Exclusive: Life in Russia in the shadow of Ukraine war

Opinions in Russia are divided about the war, but united against western sanctions

1246276517 War and peace: A woman takes a photo near a giant letter ‘Z’, installed by Moscow’s authorities as the symbol of support for the military action in Ukraine | Getty Images

Russia is turning half a world, towards the east. Saint Petersburg, the magnificent city which was Peter the Great’s smitten ode to Europe―designed by European masters, filled with art from Van Gogh to Vermeer and dotted by fountains that rival the Gardens of Versailles―is known as Russia’s window to the west. But that opening has been boarded shut, with the west imposing punitive sanctions on Russia as a retaliation to Vladimir Putin’s military action in Ukraine, which completes a year on February 24.

The west has often missed the reality that Russia has an envious built-to-last infrastructure and a never-say-die spirit.
Sanctions are an instrument of leverage and pressure against Russia. It is being used to limit our economic and technological development. ―Feodor Voitolovsky, director, Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Moscow
The Ukrainians hate us. They want to wipe out the Russian language and rename their spaces. But we don’t hate them. ―Denis Klucharev, investment banker, Saint Petersburg

“It is the cancel culture. You cancel companies on social media. Now they have cancelled a country and its people,” said Nikolay Semakov, who teaches Mandarin at a local university. This is not the first time that Russia is facing western sanctions. But this is, perhaps, the first time that the world has put Russia on a timeout. Ordinary life as it occurred before February 24 has largely disappeared. It is impossible to use bank cards. Universities are forced to abandon their Zoom accounts. There is no Netflix even if you are ready to pay; Skype will not accept money from Russia; Spotify, too, has chosen to treat Russian money as tainted. “We had got used to having these on our phones,’’ said Semakov. “I used my friend’s international credit card to renew my Skype subscription. The moment the VPN facility was removed and Skype realised that I was in Russia, the money was returned to my friend’s account. If this is not cancelling, what is?’’

And it extends beyond the borders of Russia. In Dubai, Louis Vuitton stores had stopped serving Russians. Chanel and Hermès, too, do not take Russian money, despite the fact that Russia is among the world’s top luxury markets.

Russia is literally off the map, with international courier services dropping the country from their delivery routes. Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline, has been kicked out of the global online booking systems. The European Union has ensured that Russian aircraft cannot be serviced. Cars, too, have taken a hit. The Russian Lada had already fallen out of favour, and any new car on the road has to be Chinese. “When sanctions were imposed, the first question that the Russians had was why the people were being punished,’’ said Petr Topychkanov, researcher, weapons of mass destruction programme, SIPRI.

27-Patrons-throng-the-busy-Solaris-mall-in-southwest-Moscow Business as usual: Patrons throng the busy Solaris mall in southwest Moscow | Devadathan Nair

The first wave of sanctions hit Russia after Putin annexed Crimea in 2014. Gone were brie, feta and other cheeses that the Russians enjoyed. Determined not to give up their luxuries, they chose to focus on producing everything possible at home. Russia being a key producer of essential goods, food crops and hydrocarbons, the sanctions have failed to significantly hurt the Russian economy, something that baffles the west. Mikhail Ivanovitch, a 70-something former physicist who speaks no English―common in Russia―makes it clear how he feels about the sanctions. He mimics spitting out, saying “sanctions”. People of his generation survived the Soviet austerity and the hyperinflation and humiliations of the 1990s. They are determined to survive the ongoing wave of sanctions, too.

In a virtual meeting held on January 17, Putin said Russia was far from being in the red. The Russian economy was forecast to decline by up to 20 per cent, but the decline between January and November last year, according to Putin, was only 2.1 per cent. “The actual dynamics of the economy turned out to be better than some expert forecasts,’’ he said.

1246200570 Warm vibes: Volunteers distribute free food to homeless people near Moscow’s Kursk train station | Getty Images

Yet, there are some visible markers of the sanctions. The golden arches of the popular fast food chain McDonald’s are replaced by a Russian brand, ‘Vkusno i tochka’ (Tasty, period). Everything looks the same, tastes the same and costs the same, but with a little Russian twist of equitability, an analogy for new Russia. In the oldest outlet of the erstwhile McDonald’s, still very much a Moscow landmark, the queues for a burger stretch across streets, with people eager to get their first bite at what has come to symbolise the best of capitalism: choice. In the self-service screens inside the outlet, there is an addition of Tajik and Uzbek languages, the Russians making it a point of being more accessible to outsiders. The Moscow Metro, too, has added these languages to services to the outskirts.

The sanctions failed to dampen the holiday mood. Moscow blazed brightly with festive lights. There were rows of bedazzled Christmas trees on the streets. The rumour was that each one cost 5,00,000 roubles, an indication that money certainly is not an issue. Traffic on the roads of Moscow was gridlocked, almost like Delhi during Diwali, but without the cacophony of the horns. “The cities are far from empty,’’ said a Russian, a crack at the 3.8 million fellow citizens who left after the war broke out.

29-fashion-designer-Sasha-Gapanovich-with-her-four-daughters Fashion designer Sasha Gapanovich with her four daughters | Mandira Nayar

Malls are crowded despite the great exodus of brands. The grey market is now official. Shoppers walk around with the soundtrack of cheery English pop. Music, too, has been weaponised. Ukraine launched its official Tik Tok account using Sia’s 2016 song ‘Unstoppable’. The lyrics of the anthem that defined the end of the Cold War and the launch of the new Russia, the ‘Winds of Change’ by Scorpions, stands amended now. It has now become an ode to Ukraine.

Across shopping malls, mannequins are visible through the slats of shutters, dressed in their preppy best. Shelves are stacked neatly with fleece perfect for the freezing weather. At GUM, Moscow’s poshest shopping mall, the Prada outlet is empty, but the luxury giant has put out a polite sign apologising for the inconvenience. But the rest of the stores are open.

Russia Stalingrad Battle Anniversary Love in the time of war: A Russian soldier and his girlfriend prior to a rehearsal of a military parade in the southern city of Volgograd | AP

Topychkanov explained why the impact of the sanctions has not been felt, yet. “A lot of Russians work for the government―teachers, employees of state-owned companies, those in the security sector―they have their salaries covered. For them, the sanctions have not had a dramatic effect,” he said. “They feel the inflation, they cannot find some products in the supermarkets. But nothing more. The middle class and the lower middle class in the provinces and even in Moscow never had access to these brands anyway. The rich still have the opportunity, and the means to get everything.’’

For ordinary Russians, the sanctions are more than economic, it is very much a feeling of falling off the grid. Almost a year later, the shock has worn off. The reality, however, is here to stay. “I do not believe they will ever withdraw the sanctions,’’ said Feodor Voitolovsky, director of the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences. “It is an instrument of leverage and pressure against Russia. It is being used to limit our economic and technological development.”

1246323794 Fight mode: President Vladimir Putin arrives at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery in Saint Petersburg to mark the end of the siege of Leningrad during World War II on January 18 | Getty Images

But Russia knows how to fight back. The west, over the years, has seen Russia through the prism of James Bond or John le Carré. But it has often missed the reality on ground that the country has an envious built-to-last infrastructure and a never-say-die spirit. After all, it managed to withstand invasions by Napoleon and Hitler, and survived a debacle in Afghanistan.

Anastasia, a 20-something in Saint Petersburg, owns a restaurant that serves Turkish food. The sanctions have made everything expensive for her. “When we first started, no one had tried Turkish food,’’ she said. Then, Covid hit and things became worse. “Now with the sanctions, everything costs more to bring in,’’ she said. With no Instagram, the restaurant has to find other ways to advertise. “We have started participating in local fairs.”

On a cold December evening in Moscow, with temperatures well below freezing, the state historical museum is hosting the opening of a new exhibit called “Russian Horizon’’, looking at the evolution of Russian fashion through the decades. The launch is crowded. A bartender shakes up Negronis and plates of dainty fresh salmon sandwiches are being passed around, with affluent Russians walking around, taking selfies. The war seems distant and the sanctions immaterial. The Instagram-able pictures of normality, of the disconnect from the situation, are very much evident. Sasha Gapanovich, waif-like, with her four daughters, all golden haired and dressed in smocks, arrives. They look as if they have stepped off the pages of an Alexander Pushkin story. At 42, Gapanovich has defied the odds by becoming a fashion designer. She grew up in the Soviet Union where fashion simply did not exist. Nor was there much choice. Clothes were functional. And there were no brands. Everyone wore the same. Her mother worked in a textile factory and Gapanovich stitched her dreams with the scraps of fabric she got. Yet she managed to be successful.

But the war has complicated things again. “It is very difficult,’’ she said. “Even getting fabrics is not easy.” As her buyers are not from Russia and with Instagram banned, it is very difficult to showcase her creations. Gapanovich has not given up. It helps that she has four girls and she has learnt the art of finding a way to survive in chaos. “The government has now started paying attention to the sector.” Spaces like the museum have opened up for designers to display their clothes.

Gapanovich is not alone. Such flashes of defiance exist across sectors. Lilya, who started out as a restorer and then moved to fashion, has lost 80 per cent of her market with the sanctions. “I had clients from Germany, Britain, Austria and Dubai,’’ she said. As it is impossible to ship to them anymore, she has found other routes. A client flew down in summer to buy up her stock and transit it through Turkey.

With western tourism stopped, tour operators like Olga Smirnova, who heads the Moscow office of the travel company Rusturizm, are finding new avenues. Born after 1991, Smirnova does not remember the Soviet period. “I want a dacha,’’ she said. “My six by six hectares outside Moscow.” The sanctions may have ensured that she cannot get European tourists, but Smirnova has chosen to focus on Indian tourists and businesses.

At the Moscow tourism office, which was geared to look at Europe, pamphlets now focus elsewhere. Irina, a former publicist who started her own venture making a platform for Russian craft, has certainly felt the double whammy of Covid and the sanctions. “We can no longer ship out orders that we get on our website,’’ she said. But there are other ways. She is focusing on helping Russians realise that their past is worth preserving. Her shop is filled with collectibles that were once commonplace, now lost. Irina, who is above 40, has waited her whole life to break free from the drudgery of a regular job to follow her dreams. “Then, the sanctions hit,’’ she said. “But we now organise tea ceremonies for Russians to understand their past. We will get by.”


More than just about the denial of high street brands like H&M, Russians believe that the sanctions are very much a psychological war against them. “We will have to learn to live with the sanctions,’’ said Voitolovsky. “These are meant to alter Russian behaviour.”

With western tourism stopped, tour operators like Olga Smirnova (in pic) are finding new avenues. She has chosen to focus on Indian tourists and businesses.

If the west’s views on Russia have been coloured, especially by the Cold War and the Great Game (the conflict between the Russian and British empires for the colonies) Russia, too, has kept alive the story, now influenced by stories of Russia being denied its rightful place in the world. Russians love to tell the world stories like how Chanel stole the fragrance from the oldest soap factory in Russia to take it to France and then sell it as Chanel No. 5. Or about Americans spending millions of dollars to find a ball pen which would work in outer space and still coming up short, while the Russians managed smartly with a pencil.

The global opinion about Russia, meanwhile, is not a monolith. Traditional friends like India and new allies like China have remained non-critical, at least publicly, while the break with the west is nearly complete. Officially, the world has become divided into friendly countries and unfriendly ones for the Russians. “The west was always trying to isolate us,’’ said Pavel Negoitsa, director general of Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the Kremlin mouthpiece, which has been blocked by western search engines like Google. “They have not only blocked news, but culture as well. Russia is trying to find a way out.”

Russia is running its own news and current affairs programmes to counter the western news and views. “News has been polarised,’’ said Viktor Barabash from RUDN University, Moscow. “The only version that exists is from the west.” Within Russia, however, an undeclared news censorship exists. Much of the western social media platforms are blocked. The harsh media laws could land you in jail even for clicking the picture of a security personnel in uniform. Yet, the BBC and Bloomberg channels are available in hotel rooms.

Despite Russia holding its own for now, the long-term impact of the war and the sanctions, especially on the economic front, worry experts. “This is the biggest crisis for us since the Cold War,’’ said Voiltolvsky. “During the Cold War, we had several security and political crises. But now, the political and security divergences between Russia and the west are having a very significant impact on economic ties. The EU used to be one of the major investors in the Russian economy. It was not only trade or FDI, lots of European money was present in the Russian financial market. All that is gone.”

Russia is still oriented towards the west, but now it wants to turn to the east. The Eurasian Peoples’ Assembly, a platform for non-governmental organisations, intelligentsia and business communities from different countries in the region, is starting talks for a free postal zone with India. There are also talks regarding a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union. “Russia is not isolated,’’ said Andrey Belyaninov, secretary general of the assembly. “There are countries that do not want sanctions.” At the Saint Petersburg Economic Forum last year, the spotlight was on India and Africa. “We have changed our focus,’’ said Denis Klucharev, a young investment banker from Saint Petersburg. “We had focused on Europe, now we are looking at Africa, the Middle East and Asia. If we cannot travel for holidays to Europe, we will go elsewhere.”

29-Feodor-Voitolovsky Feodor Voitolovsky | Mandira Nayar

The new Skolkovo University campus in Moscow―all glass and metal, and circular like the Guggenheim―is very much a tangible representation of this shift. Inside the university with an open campus, the eating space is like a tropical forest. Bamboos gleam green, dense and verdant, there are flags of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries plus Singapore. The foundation was laid in 2006―illustrating that Russia did realise the importance of the 180 degrees swing in foreign relations even back then. Here the focus is on building intellectual bonds with these countries.

At Moscow’s Red Square, #Wearetogether signs dominate, reflecting the city’s defiant mood. A few kilometres to the west across the steely grey Moskva river stands the Kiyevski railway terminal. Once a busy station with regular services to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, it now looks lonely and forlorn. The metro station of the same name, however, experiences a whirlwind of activity. Its walls are alive, ironically with paintings on Ukraine, celebrating the historical link between the two countries.

Moscow may have been lit up for Christmas―Russians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on January 7, another difference from the rest of the world―but the new year this time was a drab affair with Muscovites voting to have a black-sky beginning to 2023. They are certainly worried about the war, which is still officially called a “special military operation”. “Life exists in euphemisms,’’ said a Russian scholar. “Russia was never an open society and it has shrunk even more after February 24.”

The war looms large―it may not be visible immediately, but the conflict is not embraced wholeheartedly by the Russians. “It has divided families,’’ said a man. “To keep peace, it is best to not bring up politics.” Topychkanov refers to the war as “an adventure’’, making no attempt to hide that he is opposed to it. “Dissent has had a rich history in Russia,’’ he said. “It existed during the Soviet time. It is in our blood.”

“Ukraine is being used as a proxy,’’ said Lydia Kulnik from Skolkovo University. “They have been turned against us.” If Putin is considered enemy number one in the west, in Russia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is considered the root cause of the conflict. “There was peace before he came,’’ said Klucharev. “The Ukrainians hate us. They want to wipe out the Russian language and rename their spaces. But we don’t hate them.”

There is a clear divide between the pre-Soviet and the post-Soviet generations on the war. The younger ones are more oriented towards peace. Among older Russians, who remember the Soviet period and the instability of the 1990s when everything was in short supply, distrust of the west already exists. “It was like shock therapy,’’ said Tanya Kapoor, who is married to an Indian. She said the breakup of the Soviet Union changed her country, its geography and her life. Her father, who was a physicist, was forced to sell books at a flea market to make ends meet.

The Boris Yeltsin years―when Russia opened up to embrace freedom―have left their scars. “We had only 50 grams of tea a month for the whole family,’’ said Olga Ivanovna, who is in her 60s. A life full of hardships has now turned even worse for her as a result of the Ukraine war. She works as a translator, and her company has relocated outside Russia, a situation that is likely to be permanent, given the evolving geopolitical conditions.

History in Russia is always on loop. The seeds of the Ukraine issue lie in the past. Kyiv’s breakup from Moscow was less than perfect. And Putin’s war is likely to turn the rupture into a permanent reality, especially with enthusiastic American involvement.

The Russian president, however, remains popular. “The last 20 years were the only peaceful time we knew,’’ said Semakov. Putin, despite his muscular policy and accumulation of power, has provided stability. “He is like President Xi Jinping of China, he has restored pride in Russia,’’ said Semakov, who was a teenager when Putin began his ascent. He is grateful for a Russia that has remained largely stable, politically and economically. It allowed Semakov’s parents to have another baby. His brother, now 17, is part of what is referred to as Putin’s babies, a generation that grew up with Putin at the helm.

32-Denis-Klucharev Denis Klucharev | Mandira Nayar

For most Russians, the Ukrainian crisis goes beyond the forced exclusion from the western club, it is also a greater battle of identity, of spheres of influence, of a way of life. More than Europe shutting its doors, it is about waging a battle against the United States. “Russia is insisting on a polycentric vision of the world, while the US wants a global hegemony,’’ said Voitolovsky. “We do not want to transform the United States. But they are more ideological. They want to transform Russia, and the strategic goal of their policy towards Russia is regime change.” With the US now suggesting that it might help Ukraine target Crimea, too, the Russians believe that their suspicions are proving right. “There is a shift in Ukraine to the hard right. And, like it happened before World War II, there is appeasement by Europe,” said Alexey Kupriyanov, head of the group on South Asia and Indian Ocean Region, Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

Russians are aware that this will be the year of reckoning for them as well as Putin. The conflict is far from over. It is just the beginning. “The war will escalate,’’ said Voitolovsky. Only when both sides tire out will negotiations begin. Despite the bravado, the situation is grim. It has grown so much worse that old wounds like Tatarstan are reopening. The number of young men from this area coming back in body bags threatens to ignite old conversations around independence.

For Putin, the elections come up in March 2024. Will he continue? Will he hand over power? The trajectory of the war will certainly have an impact on the answer. “For me, the Ukrainian conflict has been the biggest tragedy after the collapse of the Soviet Union,’’ said Topychkanov. “It is a continuing collapse.” It has alienated Ukraine, and relations with the Central Asian countries and others that support Russia have become uneasy. “The consolidation of power in one person is catastrophic,’’ he said.

There is no happy ending to this war. There is a lot at stake for Ukraine and for Russia. The wall has come up between the two brothers. It may not be of iron, but in the dark void of the cancelled world, it may as well be.