Russia’s tragedy is a warning to us all

  • Themes: Russia

Russia’s war is a tragedy for its people whose acceptance of it is mired in complexity — and sheer horror for Ukrainians living it in real time.

Satirical poster of the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Satirical poster of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Credit: Alex Birch / Alamy Stock Vector

One of the surprising aspects of Russia’s war in Ukraine is that, by and large, the Russians have lined up behind their government to endorse an unjust campaign against a neighbouring country. Tens of thousands of civilians have perished from Russian bombardment, many (if not most) of whom were ethnic Russians from Eastern Ukraine. Cultural affinities notwithstanding, they were subjected to unspeakable atrocities, and yet their plight has yet to make a visible impression on the Russians, the majority of whom remain either supportive of these crimes or, indeed, patently indifferent.

In recent weeks, the Kremlin launched missile strikes against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. Millions of civilians in Ukraine, including children, find themselves without electricity, heat, or running water. They face a bleak, grim winter. The Russians look on with derision. What accounts for their cold-heartedness?

The Russian public’s attitude to the war in Ukraine is formed by a complex interplay of situational and discursive factors, some unique to Russia, but most immediately recognisable as universal flaws.

The first, and probably the most important circumstance that shapes the Russian public’s nonchalance is that the war remains limited in scope. It is taking place somewhere ‘out there,’ not in Russia itself. In Russia, life continues within bounds of superficial normality. Shops and restaurants attract busy customers, kids study and play, youngsters party, the health-conscious, middle-aged jog in the parks, and teachers, doctors, and tax-collectors go to work in the morning and come back home in the evening as if oblivious to their new, stark reality.

It briefly seemed that Putin’s mobilisation order of 21 September would change public attitudes. Hundreds of thousands were pulled away from their families and their routines, thrown into the cauldron of a foreign war, often without equipment or adequate preparation. Some protested their lot, in particular in Russia’s poorer backwater regions, which to all appearances were unfairly targeted in the mobilisation drive.

Yet Putin knew where to stop. He used deliberately confusing language to signal that mobilisation was only partial, and before long he claimed it was over (even if it continued in places). He promised the conscripts would be trained (though often they were not). He said they would be kept away from the fighting (though often fight they did).

All this confusion and mixed signals meant that even as the first coffins with the mobilised in them began to arrive in Russia, the impact was contained, the protests kept to a minimum. It is possible that, with time, as the death toll mounts, public attitudes will change. But no one knows where the Russians’ breaking point is. We just know it hasn’t been reached.

The second circumstance is perhaps of even greater salience. Although the quality of life for many Russians worsened visibly in recent months, it did not worsen enough to prompt unrest. The Russians are on the whole a patient lot. It is not clear when they will have had enough to rise up against their rulers. Previous experience suggests that dramatic economic adversity helps delegitimise the government.

For example, this happened to Mikhail Gorbachev’s government in the late 1980s: no promise of freedom could compensate for the empty shelves and the long queues. The people suffered and Gorbachev lost support. This happened to Yeltsin’s government, too, as living standards plummeted and savings evaporated. A youngster in Russia in the early 1990s, I lived in a town that regularly experienced blackouts and had an acute shortage of cold water (hot water was unheard of). Few protested, to be sure, but there was no love lost for Yeltsin and his reforms that left millions out in the cold.

I left Russia in the mid-1990s, settling eventually in the West to a life of moderate comfort and relative freedom. I often wonder who I would have become if I stayed. Would I, too, have succumbed to Z-patriotism and rally to Putin’s flags in support of a murderous war? Fortunately, I never had the opportunity to find out.

The details of Russia’s trauma of the 1990s are too well known to require a retelling. Putin’s domestic popularity is in large part an outcome of his government’s ability to turn the economy around. The Kremlin took advantage of the unexpected blessing of high energy prices. Despite the scourge of corruption, despite economic stagnation in recent years, despite staggering inequalities, the fact remains that Russia’s GDP per capita today is nearly five times what it was at the dawn of Putin’s rule — about $12,000 in 2022 compared to about $2,300 in 2002 in constant prices.

Yet such mechanistic explanations never seem to work well. For ten years ago, Russian income per capita was noticeably higher than it is today, and yet there was a protest movement. Hundreds of thousands poured into the streets in Moscow to protest electoral fraud and government corruption, and it seemed like change was coming — until it no longer was. To understand what happened, it is important to take into account two further situational factors: the demise of the free press and worsening repressions.

Putin’s destruction of Russia’s free media did not happen overnight. He began almost at once upon assuming office with the takeover of the independent TV channel NTV, and continued patiently and relentlessly until no vestiges of free journalism remained. Russia’s media has not yet reached the level of subservience of countries like China or North Korea, but it has reached a sufficiently dismal level that it has become impossible for Russians to learn the truth about what their country is doing in Ukraine just by flipping through the newspapers or switching on the TV. The contrast with Russia’s wars in Chechnya (when the independent media played a key role in shaping public attitudes) could not be greater.

And then, there is the pure intimidating power of Putin’s hideous repressive apparatus: the sprawling intelligence agencies, the police and the national guard. Let’s be clear: Russia is not Stalinist by any stretch of imagination. To be sure, draconian laws were enacted at the start of the war (these make any opposition to the government potentially punishable by years behind bars), but they have not been widely implemented. Here again Putin plays it smartly by doing just enough to intimidate those who may be thinking of protesting, but not enough to provoke a backlash among the weary populace. The fact that Russia’s borders remain largely open means that — despite the best efforts of European policy makers who have made it difficult for Russians to obtain visas for Europe — many Russians who are opposed to the regime have been able to escape, finding refuge in countries like Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and even Mongolia. Russia has not become a pressure cooker. Those who grow too desperate can leave, taking with them their frustrations and their resentments, and their hopes for a better, different Russia.

In the meantime, particularly active opponents of the regime have been arrested and face lengthy prison terms. Among these are imprisoned opposition leaders Aleksei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza and Ilya Yashin. Organised opposition no longer exists in Russia.

Even so, thousands of Russians have dared to speak out against the war since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February. But why not hundreds of thousands? Why not millions? To fully understand this passivity, we must also explore the discursive factors.

Putin’s control of the media space means that the public discourse in Russia is shaped by the Kremlin. The moment our tired teachers, doctors, and tax-collectors switch on the TV, they open their minds to a torrent of propaganda: news, but more than news — shows, a form of perverse political entertainment. These shows — featuring so called ‘experts’ — offer a particular spin on global events, a very skewed picture, where the decadent West is always at fault, where Ukraine is run by Nazis, and where blameless Russia must defend itself against heinous plots hatched in Washington and Brussels.

Two features of Russian propaganda make it particularly effective. The first is that it draws on a large list of American misdeeds, in particular in the Middle East. This technique is sometimes dismissed in the West as Russian ‘whataboutism’ but such criticism does not detract from its effectiveness. After all, many of the allegations that the US ignored international law are, in fact, true, and the sentiment that one carries away from watching such propaganda is that of wounded pride: if the US can get away with such injustices, then why can’t Russia? Or: Who is the West to teach when they themselves are not beyond reproach? These approaches are widely shared in the Global South, which largely explains why the West has had such a hard time persuading developing countries that Russia is, in fact, doing something that the West itself had not done for decades.

The second feature is that Russian propaganda, for all of its pervasiveness across the media space in its own country, does not fully drown out alternative viewpoints. Indeed, those who want to explore alternative takes are able to do so, albeit not without hassle (for example, a VPN would be required to access Twitter and some of the opposition media). But it is a feature of echo chamber conversations that the availability of alternative information diminishes its attractiveness. Given, too, that some Western discourse rightly or wrongly paints all Russians — and not just Putin’s regime — as unreconstructed imperialists, any such information serves to reinforce anti-Western resentment in Russia, helping to justify the war as a holy crusade against the hypocritical, Russophobic West. It feels good to feel righteous. Few will have the critical faculties to engage in deep self-reflection. After a hard day at work, most can do with a dinner and a little genocidal entertainment.

Understanding one’s adversary requires understanding the adversary’s situation and the adversary’s narratives. To understand does not mean to justify. Nothing in the Russians’ situation requires them to support a criminal war against a neighbouring country. To understand means to see commonalities and differences between our situations and our narratives — and those of the Russians. The Russians are not invaders from Mars. Their brutality and apathy are part and parcel of a time-tested European tradition. Which one of us, exposed to the same circumstances and the same narratives will react differently from how the Russians react? Some will. And many Russians do, too. Hundreds of thousands have already fled the country. Some 20,000 have been arrested for protesting.

But the silent majority just drifts along. They are too human to care.

There is, finally, one factor that is both situational and discursive: war, though distant, has become the new normal. Many Russians who, finding their country at war with Ukraine, at first experienced shock and incomprehension, have gradually become accustomed to the idea of the inevitability of war. What seemed impossible to contemplate has become all too real. Russia, like George Orwell’s Oceania, is at war because it has always been at war, and it will always be at war. There is nothing that can be done about it because war has become a state of mind.

Putin discovered a terrible truth about Russia: give people enough to eat; give them something to believe in; most importantly give them someone to hate; and they will flock to your banners. He calculated that it is not freedom that they long for – just daily comforts and a sense of belonging.

At the turn of the 1880s, the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote of a human tendency to give up their freedom in exchange for bread — but not just bread. Freedom, he explained in the monologue of the Great Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov, was a burden to people. Give them an opportunity, the Great Inquisitor opined, and they will trade away their freedom for a place in the herd: ‘I tell you that man has no more tormenting care than to find someone to whom he can hand over as quickly as possible that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature is born … even when all the gods have disappeared from the earth they will still fall down before idols.’

And so they have. It is a tragedy for Russia. It is sheer horror for Ukraine. And it is a potent warning to all of us.


Sergey Radchenko