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‘I watched the news and didn’t understand a thing. Why were we fighting?’. What Russians who were previously ‘not interested in politics’ think about the war against Ukraine

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Sergey Karapukhin

For many Russians, life has changed radically because of Moscow’s decision to wage an all-out war against Ukraine. As a result, some Russians who had never given politics a second thought are now closely following the news and have begun to carefully criticize the government, quit their jobs in protest, and even attend anti-war rallies. Meduza shares some of their stories here.

Larisa

48, marketing specialist from Moscow (name has been changed) 

I’m 48, I don’t have that many years left until retirement, but I don’t feel that way. I got used to always improving, relying on myself and my strength. What was going on around me? I didn’t care for whatever reason. Everyone’s energy seems to decline with age, but for me, it’s the opposite, every year, I get more and more energy. 

I am a former master manicurist, but for the past several years, I’ve been doing targeted advertising on social media, mostly in the beauty world. I started learning how during the pandemic. I remember I was sitting there, scrolling through Instagram, and it came to me: why not monetize scrolling social media? I tried taking this class, but it wasn’t for me. I went to another one and it made me realize that targeted advertising could be a good path. I invested 97,000 rubles [around $1,200] into learning targeted advertising but, incidentally, I made that back pretty quickly. 

I started with my friends’ businesses, promoting their pages. My colleagues – master manicurists, make-up artists, hair dressers — they all left me reviews. I built my portfolio and then I started asking for payment. I kept landing larger and larger clients, manicure instructors and other beauty producers. After I raised my prices, I got even more clients. That was the first time I felt like I had truly achieved success. 

I didn’t think that I would ever retire, that I would live out the rest of my days on Instagram and Facebook, learning new things, maybe even start teaching my own advertising classes. And then they blocked Meta.

Everyone was in shock. That’s our income, our job. When war broke out, I hadn’t even considered that it would lead to this kind of blocking, a financial crisis, that things would go awry. There were rumors, but I didn’t listen to them very closely. Now I realize that I was just in denial. We’re living in a world that’s collapsed. My advertising instructors are all in shock, as are the mastodons – the marketing specialists with a capital M. There are no differences between us anymore, all of us have been forced to start over. 

I don’t like politics, I’ve never been interested in it. When the hostilities began in Ukraine, I was of course very sorry for the people, I don’t even want to talk about this right now. But a special operation [sic] is one thing, it’s something very distant from us. Our social networks, that’s the human element, everyday life, how we feed ourselves. Now that all of this has come to pass, I see that I should have had my finger on the pulse, been more aware of what was going on around me, kept my eye on what was coming, what I should have been resisting, so that it least it wouldn’t have felt so sudden. 

With time, I’ve calmed down. I notice that I’ve been getting on Instagram and Facebook more and more rarely. Most clients are too lazy to use VPNs, and what are we supposed to do without our clients? Right now I’m urgently learning new skills. I tried working on VKontake, but I had to stop: it’s too awkward. The audience isn’t there, anyway — it’s mostly school kids and college students. The algorithms work a lot better on Facebook and Instagram; you have to do everything on VK by hand. In order to figure it out, I need to put in the time that I would instead be investing in my clients. It’s not good to badmouth our [Russian] social networks, but I feel like I used to drive a Mercedes and have been forced behind the wheel of a Lada Kalina

I am starting all over from scratch because all of my experience on other social networks doesn’t count for anything anymore. I’m working for free again, building a portfolio. I’m not making any money this month or next month, either. I have a small cushion, but when you’re used to seeing cash, it’s hard to adjust. All I can think about is how to make enough money, whether I can afford to spend right now, how long I’ll have to survive on my savings. I really don’t want to go back to doing manicures. 

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Yana

34, crafter from the Sverdlovsk region (name has been changed)

I come from a really small town and I’ve always felt very removed from politics. Well yeah, I knew people in Moscow and Petersburg went out to protests, that they were unhappy with things. [That] lawmakers had passed some new law 2,000 kilometers away [1,200 miles]. We have our problems here, too, but there was never a sense that politics directly affected us. People were protesting over there, our salaries were falling over here, but those two things were not connected. I was living inside my own little imaginary world. 

When I was a child, my grandmother taught me how to crochet. It’s always been my hobby. I studied to become a nurse and worked at the hospital. I even quit crocheting for a while. But then times got hard, I didn’t have any money, and so I started making cute toys and selling them on Instagram. My business took off out of nowhere, so I decided to keep going with it, even after I started making money again. Right now, my entire income comes from my toys. My husband is the breadwinner and I don’t have a fixed income: I sell whatever I crochet. 

People see politics as something complicated, dirty, murky, some kind of game behind closed doors. Crocheting is usually for girls, it’s something positive. Ambitious people start businesses or, I don’t know, join the police force. The girls I know who crochet are always really nice, never negative. It always feels good to praise each other’s work. We create beauty, we create joy. And you get so sucked into this rosy world, you don’t want to bring anything back to your life from it except happiness. You just put up this tall fence in your mind and that’s it – as long as we have our health, nothing can touch us. 

But this war…we don’t have our health. Like everyone else, we were raised to respect veterans, remember the triumph and sacrifice of the Soviet soldiers. The gratitude for the fact that we live under a peaceful sky has never left me. And then, one day, you wake up and the sky isn’t peaceful at all, your country has suddenly started a war. What war? Why war? Has everyone lost their minds? I thought that wars happened somewhere in Africa or in impoverished countries like Afghanistan. Why did our country get involved in a war? Why does Ukraine need a war? 

I watched the news and I couldn’t understand a thing to be perfectly honest. Why couldn’t have things been resolved peacefully? If the diplomats couldn’t agree, there are still sanctions that they could use, economic threats. Why fight? From the very first day, I wanted this horror to stop so that Ukrainians wouldn’t suffer. I still don’t understand why my country is causing them so much suffering. At first, I was confused. But then, when I realized that this war is unnecessary, I got angry. At Russia, at our government. It’s painful for me to acknowledge that it was decided for me that we would go kill our neighbors, that somebody is destroying their lives in my name. 

Eventually, I decided that life goes on anyway. War is horrible, but what can I do to stop it? I can only continue living my life. So I decided to keep working and keep bringing happiness with my toys. I spent so many days in a state of “don’t think about anything negative, only the cute crocheted animals.” And then they blocked Instagram and now I can’t keep doing my work.

I’ve had to set everything up all over again through VKontakte. Some of my clients followed me there, others have stayed on Instagram. I am not very confident about using VPNs, and even with them, Instagram doesn’t always work very well. So I ended up losing clients and need to look for new ones. 

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On top of that, there’s a financial crisis, times are hard — people aren’t thinking about toys. They’ve started asking for discounts, telling me that when they have money, they’ll buy things from me. I’ve started hearing this more and more often. People don’t want to spend and I understand that, but I need something to live on, too. My overhead has skyrocketed, too. At first, I freaked out: was our [Russian] textile industry affected by sanctions? It turned out that our textiles, transportation, loading and unloading, all of these things were tied up with foreign companies or the price of the dollar. 

I’d never made very much money and now it is even less because I have fewer buyers. Luckily, everything with my husband’s salary seems to be fine for now. I have tightened my belt, I couldn’t say that I’m starving, but there’s a constant anxiety: what’s going to happen tomorrow? Should I be looking for a new job or can I go on crocheting for a little while longer? Will I get more or less clients? What about my prices? I think I need to start making scarves and sweaters instead of toys, but I don’t know if there’ll be a demand for them. 

At first, I would watch TV, read the news online, but I never did find out why any of this happened. I mean, I can understand that the West is sanctioning us, everything’s getting more expensive because of the war in Ukraine, but no one has explained to me why they hell we went into Ukraine in the first place. I decided that, fine, I’ll read the alternative news sources. People were saying Ekho Moskvy, so I looked for it but it doesn’t exist anymore, it turns out. I found some other articles and photos, I don’t remember where now. I was just totally shocked. They’ve destroyed cities, just completely destroyed them, they’re shooting at people in their cars, there’s no humanitarian aid. It’s such a nightmare, all my complaints about rising expenses and the lack of clients — that’s nothing compared to what’s happening in Ukraine. 

My brain refuses to accept it. I stopped look at all of them [state and independent media outlets]. I just can’t look at this anymore, I haven’t digested it yet. But I also can’t go on as I was before, just crocheting my toys. This is a nightmare that needs to be stopped. I don’t want to talk about who is to blame – the war must be stopped. While the politicians are playing their games, people are dying. Maybe I’ll come to my senses and start trying to get to the bottom of what is happening in Ukraine. 

Backstory

Margarita

24, historian from Moscow (name has been changed) 

Before February 24, I would only get the news in bits and pieces, I never followed anything closely. My political engagement consisted of “I’ll go and vote against Putin, there’s too much spiritual bondage and not enough money.” 

I wasn’t signed up for any news communities, I only read what my more politically active friends had reposted in my feed. I’d learn some things from my father, who is more interested in politics. Sometimes, things would appear on the front page of Yandex. I was only emotionally affected by news about science, art, and feminism. 

Everything that I knew about protests had just randomly flashed through my information sphere. I’d think, like, “How awful, they’ve put somebody in prison for their political views, the government is terrible, it’s a little bit scary to live here,” and then keep scrolling. Why they’d been thrown in prison — I wouldn’t delve into that. All I knew about [jailed opposition politician Alexey] Navalny, for instance, was that he’s some politician, maybe a nationalist, who’d started coming up in 2012, criticized the government, and then he was, like, poisoned and put in prison. I was extremely surprised at the huge number of people who came out to support him. 

Backstory

My personal political activity was restricted to voting in the presidential and State Duma elections. Otherwise, it was just unpleasant: here were these people making our lives worse appropriating my voice. One time, I heard this sentiment that defined things for me, that people had died by the thousands for our right to put a check mark down on our ballots. I had a lot on my plate, the polling place was in another neighborhood, but I would still express my disapproval with the strange things our government did that made the prices go up and traveling abroad a luxury for the rich. 

Most often, I voted for independent candidates or for the Yabloko Party. I would glance through their campaigns and look for something I liked, like that they were for equal rights or seemed generally educated. I’d just put down my check mark, throw my ballot in the box, and go to my parents’ for tea. 

The alarm bells went off in my head when Putin recognized the sovereignty of the “DNR” and the “LNR” [the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics], but I just scrolled past that, I couldn’t get my mind around it.  

I was living in my own kind of international space, the Olympics had just ended, and despite everything unpleasant that happened, like the story with Kamila Valieva, it was a celebration of sports. Russian athletes were defending the honor of our country in a completely peaceful arena, ruled over by the commandments of Pierre de Coubertin. It was a sad, anxious, but also a joyous time, we were talking to our friends in Ukraine, some of them rooted for Russian athletes, and we supported their guys. The most important thing was the peaceful companionship after the competitions, athletes going off together to celebrate. And then the bombs started flying. At Russian speaking cities for the most part, incidentally. And that was the point of no return that my country unfortunately chose to cross. 

Just yesterday, someone in my feed had been writing funny posts about [the figure skating] fandom, and several days later, they were writing from a train station in Kyiv, trying to fight their way onto an evacuation train. Promising that when peace returned, they would go back to writing funny posts. If they survived. 

I’m finishing up my master’s program in history. This had been a perfect place to be apolitical. In the Russian humanities, which has completed “overeaten” historical materialism, political engagement is a synonym for a lack of rigor and a death sentence for your work. A historian has to keep her own views as far as possible from what she is researching and this, I believe, is useful. 

I still feel that historians shouldn’t get involved in politics. It is only allowable when the issue has expanded beyond pure politics and reached into the moral realm. For me, an example of this is Marc Bloch who founded one of the most important schools of history, the Annales, and was executed for his participation in the French Resistance. Resistance is not about politics; people from opposite sides of the political spectrum participated in it, communists as well as conservatives like Charles de Gaulle. Because it’s more important to triumph over the proponents of humanity-hating ideology than to pursue political disagreements. 

For me, the war in Ukraine is not a matter of politics, it’s about morals. Understanding that there are people there, some of whom I know by name, or by their Twitter handle, has led me to see that it’s possible to not get too deep into politics in order to have a clear position on a specific issue. You can slip through on whatever information, but there’s still an outright and incontrovertible truth: my country initiated combat operations in a neighboring country and people are dying because of it, losing their homes. Their entire lives are being destroyed. And if I can say that “This is what needs to be stopped,” I am required to. Even if it doesn’t change anything, this is what my conscience demands. 

I started putting up anti-war flyers around my neighborhood. I was very scared. I would almost exclusively go out on weekday nights, try to change my outerwear, always wore a mask. It was especially scary when I went out in freezing temperatures. My glasses completely froze over because of my mask, I simply couldn’t see where I was going, I almost fell off the curb a few times. I was scared of running into a group of drunk patriotism, rah-rah guys, or the police, or anyone, really, and not being able to run away. At a certain point, I mistook a tree burl for the face of a scary old man, it was funny. 

Then I went out to a protest for the first time in my life. It was a revelation for me that [during a protest], people don’t just walk along in one stream, they’re constantly changing directions, slipping away from the police, searching for spots where they can clearly shout about important things. I slipped away from Manezhnaya Square, shouted anti-war slogans in a crowd of people, and then pretended that I was just standing around and smoking when the crowd began to get kettled and people started trying to break out of it. When we managed to break way from the main group, we, about twenty of us, walked down a street downtown. Silently, without any posters, you couldn’t even call us a crowd exactly. 

A riot van stopped next to us, people in various uniforms jumped out, some of them just in civilian clothes, none of them presenting themselves. Shouting, they made us form a line, forced us to take off our masks, and a man in civilian clothes took photos of us with his phone. They interrogated us, asking whose poster was laying there on the ground. None of us had been holding it, most likely, the cops were just trying to plant it on us. Then they told all of us to get in the riot van, throwing all of our stuff in the front, including all of our phones. I was clutching it in front of the door, but a man in a balaclava holding a gun brusquely ordered me to put it into my purse and then give him my purse. All I had left in my pockets were my headphones. 

read more about anti-war protests in Russia

At first, I felt almost happy to have been arrested. My feet had been aching from all of that walking, at least I got to sit down somewhere warm. We all introduced ourselves in the riot van — we were, essentially, random strangers. We didn’t get the phone call that we are due by the law. They took us out the of van, lined us up again, insultingly told us that if we wanted to demonstrate — go ahead, demonstrate. They let us back in in small groups, a few at a time, the rest waited out in the cold. The last few people — I was among them — ended up standing out there for almost an hour and a half. 

We were held for eight hours without being offered food or water. They didn’t tell us that we could use the bathroom, and I didn’t ask to: I find it degrading to ask things of people who are tormenting you. Those who complied with all their demands were quickly released. I was stubborn so they started threatening and insulting me. In the end, I burst into tears as soon as they let me out of the precinct. When I got home, I found out that that same day, they’d tortured a girl at the Brateyevo Precinct. 

I haven’t had the energy for any kind of large-scale opposition activity since getting arrested. Even just for putting up a flyer or a ribbon. Or saying something to a cashier complaining about how their payments aren’t coming in. I am just living my life, reposting things, trying to work on my thesis. I try to support the people close to me, my family and my friends who are also against the war, even though they don’t speak out about it. I want the good people around me to live through this war with their psychological well-being intact. 

I am no hero. I’m just a person doing what I can right now, even if it’s very little. At least it’s something. I don’t think anyone has the right to judge anybody’s position as long as they don’t support the war. 

Backstory

Ruslan Dostovalov 

Former executive director at Gazprombank 

You could probably say that like many people in Russia, before this, I was apolitical. I always knew that the country was in a bad place, but believed that it was impossible to change anything. 

I had the opportunity to ascend the career ladder, make money. I worked at Gazprombank. In two years’ time, I managed to become the executive director of one of its departments. I dealt with the bank’s workflow, automation and optimization. 

Like many others, I had hoped that the regime wouldn’t be in place forever, that one day, they would change over, and that we were taking baby steps toward a better future. I could imagine that in 100 years, if we continued at this rate [in the same direction], things would finally get better here. There’s a lot of land in Russia, I’d been thinking about building a house. But now it’s clear to me that we weren’t going anywhere. 

I would say that I’m still apolitical, I don’t want to look at what’s happening through a political or geopolitical lens or talk about the strategies of the West or the East. For me, it’s more simple: Russian troops invaded Ukraine; there are huge civilian casualties. I don’t want to talk about any of that “behind the scenes” stuff or judge the U.S. or Europe for how they’re responding.

I was really sad watching that rally in Luzhniki. So many of my fellow countrymen are stupid enough to stand under those Z-banners. The directors and journalists at NTV [a media outlet owned by Gazprom Media] churn out propaganda, this is their fault. And Gazprom Media is a subsidiary of Gazprombank. I’ve never had any problems with Gazprom before, they obey the law, but now, I decided I needed to quit my job. 

When your life is all set, you’re making money, your career is growing, it doesn’t feel good to give all that up. I wondered if quitting was stupid. But then I thought about it and decided that if I didn’t leave, I would be eaten alive by my conscience. I will never be ashamed of quitting, but if I closed my eyes to what Gazprom Media was doing, despite everything that I knew and acknowledged, I would be ashamed. I decided that my conscience and self-respect were more important to me and wrote a goodbye letter to my colleagues. 

Ninety percent of my colleagues thanked me for articulating my position. They told me that it was important for them to read because they had thought that they were alone. Otherwise, we don’t talk about things at work. I got a lot of phone calls from grateful people, some of them told me that they were also looking for new jobs. Not everybody can quit right away. 

There were people in really high positions were asking me, “Where are you going to go now, Europe? They’ll kill you out there. If Europe makes any kind of move right now, it will be wiped off the map.” It makes me sad that even among very smart people, there are ideas like this. 

I haven’t told the people close to me about my decision yet; I don’t want to upset anyone anymore than I need to. I’ll tell them once everything’s settled so that they don’t worry. Right now, I’m looking for a new job. Whether it’s in Russia or abroad — it’s a matter of how the chips fall. No matter where I end up working, I see my future in Russia. Before the war, I was looking for land [to buy]. I’ve always wanted my own house, and I was happy to have it be in Russia, like on the banks of the Volga, in Konakova, which is two hours outside of Moscow — it’s incredibly beautiful out there. I feel very good about living here.

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Translated by Bela Shayevich

https://meduza.io/en/feature/2022/04/14/i-watched-the-news-and-didn-t-understand-a-thing-why-were-we-fighting ‘I watched the news and didn’t understand a thing. Why were we fighting?’. What Russians who were previously ‘not interested in politics’ think about the war against Ukraine

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