A MAYBACH GLIDES out of a driveway gate in Prechistenka, a rich neighbourhood in Moscow. Young women from the suburbs pose for selfies next to a luxury apartment block. The Michelin-starred restaurants, though less full than last year, still enjoy a brisk trade. At first glance, Moscow’s wealth and hedonism seem almost unchanged despite Russia’s war against Ukraine, and the sanctions and isolation that have come with it. But it is not quite business as usual in Russia’s capital, however. The streets are quiet and the mood is subdued.
Russians do not talk openly about the invasion of Ukraine, now entering its third month, but they are navigating a new reality of fear and anxiety. The Kremlin has not made much headway in its assault on Ukraine. But in its simultaneous attack on civil liberties in Russia, it has been far more successful. It has been vigorously suppressing dissent and demoralising opponents, turning a relatively open country into an autocracy. It is the Kremlin’s biggest achievement in the conflict, says Gregory Asmolov, an expert on Russian information warfare: “You couldn’t even imagine this straightjacketed political reality a few months ago.”
State propaganda cites official polls that claim 81% of Russians are behind the war. The reality is more complicated. At a minimum, the polls reflect a mixture of propaganda and fear. A group of independent sociologists suggests that as much as 90% of the population refuses to participate in political polling. Another 5-8% of respondents hang up during the conversation with pollsters, while a further 21% admitted to being scared to take part in surveys. Most of those were between 18 and 29 years old.
Many—perhaps even most—Russians support Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation”, but no one knows the exact proportion. Leonid Volkov, chief of staff for Alexei Navalny, a jailed opposition leader, estimates active and ideological support for the war at 10-15% and opposition as high as 30-40%. Research by the London School of Economics, which used a survey method of a sort previously used to estimate the level of racism in America, puts support for Russia’s war at about 53%. But many of those supporters, the study thinks, back the government line because challenging it is both dangerous and psychologically uncomfortable.
Still, over the past two months, Russia’s elite has closed ranks around Mr Putin. For most Russians it is easiest to believe the Kremlin’s messaging, which aims to persuade the majority to do nothing. The line in recent weeks has been clear: everything is going according to plan.
Talk shows and news programmes harp constantly on the themes of Russian superiority and the supposed Western threat. In state television’s distorted mirror, Russian shelling did not destroy Mariupol but “liberated” it. The atrocities of Bucha were not perpetrated by Russian soldiers but staged by Kyiv. Russia did not attack Ukraine, but was attacked by the West. No explicit mention is made of Russian losses. Instead, the Kremlin’s rolling news channel has a daily spot on Russia’s “heroes”, showing official military portraits of stolid-looking young men as their battlefield exploits scroll past: how many “nationalists liquidated”, how many armoured vehicles destroyed.
Some Russians are resisting this onslaught of propaganda. Every day after dropping off her children at day-care, Elena, a newspaper journalist, drinks coffee with her parents. There they discuss what is really going on, unravelling the previous day’s televised fantasies. State propaganda is really effective, Elena says; it is easy to get sucked in. Censorship and bans are only part of the problem. After all, blocked news sites remain accessible via VPNs, and YouTube, which hosts many critical voices, is still available for now. But most who seek out this information already opposed the war.
Propaganda and repression are intertwined. Any truthful information about the war is branded “fake news”; spreading it, not just as a journalist but also as a private citizen, is punishable by up to 15 years in jail. A manicure in the blue-and-yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag can get you arrested. The fear touches a deep historical nerve. In March OVD-Info, a media group that monitors human-rights abuses and aids victims, compiled a list of “fake-news” charges based on donosy: denunciations, a term familiar from Stalin’s era.
The fear of being anonymously denounced permeates even close circles of friends, says Dmitry, an entrepreneur in his 30s. Friends observe each other around the dinner table, trying to guess where loyalties lie. At home Dmitry keeps his voice low, lest the state TV presenter in the apartment upstairs hear about his plans to leave Russia. Even inside state media, people have doubts. This is not our war, says another journalist, who works for a state TV channel. But everyone thinks about it from morning to night: “It’s taken our lives away.”
By some estimates 200,000 Russians have left the country since the start of the war. But many more are staying despite their opposition to it. They want a different kind of Russia from the one the Kremlin envisages, and are trying to find ways to survive. Andrei Kurilkin, a publisher who also runs a private cultural centre in Moscow, has resorted to organising classical music concerts whose programmes subtly suggest a different worldview from the Kremlin’s. A recent piano recital featured the works of Valentyn Silvestrov, a contemporary Ukrainian composer. It was broken up by the police, who claimed there had been a bomb threat. Set against the atrocities in Ukraine, such modest acts of individual defiance might not seem like much. But the Russian state demands conformity, and any deviation is a blow against it.
Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis