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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Nothing has really changed’: In Moscow, the fighting is a world away

At the annual Army International Games, children climb on a tank with the letter Z, which has become a symbol of support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, outside Moscow, Aug. 20, 2022.

By Valerie Hopkins

On a recent evening in Red Square, a corps of elite paratroopers dressed in camouflage performed a battle-like dance with pyrotechnics. An Egyptian performer dressed as a pharaoh rode back and forth in a chariot wielding an ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life, as a band played “Katyusha,” a Soviet-era patriotic war song.

Nataliya Nikonova, 44, was one of thousands of spectators cheering from the bleachers at a festival celebrating the militaries of Russia and friendly nations including Belarus, India and Venezuela.

“I was so thrilled that I just about lost my voice!” she said.

Russia’s army is now waging a slow-moving war that has left tens of thousands dead and contributed to global inflation and a surge in energy prices.

But Nikonova said she hadn’t experienced many disruptions to her life in the past six months.

“Nothing has really changed,” she said. “Sure, the prices went up, but we can endure that.” She rushed off to listen to an encore of “Katyusha” from the Egyptian Military Symphonic Band.

Very little about day-to-day life seems to have changed in Moscow, where people have the financial resources to weather significant price increases, unlike much of the rest of the country. GUM, the luxury mall next to Red Square, is full of shoppers — though many Western stores like Prada, Gucci and Christian Dior are closed — and restaurants and theaters do thriving business. Moscow’s roads still teem with luxury cars such as Lamborghinis and Porsches.

“A few stores closed because of sanctions, which is frustrating but not that bad,” said Yuliya, 18, a recent high school graduate who was hanging out on a bench in Gorky Park, where Muscovites sunbathe, dance and Rollerblade. She and her friends said they don’t really think about the fighting in Ukraine that often.

That detachment is exactly what President Vladimir Putin is counting on as he executes a domestic strategy of shielding Russians from the hardships of war — no draft, no mass funerals, no feelings of loss or conflict. Much of Russia’s effort on the battlefield has not gone as Putin had planned, but at home, he has mostly succeeded in making Russian life feel as normal as possible.

Most museums and theaters are open, as long as their leadership didn’t criticize the Kremlin, and on summer evenings, party boats with effusive revelers ply the nearby Moskva River and people picnic in the grass. The fall seasons in opera and ballet have just begun — though a few anticipated premieres and ongoing productions have been canceled after their directors and stars spoke against the war or fled the country.

“What Russians normally do is protect their everyday lives,” said Greg Yudin, a professor of political philosophy at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, describing a coping mechanism that dates from the Soviet period but became widespread during Putin’s tenure.

“This is the thing that they always prioritize and that they excel at,” he said of Russia’s leadership, “and they are doing that now with a considerable degree of success, I would say.”

But while many Muscovites embrace revelry and willful ignorance, many of the capital’s intelligentsia, whose work and life tied them to the West or to Ukraine, are struggling to reconcile the feeling of normalcy with the enormity of being engaged in Europe’s biggest land war since World War II.

That was evident Saturday in the outpouring of sympathy and appreciation for former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, expressed by thousands of Russians attending his funeral, who represented a silent protest against Putin and his policies.

As soon as Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, said Anya, she started reading books about the rise of totalitarianism in Nazi Germany and grappling with the concept of collective guilt.

“It was the end of the world for so many people,” said Anya, 34. Like several others interviewed for this article, she did not want to provide her last name for fear of retribution.

“In your name, someone is killing civilians,” she said. “And your country is turning into something like North Korea.”

Along Moscow’s artery roads there are billboards of soldiers listing their rank and title, with a QR code to scan for more information. And there is no shortage of events celebrating Russia’s military might.

Thousands of spectators gathered at the Alabino army training ground southwest of Moscow over two weeks to watch the Army International Games, a festival that includes a Tank Biathlon, in which international teams compete to drive a tank through natural obstacles and fire accurately at targets. (Since 2013, when the competition started, Russia has always come in first place.)

“I’ve been seeing tanks on TV for all this time; I wanted to see them in real life,” said Ilya, 34, who drove out to the event from Moscow with his children, 11 and 4.

“I think every war is bad; I am not saying I support the ‘Special Military Operation,’ or don’t,” he said, using Putin’s term for the hostilities in Ukraine. “But I trust the leadership in my country, and if they say it is necessary, then it is.”

Others said that seeing the weapons on display at the army festival — including Kinzhal missiles being used in Ukraine — made them feel as if they had come from a strong country.

Andrei Yevgenyevich, 55, who was a tank driver in Soviet-controlled Germany in the last days of the Cold War, said the weapons display brought him back to the days when the Soviet Union was a strong and feared global power.

“When you see this, you trust that all is well in your country, that everything is as it should be,” he said.

“We were raised in the Soviet tradition, and we love our motherland. This brings pride to our country.”

As for the sanctions, he said: “I don’t feel any difference. I think America and the West are suffering far more.”

This is a common refrain on Russian television. State-run media produce daily segments about the uncertainty countries like Germany are facing over gas prices and soaring inflation in Europe and the United States.

At the army training grounds, children scrambled over tanks, including one that said, “Smash the Fascists,” and people of all ages shot automatic rifles. But booths inviting visitors to sign a contract to join the army stood empty, save for the recruiters, indicating that even if nationalism is rising, people are not ready to fight Putin’s war.

“Not a lot of people are coming right now,” one military recruiter said, declining to give his name, as the sounds of shots from the nearby firing range could be heard.

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