In the fall of 2012 I was having dinner south of Moscow with a celebrated local doctor who invited me over after hearing that there was an American in town. The company that night included his wife, son and his brother’s family. By that time, the doctor and I had spent a month developing a good relationship and would often talk about 20th century history, literature, Putin, and how absurd it seems that politics continue to get in the way while the people seemed to get along just fine.

Culturally, Russians don’t do small talk and I always looked forward to his candor and perspective, as I have in conversations with all the Russians I have met throughout my years working in Russia. Because of our shared Cold War history, I often find that talking with Russians challenges my own beliefs and biases and deepens my awareness of myself as American.

As we sat for dinner, I chatted with the doctor’s son and nephew who were both in their early teens. I was the first American they had ever met and I could tell that they had a million questions about the United States. Having been in this position several times before, I was prepared for this. I was surprised, however, that their most pressing question was whether I had seen the television show South Park, and in particular, how can they portray U.S. presidents with such vulgarity?

After an awkward five minutes or so of explanation, I simply said: “Well, we have freedom of speech that allows us to talk about our presidents in this way.” Immediately, the table fell silent. I recall distinctly how the doctor’s wife made me repeat the phrase multiple times, “svoboda slova” and how both boys said freedom of speech was “kruto” or cool in Russian. When the wife rose from the table to get a pen and write down our first constitutional amendment, the doctor leapt from his chair, grabbed her by the wrist across the table and told her to sit back down, apologizing and saying, “That’s just something that happens in America, it’s not for here.”

In 1839, the French writer Marquis de Custine, who wrote extensively on Russia, summed up Russia’s political state by saying: “It is a country in which the government says what it pleases because it alone has the right to speak. In Russia, fear paralyzes thought.”

As the current tragedy of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine unfolds and Putin continues his messianic quest to recreate the Soviet Union as he cracks down on his own citizens, it is extraordinary as it is terrifying that those words are as true today as they were when they were written nearly 200 years ago.

Authoritarian power is absolute and rules through the implicit threat of violence against you and your family if you speak out. What I wasn’t aware of at that dinner was how well the doctor knew this as a citizen of Putin’s Russia, and how this was a line that even he, brilliant as he was, was not willing to cross.

Today, Ukraine is fighting for its life, for its right to free speech and for its right to determine its own future. Ukraine’s fight is our fight, as it is for all of us who believe in democracy. My heart strains under Putin’s assault on Ukraine as it does at the prospect that those two teenage boys with whom I spoke nearly 10 years ago, and for whom South Park ignited in them an awareness of freedom of speech, might be out there today in the Russian streets protesting alongside thousands of other Russians against Putin and against tyranny. But if their generation won’t stop Putin, who will?

Sam Hart lives in Aquinnah.