The independent polling agency Levada reported this week that 83 percent of Russians support Putin. Now there is quite a bit to argue with opinion polls during a war – especially in a totalitarian country like Russia. But I see in my own environment that many Russians unite around their flag.
This weekend we celebrated the thirtieth birthday of Lilia, son Pjotr’s partner. Dinner was very nice, but Lilia was a bit pissed off. Her parents in Moscow hadn’t spoken. “We have had no contact since the war. They are right behind Putin. It’s terrible to be so estranged from your parents.”
On the editors of The Moscow Times – moved to Amsterdam for now – journalist Marina told the same story. “I still talk to my mother. Or rather – I scream. Every conversation on the line degenerates into a screaming party. I can’t stand my mother believing in Putin propaganda.”
Oleg, who looks after our house in Zhukovka, was an avowed opponent of the war when I left Moscow three weeks ago. But he too is now beginning to doubt and suddenly uses the derogatory term ‘chochlyfor Ukrainians. “Say for yourself: those aren’t sweethearts either,” says Oleg.
No wonder that the exodus of young Russians who are against the war continues unabated. Every day I spend hours on Zoom talking to journalists and activists who have emigrated to Istanbul, Riga and Berlin, who have to reinvent themselves. Independent media editors are trying to regroup or consider new start-ups. In addition to Amsterdam, we open for The Moscow Times an office in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, for the colleagues who have settled there.
It’s not all that simple. After more than a month of war, everyone understands that the end is not in sight. Hastily obtained visas expire, Schengen is still closed to most Russians, bank cards no longer work and money is running out.
Many colleagues are also still stuck in Russia because they do not have a ‘zagran passport’: the only travel document that allows Russians to leave their country. Given the mass exodus, the authorities are very reluctant to issue new travel documents.
“I estimate that 80 percent of my friends and colleagues have left Russia,” noted opposition politician Ilya Yashin said in a statement. The Guardian† Yashin belongs to a small group of brave activists who have decided to stay in Russia – whatever the consequences. “I understand the risk, but I think my anti-war protest will sound louder and more convincing if I do it from Russia itself.”
The biologist Oleg Orlov (68) is also such a person. His activist resume is impressive. He can still remember making posters at home against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Orlov was already active at Memorial, the organization that researched Stalin’s gulags. Memorial was recently banned by the Kremlin. In 1995, he volunteered to replace a group of civilians kidnapped by Chechen rebels. A few years later, he himself was kidnapped in the Autonomous Republic of Ingushetia.
He has been arrested three times since the Ukrainian war started a month ago. This week, his front door was defaced with the letter ‘Z’ – Putin’s swastika.
“What is happening in Russia now cannot be compared to what has happened before in Russia – or anywhere else in the world,” Orlov told The Moscow Times† “A country that has just emerged from a totalitarian system and is now returning to it.”
“The problem is, we don’t know how long this will take,” said Pavel Tsjikov of Agora, a club that provides legal advice. “It feels like we’re on the Titanic. That is why I advise many young people to seek out the lifeboat.”
That is not an option for the outspoken former mayor of Yekaterinburg, Yevgeny Rojzman. “I’m almost sixty. Where do I have to go? Fortunately, there are still many ‘normal people’ in Russia. I can encourage them by staying here. But I now understand very well how German anti-fascists felt during the Third Reich.”
For 80-year-old Svetlana Gannushkina, an icon of the dissident movement during the Soviet Union, leaving is not an option either. “I was born here and will die here.” Svetlana founded an organization that provides assistance to refugees in Russia, a marginalized group.
“Many young people followed their hearts and joined us,” says Svetlana. “But most have left. Young people who gave hope, but are now afraid and helpless. I totally agree with them that they are leaving. But they leave me in this madness.”
Derk Sauer is publisher of The Moscow Times and columnist at The Parool† He is also founder of the Russian newspaper Vedomosti and former publisher of RBK Gazeta†