwe (Ojibway) from Rainy River First Nation in northwestern Ontario, is a professor in UTM’s Department of Historical Studies. As part of her teaching, she encourages her students to perform their own land acknowledgement. This practise allows us to determine our relationship to the land, and with this understanding, we can make connections to its deep, yet broken, history. Dr. Danard explains, “Once you make that connection, that becomes how [Indigenous Peoples], and all my Anishinaabe ancestors, think about this land.”
Acknowledging the footprints that we will someday leave on this earth, especially on land that is not ours, is the first step in creating a space that can honour and respect the paths that have come before ours. In Russia, I acknowledge my grandparents’ childhoods. Their unbearable upbringing in a country ravaged with war. Their childhoods spent eating potato peels and avoiding bullets. I acknowledge the small apartment in Kirov where my mother became who she is.
Dr. Danard notes the importance of acknowledging our roots, those far below the surface of the Earth. She says, “If you look at our creation story, women were gifted with the responsibility to continue creating on Earth and to carry that vessel. Where your mother ate food and drank water, that is where you come from. This is science, a natural law of the universe.”
As humans, we are innately drawn back to our “roots” in search of our true selves. As Madan Sarup argues, learning about our roots or origins can be a way to “gain a renewed pride in [our] identity.” This is in part what transpires when I go back to Russia each summer. I go back to my roots. Russian blood runs deep in my veins. Russia is in my every breath. When I am in my country, one in which I wasn’t even born in, I am at home. Everything falls into place. Whether I walk the shining streets of Moscow or I stumble over the broken sidewalks in Kirov, I see myself in every other face.
Every single Russian person I’ve ever met has become a family member to me. Russian pride is beautiful. We all face the same hardships and the same personal adversities. Every Russian child is raised the same way, told the same stories, and fed the same foods—even the children of Russian immigrants. For this reason, I feel rooted in my Russian community. These are people like me, people that feel and breathe the same way. We have a type of silent understanding and comradeship.
Indigenous communities have the same connection to their land and people.
The Indigenous practice of the Berry Fast exemplifies the importance of Indigenous tradition. “The Berry Fast teachings are a one-year berry fast that young women that first come onto their moon-time take,” explains Dr. Danard. “Young girls that are becoming women have responsibilities for 13 moons to understand their role as women, especially when carrying life.”
At the end of the Berry Fast, the young girl becomes a woman, ready to undertake the responsibility to create life. Dr. Danard’s daughter, Akeesha Footman, conceded this practice in her early adolescence. In Muskrat Magazine, an online Indigenous arts and culture magazine, Footman writes, “I was told my body was getting ready so that if I chose to create life, I could. I learned that during my moon time, I was a powerful and sacred vessel—that I needed to be careful how I walked and acted around others.”
The Berry Fast teaches young Indigenous women to say “no” and to be patient, strong, and self-disciplined. These qualities are crucial for a mother but also for a woman in society. For the young woman, abstaining from berries is a commitment to her family, to her community, and to herself.
Indigenous Peoples practise many other traditions, all of which induce the shaping of their identities. Dr. Ken Derry of UTM’s History Studies department says that by “thinking through the lens of Indigenous writers and filmmakers, home ends up being a place they must construct or recover because [their] physical home has been taken. And home, in [the] sense of culture and tradition, has also been taken.”
Indigenous traditions are connected to their past and to their land. In many cases, land can’t be recovered. For this reason, Indigenous Peoples struggle at times to live their true, deep-set traditions. As such, they must construct their own space and community in which they can re-create traditions or blend them with colonial practises. With Indigenous voices oppressed, Indigenous filmmakers must use a colonial art-form to tell Indigenous stories.
Dr. Derry notes that “in some ways, home is connected to this notion of healing.” He explains that discovering or rediscovering Home can provide one with the tools to recover from trauma. The truth is that the Anishinaabe never left their land and, to this day, there is not a single place on Earth that sustains an Anishinaabe community. For this reason, Dr. Danard emphasizes the importance of taking on a global mindset to understand Home. “No matter where you’re from, you need to take care of home and leave your footprint, as if this were your only home.”
Settler nations, often escaping their adverse conditions, sometimes lack this practise. Dr. Danard explains that, from an Indigenous perspective, settler nations must “take on the responsibility and see how they’ve benefitted from the genocide; even though they’re leaving their own.” She adds, “If that awareness is there, I can say, ‘welcome.’”
But a welcome implies a partnership that accounts for the honouring of the land and its history. The Canadian national anthem says, “Our home and native land,” and yet, the meaning behind those words is often disregarded or even justified and forgotten. We are on stolen native land.
“I think about home, in this complicated sense, as a space—just like I think about religion and actual homes with family,” Dr. Derry explains. Family and religion alike can be wondering and nurturing but can also be “sources of terror.” Unfortunately, home, family, and religion can become a space of muzzling, one in which no critique is accepted.
Conflict is inherent to any space, family, country, or religion. Learning to accept that is uncomfortable.
I’ve chosen to accept every single part of Russia, the beautiful and the complicated and the corrupt—albeit from a distance. However, I refuse to make excuses. Russia is in severe political distress, plagued with corruption and organized political crime. I find it hard to accept the current state of the hierarchal government, but I have to because I would not be who I am without it. My Russian brothers and sisters are fighting in the streets, at times with the cost of their life, for political reform and a brighter future. I hope one day I can take my children to Russia and watch them blossom in a country that respects every voice (and vote).
Just as I accept the corruption of my country, there is a vital need for us, as inhabitants of Turtle Island, to accept the beauty of the land along with the exploitation being enacted on Indigenous Peoples. We tend to forgo the fact that oppression and assimilation of Indigenous Peoples are still taking place in the present day. Being unaware, complacent, or forgiving of the genocide that occurred on this land at the hands of capitalism and settler policies and legislatures means contributing to the stripping of Indigenous Peoples’ history, homes, and lives.
Today, Indigenous Peoples are forced to assimilate or inhabit isolated reserves, despite their continued efforts to create treaties for a protected future.
Dr. Derry notes that “any kind of relationship will have difficult parts to it.” As creatures of habit, humans are terrified of change, and even more so of loneliness. So, we look for relationships that can give us a sense of security. I am thankful I can call Russia home. I wish I could be there, but I feel like that could destroy me.
Dr. Derry notes that in many films, “The key theme that runs through them is the notion of finding Home. Constantly, characters go through some kind of journey to get there.” As much as I hate giving credit to popular media, we really are each on our own unique journey. We change and evolve as we search far and wide for a space where we can be ourselves. A space where growth is boundless.
Finding Home is a unique experience. One that yields to growth of the self. Finding Home can be one huge leap forward. But it can also be one step forward, six back, and then five forward to find yourself right where you started. Maybe Home is hundreds of miles away on the other side of the world, or maybe Home has been here all along, and we’ve just failed to acknowledge it.