War In Ukraine

Fear and Loathing – The View From Moscow

People tell me, "It’s awful, I can’t get on Instagram or buy something." And I tell them, "What about the war, is that not awful?" They reply, "War is war. There are wars everywhere." To me, this is almost the same as supporting what is going on. 

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It’s been three weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine. In that time, the world has turned its focus to the people who have been caught in the middle of the war, and the atrocities brought on by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. In many countries, citizens have stood in solidarity with Ukraine, and even in Russia, where people live under an authoritarian government, there has been dissent. Recently, a Crimean native who now lives in New York City put us in contact with a relative who lives in Moscow. We communicated with “Dmitri” earlier this week. He asked that his real name be withheld, because in Russia any act of opposition toward the war can result in arrest and imprisonment. Below is our interview with Dmitri. (Editor’s note: This is the first of two interviews we will be posting in the next couple of days. Communication with a resident in Odessa, Ukraine, is in progress. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Anna Conkling: What has your day-to-day life been like in the past two weeks? 

Dmitri: People are standing in line for cash, but there is no cash. Google pay, Paypal stopped working. People started using local banks and local bank cards. There is a deficit of certain products. Things got a lot more expensive, fast. 

Many people are fleeing the country. In my opinion, many people are just fleeing without a plan or any financial backup. That’s not a great solution, they didn’t think things through. Just to flee without family or friends in another country. What would they do there? They are not really wanted there. I just don’t think it’s the right decision.

Some people lost jobs, or international offices closed. But this is all coming from my perspective and the people around me. There are people who didn’t feel anything.

This is just the beginning, in terms of how life is about to change. 

Were you preparing for something like this to happen? Did you take money out of your bank beforehand?

No. Globally no one was ready. No one believed it to the very end. The Russian government didn’t expect such serious sanctions. 

Well, probably some people might have expected this. After all, they said there would be a war with Ukraine. I’m sure there were projections. But I didn’t know anyone who expected this at such a level. When everything happened, people immediately ran to the banks to exchange their money for dollars. But I don’t think the average person expected this ahead of time. People expected “political operations” in terms of accepting the two separatist regions as part of Russia. 

How has your business suffered in the past two weeks?

I work in the restaurant business. I run several projects in restaurant management. For now, we haven’t suffered too much. Several products already disappeared from the market. For instance, some alcohol brands, some types of meat and fish. Of course, these products will return to the market through some other means, but it will cost three to four times more. There are fewer customers now.

But Moscow has always been different from the rest of the country. Things have always been better here, and there have always been more opportunities. So mainly we are feeling this emotional depression and this stress. You can feel it walking along the streets. For the restaurant business, I predict that this will ruin many businesses and many projects will shut down in the near future. We’re only just feeling what it will be like, and it will be worse. 

What is the overall atmosphere in Russia like right now? 

People are worried about the war, about the economic crisis that’s about to hit us, and there is a divide right now among the people. I can’t say to what percentage our society is divided right now, but I would say at least half the population is against this, and half who are, let’s say, “not against” what is happening now. Unfortunately, there is a significant number [supporting the war]. Mainly they are from smaller regions and older generations.

There are people who are trying to oppose this. In central Moscow, I see a ton of police patrols. They are constantly on the watch to stop any demonstrations or some kind of meetings or gatherings. The atmosphere is very oppressive. 

Many people who are against this situation understand that in the future, the Russian people will suffer from a strict regime. 

All the sanctions that are happening now are not really going to affect the people who are for this war. They are more rural, they are not very well off, and have average jobs. They will continue to have those jobs. The people who will suffer are the ones who used the benefits of modern civilization. They are the ones who are now cut off. This is going to be a very difficult time for them. 

There are a few so-called patriots who are gleefully writing the letter Z on their cars. They believe that the crazy ruler [Putin] is doing everything right. I’d like to believe that sooner or later they will understand how far we’ve fallen.

Do you know people in Russia who are trying to get Ukrainians to join the military?

No, I don’t know these people from my acquaintances. But I would say in 2014 [with Crimea] there were a lot more volunteers. Today there are practically no volunteers. 

In 2014, there was a huge push for volunteers. There were posters, people talked about it. I don’t see this happening now. Maybe someone in the very rural areas we don’t hear about? But that would be isolated cases, not in masses.

Are there opposing views for or against the war amongst your peers, or is everyone generally against the war? 

There are people who have this strange view: They are against the war, but for taking Ukraine under Russian control. They say, “Of course we need to stop this war. But it’s about time we liberated Ukraine from the [Nazi] regime.” Of course, there is no Naziism regime in Ukraine.

Some say the sanctions will only benefit us, but that’s stupid reasoning. Among my close circle, there is no one who supports the war. I’ve only ever heard a few people in my gym discuss the support for this. They say “It’s ok. We’ll make it. Of course it’s awful people are dying. But this needed to happen, it’s about our safety. We wish for this to end as soon as possible. But everything is ok.” 

Moscow is a quite liberal city. It was always a city for business and opportunity. So, masses in Moscow are not supporting this. Unfortunately, many are not in support only because their everyday life will suffer. Not because people are dying. Not because of the horror in our neighboring country, a country that has always been a brother to us and were always friends. People tell me, “It’s awful I can’t get on Instagram or buy something.” And I tell them, “What about the war, is that not awful?” They reply, “War is war. There are wars everywhere.” To me, this is almost the same as supporting what is going on. 

What are you most afraid of?

I’m afraid that our country will turn into North Korea. That it will revert back to the Soviet Union regime, except even worse. Things will be restricted. There will be constant criminal proceedings. People will be sent to jail, or even executed on a regular basis. The economic crisis could lead to famine, not just businesses closing down. 

My other fear, or more like a wish for this not to happen, is a civil war. This is very possible. Right now, society is divided! People are literally getting into fistfights over what is going on in Ukraine. They start an argument about politics and it quickly escalates into a physical fight. Families are dividing because of this. People have categorically different opinions and it’s creating very intense divisive situations everywhere. 

I’m afraid in our country, if you know its history, changes only happened when there was blood and war. I’m afraid that my generation, and generations to follow, will spend their lives convincing the world that Russians are not fascists. Because most of the Russian people are not like that. Most of us are kind, maybe not very outgoing or open, but we want peace … to live in peace with everyone.

He [Putin] started this on his own. He went crazy. And now everyone has to live with it. Yes, everyone is afraid of him and afraid to do something about it. But hopefully, this will change.

What has it been like to have Putin in power for the past 20 years? Have the everyday Russians been preparing for this? 

This is a long and complicated question. There was a moment when it wasn’t terrible. When Medvedev was president, with Putin as prime minister. At that time, it was a more liberal atmosphere. 

But then, before 2014 [when Russia invaded Crimea], things drastically changed. He [Putin] quickly changed the rhetoric and started severing relationships with the West. Covid was used to limit us, they tightened the screws on us. The machines of oppression started working harder and harder.  This is the result of 20 years of absolute power. Especially the last three years that he spent in a bunker. I think his mental health has changed dramatically in the last three to four years. 

After all, he’s not using the Internet. He’s reading printed reports. He is being told the state of affairs, he doesn’t know what is actually happening. They paint a pretty picture for him and he believes it and rules from that point of view. He was confident that the Russian army would reach Kyiv and occupy it within 90 hours. Convinced that Ukrainians will welcome them and greet them with flowers. He thinks the same thing about our country. He thinks everyone agrees with him and supports him. That everyone is happy.

Instead, he and the people around him hold absolute power. They lean heavily on the police force and rule through fear. The ones who can, leave the country. Others who oppose are arrested, beaten, or even killed. People tried to go to demonstrations or protests. However, now if I go to a protest I would immediately be given 15 years in prison and nothing will change at all. How many protests and demonstrations we’ve had in the past … nothing changed. They spit on the public opinion.

And that’s how we’ve been living. Propaganda is working well. 

Is there a greater fear of Putin than before the war began?

Police are showing up at the houses of formally detained protesters and warning them not to go out to another protest, or they will experience problems. There are a few people who fled the country because of this. I think there will be more people arrested, more cases, and they will forever be under the watchful eyes of the police. 

There is a fear of the unknown. The fear of not understanding him [Putin] and what he will do. I think even his circle can’t understand or predict his actions. Fear about the unknown is always the strongest fear. You don’t know what to expect, what will happen tomorrow or the day after. They are more afraid of this unknown rather than a specific person. Of course, the unknown are his actions. 

Are Russian citizens afraid that no one will come to their aid if Putin increasingly starts harming civilians?

No one will come and help us. Just like no one is coming to help Ukraine. Ukraine is fighting on its own, no one is sending troops. No one is going to interfere because they are afraid of World War III.  

No one is going to come and help us if they start imprisoning, shooting, and executing us. I don’t know, close the country even. No one will help us. Russian people are not afraid of this, because they know this is already coming. Like I said, they are more afraid of the unknown.

Will people help each other? Yes, I think there will always be people who do that. But I think the civil war is highly likely. 

What is it like for Ukrainians right now in Russia?

I have friends who are Ukrainian citizens. Some fled to Germany. I saw a few cars with Ukrainian license plates. I haven’t heard of violence against Ukrainians in this country, through the more trustworthy sources of information I follow. 

We have no fight with the Ukrainian people. We don’t want to kill anyone or destroy them. I guess people like that exist, you can see them post commentary—internet trolls. But those people are stupid. There are a lot of people who are paid to do this, to troll, to create or instigate a conflict, to add fuel to the fire. It must be very difficult for Ukrainians emotionally to live in a country that attacked their country.

What do you know about the war from the Russian media?

We can read international news—[an app] has channels that broadcast news. Of course, those are also not verified sources, and you really have to sift through Fake News. Not everyone in the country knows how to get around the [Internet] block. 

There are TV channels and newspapers that report the government’s official news. I avoid those channels. I understand there is no truth there. I watch things on [the app] and read news sources from outside the country that voice opposition. There is so much noise in the information now, and you really must sift through it to figure out where the truth lies. Sometimes it can be quite difficult and a lot of work. What’s it like to live with corruption? We got used to this.

But what is told on the main TV channel, this is not new, that’s been happening for many years now. There was Radio Echo Moscow and TV Rain, but they are now closed. Do people believe what is told on the main news? Many do, unfortunately. Which is why they support the war. It is a real problem, one of the main underlying problems we have. 

What does Russia need right now?

It will be important not to think of every Russian person as an accomplice to the regime. It would be sad to create a flow of information where a Russian person will equate to an enemy. I think it would be important for Russian people to feel some sort of moral support. That the world can differentiate between the people who are really supporting this war versus people who are prisoners to this situation. There are so many of them, at least half the country is so against this.

I hope people in other countries don’t discriminate against Russians who fled. People who are leaving the country are businessmen, artists, people who are against this war, who are against the regime. They are not refugees from the war but rather from an oppressive regime. For the most part, they are fleeing a regime and that’s their way of taking a stance against it. 

To somehow harm the regime, things must happen on a larger corporation level. I’ll give you an example that doesn’t work: Netflix, for instance, left the country. So what? It will not affect the regime. The people who support the war don’t care about Netflix. I hope companies can see a difference in how which “hits” they inflict affect the regime and which affect the everyday people who are already oppressed. 

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I can only add from my side that Russian people are not bad or evil. We’re prisoners to the regime that we have no tools to overthrow. I’ve made a personal decision that I am going to try to leave my country. I cannot be on the same territory as the people who are supporting this war. I have nothing in common with them. These are not my people. A true Russian is against this. If things change, I will gladly return and live in Russia.

I don’t think the fault lies only with Russia. I think the U.S. and other Western countries hold some fault as well. The whole world has a role in this when they did not react to what has been happening in Russia for years. They’ve been ignoring this situation and that has a role in where we currently are. Everyone was after their own interests and now here we are.  ❖

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