War in Ukraine but life on Russia’s home front surprisingly normal

A trip back to St Petersburg for one observer has led him to question assumptions about the war.

A television screen in a home in Moscow showing Russian President Vladimir Putin giving his New Year's address to the nation on Dec 31, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

It had been a year since I last visited Russia. Back then, most people I met thought the prospects of a war with Ukraine were very remote, despite the massive build-up of troops on the border.

So I was curious to see how attitudes had changed since then. Equally important was to see for myself how the war had changed life in Russia.

The first surprise was how normal life was. Despite all the media reports of doom and gloom as a result of Western sanctions, everything worked just as before.

Domestic banking continued apace, salaries and pensions were paid on time, ubiquitous e-commerce was bustling with activity, the shops were stuffed with food and consumer goods. In St Petersburg, at least, I struggled to notice any change in daily life compared with January 2021.

Yet, digging deeper revealed that the impact of sanctions was there. One issue that kept popping up was that of spare car parts, which had become noticeably more expensive. But even there, new supplies are being shipped now.

This went pretty much for everything else consumer-orientated. There were no shortages, even of Western goods such as whisky – the supermarket shelves were fully stocked.

European Union travel restrictions have had their effect – but nothing like the measures introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic. People can still travel to many countries, including Turkey, Egypt or the Gulf states.

Business people, particularly those in the import and export sector, complain of supply chain difficulties. But, after a few months of chaos, businesses have found new shipping routes via third countries such as Turkey or Kazakhstan.

An acquaintance who works in a defence-related sector laughed at the suggestion that Russia could run out of missiles. He told me the defence industry had been stockpiling essential parts for years and was also using more locally sourced alternatives, though that cannot be verified. The rest can still be bought – albeit at inflated prices. The real problem is not a lack of parts, but the capacity to scale up production to meet growing military orders.

The general impression I got from conversations with people in different industries was that their main focus is on adapting to the new normal. Many things will be less efficient and more expensive, but the Russian economy will not collapse. If this is a crisis for Russia – which it is – it’s nothing like the turmoil of the early 1990s when the state, society and economy were all collapsing at the same time.

Don’t mention the war

Another surprising thing I found was the extent to which people avoided talking about the war on a day-to-day basis. You saw reports about it on television news and chat shows, but I felt much more informed about the war while living and working in Belfast, compared with when I was on the ground talking to people in St Petersburg. I had whole conversations without Ukraine ever coming up, unless I deliberately brought it up.

My overall impression is that the invasion has reinforced people’s pre-existing views. Those who were always opposed to President Vladimir Putin hate it, while those who are supportive of the Russian government remain largely in favour of it. But the vast majority try to ignore it as much as they can.

No one I spoke to was happy that the war started, but there’s an important caveat: Regretting it doesn’t mean they want to end it at all costs. Some said that one thing worse than a war was losing a war.

Nor did I see much evidence of popular protests. Many people who oppose Mr Putin had fled the country already, especially since mobilisation began in September 2022. Many others opposing the war had been imprisoned. A couple of my friends were planning to leave to avoid future mobilisation.

One of the most frequent questions I was asked in relation to the energy situation was: “How much do you pay for gas in the UK?” The United Kingdom and the European Union are suffering from high energy costs. But it’s unlikely that the European economy will collapse or cause political unrest – the implicit assumption behind the question.

It’s a similar situation in Russia. Despite Western sanctions, it appears that there is little danger of Russia’s economy collapsing.

Perception gap

My distinct impression from two weeks in St Petersburg is that Russia’s society and economy are still nowhere near full mobilisation for the war effort. While the partial mobilisation in September and October 2022 brought the war closer to home, it involved a relatively small percentage of the population – out of all of my acquaintances, only one friend of a friend was called up.

Meanwhile, further rounds of mobilisation are to an extent baked into people’s expectations. Barring huge military setbacks leading to an extensive mobilisation, it appears that life on Russia’s home front will carry on fairly normally.

One of the biggest lessons from my trip is the huge gap between representations of Russia in the West and what you see when you arrive there. This gap in perception is likely to increase because of the lack of people currently travelling there from the West and the suspension of professional and academic links.

Important as they are, reliance on comments from anti-Putin activists in exile or those remaining in Russia and still active on social media won’t help as they’re marginalised at home and lose contact with Russian reality while abroad. The fact is that there is no substitute for seeing things for yourself. I found my recent trip to Russia stressful – but I’m glad I did it.

  • Alexander Titov is a Modern European History lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast. This article first appeared in The Conversation.

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