There are two Russias: the first constantly reads the news, monitors Telegram channels and discusses current events on social media. The other focuses on feeding the family, keeping the lights turned on, and enjoying the weekend, however possible.
The second Russia is much, much bigger than the first.
This contrast never appeared as stark as it did on the second weekend of September, at the two-day-long celebration of annual Moscow’s City Day celebrations. This year, the capital’s 875th birthday, was marked with fireworks, street parties and live music, accompanied by a healthy dose of autumn sun. Thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to make the most of their weekend.
At the same time, the other Russia was glued to their phones and laptops, constantly refreshing to see which villages and towns had changed hands, and wondering how world leaders would react to the developments. This eventually culminated with Russia’s Ministry of Defence announcing that it would be “regrouping” its troops away from the direction of Balakliya and Izyum.
As I walked the length of Moscow’s central Tverskaya Street, less than a day after the MoD announcement, it was clear to me that the developments in Ukraine hadn’t registered in the minds of the average Muscovite.
While news of Russia’s “special military operation” dominated talk in the initial months following President Vladimir Putin’s announcement, those walking Moscow’s streets in September are more likely to discuss the death of Queen Elizabeth II than any topic closer to home.
Such apathy towards the goals of Putin’s SMO is nothing novel. In fact, from what I have heard, many people stopped consuming news just a few weeks after it began. This is the second Russia.
The first Russia is very different. In Moscow’s most engaged circles, views on Russia’s actions in can be described as anything but apathetic. As a 27-year-old foreigner in Moscow, the majority of people I mix with are young, educated Muscovites. In this group, support for the actions in Ukraine is practically zero.
From my own experience, which is admittedly anecdotal, the majority of young Muscovites are opposed to the SMO, with feelings ranging from mild annoyance to downright embarrassment. Some of this cohort, especially the ones who regularly read foreign news sources, now feel overwhelming shame. Others who are against Russia’s actions in Ukraine have started to be shunned by their foreign friends and acquaintances, who judge them on the basis of their nationality.
Many of these young Muscovites attend the capital’s most prestigious universities, and were undoubtedly on course to be the country’s future leaders in either government or business. Some are now wondering how they can leave Russia behind.
At the same time, despite being opposed to the government’s decisions, the apetite for protest is completely dead. Those opposed to the government’s actions in Ukraine have no desire to stick their head above the parapet and show any dissent, choosing instead to remain quiet and take the less risky path of quiet conformity.
On the other hand, these same Russians report very different views from their relatives, especially those from older generations. While they sit in Moscow, studying at expensive institutes and working for aspirational brands, their parents and grandparents back home are much more likely to be supportive of the SMO and its goals. These generations do not tend to read foreign news or opposition Telegram channels, and instead get their daily dose of current affairs from state TV channels.
These anecdotal findings are also backed up by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based non-profit organisation. The think-tank ran a centre in Moscow until earlier in 2022, when it was closed at the direction of the Russian government. In a recent report, Carnegie noted a significant difference between young residents of Moscow or other large cities, and consumers of news from the internet, and the rest of the country. It also surveyed the SMO’s impact on relationships, noting that disagreements over Russia’s actions in Ukraine have caused old friends and families to fall out – something I have personally heard about.
However, despite seeming to come from completely different ends of the spectrum, Russians, whether part of the ‘first Russia’ or the ‘second Russia,’ are currently acting in almost the exact same way. Whether they know intimately or absolutely no idea about Russia’s actions in Ukraine, one thing is universal: they will continue enjoying their lives on the streets of Moscow, which still remains one of the most vibrant, exciting cities in Europe.