30 April 2022
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
Over the last two years, two events have radically changed the usual way of life in Russia: the coronavirus pandemic and the war against Ukraine. Covid-19, though, a natural event, has ceded place to another attack — the aggressive militarism of the longstanding Putin regime. And although the losses from Covid are substantially higher (about 1 million people), it’s easier to fight, and the methods of struggle are more understandable: invent a vaccine and start production.
What kind of vaccine can be invented against authoritarianism, no one knows. Various recipes have been suggested, but they’re all frozen at the stage of academic research. Meanwhile, the authoritarian regime in Russia is extremely aggressive with respect to both neighboring countries and its own people.
The war against Ukraine is not destroying cities in Russia, as is happening with Kharkiv or Mariupol, but its psychological effect is unquestionable. The degree of general nervousness, uncertainty about tomorrow, and baseless worry has risen noticeably. The demand for psychological help has increased, and psychologists themselves are having to refocus on crisis consultations. Even polling organisations independent of the regime are noting a rise in worry, fear, and bewilderment.
POPULARIZING THE WAR
The death the Russian army is bringing to Ukraine in the name of the people and the state cannot help but be reflected in people’s psychological state. Smart people of conscience are suffering from their own helplessness and the impossibility of changing anything. Brave people prepared to resist are, as always, the minority. Foolish people without conscience are assiduously demanding the poison of state propaganda in hopes of achieving inner agreement with the regime. For the most part, they’re finding it.
The correlation between the two is unknown for certain; assessments are very subjective and approximate. However, judging from the behavior of the street, people who approve the war are much fewer than half. At least in Moscow. Over two months of war, I’ve seen cars with a “Z” no more than a dozen times on Moscow streets. Moreover, I live downtown, where traffic is always heavy, and I myself use a car. There are many fewer St. George ribbons on cars than before. Even symbolically, people don’t want to take responsibility for the war. This may apply also to those who approve of the war but are not prepared to defend their point of view.
The regime has been making various efforts to popularize and justify the war of aggression. In the government press and on TV, explanations of the invasion’s necessity are gradually disappearing, and instead the propaganda consumer is being offered a stock image of the enemy, the military foe, the betrayer of Russian interests. We’re no longer talking about why the war was necessary but about how essential it is to defeat the enemy at any price and thereby save Russia.
CITIZENS MUST UNDERSTAND
To lend seriousness to its insane arguments, the regime is pumping up war hysteria. Last week, at about midnight, Moscow police shut down the Ring Road for a few hours. All entrances and exits were blocked by heavy construction equipment: dump trucks, road graders, truck cranes, and tractors. Several dozen armored personnel carriers drove through the deserted nighttime streets, but that wasn’t enough apparently.
Last Thursday, tanks, trailers with anti-aircraft systems, and other heavy military equipment passed through the same streets. A few cars drove under a red flag. From the sidewalks, the people watched this unexpected parade, which they photographed on their smartphones. No one expressed delight or shouted greetings or waved their arms. They watched in silence. The tanks mercilessly pressed down on the asphalt with their caterpillars and let out a deafening roar: inhabitants must understand this is wartime.
Nearly every day, reports come in about explosions and fires at military sites in oblasts neighboring on Ukraine. Citizens must understand: the motherland is in danger. They’ve announced the capture of the alleged hitmen who tried to kill Vladimir Soloviev, Margarita Simonyan, and other Kremlin yahoos. Everyone must understand: the enemy is prepared for anything.
BETTER A HORRIBLE ENDING THAN UNENDING HORROR
Tightening the screws is an inevitable accompaniment to war. Additions of “foreign agents” to lists and arrests of oppositionists are following one after another. Federal ministries and state companies are planning to institute political instructors—deputy directors for information-political work. The chairman of the State Duma Committee on Culture declared the necessity of putting book publishing under state control so that pro-Western “enemies of the people” find no place on our bookstores’ shelves.
All these measures make many fear the state machine and want to hide in some corner or get as far away as possible. Added to this is the rapid rise in prices for food and essential items, a shortage of imported goods, inflation, and the ruin of small and mid-size businesses — in short, a general decline in the economy and well-being.
More than 600 foreign companies have left Russia since the war against Ukraine began. Restaurants like McDonald’s and stores like Ikea, so beloved by the inhabitants, stand empty, and airports’ international zones are depopulated. Hundreds of thousands of people left Russia in haste: some not wishing to share responsibility for the state’s war crimes; some due to the impending poverty and devastation; some in anticipation of a new global war. And more and more often one hears from all kinds of different people, better a horrible ending than unending horror.
Translated by Marian Schwartz