March 20, 2022

Russian Perspectives on the War in Ukraine


Russian Perspectives on the War in Ukraine
A view of Moscow. Photos by Haley Bader unless otherwise marked

On the morning of February 27, a day before I was forced to leave Moscow due to the escalating war in Ukraine, I received a letter from a former Russian teacher who was appalled at the Russian government’s decision to attack.

“I cannot do anything but write this letter to you because the feeling of horror, pain, and shame that will not leave me. I remembered our conversations and my 'promise' that there would be no war, that it was simply impossible. I admit how wrong I was. I have always understood that [Russia] is headed by a dangerous person full of complexes, but not a madman, a liar, and a criminal."

“There are a lot of us, those who sincerely experience this situation as a catastrophe and want one thing – peace and respect for norms and laws, human dignity, and the dignity of each country. With all my heart I wish you to return to another Russia.”

man in pete
Pedestrians in St. Petersburg, January 2022.

The decision to enter Ukraine has now brought the country to its knees. “No one believed that Russia would return to the Soviet Union in two weeks,” Lera, a 29-year-old professional (names have been changed throughout), said.

No one, not even the experts, predicted this war. Sergei Utkin, who is a Russian researcher who has worked as the Head of Foreign and Security Policy Department of the Centre for Strategic Research as well as at the Russian Academy of Sciences, was blindsided.

“If we could speculate that people did not expect the sanctions that came back in 2014, it is very hard to do the same now… You will find people in Moscow who will tell you that Ukraine was about to attack Donbass. I think no arguments can prove this point, and that means that the key actors who are engaged in this war had no reason [to make such a decision],” Utkin said.

Ilya, a 27-year-old contractor, says Russian President Vladimir Putin made the final call. “It is very sad that he will not soon leave his position of power.”

happy life
An advertisement for comedy theater that reads "A short course for a happy life." St. Petersburg, January 2022.

Lera thinks that Putin has gone mad. “He is an old person, he sat in rigid isolation for two years because of the coronavirus… he became obsessed with the idea that the West offended Russia [and] with the idea of Ukraine.”

It is difficult to determine the percentage of the Russian population that supports the war (though it is not called a war here, so that obviously skews the data, as does being thrust back into a totalitarian state). A Russian-language BBC report from March 8 cites a majority: 71% according to the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center and 65% according to the Public Opinion Foundation.

As of March 14, data analysis from Russian opposition activist Aleksey Minyailo, who runs the website dorussianswantwar.com, showed that 59% of Russians support (73% of whom believe what they see in Russian media) and 22% oppose (85% of those do not believe Russian media).

moscow construction
A construction site in Moscow, December 2021.

For some Russians, it has long been easier to exist in an apolitical space. “Citizens don’t have the strength to change anything,” Ilya said.

Tatyana, 43, who is involved in fashion and illustration, was “absolutely uninterested in politics” until about 2016 and “never voted, as a matter of principle.” After Russia annexed Crimea, she traveled to the region several times, and even began to experience “certain patriotic feelings. Crimea is ours, it’s excellent,” she thought at the time.

She now believes that the Russian government made a decision that was horrific on both moral and practical grounds. Like others, Tatyana sees no future in Russia, and even experienced thoughts of suicide when the war first descended.

connect to west 1
Russian creators unite Russian and Western popular culture and the arts. From Moscow's ZILART Center, December 2021.

Vasily Gatov, a Russian-American media analyst with over thirty years experience in Russian and international media, does not believe that “there is a large chunk of extremely patriotic people [in Russia]. Of course there are a lot who [seem to be] because they are paid to demonstrate. All these flash mobs [are], I’m sure.”

But the official narrative of the Russian government is that they have entered Ukraine to "de-militarize and de-Nazify" the country.

“My former husband [is] very happy about [the war]…," said Tatyana, "he was always a patriot for Russia, and he believes that Ukraine isn’t another state. That Nazis prosper there, that they are offending Russians, that the troops are very right, and that Russia had to attack Ukraine... that they are bringing peace and order.”

bulldoze the truth
Clearing snow in St. Petersburg's Palace Square.

Sasha, a 28-year-old student, is Crimean by birth and has a grandmother and grandfather in Ukraine who watch Russian propaganda and think similarly "[despite] the danger that Russian soldiers are coming for them.”

There are others who are more pugnacious. Liliya, 29, who is from Moldova but has family in Russia, is navigating the anger of relatives who believe the Ukrainians brought the war on themselves. Her stepbrother's wife berated her for supporting Ukraine; she had lived in Luhansk while the city was bombed, and now she wants “Ukrainians to experience what [those in the East] have been experiencing for the last eight years.”

donbass
A map of Ukraine's Donbass region | "File:Map of the Donbass.png" by RGloucester.

Natalia Burlinova, 38, is the founder and director of the Russian nongovernmental organization PICREADI: Creative Diplomacy. She understands the Russian government’s motivations for entering Ukraine.

Burlinova believes the West does not comprehend the threat Ukraine presents to Russia. “I do not feel sympathy towards Ukraine as a state. This is an anti-Russian and very hostile project toward Moscow.”

view of russia
Moscow at sunset, food delivery en route.

While Burlinova does not think that all Ukrainian society is saturated in Nazi ideology, she believes that “the political spectrum [in Ukraine] is dominated by far-right politicians," perhaps only one or two percent of the population, who "formulate the ideological rhetoric against the Russian government.”

“The war did not start on February 24. It started in 2014,” Burlinova said. “[In Russia] we have been living in this situation of emotional involvement in [the Donbass] conflict since that time. A lot of refugees, a lot of people came to Russia…”

more moscow
Between train stations in Moscow.

For years, Burlinova said, the rest of Ukraine has ignored the tragedy that has been occurring in Donbass. "They just denied it, and they said ‘no, these are not our citizens and we don’t want to know anything about it...' So when this war came to [Ukrainian] cities, they were very surprised."

If there is no “fountain of emotions” in Russia now, Burlinova said it is because “Russian society as well has been living under the circumstances of media war, military war, civil war for many, many years.”

kremlin
A view of the Kremlin.

According to dorussianswantwar.com, despite majority backing for the war in Ukraine, supporters do not want any harm to come to Ukrainians.

“I have never been in the army, but if I find that I have to participate in this war, I will have to fight against my brothers, against my sisters, and it is unthinkable,” Sasha said.

Burlinova, who also has relatives and friends in Ukraine, sees it as a tragic “civil war,” with ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians fighting on both sides.

Lera, Liliya, Ilya, Tatyana, Gatov, Utkin – all others agree: what is happening to Ukrainian citizens is no less than a horror.

But Russians, too, will suffer. Lera implores all of those observing the conflict to remember: “You need to make a distinction between the Russian government and Russia, the Russian people and Vladimir Putin.”

artisans
An artisan in the village of Rostov Veliky

 

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