How are things in Moscow?
In the four years I’ve lived in the Russian capital, I’ve asked the question countless times.
My pat answer went something like this: it’s a fascinating place with history and drama on every corner. Clean, bright and safe on the surface, but with dark and menacing forces emerging at the slightest hint of a challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s power.
Beyond the lights and glamor of the Bolshoi Theater, human rights violations. Bare repression during demonstrations on Pushkin Square. The contrasts of a city where Detsky Mir (a popular children’s shopping center) is separated only four lanes from the Lubyanka (the headquarters of the FSB and the KGB in front of it).
Not to mention the yawning gulf that exists between conditions in Moscow and the rest of Russia.
How is it now, almost four months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine? After four months of economic sanctions to bring Putin in line?
My impression of a week-long visit to Moscow, three months after leaving the country, is that the intended damage has yet to be done.
On the surface, the city is as electric and vibrant and bright as ever.
Last weekend was a national holiday to mark Russia’s Day, which recognizes the beginning of constitutional reform in 1990 in the former Soviet Union.
The restaurants in Moscow were filled to the brim. Fashionable youth and families with young children basked in the heat of approaching summer. From a balcony on the second floor of a building on my street, an opera singer gave an impromptu concert for delighted pedestrians.
But the lurking darkness just below Moscow’s inviting facade expands and intensifies. Cracks are forming in the face that the Russian capital presents to the world, even if it is still largely out of sight of the general public.
Some changes cannot be hidden completely.
In the Atrium, a shopping center next to Moscow’s Kursky train terminal, the effect is most visible on the second floor, where foreign retailers including Nespresso, Reebok, Levis, Vans and Uniqlos have all been closed “for technical reasons,” signs said. . by the shopping center management.
But fast food giant McDonald’s has already reincarnated under Russian ownership, serving an almost identical product. New Lada cars roll off the former Renault production lines – for now without safety systems such as anti-lock brakes, airbags and traction control.
And retail experts say the demand for Western brands is being met by a rising Russian resale market, whether through private sales of Western brands entering the country, at thrift stores or at specialist off-price department stores similar in concept to Winners and Marshalls.
Outside, on the street, life rages on.
Moscow is a showy city. People with money make a show of it, and luxury cars continue to clog the city. BMW, Porsche and Mercedes may have all ceased their Russian operations, but as high gas prices in Canada approach $2 a litre, Russians are benefiting from a low and stable price at the pumps hovering around half.
Some suspect that this is the work of a Russian president whose justification for waging war in Ukraine – to rid the country of the Nazis – may be detached from reality, but who is well aware that the vain grumbling of motorists over gas prices can fuel widespread dissatisfaction .
Conspicuous signs of support or opposition to the war were rare in the capital.
At the end of a 12-hour drive to Moscow from Riga, Latvia, I was awakened to the sight through the windshield of a stylized letter Z with the black-and-orange stripes of St. George’s ribbon. The symbol, which graced the side of a temporary shelter at a police checkpoint on the highway, has been embraced as a sign of support for the Russian invasion and compared to the Nazi swastika by opponents of the war.
In Moscow itself, the sharp and divisive lines of the symbol were rare: in a bud perched at the breast of a woman selling bouquets (lily-of-the-valley) on the street; on the yoke of a young man’s sports jacket; and on the side of a building overlooking one of Moscow’s busy ring roads.
The unease in conversations about the war is more noticeable.
“Yes, war is definitely a terrible thing,” a Moscow resident tried to explain when we discussed the conflict in Ukraine. “But …”
But what? Such conversations are rare and delicate – perhaps because they are conducted with a Western journalist – and they spin in all sorts of unsatisfactory directions.
“But Ukrainians and Russians are one people…”
“But the Donbas is the historical land of Russia …”
“But Poland will inevitably take over Western Ukraine itself…”
“But what can be done?”
Some see a feeling of powerlessness rising in the population.
Speaking of support for the war, political scientist Kirill Rogov recently told independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta that Russians who have not fled the country since February 24 have switched to survival mode.
“They no longer look to alternative sources of information because this information is not necessary. It destroys their lives, destroys their well-being,” he said.
In short, it is dangerous. In four short months, Putin has changed from a mere authoritarian leader to the head of a state that is becoming even more blatantly repressive.
OVD-Info, an organization that monitors political repression in Russia, has counted 15,451 arrests in connection with anti-war demonstrations since the February 24 invasion.
Of the 67 such arrests made on June 12, Russia Day, 43 people were reportedly located by police using facial recognition software recently installed in Moscow’s metro system, OVD-Info said on its Telegram channel.
One day this month, popular writer Maxim Glukhovsky, an outspoken opponent of the war, was notified of criminal charges against him for allegedly discrediting the Russian military. The next day, a Moscow theater stopped performing a play based on one of his novels, “Text.”
And all signs point to a chilling Russian summer.
A bill before the State Duma, the Russian parliament, would expand the criteria for those who could be considered “foreign agents”, allowing the government to deny such individuals and organizations tax benefits and prevent them from teaching children or producing information that might affect spirits.
Another bill threatens long prison terms and crushing fines for those who collaborate with foreign intelligence agencies.
And in a country that has proudly hosted both the Olympics and the World Cup, top lawmakers are mulling over banning public advertising in languages other than Russian.
Some see in the massive attack on both Ukraine and the Russian people Vladimir Putin’s effort to rebuild an empire. But through the cracks of Moscow’s carefully cultivated image, the emerging contours of the new Russia resemble a fortress—one that cannot be broken or escaped.
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