A year has passed since the Russian military invaded Ukraine and the end of the war is still nowhere in sight. The Russian leadership often speaks out regarding the war and criticized Kyiv, but the voices of the Russian people are rarely ever heard.
For example, last weekend, during the anniversary of the war's inception, there were just a few dozen protesters arrested in St. Petersberg, compared to thousands who protested against Russian President Vladimir Putin's policies in Yaketinberg in the first month of the war.
One person who decided to break their silence was Daniil Orain, 22, from Moscow, who went out into the Russian streets with a video camera in order to try and find out what the residents of the capital and other regions of the country think about what's happening in Ukraine.
According to Orain, these opinions tend to be quite similar, as shown in one of the videos where passersby are asked about what they think of Putin, and then they tend to start repeating themselves.
- "We live good lives, what happens doesn't concern us, so it's difficult for us to say anything bad about Putin"
- "I'm neutral about it. I'm not interested in politics. I'm apolitical, a pacifist. I have my own life."
- "We're Russian citizens, so we support him. What other alternative is there? None."
- "If it wasn't for Putin, we'd still be stuck in the 1990s financial crisis when inflation skyrocketed. He built this country out of the dirt and ensured our stability."
In addition, it shouldn't be overlooked that many of these answers can be taken to meet "I'd prefer not to talk in front of the camera."
"[Regarding] people in Russia saying they're apolitical – in my opinion, that isn't something unique to us. Politics in general is a heavy subject and requires a lot of energy from people. It isn't related to suppressing the freedom of expression," Orain explained. "However, when they do answer, I often hear answers devoid of any logic. For example, they tell me that when Boris Yeltsin was in power in the 1990s, everything was more difficult. But this doesn't mean that democratic rule and democracy in general are bad. Sadly, I think many opinions are consolidating into conspiracy theories and they will only become more dominant in the future."
Meanwhile, opinions supporting the war are also fairly uniform. People accuse NATO of being a Western entity plotting to neutralize Russia, the US of resource-driven imperialism, Ukraine of choosing war instead of peace, the entire world (mostly the West) of Russophobia and claiming that Russia's invasion was a preemptive strike against an attack that was going to be launched against Russia.
However, the opposition hasn't entirely disappeared. There are those who still refuse to support the war and refuse to take part in the campaign. They say they don't understand how it's possible to support a president that started a war and claim "Putin should be tried in The Hague for war crimes." They further lament how Russia has become isolated from the international community and harmed its own economy. They also call the Kremlin leadership "the bloody regime."
But why is there no organized or outspoken resistance movement in Russia?
"For certain people, Russia is like a sandbox video game. These people can do whatever they want, make all kinds of stupid laws, and there is no balance or opposition against them," Orain said.
"The authorities monitor all protest actions and suppress them automatically. It becomes harder every year. Time works against the citizens because technology develops and the authorities know how to monitor and suppress protests more effectively. For example, after protests in 2017, when Alexei Navalny released videos regarding corruption in the upper echelons of the government and then-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, tens of thousands of people went to demonstrate in the streets of Moscow. Then the government set up cameras all over the city to recognize the faces of everyone in the capital.
"These methods just becoming more prevalent, like in China. Over time, it will simply become more and more difficult to resist and protest."
Indeed, Putin's measures against freedom of expression became stricter after the decision to invade Ukraine, becoming more severe than any other point in the entirety of his 22-year rule.
A law criminalizing disseminating "false" information about the war was enacted back in March, with violators facing up to 15 years in prison. Further laws, such as criminalizing any expression of opposition to the war by independent news outlets and the ban on using the word "war" at all, rather than the official designation of "special military operation," gave more leeway to the government, which claims that whoever chooses to violate these rules undermines national interest and are labeled as "traitors."
What is the situation in Belarus?
On the other hand, the situation was entirely different in nearby Belarus, where President Alexander Lukashenko is a close ally of Putin. There, locals spoke much more freely, condemning the killing of innocent civilians and hoping that they could live in peace.
Were you surprised by their answers?
"According to what I've understood, there are no overly strict laws against spreading fake news, so the locals feel more comfortable expressing their opinion. However, in Russia, it's forbidden to say the word 'war' as a description of what's happening in Ukraine, even though Putin himself has said it in a number of situations. Additionally, Russian laws are strange, judging people for nonsense, for liking social media posts, etc. The citizens have no faith in the laws," Orain said.
"In my opinion, Russian adults don't have the strength to oppose anything, so they prefer to just say they support Putin to adapt to the situation in order to survive. Young people just say they don't think about it or prefer not to."
Did any moment stand out to you?
"I don't think there's any specific moment I can say that I won't forget. These answers all repeat themselves. Sometimes I come across an older woman who suddenly says they support Hitler, that he did well for his country and compared him to Putin, so yeah, maybe it shocks me a bit."