I’m writing this on February 27. The Russian military has been shelling Ukrainian towns since the early morning of the 24th, but I’m nowhere near Ukraine. I’m in St. Petersburg, Russia, where, over the past several days, I have noticed a startling fact: Most people without personal international contacts don’t know what their army is doing. It’s not that they support the war—they don’t even know about it.
Officially, Russia is not at war. It is engaged in a “special military operation” intended to compel peace and “cleanse Ukraine of Nazis.” The Ministry of Defense insists that “the military is not striking residential buildings in Ukrainian cities.” And most people who get their news from Russian sources, as well as those who don’t care very much about the news at all, tend to believe this is true. They know that something’s going on in Ukraine, but they don’t think it’s that big of a deal. They’ve heard about sanctions, but don’t have a good sense of why they’ve been implemented—something about the West trying to crash our economy again, doubtlessly in cahoots with our oligarchs.
One reason people think this way is that Russian media is forbidden to report on the war except by repeating the official state line; they are forbidden to call it a war, an attack, or an invasion. Another reason is that, after years of fake-news scares and internet trolling, people tend not to believe the social media channels and Western media sources that could have served as an alternate news source. A third reason is that state control over dissidence has become increasingly draconian recently, so people who do speak against the war must be careful about how they do so. Today, the General Procurator’s Office has decreed that providing “financial, logistical, consulting or other assistance” to a foreign state will be regarded as treason. Does an op-ed count as “other” assistance? I don’t know, but treason is punishable by 20 years of incarceration—which is why I’m writing anonymously.
Over the past several days, I’ve asked many people from many different walks of life whether they think that we’re shelling Kyiv. Educated urbanites in St. Petersburg tend to say yes. Other people often say no.
On Friday, I took my car down to my neighborhood auto-shop. I’m on good terms with the people there; we help each other in neighborly ways like getting discounted cat-food or finding warehouse space. We joke and drink coffee together. The woman working the counter is about 65. I told her, we’re shelling Kyiv, I’m devastated. She didn’t believe me. I showed her videos posted online; she didn’t believe them. That doesn’t look like Kyiv. Where are the domed churches? I pulled up CNN, BBC, but she didn’t believe in those either. If that’s all true, she reasoned, then why aren’t “our” media saying anything? I’ll believe it when I hear it from Moscow.
Today, I had a few errands to run just outside city limits, and so I took the chance to ask people there, people working the counter in diners and gas-stations, acquaintances of mine and people I’d never met. And almost all of them had no idea. A woman in her 20s with dyed purple hair, smoking outside the diner where she works, told me that yes, she thinks that it’s entirely possible Russia is shelling Ukrainian cities. Her two colleagues inside, about the same age, said no, of course not.
An acquaintance of mine, a children’s music teacher who’s 55, had a good answer. I asked her whether we’re shelling Kyiv, and she said no… because what’s the point of just shelling one city? Ok, I said to her, what if I told you that we’re also shelling several others: Kharkiv, Kherson, Odessa? No, she said—that’s completely irrational. They’ll just send in a special-ops force. They’ll send the Chechens.
Her husband, who’s ex-military and about the same age, told us he didn’t want to talk about politics.
Later, as I was leaving, the woman asked me what I thought, are we were shelling Kyiv? Yes, I told her, we are. She presented some counter-arguments: a colleague of hers has relatives there; if there was a war, she would have heard. And anyway, what’s the Ukrainian military doing hiding in cities? Are they using human shields, or what? But she wrote down the name of the telegram channel l I told her about, and there’s a good chance that she’ll think it over.
Some people are willing to think over new facts, when these are brought to their attention. A friend called from the Urals today. A retired police officer, he had also been convinced that the operation in Ukraine was no big deal. Then he spent a day reading the telegram channel, and now he no longer believes that.
But most people, even those who have a sense that something’s not right, do not understand the severity of the situation. Another friend called yesterday, an artist and preschool teacher. She’s a very nice person in her mid-60s. She thinks that the war is terrible, of course, just awful. But really? Are they bombing Kyiv already? That’s awful. But anyway, she said, she was calling to ask me whether I wanted to go to the ceramics workshop like I’d promised.
There are many of us here in this country who are horrified by this war. You may have seen photos of the protests. But they are completely insignificant in the grand scheme of things. To stop a war you need half the city to come out on the streets at once. You need hundreds of thousands of people. A thousand people—even two, three, five thousand—does not change anything. And half the city will not come out: They don’t even realize that we’re shelling Ukrainian cities.
Putin, meanwhile, has placed the country’s nuclear forces on high alert.
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