Why you should care
It’s one thing to read about life in Russia; it’s another to live it.
In the greenish light, the doors open and dark human lava pours into the metro. The faces are earnest and sleep-deprived — of people who have been getting up for years on dark mornings to commute to Moscow to earn a piece of prosperity for their families, and for whom it wasn’t the first time in their lives that they had become poorer overnight.
A cheerful voice floats over the gloomy crowd from loudspeakers, as if there were a big party to celebrate. It announces that on this day 226 years ago, Russian troops had taken the fortress of Ochakov in the Russo-Turkish War. Ochakov is located in present-day southeastern Ukraine, in one of the regions that Russian president Vladimir Putin likes to call Novorossiya, or “New Russia.” Does anyone notice?
It is a country that is not never in the news, and its leader continues to evoke anxiety if not fear across the globe. But for the 11.5 million people in its capital city of Moscow, life in Russia is forging on in a curious way, bordering on theater of the absurd. Absurdity is part of daily life. And the higher its concentration, the less people seem to notice it, since they’re not only the audience but also have to get on with their lives in the middle of this play.
Patriotism and a deep crisis are two main themes in the play. People still look at the numbers in front of the currency-exchange booths, fearful of a repetition of that winter day in 2014 when the value of Russia’s ruble took a spectacular dive. Early that morning, you could see commuter trains arriving one after another at a Moscow train station.
Behind the public displays of patriotism and demonstrative apathy, another feeling is getting stronger: disgust.
Books about “the history of New Russia” are now prominently displayed in large Moscow bookstores next to “the history of Crimea.” Just a few shelves farther on, there are stacks of colorful books about design, fashion and self-improvement, preferred by a younger readership that roams the city’s streets, art exhibits and bars.
This hip, pro-Western Moscow emerged thanks to the efforts of people who lived according to the motto “act as if.” They imagined that they lived in the ’90s — not in Moscow, but in Berlin or New York. They tried to create a little world with culture and daily hype, in the hope that this little world would keep getting bigger, and their dream would finally become reality. It is reminiscent of the attitude of Soviet dissidents who protested against the system by often trying to live as if the system didn’t exist. To keep their human dignity, they said straight to the face of their absurd reality: “You don’t exist.” Yet it was more like a kind of escapism.
Most Muscovites go about their daily lives. But behind the public displays of patriotism and demonstrative apathy, another feeling is getting stronger: disgust. Moscow resembles a room in which there’s a corpse. And everybody is trying not to notice it.
The corpse, of course, is the war with Ukraine. Despite a recent — but shaky — ceasefire agreement, it’s lying there, and the people aren’t looking or talking about it. They tell each other jokes, comfort each other and say that everything will be fine. One person philosophizes, another beats his chest patriotically. And the corpse smells horrible. But just don’t look, and maybe it will disappear on its own. Maybe everyone will wake up in a different reality. People don’t find any words. The fear and helplessness are too big to talk about this corpse.
People aren’t silent only in Moscow. In the northwestern city of Pskov, on the border with Estonia, there are real corpses. They are paratroopers who lost their lives in covert missions in eastern Ukraine. At least 12 names are known. The state prosecutor has declared that the place of death is a state secret.
In the summer, there was an attempt to keep outsiders away from the funerals, and in the meantime, the names have been removed from several graves. There are now more than 12 corpses. According to local deputy Lev Shlosberg, newly fallen soldiers from the 76th Airborne Division joined them in January. But in Pskov nobody talks about it openly. “Most people don’t want to know anything about it,” says Alexei Semyonov, a correspondent for Pskovskaya Gubernia, which uncovered the soldiers’ deaths. He was surprised when acquaintances asked him: “Why are you guys even writing about it?”
In Russia, lying has become a traditional value without which the state cannot exist. Television constructed a parallel world in which fascists came to power in Ukraine, a Russian child was crucified by the Ukrainian army and Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet.
For many, one great irony is that this parallel world is more fascinating than the real one. They’re not used to dealing with reality and don’t find the language to talk about the things behind the propaganda. Putin, TV presenters and people on the street speak in the same phrases that have become the building blocks of their worldview: “We will prevail.” “Russians don’t surrender.” “Fascism won’t pass.”
In a sense, Russia is isolating itself as if in a vacuum, and there is less and less free air to breathe. But in this chaos and horror there are still people who don’t want to join the majority. The less fresh air is left, the more precious it becomes. Thinking rationally and speaking openly about reality is becoming an existential necessity.