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June 2022 Issue [Readings]

Fear and Loathing in Moscow


From “In Moscow, Russians Face the Vertigo of War,” which was reported from Moscow and published in March by L’Obs. The names of some subjects have been changed by the author. Translated from the French.

“When I was little, I dreamed that I was hiding in the basement of a bombed house, half-ruined. I heard, outside, the sound of machine guns. The Nazis were the ones shooting. I was scared that they would find me and kill me the way they killed my family. Since the beginning of the war, I have dreamed this dream again, but it’s worse. Because there’s a moment where I understand that I am the Nazi, and I wake up crying.” What my friend Irina is telling me here, she also wrote on her Facebook page. This scene takes place in a time when there’s still Facebook. Five days later, it’s over: no more Facebook.

Her mother called her, terrified; most of her friends unfriended her. “The entire world hates us now, us Russians,” says Irina, and I try to comfort her. I tell her that people, well, people like me, are perfectly capable of telling the difference, firstly, between the Russians and their insane president, and secondly, between the Russians who support their insane president and those who are terrified by his insanity. She’s skeptical: “The Ukrainians, I envy them. They are the heroes, they’re ready to fight and to die. They’re taking action. Us, we’re living in fear. And a little bit in hope. A little bit.” She starts to cry.

Irina was born in Magadan, and Magadan, even more than Vladivostok, was the gateway to the gulag. She left when she was five years old but is now considering returning. That’s another division between Russians: those who can leave the country, and those who cannot. Those who can are leaving, or have already left. Irina cannot. No visa, and she knows that what’s starting here is a journey through time and darkness.

The most optimistic hypothesis is that there will be no nuclear war, but what is certain is that the sanctions will last for years, decades perhaps, and they will radically change the lives of Russians. Irina has a thirteen-year-old girl—not a boy, thankfully, since in less than five years a boy could have been called to war—and her daughter tries to live her teenage life with her friends, but they already understand that now a life without Netflix begins, a life without TikTok, and this isn’t a joke.

In a few days, we’ve reached a level of paranoia close to that of Stalin’s Great Purge. Everything is listened to, no means of communication can be considered secure, and if there was any doubt about real risk, a law has just been passed, this Friday, March 4, which represses the so-called fake news concerning Ukraine on the following scale. To write or say the word “war” instead of “special operation”: up to three years in prison. Five to ten years if published by an organization. Ten to fifteen years if the act results in “grave consequences”—who knows what grave consequences are. This law applies not just to Russians but to foreigners as well. Press correspondents are leaving in a hurry, one after the other.

I joined three daily briefings that my friends deliver, via Zoom, to the French community in Russia. From one day to the next, the advice to remain sensible and not panic sounds more and more anguished. We take stock of the escape routes that are still possible—via the Emirates, Armenia, Turkey. My friend Pavel persuaded me to buy a ticket to Istanbul early on, for next Monday, and I’m glad because yesterday the same tickets were trading for twenty times the price on the black market, and today there are none left. There’s talk now of flights for Yerevan or Antalya being forced to turn around, their passengers stranded on Russian territory, God knows where. We start to study itineraries via Finland. The packed trains, the road, the exodus. After the Zoom call, we take refuge in Pavel’s beautiful office, where he brings out his best bottles—might as well drink them before everything disappears. We become a little family, we’re warm, and if things start to get really bad, I’ll ask for asylum here.

Everyone in Russia will remember where they woke up on Thursday, February 24. Irina was in Tbilisi for her best friend’s wedding. Everyone was worried, very worried, seeing the direction things were headed, but still they partied, still said good night at two in the morning. And at seven, Olga, the best friend, knocked on Irina’s door and told her that this was it, the war was happening.

At dinner, we all have our cell phones on the table, beeping and alerting us to a new landslide in a world we thought was as solid and reliable as a German car. Reality unfolds like a science fiction movie, like a Philip K. Dick novel, like The Truman Show. We didn’t know it then, but all of this could disappear. All of this is disappearing. Over the past two days: Volkswagen, BMW, Warner Bros., Disney, Netflix, Nike, Spotify, IKEA, Airbnb, Louis Vuitton, Shell, Deezer, Carlsberg, BP, Boeing, Exxon, eBay, Bloomberg, CNN, the BBC, and now Twitter, Facebook.

Olga remembers this: a few years ago, a popular magazine called Afisha did an ironic report on the topic can we survive a week consuming only russian products? The answer: no, we can’t. It will be necessary, however, since soon enough we will no longer be able to find any foreign products in Russian supermarkets. Goodbye, Dom Pérignon, hello shampanskoye.

“In three months,” says Olga’s husband Xaver, “we’ll have returned to nineteen-nineteen.” I understood nineteen-ninety. Xaver laughs his sad laugh, “No, 1990 is in one month; in three, it’s 1919.”

Olga shows me her cell phone: “You see, I have the last iPhone.” I’m clearly slow, I thought she meant the last iPhone model. She laughs, too: “You don’t understand. This one, in my hand, is the last iPhone.”

A Russian boomer: “It’s crazy, you know, what a guy of my generation will have lived through. A guy who was a teenager in the Soviet Union and then, at twenty years old, there was this total miracle, totally unimaginable, at the end of the Eighties. Going suddenly from Chernenko to Gorbachev, and then the putsch, the tanks in Moscow, the first nightclubs in Moscow, the first trips abroad. Money afloat, crime, the Wild West of the Yeltsin years. You have no idea what that is in France, none, because what have you been through, my poor little ones? May 1968? The election of Mitterrand? I’m scared of Le Pen, oh no! A guy my age in Russia, he has enough experiences for ten lifetimes, and we thought that we could relax now, that only the normal things in life would happen to us now, buying a dacha, getting old, getting sick, dying, and then this happens to us—at worst it’s the end of the world, at best we’ll return to our rathole.”

I went to see Valery Fedorov, who chairs one of the three main Russian polling institutes. The institute is financed not by the government—he specifies hastily—but the Levada Center. From a sample of 1,600 people interviewed by telephone: 68 percent are prowar, 22 percent are antiwar. The prowar figure, since the start of the week, is slightly but constantly increasing, while that of the antiwar is in symmetrical decline. Those in favor of war, as one might expect, are older, more often male, poorer, less educated, less urban, informed by the television; those opposed are younger, more often female, more urban, richer, more educated, informed by social media.

Them and us: Fedorov adds an interesting observation that the sanctions will hit the friends of the West, not Putin’s own. It’s the antiwar people, the anti-Putin people, who will waste away, trapped in a world without Apple, without Netflix, without Camembert, without foreign travel. But everyday Russians? What do they care, that we can no longer drive a Jaguar, drink Dom Pérignon, or ski in Courchevel? They have never been abroad, have never left their oblast; 70 percent of Russians don’t have a passport and barely know that passports exist. Putin, on the other hand—they know that he exists and that he wants the best for them. As the particularly cheerful taxi driver who brought me home from my appointment with the pollster put it: “It won’t be the worst thing to find ourselves all together again, all equal, like before, warm, vo dnié!” (Vo dnié means “in the hole”).

A Telegram message thread that gives hourly updates on the antiwar front announces that there will be massive protests on Sunday at 2 pm in all the major Russian cities. The meeting place in Moscow is the Manege Square, next to the Kremlin.

The crowd is not as young as I expected, some have brought family members; people act as if they are taking advantage of this sunny spring Sunday to stroll around the Kremlin. They form a not very dense, not very organized flow of humans moving between the walls of Russian OMON, the police’s special riot force, who react randomly to the crowd. There are a lot of them, and they are also quite nervous: some stand in the way, others patrol, but it seems like they don’t have precise instructions. If you meet or pass a group of them, they might ignore you as if they’re accepting the fiction that you’re peaceful strollers, they might make you move around more or less roughly, and sometimes, suddenly, they will get together in threes or fours to chase someone, beat them badly, and drag them toward their vans.

Danger can be invigorating, but it didn’t invigorate us. We didn’t even meet one another’s eyes. No elation, no deep breaths, no momentum. No conviction that we’re together, we’re going to win, that we might die but we will win in the end, and if it’s not for us then it’s for our children, for an ideal, for freedom.

“Ukrainians are the heroes,” Irina tells me, “us Russians live in fear.”

It’s not true, not for all of them. But the impression I had was that these people had come to oppose the war on principle, for their honor, to conquer their fear. And that’s beautiful, but—and it makes me want to cry to end the article this way—everyone knows it’s a lost cause.

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