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Said without enthusiasm The ‘Forever War’ on Ukraine is chipping away at anti-war Russians’ morale

Source: Meduza
guest essays

Said without enthusiasm The ‘Forever War’ on Ukraine is chipping away at anti-war Russians’ morale

Source: Meduza
By Jeremy Morris and Mack Tubridy

Since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago, a constant challenge for outside observers has been divining Russian public opinion. Making sense of what Russians “really think” has never been simple, but wartime censorship, an unrelenting crackdown on dissent, and the fact that few now travel to Russia make this task all the more difficult. 

We do know about pro-war Russians, as they can more openly express views that typically align with official government narratives. Anti-war exiles are also vocal for the obvious reason that the Russian authorities cannot so easily punish them abroad for criticizing the “special military operation.” But it’s risky to conflate emigres with the anti-war Russians who never left. Many in the West seem to assume that Russians who dare oppose the war are either in prison or exile. In reality, anti-war Russians are far more than the alphabet soup of exiled organizations and activists who have tried to lead or at least influence the movement against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Like clouds, this group doesn’t have sharp edges. Its views are sometimes incoherent and contradictory and always a work in progress. The group eludes simple definition, but its core beliefs haven’t changed: principled opposition to war and violence, fatigue with Putin’s long authoritarian rule, and a yearning for some semblance of a democratic future in Russia. 

To find out what has changed over the past two years, we spoke (on condition of anonymity) to several anti-war Russians still living in Russia about the trajectory of their views on the war and how it’s affected their lives.

On the back burner

The war has become part of daily life somewhat in the way Russia’s increasingly authoritarian political system became normalized over the preceding two decades. Although the invasion continues to dominate news headlines, the regular reports on missile and drone strikes, frontline battles, and civilian suffering have morphed into a kind of white noise that people can partly block out. 

Most who spoke to us described the heavy emotional toll that staying up to date with the war takes on their mental well-being. At the beginning of the invasion, it was easy to get trapped in a vicious cycle of doom scrolling, watching video after video of destroyed buildings, and reading horrific reports of besieged cities and mass murder. In the throes of disbelief, people frantically sought out information. But constant exposure to distressing news is exhausting and disorienting, especially when you lack the power to change anything. 

Two years later, some anti-war Russians have tuned out the uninterrupted flow of news about the war in Ukraine and political repressions at home. As one person in St. Petersburg explained: "If something really important happens, then I'll find out about it, one way or another." When talking about her decision to disconnect entirely, a graduate student told us, "The only piece of news worth reading now is news that the war has ended." 

At the same time, events that are harder to ignore, like the deadly attack on the city of Belgorod that killed more than two dozen people in December, increasingly fail to elicit shock. For some, the surprising part is that attacks like these didn’t happen earlier. 

In daily conversation — whether via messaging apps or face-to-face — simply mentioning the war can be a faux pas. It’s an energy drain, and it’s naive to keep raking over something no one can do anything about, let alone argue about the war when many took a side long ago. The initial hyper-divisiveness over the invasion has faded somewhat. But like a pot on the back burner, you can’t completely ignore it. 

Jeremy Morris on The Naked Pravda

In search of normalcy

It’s often said that the Russian authorities seek to create a sense of “normalcy” at home despite the far-reaching and detrimental impact the war is having on the country, from the thousands killed or injured on the battlefield to a buckling economy. That much is true. But so, too, ordinary Russians do part of this work for themselves as they seek to maintain the “normalcy” in their own lives. 

A news-free diet can be just part of this coping strategy, as can discussing anything but the war. When, back in January and early February, we asked our contacts in Russia what news stories stood out to them the most in recent months, they didn’t mention missile or drone attacks or bring up any of the near-daily jailings over “war fakes” or “discrediting” the armed forces.

Instead, they brought up stories like the star-studded “Almost Naked” party that sparked a conservative backlash in December, as well as the pet cat named Twix, who last month was thrown from a train by a railroad employee and froze to death in January, causing an uproar on social media. 

It’s bewildering that stories like these would capture the attention of a public whose country is entangled in a war with its neighbor. Behind-the-scenes political engineering might partly explain the attention — the Kremlin allegedly sought to fan the flames of public outrage over Nastya Ivleeva’s scandalous party. 

Fixation on these otherwise trivial events would suggest a desire for relief and diversion from the war, to engage in a shared, risk-free experience. Both the “Almost Naked” party and Twix the Cat are relatable to so many Russians who know the celebrities involved in the scandalous event and are cat owners themselves. But the bottom line is that the media environment, despite overt state censorship (as well as self-censorship), is in many ways still like any other society. 

In some respects, the story of Boris Nadezhdin’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency and the emotional response to Alexey Navalny’s death should be seen in the same light. The personal feelings these events bring out show how people need some kind of release. In Nadezhdin’s case, pro-peace Russians discussed his platform, personality, and history with animation. That he skyrocketed in popularity reflects a public starved of the much-desired opportunity to talk real politics. In Navalny’s death, people projected the loss of hopes and deep feelings of grief much bigger even than the man himself. 

Of course, not all adaptation is strictly political in nature. There are also more mundane approaches to adjusting to war and life under sanctions. 

As one young woman in Moscow told us: “We’re Russians, we’re used to adapting, living a hard life” — a long-standing cliche about Russians’ ability to accept suffering and isolation. Mundane adaptation can mean many things, and some of it is proactive. People are focusing more on their pastimes, both consumption-oriented activities like eating out or shopping but also vacationing, sports, and other hobbies.

Narrowing horizons

One constant is growing pessimism. The unrealistic clutching at straws, such as Nadezhdin’s election bid, is itself a sign of the general malaise — the search for a silver lining. Uncertainty about the future cannot really be distracted from or adapted to, and it was in discussing future prospects that our contacts gave some of their most candid responses. 

How do anti-war Russians envision the future? As one person put it: “More of the same, but worse.” Several others echoed this sentiment, if only in different words.

No doubt, the war has wreaked havoc with life plans, sometimes dramatically. The uncertainty has forced Russians to narrow their planning horizons to weeks or, at best, months, which feeds into the coping strategy of focusing on the small and mundane aspects of their lives they do control. “There’s no way I can think about what could happen more than a few months from now,” explained one young man, who said he worries about being drafted into the army. “We play things by ear because, who knows, maybe there will be another mobilization after the elections.”

Similarly, the war and its impacts on society have been an exercise in managing expectations. When Moscow first invaded Ukraine, anti-war Russians could have vaguely hoped that Kyiv would swiftly push out invading forces, as Western support seemed boundless and Ukrainian society was rallying. When Ukraine’s army pulled off a stunning counteroffensive in September 2022, this sort of scenario seemed all the more plausible, even if “victory” itself remained a fuzzy idea. 

But as the front line has barely inched forward for months, and both sides show no sign they’ll agree to a peace deal soon, anti-war Russians have resigned themselves to the chance that the conflict could last for several more years. Facing this prospect, few of them are thinking about the invasion in terms of winners and losers. They see only destruction. And so, many anti-war Russians now hope for any kind of end to the conflict, even if it means large territorial concessions by Kyiv.

It’s worth emphasizing, though, that this loss of prospects or “fear for the future,” as Russian pollsters call it, also has a continuity about it — it links to the entire trajectory of Putinism going back to 2011-12 and dissatisfaction with his return. The war makes it more acute and more broadly felt, except among a narrow category of economic winners. But this group is relatively small. 

Amid all of this, some anti-war Russians have come to view Ukrainian President Voloydymr Zelensky as an unreasonably obstinate figure as he insists on restoring control over all of his country’s internationally recognized territory. “His rhetoric is harsh,” one young woman said of Zelensky, only to clarify immediately: “But it’s not as though I’m saying I like Putin. He’s much worse. But that’s obvious.”

In this way, a trend that began a while ago is becoming more visible, as even some anti-war Russians are starting to believe that Ukraine’s continued resistance is making the conflict worse or at least prolonging unnecessary suffering. 

We should be careful not to misinterpret this as anti-Ukrainian sentiment rearing its head among those who oppose the invasion, as they hardly blame Ukraine for the war or its impact back in Russia — whether those be deadly attacks on cities like Belgorod or sanctions.  

And yet they do expect Kyiv and the West to bend more rationally to their own country’s intransigence. “Putin is ready to wait this out,” one person told us. And with Western support for Ukraine still up in the air, “it looks like Ukraine will lose territory, either way,” they say, and “so, it’s better to reach a peace agreement now than to let more people die.” 

This is said without any enthusiasm for the “gains” made in the Donbas.

* * * *

In the days following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, one of this essay’s authors observed that many Russians were retreating into forms of denial to help them cope with disbelief at the fact that their country attacked its neighbor. Rather than an enthusiastic rallying around the flag, this was a negative patriotic response of “defensive consolidation,” in which feelings of victimhood and bitterness permeate. It was neither support nor condemnation of the invasion. 

After two years of war, international isolation, and unabated political repression at home, mixed with an immense feeling of powerlessness, anti-war Russians have grown more detached and defensive about the conflict and its impacts, somewhat in the way that those in denial were from the very beginning. These Russians are still deeply against the invasion, but they are also exhausted by the uncertainty it creates and increasingly disillusioned from their past hopes for positive change in their country.

Jeremy Morris is a researcher at Aarhus University, Denmark. His work covers labor relations, political economy, and the lived experience of people in Russia, Ukraine, and other places since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He is the author of Everyday Postsocialism (Palgrave, 2016), and he writes sociologically about current events in Russia on his blog Postsocialism.

Mack Tubridy is a news editor at The Moscow Times.

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