Russia is Unrecognizable One Year After Putin's Invasion of Ukraine
Many Russians would rather forget about the war and go back to a simpler time. Unfortunately, the country has undergone a moral collapse.
In the 1978 essay "Power of the Powerless," Czech dissident Vaclav Havel wrote about the communist regimes of Eastern Europe that remained in power after the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring. He defined a new term, the "post-totalitarian" system, by which he meant what comes after Stalinism. He meant a state that touched everything with "ideological gloves on," hiding what it was doing by lying. In this system, "the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom" and "military occupation becomes fraternal assistance."
Some 44 years later, Russian leader Vladimir Putin launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine that he called a “special military operation,” and in the days following signed a series of laws about "fake news." Those who "knowingly" spread false information about the war are subject to up to 15 years in prison. In addition, there are laws punishing those spreading false information about the Russian army with up to 10 years in prison. These laws made it a crime to describe the war as a war and the invasion as an invasion.
High-profile anti-war activists were among the first victims of the new laws. In April, Washington Post contributor Vladimir Kara-Murza was arrested under the "fake news" law for a speech he gave in Arizona accurately referring to "cluster bombs on residential areas" and "bombings of maternity wards and hospitals and schools” as war crimes committed by Russia. He remains behind bars in Moscow, facing up to 24 years in prison on "fake news" and other charges. Another victim was Ilya Yashin, whose crime was to discuss BBC footage of purported Russian war crimes in Bucha on his YouTube livestream, with 1.3 million subscribers. He was sentenced to 8.5 years in a penal colony.
But it isn't just anti-war activists with big platforms that have been arrested. A Siberian court sentenced Russian journalist Maria Ponarmenko to six years in prison for posting about the Mariupol drama theater, which Russian warplanes bombed in March, killing about half of the 1200 civilians sheltering inside. A 19-year-old from Arkhangelsk, Olesya Krivtsova, faces up to 10 years in prison for social media posts. Moscow police even detained a Moscow fifth-grader, Varya Zholiker, for posting pro-Ukrainian content online and skipping a mandatory "patriotism" lesson. According to human rights monitor OVD-Info, there are 444 people either convicted or charged with anti-war activities including the "fake news" law.
These laws are part of Russia transforming from a country where the populace is encouraged to be cynical and apolitical into a mobilized and hyper-patriotic state. In the past, Russian state television spewed propaganda as a patriotic sugarhigh; now, the Russian state is mobilizing hundreds of thousands of men to the front, many of whom die within hours or days of arriving in Ukraine. The propaganda has also become extreme; children are being indoctrinated with slogans like "War is love. War is a friend. War is the future." The Russian state has used the letter "Z" -- which has no meaning in Russian -- to drum up support for the war in public spaces.
In Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the biggest victims are Ukrainians. Russians are perpetrators, but in a very different way, victims as well: as Havel wrote under post-totalitarianism, "everyone in his own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system."
Because of this descent into post-totalitarianism, the country has become unrecognizable since the last time I was there in 2012. In Moscow, I reported on an opposition protest. I had to wear a big blue city-issued press vest so I wouldn't get arrested; loudspeakers warned people to go back on the Metro to avoid being detained. Boris Nemstov was there; he was shot and killed in 2015. Alexei Navalny was there; he survived a poisoning attempt and has been imprisoned since his return to Russia in 2021. Now, this protest couldn't even happen. Independent journalism is illegal; for example, Riga-based website Meduza was declared a "foreign agent" in April 2021, and in January 2023, it became an "undesirable" organization, meaning anyone inside Russia who shared their posts could be prosecuted.
While many in Russia would rather the war be over and go back to the status quo ante, that isn't possible; like Germany under the Nazis, Russian society has undergone a moral collapse. There is no obvious way out. Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who left Moscow after the invasion, recently told the New Yorker: “The country has undergone a moral catastrophe." He added, “Going back would mean living with people who supported this catastrophe; who think they had taken part in a great project; who are proud of their participation in it.” Most people I know have also left. A few months ago, I had dinner with a friend who grew up in post-Soviet Russia and also hadn't been back since about a decade ago. She explained that returning would spoil how she remembered the past: "I prefer to keep my memories."
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