As war fizzles in the background, Russians are tuning out and the Kremlin prefers it that way.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is becoming background noise to Russians. A poll this month by the only remaining independent pollster, The Levada Centre, found that when 1600 people were asked “what events they recollected over the past 4 weeks,” only 32% thought to mention the largest war and biggest refugee crisis since World War Two. Compare that to March, when 75% of citizens recalled the ‘Special Military Operation.’
It is hard to know how much to trust polling during such an unprecedented event, when certain responses recorded by the hand of the wrong pen could see the too-honest respondent facing prosecution. But this pattern seems clear and steady: Russians are forgetting.
This, despite the presence of literal signs that something special is going on. A large ‘Z’ illuminates an office building as one enters Moscow city center by road from the west. Bus stops display photographs of proud Russian soldiers (one assumes they’re not actors), captioned ‘Heroes of Russia.’ But the messaging is oblique. You rather get the sense that, sure, the Russian Government wants people to support its military action in Ukraine. But it might be just as good if they all simply forgot it was happening. In Russia, passion about anything—even if it temporarily aligns with the Kremlin’s goals—is a risk to the state. Passion can be co-opted. Strong opinions lead people to act.
Perhaps that explains why on August 24th, while foreign and independent Russian media were penning ‘six months later’ articles, the Russian media’s failure to recall this significant date was deafening. There were no political statements from the Kremlin or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of Defense. And across Russia’s heavily regulated tabloids and broadsheet papers, it was clear editors knew—or had been told—that such a milestone was better left un-commemorated.
Because without explicit and frequent reminders, it is easy to forget that anything special at all is happening—military or otherwise. At least in Moscow, where prices for most goods remain no more expensive than by that which can be brushed off as a result of global inflation. Week-to-week, prices remain unchanged, sometimes falling due to poor consumer demand. Even if one remembers Russia is on the wrong end of an unprecedented sanctions experiment, the link between those and Russia’s actions has been completely snipped. They are presented as part of a continuing plot to ‘isolate and weaken Russia’ by ‘The West’ (which is never, by the way, defined as anything other than by what Russia is not).
But noticing what cannot be seen does reveal changes. Now, protests by any ordinary meaning of the word do not take place. Last week, a small assembly of people standing apart, saying nothing, without signs, were arrested. It is a form of protest; but hardly. Even a misplaced emoji is dangerous. Russian civil society, publicly, has been gutted. Even before the war, ‘politics’ and ‘activism’ were relegated to something ‘politicians’ and ‘activists’ did. Not ‘normal people.’ And certainly not now.
Travelers and foreigners from so-called ‘unfriendly countries’ (an official designation) can be added to that list by evidence of absence. Although one thing I have been asked about, and am relieved to say has not been a problem, is that I have not noticed any hostility due to my nationality. Nor, reportedly, has there been a noticeable rise in anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Russia. Because Russia is not fighting Ukrainians, of course, it is fighting Nazis and fascists—so they say.
But for many Russians, and I would argue the majority, nothing feels like it has been lost. And what’s been gained is a sense of collective pride, that Russia is a country once again respected (read: feared) on the global stage. But that hides the elephant in the room: that while people here putter along as normal, the whole future of the Russian Federation did change.
It is clear from Kremlin officials that this is not seen as a blip to be overcome but a trajectory to ride. The ship has changed course and there is no going back. It remains to be seen whether Titanic is her name. The Kremlin seems content that it has avoided the icebergs of crippling sanctions, the backlash of the mothers of dead sons, and the threat of civil dissent. And as long as the war fizzles in the background it seems neither negotiations nor backtracking are required.
The Kremlin maintains a veneer of interest in talks, but for Russia right now ‘negotiations’ are a synonym for ‘uncompromising Ukrainian surrender.’ There is no sign it is looking for a way out. And with Turkey making clear Crimea would have to be returned as part of any negotiated settlement—a notion so unfathomable to the Russian elite that calling for it publicly is here considered an offense—it is hard to see where the light at the end of the tunnel could possibly be found. For the average Russian already disinclined to follow the machinations of President Putin, the appeal to shut down and ignore it all is not hard to understand. Of course, it is simultaneously what the Kremlin relies on.