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Putin fails in Ukraine, but manages to oppress Russia

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MAYBAH slips out of the entrance gate in Prechistenka, a rich district of Moscow. Young women from the suburbs pose for selfies near an elite house. Restaurants marked by Michelin stars, though less crowded than last year, still enjoy bustling trade. At first glance, Moscow’s wealth and hedonism seem almost unchanged, despite Russia’s war against Ukraine, as well as the sanctions and isolation that came with it. But in the Russian capital it is not as usual. The streets are quiet and the mood is subdued.

The Russians are not talking openly about the invasion of Ukraine, which is entering its third month, but they are focused on the new reality of fear and anxiety. The Kremlin has did not achieve much success in his attack on Ukraine. But at the same time attack on civil liberties in Russia it was much more successful. It vigorously suppresses dissent and demoralizes opponents, turning a relatively open country into a complete dictatorship. This is the Kremlin’s biggest achievement in the conflict, says Grigory Asmolov, an expert on Russia’s information warfare: “A few months ago, you couldn’t even imagine this political reality in straight shirts.”

State propaganda cites official polls claiming that 81% of Russians are behind the war. The reality is more complicated. At the very least, the polls reflect a mixture of propaganda and fear. A group of independent sociologists estimates that up to 90% of the population refuse to participate in political polls. Another 5-8% of respondents hung up during interviews with respondents, and another 21% admitted that they were afraid to participate in surveys. Most of them were 18 to 29 years old.

Many – perhaps most – Russians support Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation,” but no one knows the exact proportions. Leonid Volkov, chief of staff of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, estimates active and ideological support for the war at 10-15% and the opposition at 30-40%. A study by the London School of Economics, which used a survey method previously used to assess the level of racism in America, shows support for Russia’s war in about 53%. But many of these supporters, the study believes, support the government’s line because challenging it is dangerous and psychologically uncomfortable.

However, over the last two months, Russian elite squeezed the ranks around Mr. Putin. Most Russians find it easiest to believe the Kremlin’s messages, which aim to persuade most to do nothing. The line of recent weeks has been clear: everything is going according to plan.

Talk shows and news programs constantly sound on the topic of Russia’s superiority and the alleged threat to the West. In a distorted mirror of state television, the Russian shelling did not destroy Mariupol, but “liberated” it. The atrocities in Bucha were not committed by Russian soldiers, but by Kyiv. Russia did not attack Ukraine, but the West. There is no mention of Russian losses. Instead, the Kremlin’s news channel publishes daily videos of Russian “heroes” showing official military portraits of tough-looking young men as their military exploits scroll: how many “nationalists have been eliminated,” how many armored vehicles have been destroyed.

Some Russians oppose this the onslaught of propaganda. Elena, a newspaper journalist, drinks coffee with her parents every day after taking the children to kindergarten. There, they discuss what is really going on, unraveling the television fantasies of the previous day. State propaganda is really effective, says Elena; it’s easy to get involved. Censorship and bans are only part of the problem. After all, blocked news sites remain accessible through VPNs, and YouTube, which contains many critical voices, is still available. But most of those seeking this information have already spoken out against the war.

Propaganda and repression are intertwined. Any true information about the war is called “fake news”; distribution not only as a journalist but also as a private citizen is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Manicure in blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag can make you arrest. Fear touches a deep historical nerve. In March OVD-Info, a media group monitoring human rights abuses and victim assistance, compiled a list of “fake news” allegations based on denunciations: denunciations, a term familiar from the Stalin era.

The fear of being an anonymous denunciation penetrates even close friends, says Dmitry, a 30-year-old businessman. Friends watch each other at the dinner table, trying to guess what fidelity is. At home, Dmitry lowers his voice so that the state TV presenter in the apartment upstairs does not hear about his plans to leave Russia. Even in the state media people are skeptical. This is not our war, says another journalist who works for the state TV channel. But everyone thinks about it from morning till night: “It took our lives.”

According to some estimates, 200,000 Russians have left the country since the beginning of the war. But much more remain, despite opposition to it. They want a different Russia from the one envisioned by the Kremlin, and are trying to find ways to survive. Andrei Kurylkin, a publisher who also runs a private cultural center in Moscow, went on to organize concerts of classical music, the programs of which subtly trace a worldview different from the Kremlin’s. A recent piano concert featured works by contemporary Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. She was stopped by police, who said there was a threat of an explosion. Against the background of atrocities in Ukraine, such modest acts of individual disobedience may seem few. But the Russian state demands compliance, and any deviation is a blow to it.

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