One year into war, Putin is crafting the Russia he craves

The grievances, paranoia and imperialist mindset that drove President Putin to invade Ukraine have seeped deep into Russian life
Last Updated : 21 February 2023, 06:47 IST

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The grievances, paranoia and imperialist mindset that drove President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine have seeped deep into Russian life after a year of war — a broad, if uneven, societal upheaval that has left the Russian leader more dominant than ever at home.

Schoolchildren collect empty cans to make candles for soldiers in the trenches, while learning in a new weekly class that the Russian military has always liberated humanity from “aggressors who seek world domination.”

Museums and theaters, which remained islands of artistic freedom during previous crackdowns, have seen that special status evaporate, their anti-war performers and artists expunged. New exhibits put on by the state have titles like “NATOzism” — a play on “Nazism” that seeks to cast the Western military alliance as posing a threat as existential as the Nazis of World War II.

Many of the activist groups and rights organisations that have sprung up in the first 30 years of post-Soviet Russia have met an abrupt end, while nationalist groups once seen as fringe have taken center stage.

As Friday’s anniversary of the invasion approaches, Russia’s military has suffered setback after setback, falling far short of its goal of taking control of Ukraine. But at home, facing little resistance, Putin’s year of war has allowed him to go further than many thought possible in reshaping Russia in his image.

“Liberalism in Russia is dead forever, thank God,” Konstantin Malofeyev, an ultraconservative business tycoon, bragged in a phone interview on Saturday. “The longer this war lasts, the more Russian society is cleansing itself from liberalism and the Western poison.”

That the invasion has dragged on for a year has made Russia’s transformation go far deeper, he said, than it would have had Putin’s hopes for a swift victory been realised.

“If the Blitzkrieg had succeeded, nothing would have changed,” he said.

The Kremlin for years sought to keep Malofeyev at arm’s length, even as he funded pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and called for Russia to be reformed into an empire of “traditional values,” free of Western influence. But that changed after the invasion, as Putin turned “traditional values” into a rallying cry — signing a new anti-gay law, for instance — while styling himself as another Peter the Great retaking lost Russian lands.

Most important, Malofeyev said, Russia’s liberals have either been silenced or have fled the country, while Western companies have left voluntarily.

That change was evident last Wednesday at a gathering off the traffic-jammed Garden Ring road in Moscow, where some of the most prominent rights activists who have remained in Russia came together for the latest of many recent farewells: The Sakharov Center, a human rights archive that was a liberal hub for decades, was opening its last exhibit before being forced to shut under a new law.

The center’s chair, Vyacheslav Bakhmin, once a Soviet dissident, told the assembled crowd that “what we just couldn’t have imagined two years ago or even a year ago is happening today.”

“A new system of values has been built,” Aleksandr Daniel, an expert on Soviet dissidents, said afterward. “Brutal and archaic public values.”

A year ago, as Washington warned of an imminent invasion, most Russians dismissed the possibility; Putin, after all, had styled himself as a peace-loving president who would never attack another country. So after the invasion started — stunning some of the president’s closest aides — the Kremlin scrambled to adjust its propaganda to justify it.

It was the West that went to war against Russia by backing “Nazis” who took power in Ukraine in 2014, the false message went, and the goal of Putin’s “special military operation” was to end the war the West had started.

In a series of addresses aimed at shoring up domestic support, Putin cast the invasion as a near-holy war for Russia’s very identity, declaring that it was fighting to prevent liberal gender norms and acceptance of homosexuality from being forced upon it by an aggressive West.

The full power of the state was deployed to spread and enforce that message. National television channels, all controlled by the Kremlin, dropped entertainment programming in favour of more news and political talk shows; schools were directed to add a regular flag-raising ceremony and “patriotic” education; police hunted down people for offenses like anti-war Facebook posts, helping to push hundreds of thousands of Russians out of the country.

“Society in general has gone off the rails,” Sergei Chernyshov, who runs a private high school in the Siberian metropolis of Novosibirsk, said in a phone interview. “They’ve flipped the ideas of good and evil.”

Chernyshov, one of the few Russian school heads who has spoken out against the war, described the narrative of Russian soldiers fighting in defense of their nation as so easily digestible that much of society truly came to believe it — especially since the message meshed seamlessly with one of the most emotionally evocative chapters of Russian history: their nation’s victory in World War II.

A nationwide campaign urging children to make candles for soldiers has become so popular, he said, that anyone questioning it in a school chat group might be called a “Nazi and an accomplice of the West.”

At the same time, he argued, daily life has changed little for Russians without a family member fighting in Ukraine, which has hidden or assuaged the costs of the war. Western officials estimate that at least 200,000 Russians have been killed or wounded in Ukraine, a far more serious toll than analysts had predicted when the war began. Yet the economy has suffered much less than analysts predicted, with Western sanctions having failed to drastically reduce average Russians’ quality of life even as many Western brands departed.

“One of the scariest observations, I think, is that for the most part, nothing has changed for people,” Chernyshov said, describing the urban rhythm of restaurants and concerts and his students going on dates. “This tragedy gets pushed to the periphery.”

In Moscow, Putin’s new ideology of war is on display at the Victory Museum — a sprawling hilltop compound dedicated to the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany. One new exhibit, “NATOzism,” declares that “the purpose of creating NATO was to achieve world domination.” A second, “Everyday Nazism,” includes artifacts from Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, which has far-right connections, as evidence for the false assertion that Ukraine is committing “genocide” against Russians.

“It was scary, creepy and awful,” one patron named Liza, 19, said of what the exhibit had shown her, declining to give her last name because of the political sensitivity of the subject. She said she was distressed to learn of this behavior by the Ukrainians, as presented by Russian propaganda. “It shouldn’t be that way,” she said, signaling her support for Putin’s invasion.

Hundreds of students were visiting on a recent afternoon, and primary schoolchildren marched in green army caps as their chaperone called out, “Left, left, one, two, three!” and addressed them as “soldiers.” In the main hall, the studio of Victory TV — a channel started in 2020 to focus on World War II — was filming a live talk show.

“The framework of the conflict helped people to come to terms with it,” said Denis Volkov, the director of the Levada Center, an independent pollster in Moscow. “The West is against us. Here are our soldiers, there are the enemy soldiers, and in this framework, you have to take sides.”

Weeks after launching his invasion, Putin declared that Russia faced a much-needed “self-purification of society.” He has glibly wished “all the best!” to Western businesses that left the country and said their departures created “unique development opportunities” for Russian companies. But in Khabarovsk, a city on the Chinese border in Russia’s Far East, Vitaly Blazhevich, a local English teacher, says the locals miss Western brands such as H&M, the clothing retailer. When it came to the war, he went on, the dominant emotion was one of passive acceptance and the hope that things would end soon.

“People are nostalgic for what turned out to have been the good times,” he said.

Blazhevich taught at a Khabarovsk state university until he was forced to resign on Friday, he said, for criticizing Putin in a YouTube interview with Radio Liberty, the American-funded Russian-language news outlet. They were the kind of comments that would probably not have been punished before the war. Now, he said, the government’s repression of dissent “is like a steamroller” — “everyone is just being rolled into the asphalt.”

Malofeyev, the conservative tycoon, said Russia still needed another year “for society to cleanse itself completely from the last fateful years.” He said anything short of “victory” in Ukraine, complete with a parade in Kyiv, could still cause some of the last year’s transformation to be undone.

“If there is a cease-fire in the course of the spring,” he said, “then a certain liberal comeback is possible.”

In Moscow, at the farewell event at the Sakharov Center, some of the older attendees noted that in the arc of Russian history, a Kremlin crackdown on dissent was nothing new. Yan Rachinsky, chair of Memorial, the rights group forced to disband in late 2021, said the Soviets banned so much “that there was nothing left to ban.”

“But you can’t ban people from thinking,” Rachinsky went on. “What the authorities are doing today does not guarantee them any longevity.”

Published 19 February 2023, 18:09 IST

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