Inside Russia: reports from a divided country5 min read
We’ll remember February 24 as the most tragic day in our lives. We woke up and realized that we live in a completely new reality.
Our Russia – poor, unstable, but struggling for freedom – ceased to exist. Instead, we found ourselves in a very hostile, totalitarian environment.
The day before, Vladimir Putin gave a speech about historical injustice. He claimed that Ukraine is a part of Russia and that Ukrainians are not even a nation. It was very similar to Adolf Hitler’s speech in 1938 when he claimed it was necessary to occupy the Czech area Sudetenland and to ‘settle the Jewish question’. As it turns out, almost all dictators are similar to some extent. We thought that Putin was just bluffing. Our friends laughed: who wants a big war in Europe? But we were wrong.
When Russian troops invaded Ukraine, national flags appeared on the streets of Russian cities – as if it was a big national celebration. We noticed cars with the letter ‘Z’ – a new symbol of Putin’s army. Originally ‘Z’ indicated military hardware from the Western region of Russia (in Russian, the word ‘Zapad’ means ‘West’). Now, ‘Z’ is used everywhere – in public transport, schools, and daycares. Students take part in flash mobs with ‘Z’ on their T-shirts. Officials decorate their jackets with ‘Z’ symbols. And it looks crazy because the Nazis had a similar symbol, in particular, the 4th SS Polizei Panzergrenadier Division that took a part in the Second World War.
The worst part is, that some of our relatives, especially elderly ones, support this war. They are convinced that it is essential and repeat: “Putin isn’t a silly guy”, “We’ll teach the Western world a lesson”, and “A lot of Ukrainian people want to be a part of Russia but Ukrainian Nazis are preventing that.” They mention that Ukraine had shelled the unrecognized Donetsk and Luhansk republics for eight years, thus, Volodymyr Zelensky’s attitude resembles fascism more than Putin’s rhetoric. “Having started a military operation, Russia prevented a NATO attack and the Third World War,” they claim. Quarrels between older and younger relatives have become typical in many Russian families. It looks as if we speak different languages and can’t understand each other.
A lot of older people in Russia, especially those who were raised in the USSR, prefer watching TV to using the Internet. Sociologist Boris Dubin named this phenomenon ‘society of TV viewers’ and pointed out that TV became a source of national identity for a significant number of Russians. It’s hard to talk with these people, as some of them easily get angry. Psychologists explain that aggressive behavior can be caused by fear. The Russian older generation are afraid of economic problems because they remember the crisis of the 1990s. They also fear for a war on Russian territory because their parents saw the horrors of World War II.
TV propaganda masterfully uses these fears, the anchors and journalists pursuing that Vladimir Putin is the only man who can keep stability in the country and protect its borders. The older generation also wants revenge after the collapse of the USSR, because they believe that Western countries are responsible for it. They are convinced that new anti-Russian sanctions were preplanned. But people gradually are beginning to realize that the future of the country might be tough, even tougher than its past.
Sanctions are working, prices for many goods have rapidly increased. Sugar and buckwheat have almost become a deficit. Only wealthy people are still capable of buying new phones and computers. Purchasing a car or taking a mortgage sounds fantastical in this new reality. Losing yachts and mansions hurts, of course, but we’re not sure that Russian oligarchs and senior officials have noticed any change in their everyday lives. On the other hand, ordinary people are now faced with the necessity to struggle for survival.
Ironically, the sanctions also affect those people who protest against Putin’s regime. For instance, Google canceled monetization for Youtube bloggers from Russia. But YouTube was a rare source of unbiased information and now bloggers almost don’t have the financial resources to make new videos. Paypal blocked accounts in Russia, although it was one of the last ways to donate money to people who were detained at anti-war rallies. International airlines canceled flights from Russia, preventing oppositionists from leaving the country. One of the popular online aggregators published a screenshot of the price of the tickets from Moscow to Yerevan for a family of four. The cost was over 700,000 rubles, which is comparable to the price of a second-hand car. It’s 12,5 times as much as an average Russian monthly wage.
There are still a lot of Russians who stand against the war in Ukraine. According to the Russian human rights group OVD-Info, more than 14,000 people have been detained at protests since February 24. Many protesters were arrested, beaten or fined. Who are they? These are mostly young people who were born and grew up in the 1990s and 2000s. They never lived in the Soviet Union and they don’t want to return to it. They still use various sources of information, available through VPN services. What’s more important, they feel that the world should be open and only collaboration between countries can make life better.
There’s an interesting interview with Vladimir Putin from 1996. At that time he worked in the Saint Petersburg government and seemed to be a different person. He said: “Sadly, a turn to totalitarianism is possible in our country. The danger is in the mentality of our people. And sometimes it seems to me that if we establish firm order with a tough hand, then all of us will live better and safer. But in fact, this harsh hand will begin to choke us very quickly.” Putin, however, emphasized that totalitarianism wouldn’t last forever in Russia.
To conclude, totalitarianism can reappear after it has gone away, including in the former USSR. And now we can witness how it’s returning. But Germany was reborn after World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we hope that the same will be possible in Russia. The next generation certainly wants a different future. One of our friends confessed that he dreams of taking part in rebuilding Kiev after the war. And that’s the only thing that helps him stay hopeful and not to fall into despair.
Written by Alex Strelnikov and Elena Kuznetsova