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Putin’s war has devastated Ukraine. It has also changed Russia.

A former Russian TV journalist looks at his country, one year after Putin invaded Ukraine.

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Meanwhile, a year of war has brought the Ukrainian nation together like nothing in its history.

In some ways, what’s happened to Ukraine is clear. What’s happened to Russia is the more complicated question.

A new fear

I left Russia four years ago, but I still communicate regularly with friends, acquaintances, fellow journalists and my social media followers in Russia. Earlier this month, I asked them to share their impressions and perspectives on how their country has changed since the war began. Nearly 200 people answered via Facebook, WhatsApp and other platforms. Most said they were opposed to the war and spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.

That request suggests one way Russia has changed: Not long ago, these people wouldn’t have insisted on anonymity. Today, a fear has taken hold — fear of retribution for any expression of dissent, and fear of what may happen if you or someone you love is a man of fighting age.

This my friend Nikolai, 40, who works for a Russian online publication:

“When you realize that you can be called up and suddenly find yourself in a trench instead of your home, where you can get killed or crippled for unclear purposes, it’s very scary! I am not an aggressive person and have no military experience, so violent death is my main fear, and I now live with it.”

Dmitry, a producer for a Russian travel and entertainment TV channel who lives in Pushkin, a small town near Moscow, said he now avoids easy, carefree communication, especially with strangers.

“A few days ago, I was ready to hug a shoe store clerk who boldly said out loud that life got worse after the start of the war,” Dmitry wrote on Telegram. Today, he said, such views are rarely shared in public. Even the word “war” is taboo. The Dmitry I knew was always ready to talk politics; today, he won’t do so outside his apartment, and he won’t let me use his real name.

He mentioned another change: the air defense system installed in a garbage dump near his apartment building.

“You ask what has changed in a year? Well, here’s what: I found out what this thing is for! And I found out where we have bomb shelters in our neighborhood — this information is now posted on entrances to apartment buildings.”

Here is my Facebook follower Elena Zhebina:

“Personally, I practically stopped going to see friends,” she said. “I’m afraid of people, I’m afraid of discussions. I don’t know who I’m more afraid of now — those who support the war or those who are silent.”

“From volunteer to deserter”: the impact of Putin’s mobilization

Ksenia, a mother of three and an accountant from the city of Serpukhov, wrote via Facebook Messenger that it’s mostly the poor who have failed to evade the mobilization.

“The disenfranchised, half-drunk, from nearby villages … there were so many of those poor guys in the streets of the city in October, soon after mobilization started,” Ksenia said. “They all agreed to fight because their families had to make ends meet! 205,000 rubles [or $2,928 — the monthly payment for conscripts] is awesome money for them, enough to buy food and close the mortgage.”

At the same time, Ksenia said that in Serpukhov, a city of 133,000, the mobilization order cooled what had been ardent support for Putin and the war. People removed the letter Z — the Russian military insignia — from their cars and took to keeping quiet in public places. “I don’t think they changed their minds,” she said, “but the instinct of self-preservation and desire to keep children from being forced to go to war dampened their ardor.”

Mikhail, a family friend and lawyer from Moscow, shared the story of a friend’s relative who went to fight as a volunteer. He had believed the Kremlin line that his motherland was in danger from “fascists” in Ukraine. He went to the front in June; by August, he was shellshocked and hospitalized.

“In the hospital, he said that he would never return to the war,” Mikail told me. “He threatened to kill himself if he was sent back. This guy survived such a hell, such a deep horror that his psyche could not stand it. He escaped from the hospital. From volunteer to deserter — in just two months.”

The mobilizations have driven many young men into the shadows. That, said Vasily, a sales manager from St. Petersburg, is the most important way his life has changed.

“Since September 21, I’m scared to go out into the street,” he said. “Especially to the subway where the police check people’s papers and ask why you haven’t been drafted yet. I haven’t been in the subway for four months now.” It’s also turned him into something of a rebel. “Never in my life did I think that I could wish defeat to my homeland. Turns out it’s easy.”

What sanctions have — and haven’t — done

Those are the official views. I have heard others.

My wife’s childhood friend Elena, a mother of five and former radio host from Kaliningrad, said the Russian middle class has suffered most in the past year.

“The rich are still rich,” she wrote to my wife on WhatsApp. “Those who were below the poverty level just keep fighting for survival. And those who were in the middle have become poor.”

Elena and others said inflation has been the chief problem.

“Today it’s 20 rubles more expensive, tomorrow it’s 40 rubles more expensive, and then you wake up and you realize that everything in stores is 3 times more expensive!” Elena said. “Everything rises — bread, meat, fish, milk and clothing … and a separate pain is felt by retirees. As soon as their pension is increased by one ruble, utility bills immediately increase by the same amount!”

My Facebook follower Alexei Litvinov from Tikhvin, a three-hour drive from St. Petersburg, said many medicines have become a luxury.

“Drugs that used to be easy to buy (I have arthritis, so I need them all the time) can now be bought for about 10 times more,” he said. “If before the war four weeks of this medication cost me about 300 rubles [$4], now one week costs 1250 rubles [$18].” (The average monthly salary in the St. Petersburg region is 57,000 rubles — less than $800).

Nikolai, the online media worker in Moscow, said he hadn’t noticed much change in the capital. Many Western brands have disappeared, but “when you live modestly, the disappearance of boutiques or a Mercedes-Benz salon doesn’t affect your life.”

Wealthier Russians have felt a different pain. I spoke to Mikhail, the Moscow lawyer, by phone. “If you buy foreign products, the delivery time has increased significantly, the goods can travel for three months,” he said — hardly a life-altering problem. Neither is the next thing he complained about: the trouble people have getting spare parts for luxury cars.

“For example, a smart key for a Bentley is now impossible to order; it’s not supplied to Russia. What to do? Go to another country for it?” he questioned.

Mikhail believes the foreign companies that left Russia “acted unfairly” — and said he won’t use their products anymore.

“They have lost the trust of the people,” he said. “I will think before using Mastercard or Visa cards now, I don’t trust them.” Visa and Mastercard stopped operations in Russia last March, two weeks after Putin’s invasion.

For others, the exodus of Western companies has crushed their own business. Evgenia, the financial director of a Moscow PR agency, laughed nervously when we spoke. She said that for her and many professional friends, 2022 was the worst year of their lives. Projects were shut down, and one year later, her company is on the verge of bankruptcy.

“All we had was advertisement projects for foreign-branded products. Who was in our market? Unilever, Kraft Foods, PepsiCo and Coca Cola, they did the advertising. After Feb. 24, 2022, they all left. The Russian advertiser does not advertise. Now we survive on design only,” she said.

Others bemoaned the return of a shadowy and often illegal commerce. One woman I’ll call Olga (she also spoke on the condition of anonymity) told me she was ashamed of her transformation from an “honest businesswoman” to someone who now looks for new and often unlawful ways of acquiring or transferring money.

And while Mikhail, the wealthy lawyer, blames the West for the problems, Olga and Evgenia say the fault lies with Putin and his war.

Leaving Russia

Russia has also changed in terms of how it treats this new diaspora.

At the end of December, Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and now deputy chairman of the security council, argued that those who leave should be declared “enemies of the state” and forbidden from returning or working in Russia.

The list of boldface names who have left is long: the rock star Andrey Makarevich, actor Artur Smolyaninov, political scientist Ekaterina Shulman, novelist Mikhail Zygar — there are hundreds of them, along with hundreds of independent journalists who have chosen a new life elsewhere.

For most Russians, leaving has become difficult and expensive. Elena from Kaliningrad wrote that Europe remains open only to the wealthy — and given current travel restrictions for Russians, even the rich have difficulties getting visas and reservations.

“Well, no big deal, they whine a little, but they still post pics from Bali and Thailand on Instagram, as if there is no war in this world of pleasures,” Elena said.

For the less well off — Elena among them — there are countless stories of the struggle to get away.

It’s been four years since Elena last saw her elderly mother, who lives in Lithuania, a few hours drive from Kaliningrad. She had saved money to obtain visas for herself and her five children, but when she reached the bridge separating Russia and Lithuania, she received a written refusal from the Lithuanian authorities. She wound up looking through the bars at the border crossing, seeing her brother and her crying mother — and then she turned back.

“Only later, through Google translator, did I read the reason why I could not see my mother. It turned out that my children and I pose a threat to public order and the security of Lithuania.”

Elena says she blames Putin — not the Lithuanians — for what happened. Without his war, she and her children would have crossed that border without any trouble.

Change in the classroom: War and “patriotism”

“Patriotism” is of course an important notion for any country. One year after the invasion, it has become a driving force of Kremlin propaganda and a newly dominant feature of the school curriculum.

Elena, the mother of five from Kaliningrad, said that in the Russian Orthodox kindergarten her daughter attends, children were asked to write and send letters to soldiers at the front.

“Since they still do not know how to write, educators wrote for them, and the children drew pictures,” Elena said, adding that in the city’s public school, children are asked to bring bandages, woolen socks and thermal underwear to school — supplies that are sent to soldiers at the front.

“Our country is one of the richest, with rich resources,” Elena said, “and these children of poor parents, state employees — doctors, teachers — collect parcels for soldiers!”

A financier named Evgenia wrote that her daughter — at the tender age of 10 — now dreams of becoming president of Russia so that one day she can stop the war.

“She has a clear position, and God forbid that she accidentally shares it with anyone at school,” Evgenia said. She added that school plays that used to be based on fairy tales are now based on the war.

But the fundamental change for Evgenia? Not long ago, she was proud of her country. Today, she dreams of leaving.

A final answer

It may be that the most profound changes are unseen. Many Russians have grown used to the war; as someone put it to me, it has become the “background” of life. The war has settled in Russian kitchens and around Russian dinner tables, where military reports and Western sanctions are quietly discussed. And a society that had been divided among those who supported the government and those who didn’t is now divided between those who support the invasion and the killings, and those who are against. Increasingly, it’s a generational divide: Younger Russians are less pro-war, their elders more so.

My own answer to the question — how has the war changed Russia? — is simple: The country where I was born, raised and made a career no longer exists.

The changes that upset me most — the atmosphere of fear, the militarization of the public consciousness, the search for enemies and traitors — are the result of policies that Putin has pursued for most of his 23 years in power. In the past year, he has been helped greatly by an ultranationalist propaganda that has replaced what I knew as Russian journalism. And this is one more change: There is no journalism left in Russia, at least not the free and fair gathering of information that most would define as “journalism.”

One year later, I miss the Russia I once knew.

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