Shopping, eating out, going to clubs: while war is raging in Ukraine, everything is going on as usual in Moscow – at least at first glance. The Kremlin wants to maintain the appearance of normalcy. But the Russian population is deeply divided and the fear of economic collapse is omnipresent.
Moscow is not only the largest European city, Moscow is a city of culture. At first glance, not much has changed in the Russian capital since February 24, 2022. Life is pulsating in Moscow. People take advantage of the countless cultural offerings in the metropolis, visit the museums, stroll through the parks, go to the cinemas, visit restaurants and clubs. Nightlife is booming. There are huge crowds in the shopping malls. The supermarket shelves are well stocked. There doesn’t seem to be any shortage.
After the attack on Ukraine, Putin’s administration showed great interest in maintaining the usual situation for the population, or at least in keeping up appearances. The government reacted quickly to the western sanctions. Even though many American and European brands have withdrawn from Russia, most of the products are still available.
Western company chains sometimes sell their branches to their own franchise companies, which they continue to operate under other names. Since March there has been a law that allows copyrights to be circumvented. The patent protection has thus effectively been revoked, and the Russian market is being flooded with pseudo-branded goods from Asia. The counterfeit products can also afford those on lower incomes. iPhones are now coming to Russia via Kazakhstan, Armenia or Uzbekistan.
The Russian ruble has not only stabilized after an initial slide, it is now even higher than before February 24th. The price of oil is at record levels worldwide. For a balanced budget, Russia needs an oil price of USD 45 per barrel. Today it is almost three times as much. Even if the West were to impose a complete ban on oil imports, the Russians will find buyers given the enormous global demand for fossil fuels.
And yet a lot has changed since February 24th. Paralysis and fear of dictatorship are spreading. “La Traviata” is still on the program at the Bolshoi Theater. However, other plays staged by artists critical of the war will no longer be performed. American films have disappeared from the cinema schedules. There are price increases in almost all areas. The war is the number one topic of conversation.
People in Russia are used to crises. When the Soviet Union collapsed 30 years ago, they were left with nothing economically. Everything saved had vanished into thin air. In the 1990s, economic and financial crises alternated. In 1998 the country was on the verge of national bankruptcy.
A kind of middle class only developed under Putin in the last 15 to 20 years. The fear of another economic collapse is great. Everyone senses that the Russian leadership has isolated Russia, and the population is held hostage by this isolation. China in particular will take advantage of the situation and fill in the gaps left by isolation.
The attitude of the Russian population to the war is divided. There are many apolitical people who don’t notice or don’t want to notice so much of what is happening. Shame also plays a role. Another part of the population supports the war adventure of his leadership. The reasons for this are not only state propaganda. The hostility towards the USA runs deep and sometimes turns into hatred. In Russia, there is a widespread legend that everything that is happening is the fault of the United States and that the Ukrainian leadership is only an executive body of the White House.
dr Thomas Kunze is the representative of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation for the Russian Federation.
But approval is crumbling. The younger, more educated and living closer to big cities, the less effective state propaganda is, and the more differentiated and critical the voices become. The generation gap is palpable. Intellectuals, artists and business people have been leaving the country since February 24. This benefits the regime in the short term, as it means that the potential for protest emigrates. But Russia loses a lot with it. Above all, it is losing young, highly educated people who feel just as European as Germans, Poles or French.
In Russian metropolises like Moscow, St. Petersburg or Vladivostok you can see how highly motivated young people have changed these metropolises in recent years. Innovative start-up companies shot up like mushrooms. Digitization is well advanced. Hardly anyone knows what’s going to happen now. Young Russians leaving the country are interrogated by police officers at the border about their attitude towards the state apparatus, the military, the war and their attitude towards them. That doesn’t show strength, but that the administration has its back against the wall.
No one can say whether there will be a political change in Russia in the near future. However, Russia does not disappear as a European neighbor and remains a European country. You will not be able to ignore Russia in the long run. We will have to deal with this fact as well. In many countries and in Russia itself there are currently people who believe in a different Russia and hope for a European future for their country.