The Daily Telegraph

‘It’s like the 1917 revolution again’ – how war changed life in Russia

- By James Kilner

‘You can’t get sick, you can’t buy clothes, you can’t go to a movie, you can’t go on holiday. Things have got much harder’

From cancelled holidays to worries about ex-convict mercenarie­s wandering the streets, war in Ukraine has changed Russia. One year on from Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, people living in Russia told The Daily Telegraph their lives had become both more boring and more precarious.

“I had plans: now my only goal is to relocate, or if I can’t, to relocate my daughter,” said a nurse who lives in Moscow. “This war has ruined my life.”

This year she was ordered to attend a course in battlefiel­d first aid, though she has not yet been deployed to the front line. The prospect scared her, she said, but so did the idea of criminals recruited by the Kremlin’s Wagner mercenary group making their way to Moscow after serving on the front line.

“Even those who support the war are against murderers, drug dealers and rapists roaming free,” she said.

Other Russians described rows with their parents about whether Nato was threatenin­g Russia, as the Kremlin wants people to believe.

Dissent, always difficult under Mr Putin, is now outlawed. This month, Maria Ponomarenk­o, a journalist, was sent to prison for six years for posting a tweet in 2022 about Russian bomb attacks on Mariupol in Ukraine.

Despite the crackdowns, some in Russia still protest against the war. Last week, on the one year anniversar­y of the invasion, police arrested 54 people for anti-war protests.

Laying flowers at a memorial to victims of Soviet repression or a statue of a Ukrainian artist can land you in prison. But escaping this dystopia, even for a holiday, is now hard because the Russian passport is less welcome. Air links have been cut and borders closed.

Russia is a far more anxious and fractured country than 12 months ago. “People have plunged into depression,” said a middle-aged man involved in the constructi­on industry who lives in central Russia. “People are split as if it was the 1917 revolution once again. There are quarrels within families and between work colleagues.”

It wasn’t meant to be this way. When Putin drew up his invasion plans – which he referred to as a “special military operation” aimed at rescuing Ukraine – he envisioned being treated as a conquering hero. Now, with his forces bogged down, he has had to reframe it as a necessary strike against Nato in a battle for survival.

The Kremlin wants ordinary Russians to feel they are at war and only Putin can save them. Anti-aircraft missiles have been installed in Moscow and maps of bomb shelters handed out across the country. Schools have begun teaching basic military skills, children are made to salute the national flag and pensioners are practising stretcherb­earing. Getting this propaganda message across has been costly. There are reports that Russia’s regions spent 100 times more on patriotic bunting, flags and posters in 2022 than usual.

Not all are convinced, but take care what they say. Vladimir, who lives in the city of Vladimir in central Russia, said: “Among my friends, I call Putin an internatio­nal terrorist, but if I’m with somebody I don’t know, I speak differentl­y.”

The economy, society and political discourse have all been subverted to serve the war effort, but it is easy to miss this in Moscow or St Petersburg. Prices have stabilised, Western brands can still be bought despite sanctions and the restaurant­s are full.

But in the regions, where most live and most soldiers are recruited, prices have risen and life has become tedious and fragile, according to Vladimir. “When it comes to money, you can’t get sick, you can’t buy clothes, you can’t go to a cafe or a movie, you can’t go on holiday. Things have got much harder.”

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