As the war in Ukraine approaches its fifth month, Vladimir Putin and his United Russia Party isn’t just appealing to patriotism, but the idea that their vision of Russia is the only real Russia.
It’s a nationalistic vision that elevates Russian culture while blotting out over 100 ethnic groups native to current-day Russia, a vision that makes Tatars, Buryats, Kalmyks, Karelians, Chuckchi and so many others feel unwelcome their own country. It’s a vision that refuses to admit that Russia ever made mistakes — even Stalin’s purges are excused away. It is a vision that doesn’t just glorify violence, but delights in the humiliation of anyone who doesn’t toe the line. And most importantly, it’s a vision firmly rooted in the past, in the contradictory mishmash of nostalgia for the Soviet Union and visions of the lost Russian Empire — a vision of a Russia that doesn’t grow, doesn’t mature, doesn’t look to the future.
The fact that many Russians have earnestly embraced this vision isn’t enough. Slowly at first, but with increasing speed since 2011, United Russia tightened restrictions against free assembly and free media. As the war started, it criminalized reporting any facts that contradicted the official line — or even calling a war a war. Putin spokesperson Dmitriy Peskov and other officials have outright said that anyone who doesn’t support the war isn’t just unpatriotic, they are not really Russian.
In this environment, it’s hard to tell how many people earnestly support Putin’s vision, and how many are just trying to get through their day. But the fact remains that, even as the restrictions continue to tighten, the inconvenient contradictions of that vision refuse to disappear.
It’s organizations like the Vesna (Spring) movement, which continue to try to organize protests and circulate petitions denouncing the war and repression, even as its members continue to get arrested.
There are media outlets like Bumaga, a lifestyle publication in my native St. Petersburg, which was never afraid of covering protests and opposition politicians. They called a war a war and got blocked in Russia for their trouble. It would have been easy for them to back away, to simply talk about new restaurants and new developments, but they continue covering the war along with lifestyle things, and so far the donations from their readers have kept them afloat.
It’s businesses like Vse Svobodny (Everybody is Free) bookstore in downtown St. Petersburg, where it’s still possible to get books dealing with less savory aspects of Russian history, anti-war books, and books with LGBTQ themes, It remains a place where people who want to help out political prisoners can provide support.
It’s the artists behind projects like Russian Oppositional Art Review, an online journal of essays, poetry and art that forms a defiant response to the war, which released its first issue in late April.
It’s activists like Dmitriy Skurihin, who has been painting his store in the village of Russko-Vyborskoye in anti-Putin, anti-invasion of Ukraine slogs all the way back in 2014 and hasn’t stopped, even amid the escalating penalties.
It’s the people who don’t make the news, like the volunteers who help Ukrainian refugees who ended up in Russia (voluntarily or otherwise) to reach Europe, and generally offer support. It’s people who donate money to bail funds and send care packages to prisoners. It’s people who use VPNs to get independent news.
So long as they exist, Putin’s vision can advance, it can cause harm, but it cannot triumph.
Not as long as any of us are still breathing.