Are Russians upset that Putin is invading Ukraine? Seriously? You kidding me?
What's the biggest difference between our invasion of Iraq and Putin's invasion of Ukraine? American's were furious at Bush. Putin's a hero at home.
In Russia’s Biggest Cities, Ukraine War Fades to Background Noise
Bars are packed out, film and jazz festivals are sold out and Moscow’s police officers are busier handing out fines for public drinking than putting down dissent
By Evan Gershkovich, WSJ
July 1, 2022 6:12 am ET
MOSCOW—Dima Karmanovsky had just finished his second DJ set of the night on a recent weekend, and was catching his breath before dashing off to another club for his next job.
“I haven’t had this much work since before the pandemic,” the 35-year-old disc jockey said at Blanc, a popular bar in Russia’s capital.
As the invasion of Ukraine enters its fifth month, there are relatively few outward signs in Moscow and St. Petersburg of a war that has killed thousands and displaced millions.
Bars are filled to the brim in Russia’s biggest cities. Film and jazz festivals are sold out. And while the police patrolling Moscow’s streets are now armed with assault rifles, they are busier handing out fines for public drinking than putting down dissent.
The Russian capital has taken on a carnival feel reminiscent of the summer it welcomed hundreds of thousands of tourists for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The difference now, other than the soccer games: There are few foreigners in sight.
Dima Karmanovsky, a disc jockey, says he hasn’t had this much work since before the pandemic.
Partygoers hit the dance floor at Blanc, a popular Moscow bar.
“Some people went to fight, but what should the rest do—sit around and cry?” said yoga instructor Natalya Rakhmatullina after finishing an outdoor class in the city center. “This is normal adaptation. We live in a different world now and we have to keep living.”
A few signs of the war are visible around Moscow. On some buildings, vehicles and clothing are the letters Z and V—symbols of Russia’s invasion. A highway into town is lined with billboards showing Russian soldiers and the text “Glory to Russian heroes,” without referencing Ukraine.
There are some signs of the impact of Western sanctions, which will take time to percolate through the economy. In at least one Moscow shopping mall, bins for collecting clothes for soldiers stood amid the empty storefronts that previously displayed foreign brands that exited the country following the invasion.
Former McDonald’s restaurants reopened in Russia under a new name and with a new menu. Crowds of Russians visited a rebranded store in Moscow, many glad to find that the logo and many of the meals were very similar to the original American version. Photos: Valery Sharifulin/Zuma Press, Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters
Visitors would still be hard pressed to know the country is at war. Mr. Karmanovsky was in Sri Lanka on a long vacation when Russian troops stormed into Ukraine on Feb. 24. Surfing during the day, he tried to keep the horror of the war at bay for at least a few hours at a time. When he returned to Moscow in April, he said he was stunned to find the city had barely changed.
“It really shocked me because people are trying to create this bubble of serenity around themselves, but I’m not sure this is the right way,” Mr. Karmanovsky said.
Some who support the war are frustrated at the apathy of other Muscovites. A 29-year-old engineer wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a “Z” while out for a weekend walk with his family along the Moskva River recently. He said he was disappointed that few people were openly supporting the military.
“People live their own lives and no one cares about their neighbor,” he said.
Some political analysts have suggested that residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg, which drew the largest of the early antiwar protests, are far removed from the war because the army tends to attract recruits from poorer regions who see it as a way to improve their prospects. According to the independent Russian website Mediazona, which has tallied nearly 3,800 Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine from publicly available data, just eight were from Moscow and 26 from St. Petersburg.
The Kremlin has avoided a general mobilization, referring to the offensive as a “special military operation.” As a result, the conflict has become background noise, like during the Soviet Union’s fight in Afghanistan, which lasted for years before dissatisfaction began seeping through, said Andrei Kolesnikov, a Moscow-based senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“It’s in essence a new contract with the authorities,” he said. “We support the operation but at the same time you don’t force us into real participation.”
Much of the indifference can be attributed to the way Mr. Putin’s authoritarian regime has sought to develop a social contract where people focus on bettering their own lives while leaving politics to the state, said Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, a Russian politics expert at King’s College London.
While opinion polls suggest public support for the military campaign, it is largely passive, say some experts.
“It’s support without participation. And this is beneficial for Putin and the Kremlin because people are not fixating on the fact that the war is going for a long time, that there are many casualties, that young boys are dying,” Mr. Kolesnikov said.
For many, the shock of the largest ground war in Europe since World War II has worn off. According to the independent Levada Center pollster, the level of attention Russians pay to the conflict is declining by the month. While in March, 64% of respondents said they were paying at least some attention, that number was down to 56% in May.
Those who pay close attention skew older—the age group that predominantly watches state television for their news—while young Russians are ignoring the events in Ukraine. Only 34% of 18-24-year-olds said they were following the situation.
A man wearing a ‘Z’, a symbol of support for the Russian armed forces.
“About two weeks into the war, it became clear to me that my family and I weren’t under threat, so I stopped following the news,” said a 30-year-old psychologist out at Blanc for the evening, who said the history of the conflict was too complicated to make a judgment on the invasion. “Soon I caught myself being more upset by IKEA leaving Russia than the war,” she added.
Alexei Ivashkin, a builder, described himself as apolitical and said he mostly doesn’t follow the news, but supports President Vladimir Putin for “giving the U.S. the middle finger.”
“The fighting is for soldiers. I protect my little world and nothing else concerns me,” he said. “There are other wars going on right now but no one’s talking about them.”
For the minority that does want to speak out against the war, there is a feeling of hopelessness, after the authorities introduced legislation that has seen hundreds fined and dozens arrested and facing up to 15 years in prison for criticizing the armed forces.
Ilya Yashin, one of the last remaining opposition leaders still in Russia, before his recent arrest.
“People don’t understand how to stop the war while in Russia,” said Ilya Yashin, who has had three misdemeanor charges for criticizing the invasion. “It’s difficult to watch a tragedy that you can’t stop and so we are seeing this feeling of powerlessness.”
Mr. Yashin, who was one of the last prominent opposition politicians still in the country and not behind bars, said his main role is to speak the truth about the war without ending up in jail. He was detained Monday night while walking in a park with a friend and was jailed the following morning for 15 days on charges of disobeying the police. Mr. Yashin described all the charges against him as “farcical” and said he thinks he was arrested ahead of receiving a longer-term sentence for criticizing the war.
Aside from a dwindling number of dissidents, few people tackle the war head on. “There’s no way to discharge. Do you go out with a banner or do you go drink and unwind?” said Mr. Karmanovsky, the DJ. “Of course you go drink and unwind because if you go out with a banner you won’t relax for another two years at least.”
A billboard celebrating Russia’s military is one of the few outward signs of the war in Ukraine.
Those who confront the war tend to do so indirectly. During rehearsals for a Moscow stage production of “Cabaret,” the musical set during the rise of Nazism in Germany, actors were told to consider what was going on around them for inspiration, a cast member said.
The audience for the show, one of the hottest tickets of the spring, was split on whether it was an allegory for present-day Russia. “It’s painful to imagine for yourself that we are the bad guys,” the cast member said.
Theater critic Vladimir Dudin described the show as cathartic. While his social circle saw it as a thinly veiled critique of the country today, he said, “Moscow and St. Petersburg are a very small part of Russia.” He said the government wouldn’t hesitate to put down any wider protests against the campaign in Ukraine.
“It’s summer now,” Mr. Dudin said, “everyone wants to enjoy themselves.”