War and the Litany of Unexpected Consequences
Societal fissures created in Russia, Ukraine and Canada by Putin’s invasion will linger long after he goes
I was born and raised in Russia, and like many Soviet families, my family roots are wide-ranging. My dad, for example, was born and raised in Ukraine, and most of his relatives are still there. However, he and my mother live in Moscow now, and despite his Ukrainian family connections, both firmly believe the official Russian war narrative, fed by around-the-clock pro-war messages. Both are also highly educated, which makes it even more perplexing to me that they would uncritically follow Moscow’s narrative.
My parents, like many Russians of their age, get their news about the war from television, and it is no secret that all the channels transmit exclusively official narratives. As a result, a distorted image of reality has been created and readily consumed by much of the population.
Consistently, news anchors and reporters remind viewers that Russia faces external and internal enemies and this discourse has led to an environment of dehumanizing othering throughout Russian society. For example, in 2015, when the Kremlin intervened in Syria to support Bashar al-Assad, a Russian television weather forecaster cheerfully described how clear skies over Syria would help the Russian air force bomb opposition ground targets.
The number of Russian political talk shows have tripled since I left the country in 2016, and for the most part they are now composed of presenters and panel members who endlessly scoff at the Ukrainian people who remain under daily attack. From first framing the war as liberating Ukrainians from Nazis, these days the media simply considers everyone in Ukraine to be Nazis.
Personally, I find it impossible to speak about the war with anyone who supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Foremost, I consider it a war between two sister nations that would never have happened if not for one man – Vladimir Putin. With friends and family though, conversations about the fighting are often unavoidable, even though we know it will result in heated arguments. For me, my friends and family who support Putin, are living in a make-believe world they seem incapable of questioning.
For many Russians, the world today has turned black and white. Since the 2022 invasion, the question of which side someone supports has defined relationships for us at home and abroad. Friendships have collapsed. Marriages have ended. Family members will no longer speak to each other.
For Russians that do not support the war, it is the ones inside the country who are in the greatest danger. Those who could, left Russia soon after the war began, seeking refuge in former Soviet republics and other neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Mongolia. Another wave, no doubt fearing for their lives if sent to the front lines, fled when a partial conscription was announced. Indeed, it seems the idea of even a partial mobilisation “proved to be more shocking to the population than the outbreak of the war.” But, without any legal rights to stay abroad, many are forced to go back to Russia.
According to OVD-Info, since the invasion began, almost 20,000 Russians have been detained in more than 243 cities and towns. Opposition to the war is met with unspeakable police brutality, effectively silencing any form of public protest. Even in private Russians must navigate a culture of denunciation, much like in Soviet times. There have been numerous cases of household doors vandalized with pro-war ‘Z’ and ‘V’ signs, designed to intimidate anti-war journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists. Ironically, some believe the perpetrators to be members of Russian neo-Nazi organizations. And, without an independent judiciary to turn to, it is no wonder those opposed to the war remain silent.
Of course, what Russian families are experiencing abroad and inside Russia, cannot compare to the devastation caused in Ukraine. As a Russian abroad, I live with guilt and shame for a war in which I have no say. I never supported Putin and left Russia because of what was already happening inside the country under his leadership. But here, and in talks I have been giving, I feel compelled to say something about what is happening in Russian, and to its people, because so many have been pummeled or self-censored into silence.
Closer to home, the war has also created fissures. Last February, classmates told my young daughter that they hated Russia and all Russians. She was confident enough to point out the war was the responsibility of one man. The son of Ukrainian friends faced another challenge – a pro-Russian Canadian classmate telling him that Russia was a great nation and war-wise Ukraine was at fault. Judging by the ages of the children involved, whatever they were signaling came from their parents.
St. Sophia’s Orthodox Church in Victoria was splattered with red paint last year. The day after, the Russian Community Centre in Vancouver had its doors covered with yellow and blue paint. The Russian Spoon bakery in Vancouver had to cover the word “Russian” after receiving several hateful messages. Sadly, those carrying out these attacks seem oblivious to the fact that these places of worship, community centres and shops often serve the spiritual and non-spiritual needs of both Russians and Ukrainians.
With all that is going on inside Russia these days, I do wonder why there has not been any large-scale international refugee or immigration programs specifically for ordinary Russians seeking to escape Putin’s regime? No doubt the first reaction for many Canadians would be why care at all? My simple answer would be that Putin, even though we knew this long before February 2022, ranks among the worst human rights abusers on the planet, alongside the likes of Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong Un. Would not opening our doors send another message of how far Russia’s global stature has fallen?
Of course, it is hard to know the number of people who would try to leave Russia now, even if they could. In what polling data is available, many still support the war although when questioned indirectly seem to have their doubts leading to speculation that “behind the facade of a declarative pro-war majority” is significant opposition to Putin and the war. One indication of the size of this opposition could be an anti-war petition that received over 1.2 million signatures just two days after Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
For Russians, and everyone else for that matter, the question is when will this war end? Prigozhin’s recent coup attempt could be the first indication that Putin is not infallible. Perhaps the fissures for him are beginning to appear and his days are numbered? Certainly, the deeper societal fissures his war has created will linger long after he goes.