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While Soviet Victory Day anxieties loom across Europe, most Russians continue to support the war

‘There is no counterweight to propaganda’: A view from St. Petersburg

From Kyiv to Tallinn to Chisinau to Tbilisi, and all the way to Oslo where I am writing this: Everyone is having May 9th jitters.

Will Putin use Soviet Victory Day, the commemoration of the Soviet Union’s 1945 victory over Nazi Germany, to declare an all-out war? This week officials from the U.S., Europe and Ukraine all speculated that this was his plan. A formal declaration of war, they argued, would enable the full mobilization of Russia’s reserve forces. Putin needs to do this in order to make up for catastrophic losses in Ukraine. 

“Nonsense,” said Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov. 

“Our military will not artificially adjust their actions to any date, including Victory Day,” said Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

“There is no rush,” added Vladimir Solovyov, one of the Kremlin’s chief propagandists. “We need to find our rhythm and then move like a steamroller – clearly and precisely, without setting goals for any holidays,” Solovyov told millions of Russians on his prime time show on Rossiya 1 channel earlier this week.

The coordinated messaging, reminiscent of pre-invasion denials that the Kremlin pushed out in early February, is only adding to cross-border anxiety.  

“Putin is cornered and anything is possible,” concluded Russian journalists at my table at a post-conference dinner in Oslo on Wednesday. Not the deepest analysis, but it shows that without direct access to Putin’s head, no one has real insights. 

We are also losing insight into what ordinary Russians, on the inside, think about it all.

Putin’s approval ratings among Russians have soared since he invaded Ukraine. While polling in a political environment like Russia’s can only be taken with a large grain of salt, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that these polls are largely accurate. With Stalinist-style punishments for speaking out, voices of those who have not left Russia and who do not support Putin increasingly go unheard.  

Many of the people I used to call whenever I needed an insight outside of the liberal journalism bubble, including my own relatives, no longer want to speak to me. But one exception is someone I have known for a few years, whom I will call Nadia. 

Nadia is a seamstress who lives in Saint Petersburg. Although she insisted that I used her real name, I have chosen not to. These days, what Nadia said to me could send her to jail for up to 15 years. 

Her take on the situation,  translated and edited for clarity, is below. 

THERE IS NO COUNTERWEIGHT TO PROPAGANDA

as told by Nadia, a Saint Petersburg resident 

We have a new girl at work and I caught her crying the other day. She is only 19. What is it, I asked her? She said: I realize I have no future.  

But she is an exception. Otherwise, propaganda is working well. I work alongside ordinary Russian women. We are seamstresses at a relatively small workshop in the city. We sew clothes: t-shirts, dresses, nothing special. Most of the women have a couple of kids, husbands who are unemployed and often alcoholics. They work full time, and then they get home to work full time there. Then they turn on their TVs. 

I threw out my TV 12 years ago. And from 2014, from when the government annexed Crimea and this insane aggression in our society began, I decided that it was over, that there was no hope for us Russians anymore. Russian schools do not teach us how to think. The entire education system is based on memorizing, not thinking. And there are no alternatives. There is no counterweight to the propaganda. Most of the decent journalists have now left Russia. I understand why they left, but the weight of their word has diminished by them leaving the country. 

So people are just memorizing and repeating messages of this disgusting propaganda. I can’t fix the brains of the ones I work with, but I try to mow down the beds of bullshit that inhabit their heads. I challenge them. I tell them about the war, and the lies that Putin tells about it. 

For me, there is nothing to be afraid of. To be honest, I would prefer to be in prison right now. Morally, it would be easier for me to be in prison. I am 69. Like most Russians, I have no savings and I can’t go anywhere. I am not afraid. But I feel constantly ashamed and powerless.

I walk home from work, down the streets of Saint Petersburg, and whenever I see a smiling, happy face of a passerby, I get angry. I think to myself: Eventually, we will get bombed the way Dresden was bombed. And it will be only fair. 

The sanctions have affected everyone. Prices have skyrocketed. You can’t get sugar anymore. But I want them (the West) to crank up the sanctions. We deserve them. 

I don’t know whether there will be an all-out mobilization. But I do think a lot about a nuclear war, about that red button in Putin’s hands. Back in 2014, I kept saying that I was afraid that Putin would get terminally ill. Why? my friends would ask me. Because I always thought that a Putin who can see his own end is the most dangerous Putin of all. And now he can see his end. He cannot win this war. 

I look at Zelensky, at his team, at the Ukrainians, and I look at the men running our country and I look at Russian officials and I think, “how can they win?” The 19th century cannot win over the 21st century. Putin can erase them off the face of the earth, but he can’t beat them. And that’s why he will obliterate them. So I am waiting for him to press that button. 

WHAT WE ARE READING:

And what about those Russians who support the war? How do you persuade them to change their minds about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? It’s a question that Western governments are desperate to answer, and one that Peter Pomeranzev tackled in a brilliant essay for the Atlantic this week. 

In “We Can Only Be Enemies,” Pomeranzev tells the extraordinary story of a Ukrainian family, the Horbonoses, who spent weeks sharing their house with five Russian soldiers in the village of Lukashivka. The story provides a vehicle for exploring possible solutions to the problem of parallel reality that Putin’s propaganda has created. 

“The cellar in Lukashivka became a microcosm of the war’s propaganda front,” Pomeranzev writes. “On one side were the Russians, who repeated a litany of falsehoods they had been told about their assault; on the other, the Ukrainians, wondering how their home could be decimated by aggressors driven by a fiction.”

But soon, things began to turn. “As they walked through what little was left of the Horbonoses’ lives, the soldiers apologized for all the destruction they had brought. It would be so much better, one said, if they could someday visit as guests. Sergey was livid. ‘You’ve come here to kill me and destroy my home,” he said, “and we are meant to be friends? We can only be enemies.’ The Russians again apologized, and soon all of them began to say that the war was senseless. They even began calling it a war.” Don’t miss this piece.

This story originally ran in our weekly Disinfo Matters newsletter that looks beyond fake news to examine how manipulation of narratives, rewriting of history and altering our memories is reshaping our world. We are currently tracking the war in Ukraine. Sign up here.

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