Image Credit: Jasmine Mirza
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the West has been impressed by the heroism and strength of the Ukrainians. Europe stays united in its solidarity with the invaded and in condemnation of the war, although hardly anyone had really expected that. However, in this righteous solidarity with them, we tend to forget about the silent victim of this war - the Russian public.
The ordinary Russian is in fact taken hostage by their own government – the one whose legitimacy de jure still relies on the democratic principle of popular sovereignty. Many of them find themselves in an unsolvable dilemma, like from the Sophocles’ Antigone – either they obey the law or do what is morally right. In this case though, both choices may involve risking one’s life.
"There are many Russians living in Ukraine, as well as Ukrainians living in Russia. They respect their differences, at the same time appreciating similarities. Multinational families in both countries are very common. For many of them, the war is tantamount to losing relatives on both sides."
“The day of the invasion was one of the scariest in my life. If my country had started a war, what is the future for me?” - says Alex (name changed to protect identity), a Russian studying at the University of York, when I ask him about his feelings on the war. On Thursday 24 February, exactly when Russia attacked Ukraine, his parents in Moscow received his draft letter. He knows that if he returns home, his fate may be already sealed by being forced to join the military.
Absurd as it sounds, he is among the lucky ones. He avoided conscription for a good reason, which is higher education. Some of his fellow Russians were not that lucky. According to the estimates shared by the Washington Post, conscripts can make up 30 percent of the Russian army, even though it is illegal to send them to offensive wars. All of these conscripts were forced to sign professional contracts.
The “good reason” however, doesn’t make Alex more confident about the future, as he is familiar that the law in Russia can be changed on a whim. If Putin’s cabinet wanted to have all the youths being drafted, they would change the law in half an hour. Just like they did on 4 March, when they passed a bill that threatens jail terms of up to 15 years for spreading ‘fake news’ and ultimately put an end to free speech in the country.
“I told my friends to clear their social media of everything that can be considered ‘fake news’ (i.e what is not in line with Putin’s propaganda). Me myself, I’ve never posted anything about the war. Not a single Instagram story or a Facebook post. I was cautious, and as you can see, I was right,” our conversation continues. At the time we talk, the independent media in Russia have already been cracked down. The only media the Russians are left with are the state controlled ones, which are filled with nationalist propaganda and misinformation.
What concerns me is whether the Russian public is aware of the scale of disinformation and propaganda. Are the majority of Russians convinced by Putin's narrative? On one hand, on the internet we can see videos of Russians supporting Putin wholeheartedly, on the other hand, there are reports of massive protests against the regime and the war, with thousands of people already detained for protesting. The answer is not simple.
Alex convinces me the division is not so binary and Manichean as I thought. It’s not as easy as there are good Russians who don’t believe Putin and there are bad Russians brainwashed into believing him. In his view, most Russians know what’s happening. They also have a strong sense of morals; they know that what is happening is atrocious and it will affect them one way or the other.
It is not to say that there are no madmen supporting the regime zealously, but that Putin doesn’t have the support of the majority. Most of the public, however, is not vocal about it. They keep their beliefs to themselves. They don’t want to pay fines, or worse, put themselves and their families in danger for standing against the government.
The majority of Russians take the easiest, but the only safe way out of the dilemma covered in the beginning. They have their feelings, but they obey the law, in order to avoid the severe consequences. A direct confrontation with the regime would be futile, Alex explains: “many Ukrainians think that if they managed to have a successful popular revolution in 2014, we can have it as well. It’s not how Russia works!”
“I’ve got quite a few Ukrainian classmates being really critical of Russians not posting much about Ukraine, but I am not angry at them, someday they will understand why,” my interviewee adds.
The crushed free speech is not the only way the war affects the Russian population. There are a lot of other factors, beginning with the economic ones. The Ruble has hit a record low. For many it means a loss of their life savings.
And of course, the last factor is a personal one. There is a close cultural connection between the two nations. However, they are not close in the way Putin would like them to be. There are many Russians living in Ukraine, as well as Ukrainians living in Russia. They respect their differences, at the same time appreciating similarities. Multinational families in both countries are very common. For many of them, the war is tantamount to losing relatives on both sides.
President Putin has stopped pretending that Russia is a democracy (even an ‘illiberal democracy’ as he used to describe the system). This war is not of the interest to the nation he formally leads, but only to himself. Fulfilling his imperialist ambitions, he shoots his own country in the foot.
There is one crucial thing we, as westerners need to remember. The enemy is Putin and the authoritarian regime he leads, not the Russians in general. Most of the Russians are victims of this conflict too, however for different reasons and with different consequences. The worst we can do is to hold them accountable for the actions of the government, which harms them as well.