March 2023: “Everything was under control”
Driving along Moscow’s Garden Ring at the end of winter, under cloud-heavy skies, past the monumental Soviet entrance to Gorky Park, something is missing. The neon letter “Z”s and Russian tricolor baubles which have dominated a cluster of patriotic signage for months at this iconic landmark are suddenly gone. Just over a year into Russia’s war in Ukraine, removing the symbols seems like a tacit admission that not all is going well on the front. The Russian military advance has stalled and the death toll is mounting.
It is also a way of keeping the conflict out of sight for people in the capital, as they go about their business as usual. Those who watch news on state TV might even believe the narrative that Moscow is fighting a Western aggressor in a war it cannot lose. Opinion polls indicate that the Russian public want to see peace talks begin, but there is still support for President Vladimir Putin.
The impression that everything is under control is echoed further along the street. A vast electronic ticker running along the concrete facade of the state-run RIA news agency informs passersby that millions of rubles are being invested in Crimean tourism. Posters in the rain-soaked park nearby depict Yalta’s esplanade in high season, where those willing to holiday in territory illegally annexed from Ukraine can sit under canopies in the shape of giant mushrooms and sip local wines at sunset. Also pictured is the immaculately airbrushed Yanna Pavlenko, Yalta’s city administration leader who, dressed in scarlet with a bouquet of luscious red roses matching her lipstick, promises visitors a city of romance and “exceptional beauty.” There is no mention of the rocket and drone attacks that have started in Crimea, presumably carried out by Ukraine, though not officially acknowledged. The fragile security situation in Crimea has caused Governor Sergei Aksyonov to cancel this year’s traditional May 9 Victory Parade marking the end of World War II.
At the vast brutalist academy where a new generation of officers is being trained for Russia’s military, uniformed young men are milling about. Officer cadets stand smoking on the stoop of a dilapidated hostel nearby, a painted shop selling military goods and samovars the only splash of color in a pale early morning. Smart in their new epaulets and peaked hats, there are a few black faces among the group. A journalist friend tells me they’ve heard off the record these are trainee officers from the African nations that Moscow has been courting with a combination of diplomacy and the “security services” of Wagner Group mercenaries.
Russia’s war footing is more visible outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to another Western TV correspondent, back from a reporting trip to the Russian far east. They describe how local trains and planes are full of soldiers on leave or headed for the front in Ukraine. The only serving soldiers seen in the capital are the “heroes,” named and pictured in battle gear on massive hoardings and bus stop advertisements.
April 2023: “Moscow is changing in subtle but visible ways”
Battlefield losses mean Russia constantly needs to top up its military manpower. Around the capital, recruiting banners have gone up, promising lucrative contracts for men who enter military service. A freshly painted classical building houses a new draft center where recruits sit on comfortable sofas among potted palms, waiting to be processed at a row of modern office booths. It could pass for an employment agency, the strategy now “recruitment” rather than mobilization, offering salaries reportedly up to 10 times the average, some $3,000 a month for a private soldier and more for officers and specialists. Recruitment happens alongside the draft, topping up Russia’s army without a public second wave of mobilization which could spark public anxiety.
This month, Putin signed into law a new electronic draft, which can potentially reach every family directly with a simple email “send” button. Linked to the digital tax records of every Russian citizen, from fall 2023 draft papers sent electronically will count as legally delivered even if the addressee does not open the message. Failure to attend the draft office could then trigger a series of restrictions, including bans on selling property and leaving the country.
I meet a doctoral student at a Moscow university, who, like his classmates, is exempt from the draft. He doesn’t want me to use his real name out of fear of repercussions, so I’ll call him “Evgeny.” Russia’s Duma deputies have proposed raising the top age of the draft to 30 (and will go on to vote this into law in July), giving Moscow a bigger pool of conscripts, but have not yet mooted lifting the student dispensation. Evgeny says he does not know a single student who has been drafted, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worried. His friends who left Russia last year are now doubtful about plans to return, even for a short visit.
Evgeny is adamant. “I won’t take their guns and fight for them, I will go to jail,” he tells me. “They can try to hurt us all they want, but the ideas which give my life meaning will survive beyond my own physical fate,” he says. Certain his own future is in a Russia which one day will build a democratic society, Evgeny is determined to stay.
Recruitment advertisements for the Russian army have gone up all over the city. Posters now adorn bus stops and hang near metro stations, and there are large hoardings on the highways leading in and out of town. Images of soldiers whose modern weapons and protective gear give the impression of serving in a highly professional army present enlistment as a life choice as well as a career. “Our profession is the defense of the motherland” reads one slogan; another declares this is “Real Work,” while the faces of the “Heroes of Russia” — serving soldiers — call for the respect of ordinary Russians on their daily commute.
Moscow is changing in subtle but visible ways. Out-of-towners flood into the capital on weekends, filling the gap left by the educated, urban young people who left Russia since the start of the war. The new arrivals look different, without the style and confidence of people brought up in the global capital that Moscow was — that is, until the full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.
It’s a surreal experience being out and about on a Saturday night in Moscow’s city center, making my way through teeming crowds apparently unconcerned by thoughts of war in Ukraine. Cross-border skirmishes in the Bryansk and Belgorod regions and the odd drone attack in Crimea still seem remote. On one such evening, Putin announces he will be stationing tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, sending a shudder through Ukraine and its allies. Television talk shows have normalized the idea of nuclear strikes against Russia’s enemies. Those who aren’t behind the president’s plan keep their fears to themselves.
One Friday night, I go to a small concert hall in a residential neighborhood favored by the young professionals still left in Moscow these days. It feels rougher at the edges than before, as people push past each other, hurrying to get home out of the icy sleet which is starting to fall. A quartet of young musicians play Shostakovich to a packed audience, the tense emotion of his music somehow as relevant today as it was when he composed in the darkest days of Stalin’s Terror.
Pianist Polina Ossetinskaya cuts a stylish figure in her black draped catsuit and glittering high heels; she is a rising star, her playing full of power and nuance. In the interval, as we file out to get some air, a group of National Guards enter the hall, their leader carrying a roll of police line tape. “Everyone out,” he orders. “Bomb threat! The concert is over.” It turns out that Ossentinskaya spoke out against the war early last year and the authorities ordered the venue to cancel her performance; it went ahead anyway and so the National Guard have been sent in. Audience members wait in the cold courtyard outside until finally the sniffer dogs are led out — of course nothing is found — and the second half of the concert goes ahead late, in a quiet show of strength. It’s a signal, perhaps, that although Russia has become much scarier these past weeks, there are still those who are brave enough to stand up for what they believe in.
May 2023: “A palpable sense of threat”
Days later, right in the heart of Moscow, two drones are shot down over the domed citadel of the Kremlin itself. Russia labels the incident an assassination attempt on Putin (who was not there at the time), blaming Kyiv and Washington. As if in doubt or denial, Muscovites pore over blurry night videos posted on social media, trying to figure out the trajectory of the indistinct airborne objects and where the video was shot from.
By the end of May, they can no longer be in any doubt that the conflict has reached their doorstep. Tens of drones are reportedly intercepted flying into residential neighborhoods including luxurious Rublevka, home to Russia’s elite. Those which hit targets leave minor damage to the outside of apartment blocks.
Russians don’t like to talk about the war in enclosed spaces, and even outdoors you won’t get past a neutral “I wish it would just end.” But they will talk about the economy. Some admit to losing their jobs under Western sanctions. Others grumble about the weak ruble and related price rises, though most trust Russia’s Central Bank: “Those people are clever, they will get us through this difficult time,” one young woman tells me. People are adapting to a new reality in the capital. Some are finding their way around sanctions. People who travel to Turkey or the Gulf can buy the new season’s clothes at Zara, and can even bring a suitcase full of them back home, to sell on to friends and neighbors. Others are buying clothes from the homegrown outlets which have sprung up in place of departed Western brands; the prices are high but you can’t fault the design.
One young woman I know is deciding where to go on holiday. Europe is out of the question; it’s too expensive and “No one wants us there anymore.” She thinks she will go to Iran, since Russians don’t need a visa and there are good beaches under the red rocks of Hormuz Island where she’s heard the atmosphere is fairly free. She makes no mention of the mass protests by young women which have rocked Iran; the troubles facing this “friendly nation” are not reported on Russian state TV. There are lots of cheap goods to buy: spices and clothes by young Iranian designers, she says. For shopping in Tehran, she will take dollars in cash and she’s watching the ruble exchange rate nervously.
Families crowd into cafes and the square in front of a dazzlingly lit Bolshoi Theatre. A vast iPhone 14 advert illuminates the faces of bodyguards as they hustle a VIP, his baseball cap pulled down low, from a Bentley into the TSUM luxury store opposite. I am early to meet a friend in a French-style patisserie, so get chatting to a young waiter with halting Russian. He is from Syria, and is studying icon painting at the renowned Stroganov Institute. There’s plenty of restoration work back home, he says, in villages, towns and cities whose Orthodox Christian churches were destroyed during a brutal civil war in which Russian forces helped the Assad regime stay in power. He wouldn’t be able to study in Moscow without backing the regime and I longed to know more about his story. My friend arrives and we talk in raised whispers about how hard it is to report now in Moscow, glancing over our shoulders to see who our neighbors are and if they are listening.
Since the FSB, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB, arrested the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Yekaterinburg at the end of March, accusing him of espionage, many Western media organizations have pulled out their journalists. Editors instructed journalists who stayed to lie low and cover official events. Reporting in Russia suddenly felt very similar to the way it was for correspondents in Soviet times, when restrictions and penalties were draconian.
The context for Gershkovich’s detention includes continuing harsh repression of opposition figures such as Vladimir Kara-Murza, a dual Russian-British citizen, recently jailed for 24 years for his anti-war stance. Nobel Peace Prize laureates at the human rights group Memorial are under investigation for “discrediting the Russian military,” now a crime under Russian law, with a penalty of 15 years in jail. Memorial said in early May that the director of their Perm office, Aleksandr Chernyshov, was detained at an airport in Moscow and prevented from boarding a flight to Turkey. They claim Russian authorities are pressuring Chernyshov to hand over archives on the Soviet gulag prison system in the Perm region, part of ongoing pressure to halt the organization’s work to preserve the historical record.
A palpable sense of threat permeates work on show by young contemporary artists from across Russia and Belarus at studios run by Moscow’s prestigious Garage gallery. Disquieting AI images of mythic evil created by a Siberian artist; feral lives seen in photographs of Russia’s far north and Moscow apartments; a tender, claustrophobic audio piece — it is as if the inner anxiety of a doomed new generation is on display.
Some artists meet the threat head on. Ivan Novikov’s layered, dripping blocks of color echo the opinion poll graphs frequently consulted by official Russia. Yevgeny Antufiev’s swirling mosaics carry an echo of the last days of the Roman Empire.
For now, musicians and contemporary artists have been able to work, but dissenting voices are increasingly at risk as the Kremlin enforces a cultural agenda in support of war and the traditional values Putin is so determined to defend. In early May, theater director Evgenia Berkovich and playwright Svetlana Petriychuk were detained for two months ahead of a trial where they face charges of “justifying terrorism.” Their documentary play, “Finist the Brave Falcon,” which dramatizes cases of Russian women who became ISIS brides, was nominated for Russia’s most prestigious theater award, the Golden Mask, in 2021. But in present-day Russia, a story examining — in the words of theater critic Marina Davydova — “how girls are pushed into the embrace of paramilitary domestic tyranny by the patriarchal mores prevailing in their homeland” is no longer acceptable to the authorities.
It’s no coincidence that Berkovich is also a poet, who published her compelling and highly personal anti-war poetry on her Facebook page. Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s foremost independent news outlet, and a 2021 Nobel Peace laureate, issued a video demanding the Russian authorities “hunt murderers, not poets,” and 3,000 people have signed a letter of protest. A small act, maybe, but in Russia today to spell out dissent in your own name requires a significant degree of courage. Muratov knows the cost of speaking out: His newspaper was designated a “foreign agent” and, in September last year, its license was revoked.
June 2023: “Moscow is not a frontline city — yet”
Moscow is tense when I return from abroad. Only days earlier, a Wagner military column advanced on the city, in a coup attempt staged by the group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin called it off just 120 miles from the Russian capital. Signs of the recent turmoil are still visible. Red Square is cordoned off and armed police patrol a grassy embankment under the Kremlin walls. There’s a brittle cheerfulness in the atmosphere, as if people are determined to give the impression of business as usual and the armed insurrection is just a fever dream, pushed out of mind as Muscovites enjoy a balmy summer weekend in the city’s fancy shops and cafes.
In GUM, Moscow’s flagship department store a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, tourists eat Soviet-branded ice cream under garlands of plastic cherry blossom as they window-shop what is left in the displays of Western designer stores, most of them closed since the start of the Ukraine invasion in 2022. A wedding group improvises to get traditional Red Square shots — the bride and groom jump out of a stretch limo to pose on the bridge, near where flowers mark the spot that opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down in 2015. “We’re not worried by the mutiny,” says a volunteer keeping watch at the Nemtsov memorial. “Everything is calm here, Moscow is not a frontline city — yet.”
Across the river, one block from the center, an eerie silence prevails, broken only by a couple of morning drunks navigating sun-bleached sidewalks. A family group pauses outside the palatial Rosatom headquarters, to read placards pinned to the railings charting the life of Igor Kurchatov, father of the Soviet atomic programme. The burnished gold bust of another Soviet hero, Red Army commander Mikhail Frunze, stares from its plinth opposite the tank officers training academy. Emblazoned on the building is the regimental motto, a quote from Stalin that is still used today: “We do not claim a single foot of another’s land and we will not give up a single verst of our own land to another.” The words, which use a Russian measurement of approximately two-thirds of a mile, feel brazenly ironic at a time when Russia has invaded Ukraine, and faced an armed threat inside its own borders.
For older Muscovites, the specter of armed conflict brings back memories of the two coup attempts staged in Russia within living memory. In 1991, three people died on the barricades in central Moscow before then-President Boris Yeltsin brought the army onside and defeated hard-line communist plotters. In 1993, violence again convulsed the Russian capital and at least 187 people died when Yeltsin used tanks and troops against a rebellious parliament seeking to overturn his tough economic reforms and impeach him as president.
A line of SUVs halts at the traffic lights. Chinese brands are now more prevalent than the Range Rovers and Mercedes that were once Moscow’s status symbols. Nearby sits a statue of the literary giant and pacifist writer Leo Tolstoy; in the first months of the war, copies of his anti-war book “I Cannot Be Silent” sold out at bookstores. But early protests against the invasion have long since been crushed and the figure of Tolstoy, hewn from dark, heavy granite with his head bowed, seems lonely and neglected.
July 2023: “Putin has rescued the nation from chaos”
Watching Russian state TV’s weekly news roundup is somewhat surreal, given the atmosphere in the streets of the capital. The broadcast narrative reassures its audience that everything is back to normal after the mutiny: Putin has rescued the nation from chaos. The Russian leader got plenty of airtime in the week after the mutiny. Flanked by loyal forces in the Kremlin, he was somber, calling for a minute’s silence in memory of the Russian servicemen who reportedly died in skirmishes with Wagner; days later, he was statesmanlike in a virtual address to world leaders at the Shanghai Cooperation summit and back in charge in government meetings.
Russia’s security forces did their job and the population has unified around the president, declares top propagandist and TV anchor Evgeny Kiselev. Cue an extended replay of Putin mobbed by an adoring crowd on a visit to Derbent, footage designed to underscore his popularity and first shown six days after the attempted coup. The young girl featured in a selfie moment with the president — who even gave her a fatherly kiss on the head — is interviewed at length, recalling in breathless tones how she waited seven hours to meet Putin and now wants “to be just like him.”
For several days after the mutiny, Prigozhin disappeared from public view, apparently agreeing to call off the coup and retire to Belarus. His media empire was being shut down. State TV is playing down the role of Wagner in the Ukraine war; it wasn’t as decisive or effective as the Russian army, Kiselev argues. The Russian army captured Azovstal from hardened fighters in 70 days, he says, while Wagner couldn’t take Bakhmut in a siege lasting over 200 days. Official media portrays Prigozhin as a corrupt traitor with a criminal past, leaking photos from an investigation of his opulent St. Petersburg homes. Investigators allegedly also found a bizarre collection of selfies showing Prigozhin in various disguises, setting off a frenzy of new Borat-type memes.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko reportedly brokered Prigozhin’s “surrender,” offering him a new home in exile in Belarus. But only days after his rebellion, the Kremlin confirmed the Wagner warlord was at a meeting with Putin. In the weeks that follow, there is little sign on either state TV or social media of Wagner troops moving into bases in Belarus or transferring en masse to the Russian Army. Then, suddenly back again on social media, Prigozhin announces that his mercenaries were “resting” and are getting ready to come back and serve the motherland before too long.
August 2023: “The Kremlin tightens its hold on Russian society”
Before the mutiny, independent pollster Levada found that one-third of Russians supported Prigozhin’s position — Moscow should continue the war, just fight better and win. Most Russians recoil at the prospect of instability inside their country and support for Putin remains high.
Out of Russia again on leave, I chat with a friend online. She admits that a feeling of unease persists; rivalries from the front line have spilled over into Russia itself and not gone away. But her feelings are complicated and the stress is clearly taking a toll. She’s decided to stay in Russia, despite the prospect of further instability unleashed by a war she doesn’t support. A decade ago, she joined thousands of Muscovites on protest marches; now feels she has no choice but to support her country. In an emotional outburst, she rails against the hostility she feels is shown to all Russians abroad and international sanctions which have left her business struggling to survive. “I did everything I could to change things, what more could I do?” she laments. “We are being blamed for something we can do nothing about.”
Weather reports chart days of summer heat followed by intense storms. Three consecutive days of drone attacks in the city center add a real sense of physical danger to the nervousness many Muscovites say they are now feeling. In the capital’s opulent Moscow City business district, a showpiece skyscraper housing a mix of government offices and private apartments is targeted and hit twice. Nearby, in the upmarket Kutuzovsky district, a longtime resident tells me they were shocked to hear explosions so close to their apartment.
As the war comes home, the Kremlin tightens its hold on Russian society. Already serving an 11-year jail term, a video link shows the gaunt-looking opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a prison courtroom as the judge sentences him to another 19 years for “extremism.” Navalny says the charges against him are politically motivated and that the Kremlin intends to keep him behind bars for “a Stalinist term.” Navalny will serve the new sentence in a “special regime” penal colony where conditions are reportedly particularly harsh.
By mid-August, Russians see the ruble slide to its lowest value against the American dollar since March 2022, just after the war started. This hits everyone hard. Those who save in hard currency had found a way round sanctions imposed by Western banks, converting ruble salaries to dollars or euros through internet accounts opened with local banks in neighboring Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan. But now they will see a dramatic loss in what their income is worth. Others see the effect in price rises for food and consumer goods.
Faced with increasingly hard choices, Muscovites may be trying to will stability back into reality. But their studied indifference is only skin-deep and, as the Kremlin’s war reaches uncomfortably close to home, Russia’s urban middle class is rattled. Those who have done well under Putin in material terms may not support the war, but still have a lot to lose if the economy collapses.
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