Collage with three repeated vintage photos of the Statue of Liberty’s torch

I was born in the USSR, a country that claimed to have pioneered gender equality. After the Revolution of 1917, Russian women gained suffrage without as much as lifting a finger, and were soon granted the rights to abortion, divorce, free childcare, revealing dress, and executive leadership. I’ve read that in 1945, after 20 million Russian men got slaughtered in WWII and 2 million more were taken to the GULAG camps, it was mostly women who took up the mantle and kept the country going.

It may have happened, I don’t know for sure. But the provincial Russia I grew up in was a discouragingly, deeply misogynistic place. “You can’t trust women,” I heard frequently as a girl. “It’s not a coincidence there have never been any prominent female artists or scientists,” some concluded.

Collage showing the Soviet statue of a worker and a kolkhoz woman with overlaid photo of a smiling woman in a wedding dress

In a recent survey, only 51% of Russian men said women deserve equal rights, confirming my observation that the majority of Russians teach girls to focus on marriage and childrearing, rewarding them for being submissive, pretty, caring, and polite.

The implicit expectation I should look forward to being a neat, obedient future wife always weighed uncomfortably heavy. I avoided socializing in favor of reading science fiction, writing, making crafts, and drawing. After discovering graphic design in my teens, I got into a local art school and started working part-time at 18, putting together brochures for a studio run by one of my teachers.

I soon found out the Russian design industry was a reflection of the society as a whole.

If you were female, you could make a living as a designer. You could be talented. You could be diligent. You could work hard. But without a husband, a father, or a male boss by your side, you’d never be taken seriously enough to yield real power, take real risks, or shake hands on real deals.

For a few years, I attended design conferences with all-male panels, responded to job posts directed at male applicants, and brainstormed campaigns that targeted male customers. Once, to much fanfare, an industry-famous art director I worked for recommended not to hire women designers in a livestreamed talk. And at 19, during one of my first-ever job interviews, a studio owner inquired if I had a boyfriend. Nothing personal, just business: he explained that being in a relationship raised the likelihood of me getting pregnant, something he must be prepared for in case he had to bankroll my maternity leave.

I didn’t flinch, or feel offended, or run to tell friends and family. I didn’t bother to share my experiences or call for change. I didn’t know change was possible.

If anything, I just wanted to do good work. Unhappy with the local job market, I ended up moving back in with my parents to take on unpaid and remote gigs that kept me up at night, and apply for internships abroad in hopes to reach better opportunities than ones my home country could give me.

Eventually, things got better. I stopped having to mention the early jobs on my resume, improved my English, and saved enough to travel from southwestern Siberia to Moscow, Berlin, London, and, finally, New York.

In 2014 I packed a suitcase and took a one-way flight to New York City to start an entry-level job where I, a fair-skinned European-looking girl, gradually learned to talk, act, and stand up for myself convincingly enough to occasionally be mistaken for an American. The opportunities I had along the way now allow me to freelance full-time, speak at colleges and conferences, and, every once in a while, go back home to answer questions about what living in New York is really like.

I’m still learning about sexism, and am well-aware I did not leave it behind by moving 6,000 miles away from Russia. The wage gap and casual misogyny exist in New York too, along with countless other issues I had no clue about hiding out in my cozy Siberian home.

But the weight that lifted when I left is worth every moment of it.

New York is where I choose to be, and my life here is a life I’m making for myself, by myself, breathing free.

This essay was originally published on Desk Lunch, the weekly newsletter for creative people of marginalized genders, a project by Liz Wells and Katie Puccio.

Irina Koryagina is a graphic designer and typographer based in New York City.