In the agricultural region of Mordovia, south of Moscow, people live in their own reality, far from Western news and the bloodshed of Ukraine. And Vladimir Putin is like a father.
SARANSK — Alexander Kireev embodies the Russia that defies Western sanctions, that sees the war in Ukraine as the Kremlin calls it: a “special military operation.”
Asked if he has ever had doubts in what Vladimir Putin says about Ukraine: Kireev responds with his twinkling eyes and sharp mind: "never.”
“The focus is completely on the liberation of Ukraine. Unfortunately, Russia had no other choice. We must put an end to the abuses committed by Ukrainian nationalists,” he adds.
Kireev doesn’t speak English, hasn't traveled abroad since COVID-19 restrictions were implemented and, anyway, doesn’t have friends to interact with on social networks outside of Russia.
“I don’t have time to waste watching Western media outlets,” he says.
Like many Russians, he keeps up to date with state-owned televisions and some Telegram channels. But Kireev is hardly isolated in his daily life. This agricultural engineer is in charge of an ultra-modern factory equipped with French, Spanish and German machine tools and is proud to produce, along with his 250 employees, about 7,000 tons of cheese a year. And production is booming.
“Sanctions have helped!” Since the 2014 Russian embargo on many European agri-food products, imposed in retaliation for the first wave of Western measures against Russia, the national dairy industry is growing to supplant imports.
Kireev’s factory, owned by private society Sarmitch, is economically independent: it doesn’t import or export anything. “We know how to be autonomous.” He assures that he is not affected by problems of logistics nor by the general inflation, two of the most significant consequences of the Western sanctions implemented on Russian economy.
Reluctant like many others to talk about the conflict in Ukraine, Kireev is focused on the homeland: "We are in the real world. I support the Russian operation because it is a decision made by our President Vladimir Putin."
Western images and accounts of atrocities have not cooled his convictions. In Moscow, the authorities are denouncing the "Bucha affair," referring to the besieged city near Kyiv where dozens of civilian corpses were discovered. These are western “lies” for Kireev: "I watched videos online. I do not believe what the Western media says. The Russian army wouldn’t do that. It’s just impossible," he says.
In the West, most people don’t get objective information
In this Russian region of Mordovia, as elsewhere, far from the buzz generated by the small liberal circles of Moscow or Saint Petersburg, most people see the “operation” as an attempt to avoid war. In Saransk, the capital of the region long influenced by the Soviet-era forced settlements, a city of 300,000 inhabitants located 500 kilometers southeast of Moscow, the local elites are supporters of Putin's United Russia party.
For most of the city’s schoolchildren, it all starts with a visit to the museum dedicated to the “Great Patriotic War” and to the Soviet victory over Hitler. “Always remember that our Red Army already saved Europe from Nazism!”, Nikolaï Kroushinkine, the 70-year-old director of the museum recalls. In front of him stands a large mosaic depicting a Russian soldier trampling a swastika flag.
"Now, we will do the exact same thing. Our operation will end when we get real results of de-Nazification. Our troops don’t bomb homes. Quite the opposite, they are very careful with civilians,” he declares. Of the information about Bucha spread by independent Russian media outlets, he says: “I don’t believe them. There is a reason why most of them are foreign agents.”
School pupils forming the "Z," symbolizing the solidarity of Russians with their army
Bucha is impossible
Dmitrï Gloushko, who is rector of the Saransk State University, has a similar view. “We must turn to primary sources of information, in this case, President Putin's speeches," he says. “This is not a war because the objective is not to occupy but to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine. The genocide of the Kyiv regime on its own people must end."
The tragedy of Bucha? "We will need an international criminal court like in Nuremberg. But I have no reason not to trust our soldiers," Glushko warns. "The Russian army is an army of liberation and not of occupation."
Gloushko has signed a petition from university leaders to have lights put on different floors of his university walls so that a large "Z" symbol would appear, symbolizing the solidarity of Russians with their army. "In the West, most people don’t get objective information. Europeans pretend that there is no Nazism in Ukraine. They are denying the reality. It is far from them," Dmitri Gloushko stresses. "But for us, Ukraine is us, they are our brothers. This is a tragedy."
Far from Ukraine
There were some inhabitants of Saransk who are against the “operation,” who had originally accepted to meet LesEchos, but they soon stopped answering or have suddenly shifted their position. One student, who wished to stay anonymous, said: “I love both countries. I live in Russia. And I already went to Kyiv and Odessa: I have never seen any Nazis…”
The Nazis must be hunted.
The city, without much charm dominated by Soviet architecture, watches the events in Ukraine with relative indifference. The consumer society is still in full swing. Inflation, one of the sanctions’ consequences, implies that prices are rising by 10% to 30%. "Our life goes on, we're far from the conflict. It doesn't affect us..." another student said.
"It is a tragedy. Yes, the Nazis must be hunted but what use is this conflict to us?" asks an elderly woman.
Surprisingly, officials choose not to speak out. At the last minute, the mayor's office refused an interview. The same goes for United Russia, the Kremlin's political party which ensures Putin large electoral victories with over 80% majorities.
Vladimir Avramenko, 35, a United Russia local deputy, agrees to talk: "We don't forget our people!" He put a "Z" sticker on his car. Like many, he recalls that the conflict did not begin last February but in 2014, "when Russia annexed Crimea, the Ukrainians began their war against their own people in the Donbas."
The city, without much charm dominated by Soviet architecture, watches the events in Ukraine with relative indifference
A bittersweet Depardieu memory
Vladimir Avramenko does not let himself be swayed by doubt: "In Ukraine, the Nazi must be hunted. And not only in Donbas. It's like weed in your garden: if your neighbor doesn't do anything, you have to fix the problem."
Avramenko has seen the images of Bucha, but doesn’t want to believe in a cleanup operation conducted by the Russian army. "From the start, Putin said: no shooting at the population, no civilian casualties! How could our soldiers go against presidential orders?" he asks.
In the wings of the national theater as well as in the stands of the football stadium, the discourse does not differ. "I have complete faith in our army. Our soldiers are defending us. And look at the tons of humanitarian aid sent to help those poor people," Svetlana Ivanovna, 51, director of the theater, says.
She remembers welcoming French actor Gerard Depardieu who, officially registered as a Russian resident in Saransk, had obtained his Russian passport on this same stage in February 2013. "Since then, his opinion has changed, and he has forgotten us. It will pass ... ," Ivanovna laments.
Oleg Sagaidak, deputy director of the large Saransk stadium built for the 2018 World Cup, said of Putin: "Our President is a father to us. We must listen to him and support him as children must obey the head of the family.”
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