Average Russians are reeling — with dismay, defiance and departures galore — in a world that’s turned upside-down
By Allan Woods
Fri., March 11, 2022
There is a beautiful old bookstore — Dom Knigi, House of Books — in a historic building on Nevsky Prospekt, the main shopping strip in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The first time I went, a year ago, it was for its section of modern Russian authors in translation. Not Tolstoy and Chekhov and Dostoevsky, but Ulitskaya, Petrushevskaya and Pelevin, to name but three.
I was greeted by an enthusiastic sales assistant, a burly Russian with a thick accent and the savant’s recall of plot twists behind each one of the spines lined up like soldiers before him.
He tried to sell me on sci-fi. I opted instead for “Twelve Chairs,” the beloved 1928 comic novel by two Soviet writers from Odesa, Ukraine.
The store was greatly changed when I returned last week. There was an end-of-an-era feel around a shop that had opened in 1938 and remained open even during the 872-day Nazi siege of what was then Leningrad.
Some shelves were empty, others disorganized. The section that once housed legends of Russian literature in English was now a jumble of titles in all sorts of languages. A disinterested employee pointed to one or two remaining books, then wandered off.
I chose one by Boris Akunin, a writer the New Yorker magazine once labelled “Russia’s Dissident Detective Novelist.” He fictionalizes Russian history, publishing during what may turn out to be the most historic days of our generation.
It seemed right. But, also, bittersweet.
At the checkout, I asked the cashier what had happened to the place. Were they closing too, following the dozens of other companies fleeing Russia to comply with sanctions?
It was a post-pandemic renovation, she said. A planned, temporary closure.
I edged my face toward the gap in the Plexiglas that separated us. The timing seemed bad, I said: The ruble was crashing, Russian borders were closing. Making grand plans for the future seemed at best foolish, at worst, reckless.
“I would have preferred that the pandemic continued than to have this. ‘Zachem?’” she asked, shaking her head, referring to Ukraine — “what for?”
The disbelief inside Russia about what has occurred, and the uncertainty about what fate now awaits Russians as economic sanctions take hold, is great. As a resident of Moscow for the past four years, I can hardly believe it myself.
Last December, I interviewed a young Russian reporter by the name of Daniil Sotnikov, who had fled to Poland after being declared a “foreign agent.” Being so labelled by Russia’s Justice Ministry entails stringent requirements to report income and expenditures. More damaging is the stigma, the insinuation that a foreign agent is somehow a traitor — that their journalism has placed Russia in peril.
“I have a really specific pessimistic view on the future,” Sotnikov said of Russia. “I think it’s going to end with a war. When a dictatorship country is at war, all the foreign agents are enemies, all the people who disagree are enemies and they are all going to go to jail.”
A month later, I interviewed Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian military analyst, for an article about Vladimir Putin. Felgenhauer insisted that Putin was not well — that the Russian president was convinced that he was being targeted for assassination, and that he and Russia’s nuclear arsenal were the only forces able to prevent America’s world domination.
“He’s frightened and agitated that he’s going to be killed like Gadhafi, like Saddam Hussein. He talks of them all the time,” Felgenhauer said. “That’s what he’s told by his advisers and generals — that they’ll hit you with these missiles before you get airborne.”
Neither of the two comments made it into the resulting articles. Just three months ago, they were too alarmist, too far-fetched — to my mind, at least.
Just three weeks ago, my Russian language teacher laughed through the computer screen when I talked about the possibility of an actual war. She thought I had gullibly fallen for U.S. hysteria.
Then, Russian troops marched into Ukraine.
Three days after that, Putin placed his strategic forces on alert, raising the spectre of what had seemed unthinkable — a nuclear strike.
A Russian friend immediately seized the gravity of what was happening in his country. Feb. 24, the day that the “special military operation” started, would be to Russia’s Sept. 11, a date after which life could no longer be as it once was.
Another friend, who lives outside of Russia, said he felt shame now to be Russian. Putin’s decision to move forces into Ukraine had tarnished his country’s past and ruined any hopes that remained for the future.
Yet another confided that some Russians now make the ghoulish remark that they know what the Germans must have felt like in 1939, at the outset of the Second World War.
She told me that she had been contacted online by people — strangers — who told her that as a Russian, she needed to take to the streets, to protest against Putin, against the Russian military, against the regime.
“They don’t understand that, in the best-case scenario, protesters end up in jail. And people have children, parents or those who need their help and can’t risk their freedom and their lives,” she said.
It’s not lost on her that Ukrainians face a more immediate, threat to their lives and livelihoods.
“Many Russians have relatives in Ukraine, friends and colleagues. We do what we can to help them, with money and whatever else we can. We have always believed that Ukrainians are our brothers and what is happening is impossible for ordinary people to understand.”
Understanding has only become more difficult in the days since the Russian military action in Ukraine began, thanks to measures taken by Putin’s regime to put the country on a war footing, all while barring people from declaring Russia an instigator or aggressor.
Within hours of the conflict’s start, Russia’s broadcast regulator issued a statement telling media that “they are obliged to use information and data received by them only from official Russian sources” or risk being banned from the web, radio or television.
Two days later, warnings were sent to media companies that had published stories containing “publicly significant untrue information about the shelling of Ukrainian cities and the death of civilians in Ukraine as a result of the actions of the Russian Army, as well as materials in which the ongoing operation is called an attack, invasion or a declaration of war.”
At least two of them have now shut down their operations rather than risk arrest, fines or worse.
Last Friday, the national parliament, the State Duma, adopted a law threatening up to 15 years in prison for anyone found to be spreading fake news about the Russian military. A number of foreign news outlets temporarily suspended their work to assess the new law. Some left the country rather than risk arrest.
When this happened, I sent Sotnikov — the “foreign agent” in Polish exile — a message. I wanted to check in and tell him that he might have foreseen what was coming to pass, the criminalization of those who speak truth to power.
“Yeah, hate to be right,” he wrote. “We’re still in Poland waiting for German visas. Hope they still give those to Russians.”
Three months ago, there was sympathy for Russians who had opted for a life abroad — an exile or just an exit. Today, sympathy is no sure thing.
In the space of two weeks, the horizon has become much smaller for the largest country on the globe. I don’t think the average Russian was ready for it.
In practical terms, the impact of the first round of sanctions in 2014, which resulted from Russia’s annexation of Crimea, was minimal. Russia’s decision to retaliate by banning some western imports had the biggest effect on the average person.
No surprise, then, that in the lead-up to the Russian military operation in Ukraine, Moscow was defiant. Further sanctions would be tough but still manageable, bank presidents and government officials said. But when Russia struck Ukraine, the West struck back with rigour. Clearly no one was ready for the walls that have been erected, for the swift and bloodless severing of Russia and Russians from the world.
I’m thinking of the decision to shutter McDonald’s 30 years after the company’s opening in Moscow’s Pushkin Square, a ribbon-cutting that signalled Russia’s arrival after the fall of Communism.
I’m thinking also of a guy with whom I played hockey.
I knew him only as Stupino — the name of his hometown, south of Moscow, the name sewed onto the back of his sweater. When most Russians have talked hockey to me, the questions are predictable: Alexander Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby — which is better, in my opinion?
But in between shifts, after skating circles around the others and scoring goals with ease, Stupino talked about the Russian films I should watch, and joked about the elusive quest for the Russian soul.
He sold BMWs — at least, he did the last time we played together. Now, the German car company has halted exports to Russia, saying, “We condemn the aggression against Ukraine and follow developments with great concern and dismay.”
Stupino told me one night that few of Moscow’s BMW buyers could actually afford the cars they were driving. Probably 10 per cent, he said. The rest bought with credit and loans, driven by the desire to be seen behind the wheel of a luxury brand.
It always seemed slightly crazy, the post-Soviet need of Russians to wrap themselves in logos and trademarks, to be seen not only to have survived through the hard times of the past 30 years, but to have thrived.
Still, the need means that the flight of western companies abandoning business operations, investments, real estate and infrastructure in Russia is now particularly devastating for its people.
When Coca-Cola announced this week that it was suspending operations in Russia, I thought of Igor, my former language teacher.
One day after class, he dragged me down the road to Teremok, a traditional Russian fast-food outlet. He handed me a carbonated green beverage and told me to drink. It wasn’t very good, but I appreciated it as an experience and a history lesson. The tarragon-flavoured soft drink, he said, was the Soviet answer to Coke and Pepsi.
How long will it take for Russians to revert to something less than the Cokes, the iPhones, the BMWs and the Big Macs they’ve gotten used to? And how will they cope with the isolation that awaits them?
Igor is charismatic, sometimes chaotic and a bit crude, but his students love him as he loves them. He collects T-shirts bearing the names of cities from around the world.
A few days into this new Russian reality, I sent Igor a message, wanting to check in. The foreign students had already started returning home, he said, spooked by the cascade of western governments closing their airspace to Russian flights, the credit cards that were no longer accepted, the feeling that the worst was yet to come.
In my own group of expat friends and acquaintances, most have also left, recalled by their companies, their business plans abandoned.
It is stunning to see how lives have been uprooted in a matter of days, and it is worrying to see indications of the dark turns that Russian society could take.
Before the special military operation, for example, Russian TikTok was a stream of young, seemingly apolitical people streaming silly dances, pranks and jokes. Since, the algorithm has veered toward themes of war. While one of the dominant types of videos shows Russians expressing solidarity with Ukrainians, another stream shows Ukrainian flags being flushed down the toilet, the country’s borders behind erased and its passports desecrated or replaced by Russian ones.
On the popular Russian buy-and-sell website Avito, a set of ads highlight the services of Russian companies offering emigration services for the wealthy residents now looking to flee to the likes of France, Spain, Israel or Bulgaria.
Another group of ads is for those with no shame in their country, no fear of sanctions and no intention of leaving. These sell patches with a white, embroidered letter Z, a symbol with no place in the Cyrillic alphabet but a growing place in the hearts of self-described patriots.
The Z matches the markings on Russian tanks and armoured vehicles now in Ukraine. It has become the symbol of support for the Russian army, the mission and the man behind it all — Putin.
The letter Z has appeared on municipal signs, on social media, on billboards, on buildings and, in at least one case, shaved into the back of a man’s head. For $14, Russia Today, the state-run news station, sells a “Z T-shirt” with the white symbol that detractors are likening to this conflict’s equivalent of the Nazi Germany swastika.
And last Sunday, when I crossed over the Moskva River and drove along the embankment, the Z appeared again, on a flag that emerged from a single car window on the opposite bank, making its way through traffic to the centre of Moscow.
Then it appeared, fluttering above a second car, then a third, then an entire convoy of cars. A parade of cars driving in the opposite direction, toward the heart of Moscow, waving the Russian tricolour flag and this new symbol of conflict, of pain, of Russia and its people at a crossroads.