Russia: Explosions hit electrical substations in Belgorod
Roman* has always been curious about what other people think. What they think about food, what they think about other countries.
What they think about film and music and the weather. What they think about the past and politics and current events.
“I have always been interested in what is in their minds,” he told Express.co.uk. But in Russia, such curiosity comes at a cost.
Today, the country is engaged in a war that it tells its people isn’t a war. In March 2022, Moscow criminalised the use of words like “war”, “invasion”, and “assault” to describe what is happening in Ukraine. Anyone caught using these words faces up to 15 years in prison.
“Many people don’t support the war,” Roman said. “But many people do. I sometimes think it would be an interesting mental exercise to think about this: what if one day these people wake up and realise that they don’t support Putin, they don’t support the war? What might happen to them?”
Roman says all of this from an apartment somewhere in Moscow. From his window he sees people go about their day-to-day business: children run to school, people stroll by with their shopping. Others are dressed in suits, travelling to their offices. Couples walk hand-in-hand, blind to their surroundings.
In speaking to Express.co.uk, Roman risks everything. In June 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin passed an updated version of the country’s foreign agent bill. The new interpretation declares anyone “under foreign influence” or receiving any kind of support from abroad as a “foreign agent”. This includes talking to the foreign press, a crime that can lead to a 15-year prison stint.
All of this has created an environment of apathy in Russia. While Roman says “to live in Moscow is fine, it’s just like it was two years ago, it is quite a normal life”, the way in which he and his countryfolk live day-to-day is anything but normal. Repression is everywhere.
In the past 10 years, but especially since February 2022, intense surveillance has been key in Putin’s intensified political repression campaign, a repression that prevents people from speaking openly and in clear terms about their thoughts and feelings on politics and life in Russia.
Nancy Ries, Professor of Anthropology at Colgate University in the US, has studied social and cultural transformation in Russia for the better part of her life. She says this repression has bled into many aspects of Russian life and by different means: “People feel watched by coworkers, customers, and others in their workplaces. Students and teachers are surveilled in schools, universities, and during special events, and the range of politically acceptable views has become narrower and narrower,” she told Express.co.uk.
“In all settings — but especially sensitive ones like educational institutions — it is not enough to remain silent: people are expected to perform and communicate their enthusiasm for the Putin government and for the war against Ukraine (wearing ‘Z’ pins and shirts, engaging in rituals of military patriotism, and so on).
“Many people disagree with the attack on Ukraine and the repressive politics within Russia and want to communicate that. But overt challenges to the Putin regime’s positions can get regular people in serious trouble.”
Prof Ries talks of friends currently living in Russia and the despair they feel at being unable to effect change. Rather than grouping together to challenge Putin, “they are living in deeper and deeper horror and despair […] they are horrified and ashamed about what the Russian military is doing to Ukraine […] they see no future for Russia, no return to any kind of decency and normality.
“What if one day these people wake up and realise that they don’t support Putin, they don’t support the war? What might happen to them?”
It is no surprise. The few that have spoken out against Putin in Russia face their entire lives being pulled out from beneath them. Alexei Navalny, the most high-profile Putin critic, was sentenced to nine years in prison after he was found guilty of large-scale fraud and contempt of court in March, charges he and his supporters say are fabricated.
In the years before, Mr Navalny was poisoned with Novichok and was the victim of a Zelyonka attack, a green solution thrown on his face that can cause visual impairment. This week, new investigations were opened by the state on terrorism charges that could see him sentenced to another 30 years in prison on top of the 11-and-a-half he is already serving. He says he faces being stuck in prison beyond 2050. And that is just for now.
Similarly, vocal Putin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza was in April sentenced to 25 years in prison for treason and other charges related to his criticism of the Ukraine war. He had previously been poisoned twice.
On top of this, thousands of anti-war protestors across Russia were arrested in the immediate aftermath of the 2022 invasion. Even foreign nationals are not safe. The recent detainment of US journalist Evan Gershkovich on charges of espionage reveals the extent to which the Kremlin is willing to go to send a message to its people: do not speak out.
It isn’t anything new: such acts of forced conformity and silencing were prevalent throughout the time of the Soviet Union. But these are high-profile cases, anomalies in the grand scheme of things. How exactly do normal, everyday Russians think and feel about it all?
“Everyone in Russia knows we are repressed,” Roman said. “Perhaps some people don’t, and they can live without this knowledge. Maybe even some of the people who know they are repressed play mental gymnastics with themselves and make themselves believe that they are doing the right thing.
“Maybe the people who enforce the repression don’t see it as repression but as the right thing to do with traitors. Many are easy-minded people, like the wind. They lie to themselves, I think.”
Online and in interviews, members of the public have asked: how can this be? How can Russian people sit back and watch what is happening without so much as a morsel of opposition?
It is far more complex than simply refusing to stand up to Putin, says Dr Colin Alexander from Nottingham Trent University, who specialises in propaganda and political communications. “Life in Russia has as you would expect simply gone on as normal,” he told Express.co.uk.
“Russia isn’t under aerial bombardment. There isn’t a threat to life on the streets of St. Petersburg or Moscow — certainly no greater threat to life than normal muggings and whatever.
“So, people have to get on with things. I speak to people in academia in Russian universities and it is as if nothing is happening — and they’re critical thinkers. There’s an element of fear at play, and it’s the fear of the unknown.”
“Many people disagree with the attack on Ukraine… But overt challenges to the Putin regime’s positions can get regular people in serious trouble.”
He says what is currently playing out in Russia happens in all countries at war, “where we see what is acceptable and what is unacceptable being squeezed” in public life.
He continued: “Almost to be on the safe side, in that public sphere, that public representation, you are more careful and more diligent over what you say. Not necessarily because you know something’s going to happen to you, but just because you want to avoid drawing any attention to yourself.
“This isn’t just about the foreign agent laws, which are clear legality around censorship, this is also about self-censorship.”
Roman says he sees comments online all the time asking why Russian people seem to follow Putin blindly: “They say, ‘Why are Russians so much like sheep? So much like slaves?’ But I’m pretty sure these people who leave these comments didn’t do anything for their freedom,” he said.
“They just enjoyed the freedom that the previous generation has built, right? If these people were in Russia, they would be serfs and slaves and sheep, I’m sure. I think that bad people sometimes win. In other countries, in Europe, they are lucky that good people won sometime earlier in life, in their histories.”
According to Roman, Russian people aren’t following Putin so much as they are plunging their heads into the sand. Years of despair and shifts in social and political standards outside the control of everyday people have left many Russians with the belief that they cannot influence external forces, and so they declare themselves apolitical, including Roman.
He explained: “It’s good to be apolitical in Russia because it’s less stressful for you. You might end up in jail if you think otherwise. Ever since the Soviet Union it has been like this if you become too involved in politics.
“It’s called escapism. People just don’t tend to think about it. Yes, I think it might be bad in the long term, to not think about politics. But in the short term, I think it’s good.”
To say that Russians don’t speak and think about politics isn’t strictly true, however. Throughout our conversation, Roman carefully and intricately talks about politics, the Ukraine war, and Putin by talking around them. He alludes to things, poses hypotheses and scenarios. He talks about history and other parallels between then and now without mentioning the now.
It is a phenomenon that first appeared in the Soviet Union, known as “Aesopian language”. As Prof Ries explained: “Russians use metaphors and double entendres so that their overt views are hidden and so they can deny they made a politically charged statement.”
It may even present itself in Russians posting images to social media of seemingly normal situations and objects that beneath the surface hint at an extremely abnormal environment.
Not only does this allow Roman to talk about his opinions without explicitly revealing them, but it also acts as what is perhaps at least one vice Russians have left: humour.
When I ask Roman what he thinks of Putin, he replies: “Putin… I would say that… I don’t even think about him. So I I can’t say straight away what I think about him. I need to find these thoughts in my mind,” before adding: “He probably enjoys his life. Maybe he thinks he’s in heaven.”
Then, when asked what he thinks the future holds for Russia, he says without so much as a pause: “Maybe they will build some sort of wall around Russia? The biggest wall in the world.
“Or maybe they will bring in groups of young ladies for the next dictator, different groups to pleasure him. Or maybe he likes young boys? Different types of dictators exist. I read that Mao liked young ladies. Maybe these groups already exist in Russia.”
But humour alone can’t save Russian people. A temporary plaster covering a growing wound, Roman’s reflections on Russians chasing “escapism” could haunt the country for years to come.
Stuck in a quagmire, there is a danger in refusing to acknowledge the outside. As Prof Ries noted: “One thing I’ve seen over the Putin years in Russia is that many intellectuals and artists pooh-poohed the danger of the Putin regime, preferring to believe that they could go on about their work, live outside of politics and leave the machinations of the state alone. The past year has shown the fallacy of that kind of thinking.”
*names have been changed to protect source’s identity.
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