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Feeling around for something human Why do Russians support the war against Ukraine? Shura Burtin investigates.
For more than two months now, many Russians have openly supported the Kremlin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine — choosing to close their eyes to executions and rapes, the shelling of peaceful cities, unthinkable destruction, and millions of people losing their homes. Journalist Shura Burtin spent several weeks talking to Russian citizens about their thoughts and feelings about the war. For Meduza, Burtin recounts how fear and a sense of humiliation defeated Russians’ humanity.
Please note. This article was originally published in Russian on April 24, 2022.
“I don’t understand why people in Russia are silent!” This cry was heard across hundreds of Ukrainian posts during the first weeks of the war. “Do they really support this? Do they not care? We’re getting bombed and they are too scared to get fined for protesting? Maybe they don’t know what is happening? Somebody, tell them!”
After Bucha and Kramatorsk, Ukrainians seem to have stopped caring what Russians think. But I too couldn’t understand how the majority of Russians could possibly support all of this. It seemed nightmarish, you just wanted to run from it.
For many decades, everyone had been asking if Germans in 1939 really didn’t understand what was going on. We’ve wondered how an entire nation, all of those regular people, decided to go along with total insanity. It occurred to me that today, we’re in a position to answer this question.
My friend Alisa, a sociologist whose name has been changed, and I started walking around Moscow and asking random people how they felt about the war in Ukraine. We thought that what was going on was so insane, everyone must have questions about it. Half of the people we asked refused to talk to us. The other half were usually open to fairly in-depth conversations. Later, I talked to people in the Kaluga and Kostroma regions. We conducted over 50 interviews in total. They are not intended to be representative. We just wanted to get some sense of what was going through people’s heads. To enter into the darkness and feel around for something human.
Two men in their fifties hanging out next to a sports field in a Moscow park explained that they’d had a soccer club since they were kids that met here on the weekends. One of them really was wearing a soccer uniform, although neither of them had a ball. The men were drinking cranberry liquor and snacking on roast pork. They both fully supported the “special operation.”
“My buddy’s wife is from Kharkiv. They were just bombing him the other day, but it seems to be quiet now,” one of them said. “Sounds like [the Russian troops] took the city. Irka, my wife, talked to them – they were hiding out in their basement. They said they were shooting at them. But it’s not our guys doing the shooting — why would they do something like that? I’m sick and tired of talking about this, if I am going to be honest. They’ve even forgotten all about covid here now. You walk through the kitchen, the wife’s there, and the TV is just blaring the same things, over and over, blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah.”
“Do you know anyone who’s against the war?”
“Everyone is against war! What are you talking about? What, do you think I support war? I’m against it, too! It’s the politicians, that Zelensky… He handed out weapons [to everyone], it’s really awful. Of course I’m against it! We only have one life to live — how can we spend it fighting?”
“Do you think that the people in Ukraine support their government?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“And how do you think they feel about our invasion?”
“Judging by what I’ve seen on TV, they’re extremely happy about it,” the second man said. “Everything had been planned and seen to ahead of time. The invasion of such a big country that’s spat in the face of the whole entire world. I’m no politician, this is just my extremely subjective opinion.”
We ended up hearing that phrase many times. People recited the propaganda spiels from state television verbatim, and then explained that they were only expressing their purely subjective opinions. Like the majority of the people we talked to, the men at the soccer field were against war in general, but very much in favor of this particular war, and didn’t see any contradiction in this.
In order to get people off script, we’d ask what exactly they’d felt at various specific moments: when they learned about the start of the “special operation,” when they talked about it with their loved ones, or right at the moment of the conversation that we were having. These questions usually disturbed people, we saw troubled face after troubled face. One thing was clear: what people felt was quite indirectly connected to what they told us.
“What did you feel?”
“I fully support our President’s decisions!”
This is a completely uniform and somewhat strange answer we heard again and again when asking people “What did you feel?” It came up eight times out of ten. Usually, this was stated in a provocative tone, with a bit of a furrowed brow, as if we’d already started an argument. We’d ask people to tell us more, and then they would launch into the story about the threat of NATO and “Nazis” in Ukraine.
If we dug deeper, we’d see that everyone uses these formulas for their own personal reasons. People construct their own worldviews out of the bricks provided by propaganda, but each individual does so in their own unique way. This ultimately allows us to see the person behind the wall of bricks.
Some people believe that support for the war comes out of the propaganda itself. In a way, this is true, of course. But why do people believe it? The formulas work because people can use them for their own ends. The public are the victims of propaganda but, at the same time, it’s made-to-order just for them.
Almost every conversation we had was filled with contradictory convictions that routinely astounded us.
○ ○ ○
“Everyone’s so excited, they’re rubbing their hands together, they’re so happy they’ve pitted one nation against another,” A Moscow taxi driver told me. “Go ahead, fight, destroy one another! They’ve always wanted to take down Russia and drain its blood. Yes, it’s a bad situation, it’s really hard, but I don’t think it could have happened any other way.”
○ ○ ○
“I exchanged some money today, I got dollars. But it’s fine, everything’s going to be alright, we’ll get off the dollar soon enough.”
“They keep pushing all that on the youth — the fascism and the anti-war stuff.”
○ ○ ○
“Did Russia attack Ukraine?” [Editor’s note: in this section, the author’s questions are in italics]
“No. I mean yes, but we didn’t do it first.”
○ ○ ○
“There wasn’t any other way.”
“Did you believe that a month before the war started?”
“It never even crossed our minds.”
○ ○ ○
“We’re liberating them.”
“But what if the people there are against it?”
“Well, that may be the case. But we’re not fighting civilians. It just happened to be that they live where all that is happening.”
○ ○ ○
“Do you think that Ukraine would have attacked us?”
○ ○ ○
“We treat Ukrainians perfectly fine here, don’t we?”
“A lot of people have told us they thought the ‘khokhols [a derogatory term for Ukrainians] need to be punished’.”
“Exactly! They need to be punished!”
○ ○ ○
“Just like they have different states in America, everyone should be united here: Ukraine, the Chuvash Republic, all of us should be together as brotherly nations, basically like the USSR with the republics. They broke all that up, divvied it up. Like a huge corporation — you break it up into parts and then buy them up cheap.”
“You don’t consider Ukraine a sovereign nation?”
“I consider Donetsk and Luhansk sovereign nations. They declared their independence, so let them have it! Why don’t you let them have it?!”
In the early days of the war, I was on a Moscow tram from Novokuznetskaya to Chistye Prudy. An older woman of about 70 sat down across from me and suddenly, out of nowhere, started cursing out “traitors”— there’d been an anti-war rally somewhere downtown that day. I told her that I am a “traitor,” too, and that set her off instantly. She turned to face me and started screaming completely insane and horrifically angry things at me.
“I would just shoot every last one of you if I could! You’re selfish! They don’t like the war! Then why don’t you go fight in it, huh? Why don’t you go to war! Those khokhols have always been that way! I worked in Ternopil, and there was a woman there, she told me back then, ‘If I could, I would shoot every last one of you moskals!’ You think that’s normal? Tell me!”
She was acting like a real ghoul, her yelling was completely absurd and totally contradictory. But there was no point in calling out her contradictions. In fact, what she really wanted to say was concealed within them.
We noticed that people’s true feelings weren’t expressed in parroted narratives, but in their offhand remarks, misstatements, threats, evasions, contradictions, intonations, glances, and gestures.
One elderly bureaucrat that we stopped in a shopping mall with his wife would turn away from me every time I asked him something uncomfortable, just like a child, and stand with his back to me. They were a really touching couple, incredibly kind, they wouldn’t hurt a fly. They passionately and sincerely supported the war. The husband listened to my questions about the bombing of Kharkiv with his eyes full of terror. And then he got out his pen and carefully took down the information from my press badge.
We entered a small cafe in a small town in the Kaluga region. Two neatly-dressed young women who worked at the district administration sat at the far table. They didn’t mind talking to a journalist even one bit, in fact, it made their lunch that much more exciting.
“Doesn’t the war scare you?”
“Nope. I’m a patriot,” said one of the well-kempt women cheerfully. “The only thing I’m against is the global policy toward Russian athletes. I don’t feel bad for the conscripts, or the Ukrainians, or the Russians, soldiers, or civilians — the only people that I feel bad for are athletes! They won’t let them go anywhere! H [an athlete] built his whole life around defending his country’s honor, training 14 hours a day…”
“And you find that more upsetting than young civilians dying for no reason?”
The woman spoke loudly, surveying the room, like she was giving a speech. She showed off her cynicism while her friend snuck sidelong glances at me curiously.
I’d heard this ranting about the Olympics a million times already. It’s a great reason to be upset. Then you don’t need to think about how you feel about all the cities being bombed. All you need is to remember how much they hurt our athletes or Valery Gergiev (a brilliant conductor!) and then the war just retreats into the background.
“We’re not at war! There’s just some combat as part of the special liberation operation. If our troops hadn’t gone there, theirs would have come to us!”
The woman rattled off all of these tropes with obvious pleasure at their rhetorical power. It seemed she believed that this power was capable of defining what is considered the truth. I listened for her intonations: she sounded brazen and heartless.
“Why do you think that Ukraine would have attacked us?”
“[Baba] Vanga predicted Russia would become a global empire by 2026. And there’s no other way to become a great superpower. Throughout all of history, this only became possible through the annexation of various territories.”
Four of the people we talked to referred to the mystic Baba Vanga, likely out of a need to depict what’s happening as predetermined.
“So are we taking over Ukraine?”
“No, we are liberating it. We’re not trying to take anything over. They can go ahead and fiddle around over there as much as they like.”
This phrase, “fiddle around,” exemplifies the disdainful attitude toward Ukraine, which I found to be extremely popular.
The woman was not upset about contradicting herself. For her, it was all just a game of ping-pong — light-hearted trolling. All of these questions about the war were nothing but enemy discourse, she only wanted to keep hitting the ball back at her opponent. But to me, it seems that making contradictory claims also makes a certain kind of psychological sense.
- “The Americans want to take over Ukraine. What a country they have!” “No one needs that stupid Ukraine for anything! They’re nothing but bums…”
- “The simple folk are waiting for us to get rid of the Nazis!” “The khokhols have always hated us!”
- “But we’re one people!” “They’ve never been human over there!”
- “Putin did the right thing by starting the war. We’ve needed to put things straight for a long time now!” “America is just rubbing its hands together, pitting the Slavs against one another.”
- “It’s a difficult situation but I don’t think that we had a choice!” “The Europeans provoked it themselves, ‘C’mon Putin, when are you going to attack Ukraine?’.”
- “If we hadn’t done it, they would have attacked us first!’ “They don’t know how to fight, they use human shields…”
There’s something trance-like about a person saying one thing and then immediately following it up with the opposite. It feels like a response to having their back up against a wall. The mind doesn’t understand how to react to what’s happening; saying things that contradict each other safely distances it from reality. It makes it so that it’s almost like you’re not even here anymore.
“So you really don’t care that people are dying?” I asked the young woman.
“Look: no matter what I tell you right now, nothing is going to change. Even if we transform how we feel about it — what good will that do, anyway? It won’t do anything. So what’s the point? Why even think about it? Think about your friends and family, instead. Show them more love.”
○ ○ ○
That evening, at the same cafe, we ran into a fashionable young man with a goatee.
“What, you don’t like Uncle Vova? You’re into that dummy Zelensky? Uncle Vova will show him, don’t worry. And I support him whole-heartedly.”
After that guy left, my friend said she knew him. He’s a big wholesale drug dealer who runs his business far away from Moscow so he can lay low. A guy who “Uncle Vova” would only be too happy to put behind bars for 15 years still supported him.
“It’s just because he’s doing so well, he likes things the way they are,” my friend explained.
Later on, I had a many hours-long conversation with a young deacon-slash-businessman. He was trying to prove to me that Russia was the freest country in the world because no one got in the way of him making money. He also completely supported the “special operation,” comparing Ukraine to a “teenage drug addict” that needed to be “forced into rehab.”
What all three of them had in common was that they were all “doing so well.” They had something to lose so they didn’t want to think about anything so unpleasant. Aligning oneself with power is a successful survival strategy — you get much more bang for your buck that way.
No Contradictions Whatsoever
Only one of the people who I encountered had absolutely no clue what was happening in Ukraine. She was 30 and worked in a small-town bakery. It felt like she was sincerely shocked by my questions.
“What do you feel about Ukraine?”
“Well, Russia’s going to win.”
“What’s happening there?”
“People tell me they’re getting rid of the Nazis. My neighbors told me that Chechen soldiers are fighting over there on our side. It’s all good. No matter what, we will win.”
“Are they bombing the cities?”
“Are our men bombing the cities?” She paused to consider the question. “I don’t think so. The Ukrainians are staging it all and making fake videos.”
“And what do the people there feel?”
“They’re all running to Russia. They feel a lot safer here. Ukraine is filled with terrorists, they are the ones bombing them. They don’t care: women, children… They’re literally Nazis and terrorists. We stand for peace, not war. We never wanted this war. They are the ones who wanted it.”
“Ukrainian troops invaded Russia?”
“They’ve been preparing for this war for eight years. They dug trenches and stockpiled weapons. They weren’t just getting ready for nothing, were they?”
“They were getting ready to attack Russia?”
“Well, not attack…But didn’t they want that?..What, are you pro-Ukraine? I don’t really want to answer any more questions.”
I could tell that she truly didn’t even suspect that her ideas might not correspond to reality. She just believed what she heard on TV and it had never crossed her mind to actually become interested in the reality of the war, to think differently. She looked at me fearfully, like I had offered her some illicit substance.
A pair of trendy young men we ran into at the mall were a totally different story. They understood what was happening perfectly and they supported the war, the bombing of cities, and the killing of civilians. One of them, a powerfully-built young man with cold eyes calmly told me that he would gladly go kill “all of them” himself.
“I thought Uncle Vova was gonna blow up Ukraine back in 2016 when they came out to that rally carrying pictures of Bandera. The Grads [multiple rocket launchers] should’ve gone nonstop, who gives a shit about civilians.”
“You really don’t care about them?”
“Of course not. Why would I? Did the Nazis care about our civilians?”
“But maybe that was because they were Nazis?”
“To them, we were the Nazis and they were the Nazis to us.”
“Should civilians be sacrificed?”
“Uh-huh. Should we put up with fascism in the 21st century? It’s a threat to the entire world.”
But this kind of simplicity was completely unique. Everyone else we talked to had a sense of what was actually going on and was trying to defend themselves from this knowledge. “You feel bad for people, but what can you do? You gotta break eggs to make an omelet.”
Us and Them
There were a handful of bitter women of around 60 who all held the same unshakeable beliefs. They thought that Ukraine had nuclear and biological weapons (one of them even claimed that they were already having an effect on her) and generally just repeated outlandish conspiracy theories they’d heard on TV. All they knew was a hermetically contrived version of reality.
“We gave the Ukrainian soldiers food and drink then we let them go. I think that we were way too humane with them. They’re over there skinning our prisoners of war alive. You think that’s okay?”
“I was really scared that they [the Ukrainian army] were going to start bombing Rostov, Tsimlyansk. They have all that equipment, those weapons, they’re being pumped up, like, ‘Kill Russians, kill Russians’,” said another shopper at the mall, a sixty-year-old woman pulling a bag on wheels. “I know that what’s going on in Kyiv, it’s nonstop horror. No one’s in power, it’s total anarchy, [the Ukrainians] will only be grateful if we come in and get rid of the comrades who are prepared to kill every last Ukrainian. That’s what those nationalists want — to cleanse the area of Ukrainians.”
Incredibly, every one of these women had friends or relatives in Ukraine. They’d even talked to them since the war began. Only they had completely refused to listen to what the Ukrainians had told them.
“Ukrainians are bastards,” the woman with the rolling bag continued. “I have a friend over there, she wrote to me, ‘Stop calling me.’ Because they come after them if they’re pro-Russian. If she says anything good about Russia at all, they’ll come after her.”
It was extremely difficult to get these women to tell us what exactly their friends and relatives told them.
“You know…The negative…”
○ ○ ○
I’d heard that word already, from my mother. On the third day of the war, I went over to her house and she suddenly started talking about targeted strikes and “where were we looking for the past eight years.” I started telling her about the bombings, about a girl I knew in Kharkiv who’d called me, terrified, during a break in the shelling. I explained that there was a real war going on and that I didn’t understand how people refused to see this monstrous thing. My mother sat there stupefied, staring down at the floor.
“People are tired of negativity,” she sighed.
That phrase explained something. In the past 20 years, every time I’ve happened to overhear what’s being said on television, they were frightening people with something: migrants, “Gayropa,” Banderites — the main thing is that these people are just “others.” I suppose that the audience itself had wanted this. Having something specific to fear was more manageable than the free-floating terror of the unknown that people were forced to live with during the 1990s.
Now, all of these women preferred to believe in imaginary threats rather than the real ones that their loved ones were working so hard to tell them about over the phone.
“She doesn’t tell me what she actually thinks,” a woman in a Moscow mall said of her friend in Ukraine. “It’s all negativity. She talks about the negative, trying to prove to me…” the woman made some fleeting, ephemeral gestures and faces meant to convey the fact that her friend was intentionally lying to her because she was scared that her phone calls were being intercepted.
“Do you have relatives in Ukraine?” we asked another woman.
“I do. And they brainwash them good over there. They didn’t know anything about Donetsk or Luhansk, they were completely fine. But now that a missile has hit an airbase five kilometers [three miles] away from their house, they’re all ‘Oh my! Lordy-lordy!’”
“Did you call them? How did it go?”
“Badly. I was really hoping my sister would come here [from Ukraine] so I could sit her down and turn on Rossiya-24 and make her watch that for a week — maybe it’d set her straight.”
“And what do you think would happen to you if they sat you down in Ukraine?”
“I’d never go there! They’re too good at brainwashing!”
It turned out that one of the women who passionately supported the war had a Ukrainian husband.
“And how does he feel right now?” we asked her.
“How does he feel?! He’s worried about his mother, he’s scared.”
“What do you think the Ukrainians feel?”
“Are you provoking me? I told you already, I’m for it!”
I understand that her husband doesn’t think exactly like her. However, this only feeds her conviction, leaving her without any room for doubt.
“I have some friends that I went to school with and they have relatives in Ukraine,” said a clearly kind woman, the wife of a retired bureaucrat. “I went over to their house and they were so negative about it! Thank God we don’t have any relatives there.”
She knew that if she had loved ones there, she’d have to come face-to-face with an irreconcilable contradiction and wouldn’t be able to protect herself anymore. So she was glad not to have any.
“Write this down: I’m all for it! They have their propaganda and we have ours. I believe what they’re telling us here,” a cleaner at a Moscow market told me guilelessly. “My friend from school moved there, she lives in Kyiv. We correspond, we almost got married, even. Then suddenly, we have opposite opinions. They shot up an ambulance over there. She thinks that it’s the DNR militia, that they did it on purpose. But we know that it was their own men that did that. Why would we ever gun down an ambulance? I can’t get my head around it. I read that and I stopped writing her. She’s become a completely different person…”
I was surprised that he had so easily become afraid of a woman he’d been in love with. He just gave up all of his plans for his personal life in order to feel like he was right.
Ukrainians are constantly asking, “Do Russians really not know what is going on?” The answer is no, most of them don’t. But they understand anyway. Fifteen minutes into every conversation, supporters would casually mention that yes, we were probably bombing the cities, people were dying, and everyone in Ukraine hates us. On some level, they understood everything — only they didn’t know it. And they refused to know, even when being confronted with direct evidence from their loved ones.
A ‘Brotherly Nation’
I’ve noticed that the words “brotherly nation” don’t actually mean anything to the majority of people. They’re nothing but rhetoric. People in Kharkiv and Mariupol may still speak Russian but no one in Russia actually considers them “one of us.” Fraternity, the sense of belonging to a single nation, doesn’t come from having a common language, it comes from daily experience, a million tiny connections, phone calls, common causes, living relationships. There’s been incomparably less of all that since the fall of the Soviet Union.
“I wanted to go fight, I went down to the enlistment office,” a man selling clothes at the market admitted to me. “Wouldn’t fucking take me.”
“Why did you want to enlist?”
“I wanted to do a bit of fighting, a bit of shooting.”
“Kill some people?”
“I’m a driver and a mechanic, what do I care? I’ll go where they tell me.”
“You’d really go kill Ukrainians?”
The man looked at me like I’d suddenly started speaking English to him.
“I don’t want them to send my son. Let him raise his kids, I can go. He has a daughter, plus a baby born in December, my grandson. I can afford to go.”
“[Do Ukrainians] hate us? Well, they have the right to. The khokhols have already gone too far, to be honest,” a soldier on leave told us at a shopping center. “No one really cares what they think anymore.”
He immediately added, “Who’d want to sit in a basement, in the cold, hungry? I know what it’s like to be under Uragan fire — I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. You’re completely defenseless. It’s really scary. No one within a two-soccer field radius has any chance of survival. I know what war is.” He was a passionate supporter of the “special operation.”
I think that if Siberia had broken off from Russia during perestroika, people today would be just as calm about bombing Novokuznetsk or Kemerovo.
“You’re not shocked by the war?” I asked two women sitting together at the food court.
“No. I support the war,” one of them answered.
“Could you imagine a war between Russia and Ukraine happening in Soviet times?”
“Of course not! That’s why, as Soviet people, we’re fine with it now!”
People we talked to kept bringing up their personal experiences with “Ukrainian nationalism.” Every unpleasant incident was treated like it was systemic.
“When they blew up our airplane in Egypt, my friend was down there, and there were these Ukrainians staying at her hotel,” a woman at a mall told us. “She told me, ‘You should have seen how happy they were.’ I wanted to get a machine gun and shoot them all then and there.”
“Why can’t we bomb them?” a large elderly man selling honey at a market in the Kaluga region demanded angrily. Then he told the story of how he’d gone to Lviv when he was young at the invitation of a friend. “They said, ‘Listen up, moskal. If you weren’t here visiting one of ours, you wouldn’t get out alive.’ That was back in the eighties. Now it’s even stronger, this hatred toward me.”
This refrain, “they’ve always hated us,” came up in two out of three conversations, alongside “but they’re a brotherly nation” and “there’s no such thing as Ukrainians.”
“What is Ukraine, actually? When did it come into being? It’s a completely artificial construct!” a Moscow taxi driver maintained.
“They’re all Russians. The fact that they’ve messed with their heads and they’re all messed up now — that’s temporary,” a woman hotly debated with me. She had a sister in Ukraine. “It’ll only make us closer as brothers!”
“After this situation?”
“There’s no situation!”
○ ○ ○
Of course, the bombing of Kharkiv and Mariupol only became possible through the tireless efforts of the propagandists over the course of the past eight years. The idea that the Ukrainians hate us allows people to shield themselves from the terrible truth.
The idea that “they are strangers to us, we can bomb them” coexists with Russians’ view of Ukraine as a part of our country that should be returned to us.
The general feeling of ruin and catastrophe from the 1990s has been colored with “national humiliation”: “They’re persecuting Russians.” And the propaganda in recent years has worked to inflate that feeling. “Ukrainian Russophobia” is particularly insulting to Russians because “They know what we’re like and now they don’t want to have anything in common with us anymore: they turn away from us, they betray us, they’re leaving us behind.”
I think that the specter of the enemy in people’s minds is unconscious and ancient. For them, speeches in which Nazis and gay pride parades are actually one and the same contain no contradictions. The swastika and the rainbow flags are just different external manifestations of the Other, “There are people like us, and then there are others who are always against us.” The Ukrainians have betrayed “us” and become “them.”
There is absolutely no room for an independent Ukraine in this worldview, which is a completely dichotomous: just us vs. them. The propaganda worked hard to get to this archaic sensation in the depths of the subconscious. But I think that people needed that in order to protect an even deeper-set sense of anxiety caused by these new, completely incomprehensible times.
Russia has been afflicted with a mythical image of itself as the vanquisher of forces of evil and chaos for a very long time now; it triumphed over the 1990s, terrorism, the West. This mythic image gives us a reason to live. Putin’s decision to finally defeat this “evil” once and for all makes it especially hard for people to start questioning it now. Because if they do, it will destroy their entire worldview.
“Whose fault is it that the war started?” I asked a taxi driver in Moscow.
“The primary blame has always and will always fall on us. We will never wash our hands of this. They will always judge us for it. They can’t stand us anymore.”
People immediately became defensive, justifying themselves like a husband who’s beaten his wife. “She made me do it, it was inevitable, I didn’t hit her that hard, just enough to knock some sense into her.” People say things like that when deep inside, they know that what they have done is wrong, and they can’t justify it. They know it, but they won’t let themselves be fully conscious of it. If we brought up innocent people dying, the people we talked to would automatically shoot back, “Didn’t they bomb Donbas for eight years?” They wouldn’t let themselves even consider the tragedy for a second, they immediately wanted to pin the blame on somebody else.
“We did the right thing! America did the same thing in Kosovo!” a 35-year-old lawyer in a Moscow shopping mall told us.
“Was it right that they did that?”
“Yes. I mean no…But why are they allowed to do it?”
Many people told me about our inexplicable, unforgivable kindness.
“You know why they don’t like us? It’s because of our kindness. We trust everyone so they pull the wool over our eyes, lie to us, and we forgive everything. The Russian soul is way too kind.”
“They’ve gotten completely brazen, they keep pushing and pushing Russia. When I was in school we helped everyone. If there was an earthquake, everyone in Russia was ready to help. Now their president wants to know: where’s the humanitarian aid? It’s coming from Russia, again! Grain, canned goods!”
“We’re bombing [Ukrainian cities]? Why did they cut off the water in Crimea? We were giving them gas and groceries. They’re just not human over there! How can you do something like that, you have to feed people. I am just amazed by our humanism.”
The war makes people ask questions that need to be radically suppressed. The fact is that we are just abnormally good people. This fairytale version of the war at least makes some sense psychologically.
“What did you feel when the war broke out?” I asked someone.
“The West has never liked us and never will.”
The subject and object switched roles. The emotions our interlocutor has experienced for the past several years shield him against all accusations. The television showed him nothing but how unfairly we were getting treated by everyone everywhere. He got fed up with that feeling and then came the war, our breakup with the entire world, a long-awaited liberation from that toxic relationship.
○ ○ ○
Walking around a small town, we saw a stuffed minivan with two teachers standing next to it. One of them was moving down to Armenia and the other one was helping him pack.
“A lot of people realize that there’s something wrong with what’s going on,” the history teacher said. “They try to find some justification just so they won’t feel so lost. They repeat what they’ve heard on TV, ‘If NATO comes..’ But you can tell that on an emotional level, they’re all having a really hard time. During the annexation of Crimea [in 2014], things were different. People would look you right in the eye and argue [that they were right]. Now, they say the same things, but they keep looking away…”
“The worst thing right now is that it’s going to be the Khasavyurt Accords [which ended the First Chechen War] all over again. They’re gonna stop the war, come to some kind of agreement,” a Moscow taxi driver told me. “But since we already started it, why stop now just to look them in the eyes? We need to fight to the end!”
“I think that we’re bombing our own people and that it’s completely shameful,” I replied. “It’s the same thing as if we were bombing Voronezh.”
When I got out of the car, the driver looked at me strangely. I’d clocked this look a few times over the past several days — it clings to you and lets you know that the person feels unsafe around you and sees you as an enemy. The naive cashier at that bakery started replying to me with that same kind of intonation after I’d asked her a few of my questions, which she had been so surprised by, not understanding what was happening in Ukraine.
One of the days we were out at a mall, we approached a man sitting down at a table. My colleague introduced herself, explained we were journalists, and asked him how he felt about the war. The man cast that same tense glance over both of us and declared, “I completely support the actions of our President.” With that, he blocked his face with the paper bag from his fast food.
We stepped away and then I noticed that the man was now heading to talk to the security guards. He’d intercepted some spies and was rushing to report on us.
“Where are you from, even? Moscow?” The man squinted at us, standing next to the security guard as he went through our documents.
“I’m from Rostov,” my colleague said.
“What’s the main street in Rostov?” he asked, hoping to catch us in the act.
Now that taxi driver was looking at me the same way, like he was wondering whether he should report me to someone. I think that they were all motivated by fear. That’s what had forced them to take a side.
“People are overwhelmed with anxiety. People are dying for no reason. Maybe not for no reason, but you still feel bad for them,” a man at a market stall in the Kaluga district told me. “We need to root out all the Banderism. Show no mercy for anyone, not women, not children, right?” It was like he was asking me. “NATO is creeping up to our borders, right? That’s what they say on TV.”
“They say one thing on our stations and something completely different on theirs,” I replied.
“Oh yeah. My brother’s over there now. A shell hit the front entrance of the neighboring building, six people died. They’re blaming the Russians.”
The man was worried about his brother and vacillated between justifications.
○ ○ ○
“I talked to my dad on the phone yesterday,” my colleague told me. “He’s really worked up even though he’s never been interested in politics before. Suddenly he’s attacking me. ‘What’s Putin ever done to you? He’s the one who made it possible for you to go to college! [Ukraine’s] full of Nazis!’ I said, ‘Papa, what’s up with you?’ He’d never believed the authorities before, he’d always maintained that they were all lying. But people are shaking in their boots right now, they’re so scared, they don’t know what to do with themselves. They don’t even let themselves ask any questions, they just spit out the first available ready-made answer. He’s also afraid that they’re going to throw me and my sister in jail and tries to get us to believe in a less dangerous version of this story.”
Many people said that they felt anxious. Mostly women who didn’t support the war. But I think that supporting the “special operation” was, paradoxically, also an expression of anxiety. Those people didn’t care about their own personal opinions as much as they cared about living through a common experience with others, entrusting themselves to someone.
I was really surprised by Putin’s 80 percent approval rating. I think that this number does not at all mean that there’s also mass support for the war. In fact, it may mean just the opposite: the numbers only demonstrate how afraid people are.
“Everybody humiliates us, when it comes down to it,” a boots and pants seller told me with a smile on his face at a market in the Kaluga region. “Everybody who isn’t Russian is always poking fun at us: when we were kids, always. The past several wars have just been Russians killing other Russians. All those Englishmen and Americans have been laughing their heads off at us, thumbing their noses. I’d launch a missile at England. And at America. So that they’d stop messing with us. No, I am not for the war. But I am sick and tired of them walking all over us!”
The theme of inexplicable humiliation was a very common thread among the supporters of the war, especially older folks.
“They’ve totally beaten down the Russian. Like he’s just a schmo, someone without any morals. I’ve had enough of that at the last few Olympic Games. No flag, no national anthem. It can’t go on like this forever!”
“We can’t have our anthem, we can’t have our flag, they didn’t even let our disabled athletes compete in the Paralympics…”
“We Russians have never lived well,” a beekeeper at the Kaluga market told me with irritation. “Everyone on the outskirts [the Soviet Republics] lived a lot better than us in Soviet times. I’ve never had it easy! Chernobyl, perestroika, all of that other junk. I’m an independent man!” he insisted, raising his voice. “I don’t care who’s in power in this country. Communists, democrats — it doesn’t matter! I’ll always earn my bread! No one can ever have any influence over my morals ever again!” the beekeeper shouted and it was clear that everything wasn’t as he said it was.
“What are you feeling right now?”
“There’s nothing to feel here! You have to wrap things up with a victory for our side. There’s no other option. And there shouldn’t be.”
It was clear that his desire for a victory was a direct response to the many years of indignity and humiliation he’d felt.
“No one cares about what Russia thinks,” the beekeeper continued. “There’s nothing but blame all around. We’re the biggest villains in history now.”
I’d already heard this lament many times, that nobody likes us. It’s some mixture of an inferiority complex and a victim complex. I could see that he, like many others, wanted to picture some external accuser and argue with him. Why? Maybe to feel self-righteous. Or just to exist for somebody else.
“I’m happy my president finally went through with it! Enough, you guys! If you don’t want to respect us, you’ll have to fear us!”
“Are we bombing Kharkiv so that the people in the West will be afraid of us?” I ask him to clarify.
I saw a frightened comprehension in the beekeeper’s eyes. He wasn’t a chump or a bad guy.
“We shouldn’t discuss what the president does while my country is fighting! If the Russian people don’t agree with my president, my country will lose, and I can’t allow that to happen.”
I can more or less guess at what he was hoping for. This is our big chance to prove how badass we are and no one will judge the victors.
For many years, people have run from this feeling of humiliation toward a reality where we have accomplished something magnificent. The sanctity of our Great Victory, the fact that we saved the world from fascism, make it feel like our government, and, by extension, all of us, are all right. The war unites people, it gives them a sense of being part of something. It’s a response to the crisis of purpose, of loneliness.
“I am a Christian so I completely support the operation,” the woman married to a Ukrainian man told us. “The Antichrist will come, you know about that. The Antichrist will come to Germany, to Europe, every Christian knows this.”
I thought she was waiting for the apocalypse so that the external world would finally correspond to her outdated internal nightmare. This sentiment sounded in other exchanges: that finally, things would become very clear. The war was like this culmination of many years of uncertainty, finally banishing it from the land.
“The war comes as a psychological relief after many years of stagnation,” a psychologist friend told me. “It’s like a fire in a prison — at least something exciting is happening.”
To Avoid Being Wrong
I was surprised by something I heard from a 60-year-old man we stopped in the doorway of his home in a small town in the Kaluga region. From his intonation, you could tell that he was a kind and compassionate man.
“What do I feel? Nazis need to be killed. My grandfather fought them and killed them. I don’t have anything against the Ukrainian people, but those ones need to be killed, to be chased into Europe.”
“Do you ever have doubts about this?”
“How could I have any doubts! My grandfather fought — what’s there to doubt? We weren’t the ones who attacked them, unlike those Nazis. Or, okay, let’s say we attacked them. But who’d we attack? Not the people. We attacked Nazis. There are good people there [in Ukraine]. This house,” he pointed at his doorway, “Some guys from Lviv built it for me. If I were to run into them would I shoot them? Of course not!”
Unlike many of the people we talked to, there was no sense that this man was being cynical or dishonest or dumb.
“My friend told me this story. In 1979, they put them [soldiers] on alert without explaining anything. They took away their military IDs, the plane landed, and suddenly they were told where they were. ‘You’re in the Republic of Afghanistan’,” the man continued. “He told me, ‘I climb out from behind a precipice and three meters ahead of me, there’s a muhajid standing there with his back to me. How can I kill that man?’ When you go off to slaughter a piglet — you’re the one who fattened him up, but you’ll still down 100 grams [of alcohol] for courage.’ But he’d never even seen anyone killed before, he was totally green. He shut his eyes, pulled the trigger, and didn’t stop shooting until he ran out of ammo. And when the bombs start falling — of course the people get scared, of course they will hate us.”
That man really shocked me. He understood that there was a real war going on, that civilians were dying, that war was a terrible thing. But he still completely supported the “special operation.” He acknowledged that they were only showing him propaganda on TV, but chose to believe in it. It was as though these contradictory ideas lived in two separate parts of his consciousness, without intersection, not breeding a trace of doubt.
People would not let themselves see that we’d started a terrifying war and were prepared to come up with any feasible explanation in order to protect the image they had of their being good people. Why were they resisting so hard? Why did they find it so unbearable to be mistaken? I thought that this came out of the ancient belief that in the end, the world was fair. The possibility of the absence of justice seemed capable of taking away their last hopes for happiness.
It was clear that they were living inside a dream of pure righteousness, erecting increasingly thicker fortifications around it the scarier things got. In order to shield their correctness, they needed to picture it all in black and white.
When I first heard about the war, I’d had the same reaction, just from the other side. I kept catching myself thinking that I didn’t want to hear about anything that didn’t correspond to my opinions, like stories about Ukrainians who really were happy about the invasion or of Ukrainian soldiers executing wounded prisoners of war. Nuances got in the way of psychological stability, they made me physically ill. The situation demanded simplicity.
I was extremely scared of being wrong. That word rendered all my ideals worthless. I was afraid that I would be forcibly made to believe in some other ideals. I think that everyone’s feeling this kind of threat right now and is protecting themselves however they can.
For example, a friend of mine told me that when they argued about the war with her mother, her mother would always break into angry, accusatory yelling. Then, one time, she suddenly said, with a voice filled with doom, “So what, our soldiers are dying for nothing then?”
Strange as it seems, I thought that Muscovites were noticeably more ideologically charged. In Moscow, support for the war was nervy and uncompromising. In the provinces, most people also supported the “special operation,” but they were more gentle, more willing to see the complexity, to feel compassion for people in Ukraine.
Support for the war drops precipitously whenever someone is forced to face it head on. Like mothers of conscript-aged sons or people who have close relatives in Ukraine (although not all of them). The majority of the people we met who were against the war were guileless women who were not ruled by political convictions, but a visceral horror of war.
One woman, who we found sitting outside of Kyiv Station, looked at us with such shock when we asked her what she was feeling, it was as though she’d been wondering the exact same thing.
“What do I feel? Horror and grief!”
“Can you tell us more?”
“No, I’m sorry, but I won’t discuss that. It’s too personal. I have three sons...”
She broke down crying, jumped up, and quickly walked away.
Maybe four times, I ran into people who got too emotional to speak. One of them was a man who’d been smoking out on the boulevard. He almost broke down during our conversation. When we asked him what he felt, he looked at us fearfully. With quivering lips, and maybe some hope, he started telling us about how he really wanted to get out of Russia, but didn’t understand where he could go with his family.
○ ○ ○
To my great amazement, most of the stall operators at the Kaluga market who had agreed to talk to us about the war were against it. I think it’s because their wages are directly affected by the economic situation, unlike retirees or government employees.
“Oh, I don’t feel a thing, not even a thing of a thing. I feel bad for everyone on both sides.”
“Feelings? Fear, of course, that’s what it makes you feel. You feel bad for people, for kids, on their side, on our side, there is no difference. I’d never thought it would come to this.”
“I feel hurt that we did that to a brotherly nation.”
“I don’t believe anything — they lie to them just like they’re lying to us. Right now, it’s not affecting us, but it’s going to down the line, one day, it’s gonna do a number on us. They took my brother’s son [into the army]. The day before yesterday he got the notice about where to go. How can a mother stand by, watching this happen?”
“Yes, I’m removed from it. We’re Russians, we’re ready for anything,” one vendor told me.
A minute later, she’d run after me to tell me the rest.
“If you try walking around here without that journalist badge, people will tell you what they really think. That it’s the fucking end times.”
It Will All Turn Out Fine
The easiest method for protecting yourself from anxiety is narrowing down the number of things you’re responsible for. You just tell yourself that nothing you do can change anything and then you don’t have to think about anything because you’ve accepted it all as a given. It’s like the way we all know that car exhaust pollutes the environment and yet we keep driving. People have already accepted the war as a given.
“I don’t think that we can know the truth right now. Someday, we will find out what is really going on,” a woman was saying about her daughter who’d hurriedly fled the country because of the war. “Yes, it’s very bad, and Zhenka is over there now, and aunty Lena’s son, and I pray for him every night, so that he’ll come back. But the truth, the deep reasons, if you don’t want to delve into the history, if you’re not doing politics — we can’t see it. I think that there must just not have been any other way.”
“We don’t know anything” was a thesis put forth by many. Women would say that they were praying for somebody in particular but trying not to have an opinion about the situation overall. It felt like the whole population had chosen to be like children who didn’t want to understand anything.
○ ○ ○
“We keep hoping that it will all end well! We hope that it’ll all end quickly!”
○ ○ ○
“What’s going to happen [because of the war starting]? We still have our sugar, we still have our buckwheat.”
○ ○ ○
Men seemed to be more interested in victory, which didn’t concern women very much. Nonetheless, they tried to look at the war through the lenses offered to them by the state that were capable of pacifying them.
“I never expected a war,” a lawyer told us at a Moscow shopping center. “But if the President decided to do that, he must have had his reasons! There’s other considerations at play on that level. It might mean salvation for our country as a whole.”
On one of the first days of the war, my colleague and I approached a mother and daughter who were sitting on swings at the park. The daughter, a young Moscow teacher, was upset by the war. The mother, a government worker who didn’t live in Moscow, was one of the people who thought that “the people in charge are no fools.”
“Young people are maximalists. We probably think about this with a little less passion. I’m not shocked by any of it. But we keep hoping that all of this will wrap up very quickly. We just need to change their government and then everything will be stabilized.”
It was very apparent that she was afraid of the war. She was hoping to skip over it as quickly as possible.
We saw that the war really worried them, but kept hearing people repeat the empty phrase, “It will all turn out fine.” At first, I didn’t understand how understanding the developing tragedy went hand in hand with a refusal to think about it.
“What are the most basic responses to danger? Fight, flight, or freezing,” a psychologist explained to me. “Those who could, fled. Fighting meant joining the aggressor. Freezing, playing dead, is a form of internal emigration. To avoid making any public reaction in order to survive.”
This freezing response was exactly what we were seeing: people refused to take any action, come to any conclusions, and tried to blend in with everyone else. These people only supported the war on paper.
Aligning Oneself with Power
Conversations out in the street gave us a general picture of public opinion but didn’t let us see into the personal lives of the people we talked to. However, we had friends’ stories about how they’d talked to their friends or relatives [who supported the war]. They knew them well and could explain why they had taken up that position.
One friend told us about her dentist, who she had been going to for many years. When the war started, the friend asked everyone who supported the war to unfollow her on Facebook. Her dentist sent her this message:
“As an honest person, I unfollowed you on Facebook. But I am also really upset. I read about it every day, I listen to the news. I am not for this war, of course, I am against people and children dying. But I cannot support your position. I believe that there was no other way for us to proceed. That most likely, this war would have come to our territory. That coming to an agreement with them [the Ukrainians] was unrealistic. I have a ton of patients from there, and my teachers. This is my position, it’s how I feel, and how I live. I don’t want anybody to try to change my mind. I support an authoritarian state, I want there to be a Tsar. I don’t believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or anything else you’re so eager for.”
My friend, who’d known this woman as good and thoughtful, was flabbergasted.
“We’d talked so much. She’s a really meticulous doctor. But she thinks that she is incapable of getting anything good done on her own. That’s her conviction, that Russians can’t do anything of their own volition, they’ll always need to be forced to work, live, and study. They need a strong hand; Putin picked up this country’s pieces and put them back together. She said, ‘What do I need freedom of speech for? What would it change for me, in my life?’ All of this seems infused with exhaustion.”
I have this paradoxical thought: could it be that many Putin supporters actually have a much more pessimistic perspective than those of us who don’t support any of this? I think that the picture my friend painted for me can be captioned “learned helplessness.”
What do Russians think of the war? I think that if we were to boil it all down to a single phrase, it would be: “Well, we lived through the 1990s… ”
○ ○ ○
“My doctor friends, a husband and wife, got into a really big fight because of the war,” my colleague Alisa told me. “They’ve had a terrible falling out for the first time in their lives. Two days after the war began, they were walking down the street when their ten-year-old son asked them what happened. Ninka told him that there was a war, that Russia attacked Ukraine. Then Denis started yelling at her, telling her not to say that stuff to their son.
He started saying that everything was just as it should be. Before that, he’d also been horrified, but now he’d switched over to the other side. Ninka says that she thinks it’s out of fear for their son. It [the truth about the war] seemed too heavy. Maybe he thought that he ought to be doing something but couldn’t understand what that was. He went off in the other direction and wouldn’t come back. He’d blocked off all arguments, started only speaking in slogans. They haven’t even been able to have a normal conversation about it for over a month.
He’d given so much for the life that they’re leading, they have a state-sponsored mortgage. He got his life together, and with that, his trust for the government grew. Then suddenly, bam! This happens, forcing him to have to turn away from the government. What’s he supposed to do, cancel this whole life he’s built?”
○ ○ ○
“On February 24, I went to see my parents,” an acquaintance from Stavropol Krai tells me. “My mom goes, ‘Why are you making that face?’. ‘Well the war started, you know.’ And she says, ‘Oh don’t even. I don’t know anything and I don’t want to know anything.”
He continues: “My grandmother taught her children some basic rules: the boss is always right; don’t stick your nose into other peoples’ business; find a job that lets you sit on your ass in peace — that’s the main one; and the tsar is good. That’s the way my mom was raised. She gets that the TV’s a lot of yakety-yak, but she tries not to think about it too much. The confusing, dark picture it paints is okay with her.
“My sister and I don’t talk. She was a state employee for a while, nothing but “Z” on her social media avatars. In 1939 she’d have been a National Socialist — a Nazi. She smiles and looks at me and I see in her eyes that she’s treating me the way you’d treat a holy fool. Her diploma’s bought, not earned, but she thinks she’s better than me: “We know [what’s really going on], but all my brother can do is try to show off how smart he is.”
“I ran into my brother-in-law. I can see it in his eyes, he’s smiling, he wants to talk to me — I can tell he’s enjoying the situation. He had this phrase, a week before the war: ‘So when are we gonna bomb Kyiv into rubble?’ And now [after a month of war], it’s ‘Heh, heh, everything’s great, it’s all going according to plan.’
The biggest town in our area has around 30,000 [residents]. Cars with the letter ‘Z’ are just part of the landscape. Nobody I know has any doubts. This atmosphere is easy to live in, comfortable. Our lives are going to get worse now? Well, our lives were already bad.”
There was an assumption that once the coffins start arriving in Russian towns, people will start to wonder.
An artist I know tells me, “I’m from the Urals. I called my brother a few days ago. He’s in a small town, everybody there knows each other. And they got six coffins [of Russian soldiers] sent to them in one day. My brother says, ‘The fact is, we should’ve [finished off] that Ukraine a long time ago… Stalin, now, he kept all those fascists, all those enemies of the people, in camps. But Khrushchev let all the Banderites and Chechens out; Gorbachev destroyed a major world power; Yeltsin armed Ukraine and gave Crimea away. And now Putin’s having to deal with the consequences of all that.”
The majority of my friends in Moscow felt that in a single day they lost the things that gave their lives meaning. Everything we’d been holding on to broke. An enormous number of people left, because of that, not just because they were afraid.
But for many people, it was the opposite: everything filled with meaning and hope. Losing their former, pre-war lives wasn’t that big a deal for them. Because what they gained was a powerful conviction of their rightness, a conviction that can’t be broken now, no matter how many train stations are bombed. Maybe life did get harder in some ways, but now there’s hope: we’re going to come together, defeat the evil enemy, get everything back on track.
And it’s very difficult for us to understand each other.
○ ○ ○
I was surprised by one acquaintance of mine who told me she’d wanted to leave Russia after the annexation of Crimea, but now she supports the “special operation.”
“Back in 2014, I said to my husband, either we leave for the West and live by those values, or we stay here and adapt. He didn’t want to leave. I cried for a while, but decided to share the fate of my people.”
During this conversation I discovered that many people support what is going on simply because they believe they have no chance of leaving — or of resisting.
“We just fell for their provocations. NATO bases, bio-weapons… it all makes sense,” said my acquaintance. “Makes no difference whether there actually were any. It’s all very complicated. It’s not so clear-cut.”
“Don’t you think this finger-pointing’s just a diversion?”
“Maybe. But it’s our official position.”
“But why do you have to go along with it?”
“Even if I don’t go along with it, what would that change? The tsar has spoken! You know: when the masters fall out, their men get the clout. Ukraine — they are children, basically. The things they say, the way they’ve trashed the country — and they call that freedom!”
I can tell that her “it’s all not so clear-cut” comes from somewhere deeper than simply justifying official lies. My acquaintance is aware of her own helplessness but considers it the norm; she’s gotten used to living on the defensive, to hiding in her personal life where there’s something that makes sense. But now, when the situation’s especially scary for her, she defends herself by saying what she’s used to feeling: “I’m not bad. They’re bad.”
“It doesn’t matter who’s right. That’s the reality.”
“But we’re going to have to pay the price.”
“I’ve known for a long time we’re going to pay the price for it. We’ll share in both victory and defeat. Or else you should’ve left. It’d really be better for people who are dissatisfied to leave, because we don’t like dissatisfied people here.”
She said she’d share the fate of the country not to brag, but rather to explain she has no choice: the people in her social community like Putin and support the war. She’s obligated to agree with them if she wants to be with them.
“Nobody needs us here!” continued my acquaintance. “And they [the West] don’t give a hoot about average, ordinary Ukrainians! They start these wars, coups, revolutions… for them, people are just — nothing, equipment…”
Strange as it may seem, the first time I sensed a genuine fear of the West was when this young woman said these words; we are average, ordinary people, we’re helpless, all these elemental forces are beyond our control, don’t touch us, don’t do anything to us, don’t tempt us with anything! We have somebody in charge; that’s all we need.
This conversation happened after Bucha. The only thing left for my acquaintance to do was to cover her ears, chase away her thoughts, and just have faith that we are right.
○ ○ ○
“I never find fault in Putin, and especially not now,” a wonderful doctor in a small village in the Kostroma region tells us She continues, “Our president’s okay. I’m calm. He’s not sending our boys to war. He’s sending special forces, not cannon fodder. You can even see it on TV: when he gives a speech about our soldiers, his voice quavers, you can see it right there, he’s a good person. I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s not for us to think about these things. I feel sorry for our boys, but the boys knew what they were getting into. Because we already had Chechnya, Afghanistan. We felt sorry for these children, I had two boys back then… It’d be better if there was no war, that’s the main thing!”
I realized that this woman, who has a very hard life, just has to believe in a normal, kind world that has good people in charge of it.
One time we went up to a man sitting on a bench in Yerevan Plaza, a fancy mall in Moscow. He said pretty much what everyone else did: it’s all a big game.
“There’s a game going on, these military actions with the guys in blue, the little green men. Some serious stuff going on there, in certain circles. They’ve done a lot. But I don’t think that in the Soviet Union, in such a big place, the people are idiots. And so there’s some decisions going on, resolving some specific issues. And there’s something serious there underneath it all. I saw on TV where they showed some white building and somebody was giving an interview, so I watched it, but there was something off about it. I’m military too, I served, I traveled around; we played cards, a strategy game — and we lost. But that’s just my own personal opinion…”
This was getting boring. By now I was tired of listening to all this garbage. But then I noticed that the man was sitting on a towel that had been spread out on the bench, and that next to him there were plastic bags of trash or something, and scraps of food scattered around... and I realized that the man was mentally ill. But his delusions were virtually identical to the delusions of the majority.
“You egoists!” that old lady in the tram had shouted, meaning me, as well as everybody who goes to protests. What makes us egoists? She thought we didn’t want to help her. We are cold, incomprehensible young men and we are about to leave her all alone, with no one to help her in her old age and misery. We’re egoists because we’re not with her, we don’t want to protect her, to cover her up in something warm. She feels she’s going to be left all alone with a completely incomprehensible life. She’s scared, but we couldn’t care less about her.
I realized that for all practical purposes she’s a child. She feels lonely and helpless. She’s afraid of responsibility. She’s also upset that she’s being forced to grow up, and is thus losing the child’s capacity to experience things for the first time, to just be herself. She felt that our rationality is a lie, one that will make her stop being herself.
She wanted to be with people who would protect her from that cold, who would tear down that rationality and let her remain a child. She will wholeheartedly support whoever does things that are insane, because it is precisely those insane acts that directly express what her existence makes her feel. The old lady shouted so we’d hear her. “I exist! Can’t you see?!” shouted that distraught little child, almost as if asking for help.
○ ○ ○
After the Bucha tragedy, a Finn I know, a woman who has lived in Russia for many years, wrote a desperate social media post in Russian. She addressed Russians who support the war and asked how they can live with those thoughts. She couldn’t understand how Russians could explain it to themselves.
Right around that time I saw another post from a long-time acquaintance of mine who wrote that she was “very distressed about the petty and embarrassing moral pacifism of the Russian intelligentsia’s collective brain.”
My acquaintance was indignant that the government had only shut down some of the enemy mass media and that it wasn’t sentencing people to more severe prison terms for disseminating “Russophobic” texts. And she welcomed the new-found freedom “from that illusion of moral sterility and hypocrisy that held us tight in its clammy embrace for so long.”
I called her.
“Liberal mass media negates Russia as its civilizational code. That’s a crime, of course. But now we have this brash, phenomenal, mind-blowing U-turn over the Atlantic! Ukrainians are our people, when you get right down to it. We’re answering the question of whether Russia will remain on the list of global civilizations. The entire world is looking at Russia right now. Because we Russians are, like always, out in front of everybody, riding on a white horse and carrying a red flag. We’re seeing a recovery from a pandemic called the dollar. The world is watching all this and biting its lip: “Come on, Russia! Come on, do it!”
At some point I disconnected from the meaning of her words. I could tell from her intonation that I wasn’t talking with a person. I was talking with insanity. Her delusion was a closed-off, utterly logical reality.
“All this is lasting so long precisely because we aren’t bombing peaceful cities! Thank God the Russian defense industry makes enough precision weapons. We’re only fighting the Nazi Ukrainian army.”
“But Mariupol is completely destroyed.”
“What’s the matter with you, don’t you know that the Armed Forces of Ukraine hide in residential areas?!”
“Sure, but the end result is that the Russian army bombs them. Do you understand that this is happening?”
“Come on, Shura, why are you being this way? That’s… that’s a propaganda question!”
My acquaintance’s voice was shaking. She was hurt. I had dragged her into some kind of horrible enemy reality.
“Tell me: do you really not understand that every day they’re killing real live people over there?”
“You want to make me admit I’m a bloodthirsty bitch!?” she shouted into the phone. “Fine! I’m on the killers’ side! But what comforts me is that the people are on that side with me. I’m with my people, of course. And now you answer me: why did Putin start the special operation then? Come on, answer me!”
One member of the intelligentsia, a woman we met in a Kostroma church, put it this way: “People in Russia right now are like a child who’s been told his dad is a homicidal maniac. He can’t believe it, he lashes out against it, he loses his temper, he comes up with justifications, he looks for people to blame. Of course he’s in a very bad place.”
Everyone has noticed that the reasons for invading Ukraine are identical to what Hitler said when he attacked Poland. To be exact: it’s to defend our borders, the security of the Reich, and the oppressed German minority in Poland. Danzig was always a German city. Germany has the right to regain sovereignty over German territory. The liberal world is lying: we want peace, we patiently offered to slow the proliferation of armaments. But Poland broke off peace talks and mobilized its citizens. We aren’t fighting the population. Our aviation is only attacking military targets. Anybody who uses bombs or chemical weapons will get a devastating response. We’re prepared to fight everyone.
When you read Hitler’s speech from September 1, 1939, you just can’t believe your eyes. At first I even thought it might be a Ukrainian fake. The night before the war, I got a similar shock from the reports of Ukrainian saboteurs invading Russia: a direct calque of the Gleiwitz incident. And on June 22, Hitler explained to the German people that there were 160 Russian divisions on the border ready to invade Europe. I don’t know who came up with this nasty joke, history in general or some specific cynics out there.
Children in preschools stand in the shape of a “Z.” Zs are drawn on the doors of dissenters who need a good scare. The letter has a rude, fascist charisma. It’s a sign of power and will that breaks down borders and conventions. It’s semiotically identical to the lightning bolts of the SS.
Yet all of Russia, from Putin to the grocery-store check-out clerk, believes that it’s fighting fascism. Is this why 20-year-old kids are killing thousands of guys just like them, guys who speak the exact same language? Is this why we are destroying Russian-speaking cities and millions of their inhabitants are fleeing to Europe?
People in Russia are accustomed to seeing war as a sacred experience, one that can wash everything away and return them to some true meaning, restoring them to themselves. They think war will release them from what they ended up living in. The entire country’s repeating words about “denazification,” “demilitarization,” and “liberation.” You can’t help but notice that these words didn’t come out of nowhere. This really is what people want, subconsciously, but they can’t have it. So they vent their frustration by being aggressive to the people they think are most like them. Russia is doing to Ukraine what it wants to do to itself.
The “Z” is often drawn with St. George’s ribbons. I see this as a genuine psychotic break, a symptom of actual clinical insanity. Along the same lines as if a guy went off the deep end and put on an SS uniform jacket and a Soviet Army cap, picked up a red flag, and went over to kill his neighbor. Psychiatrists say that delusions can’t be disproven. It’s pointless to explain to a person having a psychotic episode that his worldview isn’t logical. Delusion probably expresses something crucial in people, something their psyches are going to protect. It’s a way of resolving some inner conflict for which there’s no conscious solution.
“In psychiatry there’s a concept called induced psychosis, when a healthy person starts believing the delusions transmitted by someone close to him,” says a psychologist I know. “This usually happens when he’s isolated with the person who’s ill, when there’s a long period of nervous tension. The physiological mechanics of mass insanity are probably similar.”
Once I got to talking with a woman and two men who were standing by the entrance to an apartment building discussing politics. They were neighbors and knew each other well. The woman was a fervent supporter of the “operation” and said things like “Nazis” and “where’ve you been for eight years.” One of the men was also for it, but not enthusiastically, just conforming to the majority. The second man, though, turned out to be against the war, like me. The conversation was completely amicable, but the woman ended up in the minority, which she wasn’t expecting, and she used up all her arguments pretty fast.
“But you’ve got to see, right, that ordinary people are dying there,” I said. “It’s hard to bomb them into liking us…”
All of a sudden the woman shouted, “And I do see it! So what?!”
Photos: Valery Nutovtsev / Shutterstock, Evgeny Feldman, Anton Novoderezhkin / TASS, Kirill Kukhmar / TASS, Vereshchagin Dmitry / Shutterstock, AlexandraKa / Shutterstock
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