21 January 2023
by Aleksandr Podrabinek
There are no signs of war on Moscow’s streets whatsoever. Windows are not papered over in anticipation of bombings, the wail of anti-aircraft defense sirens is not to be heard, the lights in the city don’t go out in the evening in the event of air attacks. All this exists, but somewhere very far away, in Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, and other Ukrainian cities.
There isn’t even any graphic propaganda on Moscow’s streets, such as one would expect in time of war—calls to defend the motherland, rout the enemy, give everything for the front and victory. In an entire day of errands around town you might see a few cars with the letter “Z” affixed to the window, and on a few buildings you might come across a St. George ribbon in the same configuration a few stories tall. Also, on billboards along the roads there are photographs of “SVO [special military operation] heroes” in military uniform. This is the full extent of the militaristic propaganda.
Of course, no one has done away with the fear of retribution, which has left its imprint on the country’s daily life. The mobilization continues, the regular army is growing, and military equipment is being produced and perfected. PVO [anti-aircraft defense] equipment has been installed on the roofs of several administrative buildings in Moscow. The Kremlin is rightly worried about a retaliatory strike. However, none of these measures of military resistance are widely publicized. In our day, they can’t be completely hidden, but no one is crafting a propaganda picture out of them.
At first glance, this might seem odd. Why, given the rich and far from forgotten experience of Soviet propaganda, isn’t the regime fanning mass patriotic hysteria? Have they forgotten how to lie and brainwash? Hardly. More than likely, they understand that a hate campaign against Ukraine would not find a wide response.
The regime is content with the work of the professional toadies on television, satisfied with the support of the bureaucracy and security forces. It understands that overdoing propaganda might elicit the opposite reaction, so it is trying not to exacerbate the situation. Let all be quiet, peaceful, imperceptible, and almost well. So that people live their lives, don’t ask unnecessary questions, don’t get into politics, and go silently to the mobilization slaughter.
“Everyone understands everything but no one says anything”
People for the most part are in fact not inclined to react intensely to events distant from them. Especially if this reaction might attract a threat to their safety or even well-being. Over the last two decades, the average statistical European has also valued cheap gas and heat in their house much more than they’ve worried about the rise of militarism and violence in Russia. To say nothing of the former Soviet republics, where the thirst for justice, solidarity, and sympathy for the victims of tyranny has been eroding for decades.
Everyone understands everything but no one says anything. Protestors are an intolerable minority. And the loud voices of those who, to save their own hide or out of innate imbecility, support the Kremlin’s military adventure can be heard very well. It is they who are creating the appearance of unanimous support in Russia for the “policy of the party and government.”
You can grieve all you like over the world’s imperfection and the ordinary person’s fearful or even indifferent silence, but it’s the same virtually everywhere. From country to country, the differences aren’t all that great. The difference is only in how the politically informed elite behaves. Only memories remain of that elite in Russia. There are no politicians in power now, now there are only masters of corruption and fawning. Opposition politicians are nowhere to be seen. A tiny part of them is in prison and the rest left in a timely fashion to get as far from the calamity as possible.
And what about the informed elite? Where are the dominant influences, the enlighteners, the creators of what is sensible, good, and eternal? With the rarest of exceptions, they have either gone abroad as well or else are living as if nothing terrible were happening around them.
Here is an advertising mailing from Moscow’s Sovremennik theater, once the center of theatrical freethinking and audacious resistance: “Mid-January is the just the right time to relax after the New Year holiday, to get away from the bustle and turn your attention to yourself. Your inspiration might be anything at all—an evening spent in a cozy cafe, a new outfit, an entertaining novel, a picture…” And this is all during the war and the horrors that our country is inflicting on Ukraine! The Moscow Art Theater is offering “The Seagull,” and the Conservatory Main Hall is playing Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and Saint-Saens. Everything just the way it is in peacetime, and no one is talking about the war. And if someone suddenly does bring it up, then he is quickly shown the door, like the actor Dmitry Nazarov at the Moscow Art Theater.
Today the regime is not demanding demonstrations of loyalty from people. For now our silence and hasty flight from the country are enough. The conduct of those who live by the proverb, “My hut is the last in line” is considered an acceptable level of loyalty. But that’s just today.
Translated by Marian Schwartz