When sanctions bite and hard times hit the country, people will lose their fear. Then Putin will be finished
The reason you don’t see a revolution happening in Moscow is not that people don’t care about what’s happening in Ukraine. On the contrary, my social media feed is filled with posts from Russians opposing the war. “What happened?” they say. “How did we get to this? This is madness!”
People are saying they feel guilty about being Russian. People are burning their passports on camera. Hell, I posted: “I am Russian but Putin is not my president.”
But there are far fewer people actually out protesting. You have to understand that ordinary people in Russia are scared out of their minds. On the first day of the conflict, almost 1,000 protesters were jailed across Russia for walking outside with as little as a piece of paper that said: “I don’t want war.” According to the independent media source OVD-info, in the first four days of the war more than 5,200 people were arrested.
My friend spent time in jail for walking down the same street as the protesters. A professor of sociology, Grigory Yudin, was arrested in the centre of Moscow and reportedly beaten up in the back of an autozak(police bus).
There are now more police teams than I can count – with new names such as Rosgvardiya (Russia’s internal military force) – and they are ruthless. These forces were created several years ago specifically to wander the streets of Moscow (and other cities) and prevent anything “suspicious” from happening.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re an 18-year-old kid or a pregnant middle-aged woman, they’ll beat you up, put you in a wagon and take you in for questioning. When you have a former KGB agent in charge, you have a country that functions as an enormous jail.
It is painfully clear to us that this war is absolutely pointless. Putin is using false history lessons, lamenting the fall of the Soviet Union, and making claims about Nato advancing its forces simply to justify his own madness. I believe that the true answer to the question people ask on social media – “how did we get to this?” – is that Putin is insane.
I don’t know when or why this happened. Maybe it’s his age. Maybe his isolation during the pandemic caused him to question his legacy. I could believe anything now.
When my wife, who is Ukrainian, and I woke up last Thursday in our Dubai hotel room, our whole world had turned upside down. We turned on Putin’s televised address about the military operation. Twenty minutes later, we turned it off. We were scared by the vagueness of his report. What was a “special military operation”? Was this really a declaration of the third world war? We were disgusted by the theatrical performance of a president we had never chosen. We were even more disgusted by the thought that most people in Russia would believe him.
There’s a huge divide of opinions between the “New Russians” – my generation, people born in the 1990s, who never lived in Soviet times – and the older generation. Not one of my friends back home believes that Putin wasn’t planning this war for some time. The older Russians are fed lies by TV and other media to convince them that what Putin is doing is justifiable.
The big problem is that there is no coherent ideology in Russia. There is no shared way of interpreting the world. Instead, the simplistic idea that has become prevalent is a story of “us v them”. It’s extremely easy to sell and it gets votes. That’s the agenda that Putin has been pushing for the past decade or so.
He says that Ukraine is an enemy that is historically part of Russia but sold itself to Nato, or that everyone in the world is the US’s puppet.
These ideas are so contagious. When you try to reason with an average person in Russia, they might say something like: “The TV is right and you’re wrong. Also – you’re probably an agent of the CIA.” Many people live in ever-present fear and it’s easier for them to believe what they’re told. Standing outside the crowd can cost you your freedom.
None of my younger Russian friends around the globe are surprised. We’re so used to feeling disappointed and embarrassed by our government that we barely feel shame any more. Like children of abusive parents, after so many years we forget what’s normal and what’s not. We simply sigh, shake our heads, and say: “Well, what did you expect?” The “global Russians”, as we call ourselves, long ago gave up on the prospect of having a country and government we’d be proud of.
I can’t help but be reminded of the Soviet war with Afghanistan: 15,000 Russian deaths. Nine years of combat. My mother told me stories of her former classmates, people she actually knew, arriving back in coffins. It was a totally pointless endeavour that cost Leonid Brezhnev the entire economy and helped contribute to the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Putin, who is so keen on history, is unknowingly digging his own grave. With Russia cut off from Swift and facing sanctions from the EU, the US, and the UK, it’ll take only a few years before it runs into extremely hard times. And when it does, people will not be afraid any more. If history teaches us anything, it’s that people – even ones as stubborn and patient as the Russians – will not tolerate a lack of food. When the money runs out, so will Putin’s clock.
And we – the new generation of Russians – will be waiting.
Sergey Faldin is a writer and podcaster based in Tbilisi