In Russia’s Biggest Cities, Ukraine War Fades to Background Noise
By Evan Gershkovich, July 1, 2022, WSJ
MOSCOW—Dima Karmanovsky had just finished his second DJ set of the
night on a recent weekend, and was catching his breath before dashing
off to another club for his next job.
“I haven’t had this much work since before the pandemic,” the
35-year-old disc jockey said at Blanc, a popular bar in Russia’s
As the invasion of Ukraine enters its fifth month, there are
relatively few outward signs in Moscow and St. Petersburg of a war
that has killed thousands and displaced millions.
Bars are filled to the brim in Russia’s biggest cities. Film and jazz festivals are sold out. And while the police patrolling Moscow’s
streets are now armed with assault rifles, they are busier handing out
fines for public drinking than putting down dissent.
The Russian capital has taken on a carnival feel reminiscent of the
summer it welcomed hundreds of thousands of tourists for the 2018 FIFA
World Cup. The difference now, other than the soccer games: There are
few foreigners in sight.
“Some people went to fight, but what should the rest do—sit around and cry?” said yoga instructor Natalya Rakhmatullina after finishing an
outdoor class in the city center. “This is normal adaptation. We live
in a different world now and we have to keep living.”
A few signs of the war are visible around Moscow. On some buildings,
vehicles and clothing are the letters Z and V—symbols of Russia’s
invasion. A highway into town is lined with billboards showing Russian
soldiers and the text “Glory to Russian heroes,” without referencing Ukraine.
There are some signs of the impact of Western sanctions, which will
take time to percolate through the economy. In at least one Moscow
shopping mall, bins for collecting clothes for soldiers stood amid the
empty storefronts that previously displayed foreign brands that exited
the country following the invasion.
Visitors would still be hard pressed to know the country is at war.
Mr. Karmanovsky was in Sri Lanka on a long vacation when Russian
troops stormed into Ukraine on Feb. 24. Surfing during the day, he
tried to keep the horror of the war at bay for at least a few hours at
a time. When he returned to Moscow in April, he said he was stunned to
find the city had barely changed.
“It really shocked me because people are trying to create this bubble
of serenity around themselves, but I’m not sure this is the right
way,” Karmanovsky said.
Some who support the war are frustrated at the apathy of other
Muscovites. A 29-year-old engineer wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a
“Z” while out for a weekend walk with his family along the Moskva
River recently. He said he was disappointed that few people were
openly supporting the military.
“People live their own lives and no one cares about their neighbor,”
Some political analysts have suggested that residents of Moscow and
St. Petersburg, which drew the largest of the early antiwar protests,
are far removed from the war because the army tends to attract
recruits from poorer regions who see it as a way to improve their
prospects. According to the independent Russian website Mediazona,
which has tallied nearly 3,800 Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine from
publicly available data, just eight were from Moscow and 26 from St. Petersburg.
The Kremlin has avoided a general mobilization, referring to the
offensive as a “special military operation.” As a result, the conflict
has become background noise, like during the Soviet Union’s fight in Afghanistan, which lasted for years before dissatisfaction began
seeping through, said Andrei Kolesnikov, a Moscow-based senior fellow
with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“It’s in essence a new contract with the authorities,” he said. “We support the operation but at the same time you don’t force us into
Much of the indifference can be attributed to the way Putin’s
authoritarian regime has sought to develop a social contract where
people focus on bettering their own lives while leaving politics to
the state, said Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, a Russian politics expert at
King’s College London.
While opinion polls suggest public support for the military campaign,
it is largely passive, say some experts.
“It’s support without participation. And this is beneficial for Putin
and the Kremlin because people are not fixating on the fact that the
war is going for a long time, that there are many casualties, that
young boys are dying,” Mr. Kolesnikov said.
For many, the shock of the largest ground war in Europe since World
War II has worn off. According to the independent Levada Center
pollster, the level of attention Russians pay to the conflict is
declining by the month. While in March, 64% of respondents said they
were paying at least some attention, that number was down to 56% in
Those who pay close attention skew older—the age group that
predominantly watches state TV for their news—while young Russians are ignoring the events in Ukraine. Only 34% of 18-24-year-olds said they
were following the situation.
“About two weeks into the war, it became clear to me that my family
and I weren’t under threat, so I stopped following the news,” said a 30-year-old psychologist out at Blanc for the evening, who said the
history of the conflict was too complicated to make a judgment on the
invasion. “Soon I caught myself being more upset by IKEA leaving
Russia than the war,” she added.
Alexei Ivashkin, a builder, described himself as apolitical and said
he mostly doesn’t follow the news, but supports Putin for “giving the
U.S. the middle finger.”
“The fighting is for soldiers. I protect my little world and nothing
else concerns me,” he said. “There are other wars going on right now
but no one’s talking about them.”
For the minority that does want to speak out against the war, there is
a feeling of hopelessness, after the authorities introduced
legislation that has seen hundreds fined and dozens arrested and
facing up to 15 years in prison for criticizing the armed forces.
“People don’t understand how to stop the war while in Russia,” said
Ilya Yashin, who has had three misdemeanor charges for criticizing the invasion. “It’s difficult to watch a tragedy that you can’t stop and
so we are seeing this feeling of powerlessness.”
Yashin, who was one of the last prominent opposition politicians still
in the country and not behind bars, said his main role is to speak the
truth about the war without ending up in jail. He was detained Monday
night while walking in a park with a friend and was jailed the
following morning for 15 days on charges of disobeying the police.
Yashin described all the charges against him as “farcical” and said he thinks he was arrested ahead of receiving a longer-term sentence for criticizing the war.
Aside from a dwindling number of dissidents, few people tackle the war
head on. “There’s no way to discharge. Do you go out with a banner or
do you go drink and unwind?” said Karmanovsky, the DJ. “Of course you
go drink and unwind because if you go out with a banner you won’t
relax for another two years at least.”
Those who confront the war tend to do so indirectly. During rehearsals
for a Moscow stage production of “Cabaret,” the musical set during the
rise of Nazism in Germany, actors were told to consider what was going
on around them for inspiration, a cast member said.
The audience for the show, one of the hottest tickets of the spring,
was split on whether it was an allegory for present-day Russia. “It’s painful to imagine for yourself that we are the bad guys,” the cast
Theater critic Vladimir Dudin described the show as cathartic. While
his social circle saw it as a thinly veiled critique of the country
today, he said, “Moscow and St. Petersburg are a very small part of Russia.” He said the government wouldn’t hesitate to put down any
wider protests against the campaign in Ukraine.
“It’s summer now,” Mr. Dudin said, “everyone wants to enjoy themselves.”