In Putin's grip, the Russian people ignore the war

At a street exhibition of military-themed posters in the heart of Saint Petersburg on February 17, 2023, a woman s...

I would stroll for hours in the central Moscow neighborhood of Zamoskvorechiye, where I had lived and worked in the BBC office for seven years, in the weeks preceding Russia's invasion.

It's an undeveloped and tranquil area of the city that, in my opinion, best represents Russia's complex past and present.

In order to allow their rulers to pursue greater ambitions on a larger stage where regular Russians have never had a part to play, Muscovites have come here for centuries to build homes and businesses and go about their lives in peace.

The Moskva River and the Kremlin border it on one side, and imposing Stalinist apartment buildings and 21st-century skyscrapers on the busy Sadovoye ring road border it on the other.

With churches and 19th-century aristocratic mansions sprinkled throughout, the maze of winding streets echoes the past. When Tartar-Mongol emissaries came to Moscow's princely rulers to collect tributes hundreds of years ago, they gave the street its name: Bolshaya Ordinka.

A friend who was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city and now works in Moscow, called me while I was there in February of last year.

He questioned whether Putin really intended to incite war with Ukraine. Neither of us wanted to accept it as true.

But I felt that war was now unavoidable because of the constant reminders of Russia's violent past. My daily strolls served as a way for me to bid farewell to a world and possibly even a nation that would never be the same.

Russians are seen attempting to leave their country to avoid a military call-up for the Russia-Ukraine war as queues have formed at the Kazbegi border crossing in the Kazbegi municipality of Stepantsminda, Georgia on September 27, 2022
When Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization in September of last year, a large number of Russians left their country.

Me and my BBC Russian colleagues are among the hundreds of thousands of Russians who have emigrated. However, for the vast majority of people who have remained in Russia, externally, life is essentially unchanged.

specifically in urban areas.

Most of the shops, cafes, establishments, and banks in Zamoskvorechiye are still open. Even though many of the IT experts and hipster journalists left, they were replaced by others.

Although local alternatives have taken the place of some imported goods, consumers still complain about rising prices.

Not Starbucks
The Starbucks chain is no longer in existence, but you can still meet for coffee and the logo is similar.

Despite inappropriate books being sold in plastic covers, bookstores still carry a wide selection of titles.

Despite the fact that most of the cars are now Chinese-made, the well-known car-sharing service is still operational.

Russian economy is not at risk of collapsing like in the 1990s due to international sanctions. However, Russia is still going through a crisis, as noted by Russian academic Aleksandr Titov, who is based in Belfast.

Even though the crisis is developing gradually, it is still evident if you look closely.

Belgorod residents are accustomed to military truck convoys barreling toward the front line. Belgorod is only 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the now-devastated city of Kharkiv and close to the Ukrainian border.

They are making an effort not to show it if they are upset about Russia bombing a city where many people have friends and relatives.

Most Russians either do not know or do not want to know what their military has done to Ukraine's second biggest city Kharkiv
The majority of Russians are either unaware of or unwilling to learn about what their military has done to Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine.

According to a friend, the cheery street festivals the local governor organizes are well attended.

However, because local hospitals are unable to treat the large number of war wounded, local doctors are quitting their jobs in droves.

In the small frontier town of Shebekino, where cross-border shelling has become a daily occurrence, residents feel abandoned and enraged.

Upon visiting St. Petersburg, one local family was shocked to discover that nothing had changed despite the fact that their own lives had been completely upended.

I'm told that the atmosphere is depressing and that everyone in Pskov, which is close to the borders with Estonia and Latvia, acts as though the war doesn't affect them.

The 76th Guards Air Assault Division, which has gained notoriety for the alleged war crimes its soldiers committed in Bucha, a city outside of Kiev, is located in Pskov.

A bus service has begun operating between the city and the nearby cemetery, where an increasing number of soldiers killed in Ukraine are interred. Peace has been written in large red letters under a bridge.

Cemetery in village of Vybuty
There were many brand-new graves for Russian paratroopers when the BBC visited this cemetery close to Pskov.

A friend encounters a group of young people participating in a "Name that city" game on a train headed for Petrozavodsk, which is close to the Finnish border. .

Nobody is certain whether Donetsk is in Russia or Ukraine when it is brought up. Their government has occupied and annexed it without authorization.

It has nothing to do with them what they think about the war.

It appears that Petrozavodsk has reverted to its gloomy past. Unaffordable prices, empty shelves, and no foreign brands.

Do Russians really support the brutality occurring in Ukraine in their names, or are they just keeping quiet out of survival?

It is difficult to draw firm conclusions from passing observations and conversations. Sociologists and pollsters have attempted to measure public opinion, but because Russia does not allow for the free exchange of ideas or information, it is impossible to determine whether respondents are being truthful.

The majority of Russians, according to polls, either support the war or do not oppose it.

Russians living abroad have been irately debating this. Many people who research and write about Russia, including myself, are of the opinion that only a small minority actively support and only a small minority actively oppose the war.

The majority of common Russians find themselves in the middle, trying to make sense of a circumstance that they didn't choose, don't understand, and feel helpless to change.

If more people had challenged state TV propaganda about fabricated threats from the West and Ukraine and stood up for their freedom, they might have been able to stop it.

A large portion of Russians opted to stay out of politics and let the Kremlin make the decisions.

But remaining silent entails making extremely unsettling moral concessions.

Russians must deny that this is an aggressive invasion and keep their eyes closed as millions of Ukrainians are forcibly ejected from their homes as part of what the Kremlin refers to as its "special military operation" in order to prevent the war from reaching their doorstep. .

Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a Putin ally, has blessed Russia's war effort
Russia's war effort has received the blessing of Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a supporter of Putin.

Soldiers going into schools and telling kids that war is good must be accepted as normal in Russia.

that stopping their prayers for peace and supporting the war is typical for priests.

It doesn't matter because they can no longer travel or participate in a wider world.

that it was appropriate for the Kremlin to block the vast majority of the independent media websites they frequented.

In executions that were recorded on camera and shared by MPs on Twitter, a sledgehammer has come to represent Russian power positively.

Additionally, whether you are a journalist or a councillor, it is common to spend years in prison for expressing your opinions about the war.

Russian history, not polls, may offer a more compelling explanation for why Russians do not demonstrate. .

Vladimir Putin, the president, has been open about his desire to rebuild Russia and reassert its authority in the international community ever since he came to power.

In speeches and essays, he has made it clear that he believes Russia holds a special position in the world because it is a part of both the East and the West. Russia has its own customs, beliefs, and methods of operation. Russians require control and order and demand respect.

A family watches a TV broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual state of the nation address in Moscow on February 21, 2023
Vladimir Putin consistently holds the West responsible for the war, and state TV regularly rehashes his viewpoint.

There is no chance for change or disagreement with this message, which has reverberated throughout history. To use a term from his preferred sport, judo, it's a chokehold.

The price of this Putin vision has been paid in the freedom of Russians and the lives of Ukrainians.

After times of tragedy and catastrophe, Russia has occasionally become more open.

The Gorbachev era began following the defeat in Afghanistan in 1989. Constitutional reform came after Japan's defeat in 1905, and the serfs were freed after the Crimean War's defeat in 1856.

One trend pollsters have noticed is that the majority of Russians say they would support peace negotiations to put an end to the fighting. But it's not yet clear what kind of assurances they would provide to an independent Ukraine.

That will eventually need an answer, and Russians will have to face what their nation has done.

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