Where the war is background noise

A damaged skyscraper in the ‘Moscow City’ business district following a reported drone attack, in Moscow. Muscovites go about their daily lives with little major disruption. But the war’s effects are evident – in the stores, at the movies and in the increasingly repressive environment. — ©2023 The New York Times Company

METRO trains are running smoothly in Moscow, as usual, but getting around the city centre by car has become more complicated, and annoying, because anti-drone radar interferes with navigation apps.

There are well-off Muscovites ready to buy Western luxury cars, but there are not enough available. And while a local election for mayor took place as it normally would this month, many of the city’s residents decided not to vote, with the result seemingly predetermined (a landslide win by the incumbent).

Almost 19 months after Russia invaded Ukraine, Muscovites are experiencing dual realities: the war has faded into background noise, causing few major disruptions, and yet it remains ever-present in their daily lives.

Moscow was aflutter in red, white and blue flags for the annual celebration of the Russian capital’s birthday, No. 876. Its leaders marked the occasion with a month-long exhibition that ended Sept 10. Featuring the country’s largest hologram, it showcased the city of 13 million people as a smoothly operating metropolis with a bright future. More than seven million people visited, according to the organisers.

There is little anxiety among residents over the drone strikes that have hit Moscow this summer, no alarm sirens to warn of a possible attack. When flights are delayed because of drone threats in the area, the explanation is usually the same as the one plastered on signs at the shuttered luxury boutiques of Western designers: “technical reasons”.

The city continues to grow. Cranes dot the skyline, and there are high-rise buildings going up all over town. New brands, some homegrown, have replaced the flagship stores including Zara and H&M, which departed after the invasion began in February 2022.

“We continue to work, to live and to raise our children,” said Anna, 41. She said she worked in a government ministry, and like others interviewed, she did not give her last name because of a fear of retribution. But for some, the effects of war are landing harder.

Two men standing in the foreground of a Russian Army recruitment billboard in central Moscow. — ©2023 The New York Times CompanyTwo men standing in the foreground of a Russian Army recruitment billboard in central Moscow. — ©2023 The New York Times Company

Nina, 79, a pensioner who was shopping at an Auchan supermarket in northwestern Moscow, said she had stopped buying red meat entirely and that she could almost never afford to buy a whole fish.

Nina said sanctions and ubiquitous construction projects were some reasons for higher prices, but the main reason, she said, was “because a lot is spent on war”.

“Why did they start it at all?” Nina added. “Such a burden on the country, on people, on everything. And people are disappearing – especially men.”

When asked about the biggest problems facing Russia, more than half the respondents in a recent poll by the independent Levada Centre cited price increases. The war, known in Russia as the “special military operation”, came in second, with 29%, tied with “corruption and bribery”.

“In principle, everything is getting more expensive,” said Aleksandr, 64, who said he worked as an executive director in a company.

“First of all, there are no cars,” he said, noting that most Western dealerships had left Russia and that Chinese brands had been taking their places on the roads.

The war has made itself evident outside supermarkets and auto dealerships.

Moscow may be one of the few cities in Europe without sold-out showings of the movie Barbie. Warner Bros, which produced the film, pulled out of Russia shortly after President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.

The election for mayor also underscored the sea change in Russian politics. A decade ago, opposition politician Alexei Navalny stood as a candidate against Sergey Sobyanin, 65. Now Navalny is in jail, and there was no real competition for Sobyanin, who won a third term with an unprecedented 76% of the vote.

As Putin presides over a war with no end in sight, authorities have worked to limit public expressions of dissent and make things seem as normal as possible.

Alexei Venediktov, who headed the liberal Echo of Moscow radio station before the Kremlin shut it down last year, said the government had engineered the war’s absence from political spaces.

“This war, it is mainly on TV, or on Telegram channels, but it is not on the street. It is not even discussed in cafes and restaurants, because it is dangerous, because the laws that have been adopted are repressive,” Venediktov said.

He noted cases in which people expressing anti-war views were denounced – or in some cases reported to the police – by those sitting next to them on the subway or in restaurants.

“People prefer to tell one another, ‘Let’s not talk about it here,’” Venediktov said. “And that’s why you can’t see it in the mood.”

In Moscow, an area of skyscrapers that is the Russian capital’s answer to New York’s Financial District, many people casually dismissed a series of drone strikes that damaged some of the buildings there but resulted in no casualties.

One woman, Olga, who said she worked nearby, just nodded as a colleague shrugged off the potential risk.

Later, Olga sent a New York Times journalist a message on the Telegram messaging app: “I couldn’t say anything, because at work they don’t talk about a position like mine,” she wrote. “I am against war and I hate our political system.”

When there is a drone strike inside Russia, she said, “I always hope that maybe someone will think about what it means to live under shelling, and regret the loss of our normal life before the war.”

She said that if the explosions do not cause casualties, then “I don’t regret damage to the buildings at all.”

Venediktov said that even if changes on Moscow’s surface were hard to see and increasingly harder to discuss, people were truly transforming inside.

“People are starting to return to the Soviet practice, when public conversations can lead to trouble at work,” he said. “It’s like toxic poisoning – a very slow process.” — ©2023 The New York Times Company

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