In a battle between heart and mind, which side would you take?
As a Russian living in London, and quite happily so, it is something that I think about often. Recently, I’ve become a UK citizen. Upon hearing the news, a friend asked me which passport I would choose if I could keep just one. “With my mind, I’d choose the British one,” I replied. “With my heart, definitely Russian.”
On a recent visit to Moscow I saw a similar struggle between hearts and minds among my friends. Thinking, observant Muscovites were living in a parallel, schizophrenic reality. This most starkly demonstrated by the way the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine was being covered by mainstream media outlets.
Media-led propaganda penetrates every home and social networks carry multiple pro- and anti-Russian videos and posts. People are nearly getting divorced over their political differences, says Ksenia, a mother of six-year-old twins from Moscow. One of her friends even started having problems at work for sharing his political views. She says she finds herself in an absurd situation when peaceful Ukrainian civilians, including children, women and the elderly are dying; when the wives of young soldiers feel forced to conceal the death of their spouses because they are afraid to die of hunger they will face if they’re known to be on the wrong side. But, officially, there was no war. This is Absurdistan, and then some.
Much has been said about 80% of Russians receiving their news from the largely state-controlled ’zombie-box’, a bulls-eye term for the function the TV seems to serve there. Previously one never gave much thought to whatever differences we might have with our Ukrainian neighbours. I spent almost every summer in my childhood in a Ukrainian village where the aunties on my mother’s side kept cows, got their water from the well and spoke a mixture of Ukrainian and Russian for the benefit of moskali, a very mildly rude term for the guests from Moscow.
Today the Ukrainians seem to have turned into a source of fear and aggression (and refugees). An opinion poll conducted by the Levada Centre reflected the general mood among Russian people: state-owned media propaganda has pushed Ukrainians to the top of the list of ethnicities most disliked in Russia overtaking the migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia. It is not a surprise, then, that a lot of Ukrainians now feel the same about us, Russians.
Ksenia tells me that the level of cynicism which dominates the hearts and minds of people who managed to pitch two friendly people against each other is shocking. She finds a prospect of a second Iron Curtain frightening.
Another friend has written to me, “Politically, I am in a state of complete despair. An absolute majority of Russians are zombified by TV – they believe that the West is evil from which only Putin can save us. Nobody believes there is corruption, lack of options when it comes to elections, political repression and economy in the freefall… As a result, I have no hope that anything can change.”
The overwhelming feeling is that of uncertainty about the future. My 30 and 40-something friends work for large international companies – in the light of ever tightening sanctions, will they have jobs? What will the Russian government do next? As one friend, a fan of long weekends in five-star hotels far beyond Russia’s borders, told me over breakfast, “Foreigners always say Russians spend so extravagantly when they are traveling abroad. We do it because we do not know what is coming tomorrow!”
And now the sanctions. The entire western world appears to be relishing the idea of punishing Vlaidmir Putin and his friends. But could it be that they are solidifying his rule as a somewhat unwanted and unforseen byproduct? At least one of my friends thinks so. A television executive, he has been at every opposition demonstration since 2012 but now he is re-thinking his political alliances. He told me: “Personally, I approved of sanctions aimed at Putin’s friends. And I thought they were insufficient”. But then he admitted he was in a vast minority. “No one here believes that there is a war going on and that every Russian will have to pay for Crimea out of their pocket.”
He went on, “Unfortunately, I am sure that the victory of the Maidan movement and unquestioning support of the Ukrainian authorities by the West, and the subsequent events, have buried all hopes of Russia for mild democratic transformation in the next decade. Nobody has done more for Putin’s dictatorship than the new authorities in Ukraine and the West.”
My personal view is that westerners cannot comprehend why a vast majority of Russians would support Putin and avoid reforms. But perhaps we are not prepared to give up the comfort of a middle class life in Moscow for an illusionary Western ideal, whatever that may be. Never have the Muscovites had it so good – it is possible to live in an oasis of your favourite restaurant, wine bar, coffee shop, foreign car and a comfortable apartment while spending an odd weekend in Europe. Intellectually, those ideals may seem attractive but this doesn’t always translate in practice. Plus many are prepared to tolerate sanctions. Having seen the bloodshed in Kiev and Eastern Ukraine, they do not want anything like that to happen here.
I asked the mother of twins about her feelings about the future of her children in Russia. Is she not afraid for their future? That same dilemma of heart and mind. No, she wouldn’t leave, she said. There are still many good things happening here, lots of new ideas germinating and much more to be done in the country.