Meanwhile In Moscow: Life Goes On, Everything Has Changed
While Kyiv comes under full military attack, less than 500 miles to the north the Russian capital is a surreal mix of normalcy, pockets of protest and the quiet sensation that nothing will ever be the same.
MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine, and the official line of the Kremlin and state media is that Moscow had no choice but to respond to Ukrainian “aggression”, and the Russian military is rapidly crippling Ukraine’s defense capability while attempting to avoid civilian casualties.
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In the Russian capital, 470 miles northeast of war-torn Kyiv, daily life is largely unchanged — even if everything has changed. And no, not everyone is following Putin’s party line or tuning in to state media.
From my office on Tverskaya Street, the shouts of ‘No to war’ (‘нет войне!’ ‘Niet voinye’) can be heard distinctly through the open window. Protestors at Pushkinskaya Square have gathered almost every day since Thursday to condemn Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
And as soon as demonstrators arrive, the authorities quickly follow the Kremlin's orders to crack down on all public dissent: people are pinned to the floor, dragged from the square, screaming, crying, before being piled into police vans. By Sunday, just shy of 2,000 people have reportedly been detained.
Digital space for dissent
Sirens pierce the city’s streets; the blue lights from police cars rolling down the central Arbat avenue have become frequent. Pushkinskaya Square, once the Russian symbol of literary freedom, is soon shut off by police. But while police close a square, across the city, Moscovites begin traipsing with the same signs (‘no to war’) pinned to their bags and backs. Quiet yet powerful resistance. Reporters follow, asking for their response. The answer is resounding: ‘shame’.
Unlike in other authoritarian regimes, Russia has largely allowed information to flow freely on the internet. And pockets of protest around the country quickly spread in stories and images online. A video (see below) has gone viral of one young man outside a Moscow subway entrance holds a sign offering a hug to anyone who opposes the war.
In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, a largely shared euphoria gripped Russia, where most believed the heavily ethnic Russian region should never have been part of Ukraine. There is no similar public consensus, and Putin’s animosity toward Ukraine is not widely shared. According to Levada, an independent Russian polling organization, 83% of Russians viewed Ukrainians as friends, and 51% of Russians said that Russia and Ukraine should be independent, yet friendly, countries. Anti-war feeling is not absolute, but it is strong and growing in volume, coming from young and old alike.
Facing the risk of rising dissent, Russian TV watchdog Rozkomnadzor released a statement on Thursday that coincided with the launch of the invasion, demanding that Russian media “use only information and data from official Russian sources”, threatening fines for non-adherence. State-friendly media has stuck closely to the Kremlin’s message, portraying Moscow as calm, business as usual, the war as good, even obligatory.
But anger posted by Russians on social media suggest that the state’s grip on thought and freedom are beginning to dwindle. The few newspapers firmly lined up in opposition to Putin, notably Novaya Gazeta, are giving public space to the anti-war movement. But even more neutral publications, like the independent business daily Kommersant, have posted photos of the anti-government protests.
On TikTok and Instagram, Alex Medved posted a video of him holding a sign outside a Moscow metro station that asked anyone opposed to the war to give him a hug.
Outside Kievskiy Train station, people have been queuing at cash machines, only to discover that the money has run out. There is frustration at the rouble dropping and prices climbing, anger that already paltry salaries are becoming even more valueless. Exchange bureaus are also busy, as people swap roubles for US dollars.
And what is happening inside the lives and homes of ordinary Russians? Military families worry for their sons on the front lines, parents fear for their children's futures. How will the tough sanctions being imposed by the West affect them? What will be the impact on education? Moscow’s elite wonder if their children will be able to travel abroad? Will they be viewed as ‘evil’ in the eyes of the west?
Unanswered questions fuel panic, helplessness breads anger. "This is Putin’s war, not Russia’s," one lady’s placard read.
For the wealthy and powerful, an escape from the tense atmosphere of the capital has been relatively easy in the past. A short trip to the holiday dacha: out of sight, out of mind. But even among the elite, Putin’s popularity may well be dwindling in the face of his decision to launch total war against a neighboring country, sparking the wrath of most of the international community.
With the barrage of Western sanctions, including Saturday’s announcement of the restrictions on the international payment exchange SWIFT system, rich Russians know their leader’s decision has placed their own situation at risk. Some fear a run on banks when business opens Monday.
The long game
Perhaps the most telling moment of the past week in Moscow was when Putin dressed down in public Sergei Naryshkin, Russia’s spy chief, when he seemed to stammer with uncertainty about his support for the Kremlin’s plans of attack. Can his nervousness be pinned to a wavering opposition within Putin’s inner circle, which the boss sought to shut down with his imperious glares?
As the war continues, both locals and foreign observers will be watching those online spaces where information has been allowed to flow. The Kremlin’s attempt Friday to partially block Facebook and Saturday’s move to shut down Twitter shows a definite concern that anti-War sentiment is spreading.
For now, offline, life in Moscow continues. The situation Sunday is calmer. The city is strangely quiet. Couples are out for dates, friends meeting up. But the mood is different to what it was two weeks ago. There is no doubt that a wind is blowing through the Russian capital. Whether it’s from the East or the West, it’s hard to tell.
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