Svoboda means freedom in Slavic languages. It's one of those rare words that sounds the same across most of those languages. It is spelled and pronounced similarly in Roman scripts, such as Polish (swoboda) and Czech (svoboda). Moreover, it is spelled the same (свобода) in most Cyrillic languages, such as Bulgarian, Ukrainian and Russian.

However, the precise meanings of freedom and svoboda feel slightly different. In my quest to pinpoint that difference, I dug into the etymologies of svoboda and freedom. Unsurprisingly, I found the definitions very similar: "exempt from; not in bondage, acting of one's own will" and deeply linked to the institution of slavery. Roots, however, tell the story of the subtle difference.

The old English freo- root is derived from the root pri- "to love." The sense evolution from "to love" to "free" is perhaps from the terms "beloved" or "friend" being applied to the free members of one's clan (as opposed to slaves; compare Latin liberi, meaning both "free persons" and "children of a family").

The Slavic root is derived from Indoeuropean — "se-, sue-", which means belonging to oneself or a specific clan and has no mention of love nor distinction between free and non-free members.

This subtle difference was noticeable; I always felt that Slavic svoboda reflects a slightly deeper feeling than freedom. Not just not having a master, but being your own master, belonging to oneself. It may be since Babylon, in its full might, came to Slavs much later than the Romans, and they got to roam free in their pagan ways deep into the Middle Ages. It is hard to miss the irony of the word slave itself, appearing around 1300, derived from Slav because of the many Slavs sold into slavery in Europe by conquering Tatars and their fellow Slavs.

Even more ironic is that despite a much later start, Slavs eventually caught up and overtook the rest of the world in destroying personal freedom. Only in the 9th century did Slavic people start selling their enemy neighbours to Crimea for further trade. By the 15th century, a legal system of serfdom had made its way into Russia and legitimised the already mundane practice of owning people. During the period of abolishment of serfdom in Europe, Russian emperor Alexander I was considering abolishing slavery in the early 1800s. Still, many coordinated attacks by the secret police prevented him and later his son from going through with the laws.

Eventually, Alexander ll abolished serfdom under severe pressure of revolt in 1861. However, the law was poorly designed, and serfs had to buy their land and freedom from their lords at an unjust rate. And many remained enslaved well into the 20th century. Alexander ll was eventually murdered in 1881 by the pro-freedom movement during the tenth attempt on his life, 20 years after he signed the abolishment treaty – that's how shitty that treaty was. The pressure kept mounting until the Bolsheviks used it to overthrow and murder the last Russian emperor and his family and start the union of Soviet socialistic republics.

One would hope that freedom would finally come to the Slavic people with the start of a new state. Well, it didn't. In the following 70 years, most modern institutes of freedom were systematically destroyed by the soviet elite, starting with systematic imprisonment and murder of anyone who could challenge the Bolshevik party in the early 1920s into Stalin's great purge of the late 1930s and the post-war imprisonment of people returning from captivity and the cold war hunt on spies and collaborationists. Solzhenitsyn painstakingly detailed this genocide in his "The GULAG archipelago." Still, I could never read past the first hundred pages – the inhumanity of crimes against soviet people by its government being too close to my heart. I do recommend reading it to anyone who wonders, "Why aren't Russians speaking up?" or " Where are the protests?" today.

I was born at the very end of the Soviet state, during the final years of its decay. Growing up, I experienced more freedom than anyone born ten years before me or ten years after me. The government in the 90s didn't care to enforce a particular ideology. Of course, I was far from being liberated, as society kept repressing itself according to the patterns imprinted on previous generations. The school was still geared towards creating obedient servants of the state: my first grade was an F for behaviour – I dared to stand up and greet the teacher too cheerfully in my first year. My poor mother had been summoned countless times to be disciplined for my bad behaviour. I'd also been punished harshly in the nursery, with some teachers even resorting to physical violence - all in the name of order.

Our family kept moving around Moscow all my childhood, and every new kid's society had its own set of rules and order that had been taught to me, mainly through fighting and conflict. I've picked up homophobia - the omnipresent Slavic fear rooted in every man preparing for not being raped in prison. That also included a fear of going down on a woman or kissing a sexual partner that went down on you – both being "casus belli" for prison rape. I picked up xenophobia and racism from a new breed of nationalistic movements, such as skinheads, which held much power in my childhood streets. From the noosphere, I picked up a highly acute fear of the police, police in my country always being bad news. I felt that all those fears were only ghosts of a past, so I kept rebelling, but eventually got ground down and accepted them as my own.

Some people crave power, fame, or wealth the most; others strive for knowledge, and a few aim to live a life of destruction and pain. For me, svoboda is the ultimate value. Sure, I would like my share of power, fame, and wealth. I love knowledge and wouldn't mind a pinch of destruction, but the ultimate goal has always been freedom. The priority of that value became conscious around ten years ago, after my first vipassana retreat.

I have worked tirelessly for the last ten years on my svoboda. I have peeled layer after layer of fear, guilt, and conditioning from my formative years. At first, it felt like fighting a dragon – I chopped one head off only to discover three new ones. I have practised martial arts and meditation for years. I had an intense romance with psychedelics for a while and then emerged teetotal. I went into therapy, and when that was not enough, I trained with professional actors to liberate myself. And with each new shackle being released, I rediscovered the world afresh. There is still a long way to go, especially if the aim is Buddha's total liberation. However, the progress is already known and felt.

It's a powerful feeling – to attain a little more svoboda. It's a high that few drugs can match. It's also very tricky because freedom often means a set of new responsibilities. But that's a story for another time.

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