Oroville Mercury-Register

Russia: Purge of critics, surge of nationalis­m

- By Dasha Litvinova

>> Moscow's nights display few signs of a nation at war.

Cheerful crowds packed restaurant­s and bars in the Sretenka neighborho­od on a recent Saturday night, watched by officers marked as “tourist police.” Nearby, a top-hatted guide led about 40 sightseers to a 300-yearold church.

There's only an occasional “Z” — the symbol of Russia's “special military operation,” as the Ukraine invasion is officially known — seen on a building or a shuttered store abandoned by a Western retailer. A poster of a stern-faced soldier, with the slogan “Glory to the heroes of Russia,” is a reminder the conflict has dragged on for a year.

Western stores are gone, but customers can still buy their products — or knockoffs sold under a Russian name or branding.

The painful, bruising changes to Russian life require more effort to see.

A broad government crackdown has silenced dissent, with political opponents imprisoned or fleeing abroad. Families have been torn apart by the first mobilizati­on of reservists since World War II. State TV spews hatred against the West and reassuring messages that much of the world still is with Russia.

And Russia's battlefiel­d deaths are in the thousands.

Quashing the critics

“Indeed, the war has ruined many lives — including ours,” Sophia Subbotina of St. Petersburg told The Associated Press.

Twice a week, she visits a detention center to bring food and medicine to her partner, Sasha Skochilenk­o, an artist and musician with serious health issues. Skochilenk­o was arrested in April for replacing supermarke­t price tags with antiwar slogans.

She is charged with spreading false informatio­n

about the military, one of President Vladimir Putin's new laws that effectivel­y criminaliz­e public expression against the war. The crackdown has been immediate, ruthless and unparallel­ed in post-Soviet Russia.

Media cannot call it a “war,” and protesters using that word on placards are hit with steep fines. Most who took to the streets were swiftly arrested. Rallies fizzled.

Independen­t news sites were blocked, as were Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. A prominent radio station was taken off the air. The Novaya Gazeta newspaper, led by 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov, lost its license.

Skochilenk­o, who says she is not an activist but simply someone horrified by war, faces up to 10 years in prison.

Prominent Putin critics either left Russia or were arrested: Ilya Yashin got 8½ years, Vladimir Kara-Murza

is jailed awaiting trial and Alexei Navalny remains in prison.

Entertaine­rs opposing the war quickly lost work, with plays and concerts canceled.

“The fact that Putin has managed to intimidate a significan­t part of our society is hard to deny,” Yashin told AP from jail last year.

Pushing the government line

The purge of critics was followed by a splurge of propaganda. State TV suspended some entertainm­ent shows and expanded political and news programs to boost the narrative that Russia was ridding Ukraine of Nazis, a false claim Putin used as pretext for the invasion. Or that NATO is acting via puppets in Kyiv but that Moscow will prevail.

“A new structure of the world is emerging in front of our eyes,” proclaimed anchor Dmitry Kiselev in a December

rant on his weekly show. “The planet is getting rid of Western leadership. Most of humanity is with us.”

These messages play well in Russia, says Denis Volkov, director of the country's top independen­t pollster Levada Center: “The idea that NATO wants to ruin Russia or at least weaken … it has been сommonplac­e for threefourt­hs (of poll respondent­s) for many years.”

The Kremlin is pushing its narrative to the young. Schoolchil­dren were told to write letters to soldiers, and some schools designated “A Hero's Desk” for graduates fighting in Ukraine.

In September, schools added a subject loosely translated as “Conversati­ons about Important Things.” Lesson plans for eighth to 11th graders seen by AP describe Russia's “special mission” of building a “multipolar world order.”

At least one teacher who refused to teach the lessons

was fired. Although not mandatory, some parents whose children skip them face pressure from administra­tors or even police.

A fifth grader was accused of having a Ukraine-themed photo on social media and asking classmates about supporting the war, and she and her mother were detained briefly after administra­tors complained, said her lawyer, Nikolai Bobrinsky. When she skipped the new lessons, authoritie­s apparently decided to make “an example” of her, he added.

Surviving sanctions

The sanctions-hit economy outperform­ed expectatio­ns, thanks to record oil revenues of about $325 billion after the war sent energy prices soaring. The Central Bank stabilized the plummeting ruble by raising interest rates, and the currency is stronger against the dollar than before the invasion.

McDonald's, Ikea, Apple

and others left Russia. The golden arches were replaced by Vkusno — i Tochka (“Tasty — Period”), while Starbucks became Stars Coffee, with essentiall­y the same menus.

Visa and Mastercard halted services, but banks switched to the local MIR system, so existing cards continued to work in the country; those traveling abroad use cash. After the European Union banned flights from Russia, airline ticket prices rose and destinatio­ns became harder to reach. Foreign travel is now available to a privileged minority.

Sociologis­ts say these changes hardly bothered most Russians, whose average monthly salary in 2022 was about $900. Only about a third have an internatio­nal passport.

Inflation spiked nearly 12%, but Putin announced new benefits for families with children and increased pensions and the minimum wage by 10%.

MacBooks and iPhones are still easily available, and Muscovites say restaurant­s have Japanese fish, Spanish cheese and French wine.

“Yes, it costs a bit more, but there's no shortage,” said Vladimir, a resident who asked not to be fully identified for his own safety. “If you walk in the city center, you get the impression that nothing is happening. Lots of people are out and about on weekends. There are fewer people in cafes, but they are still there.”

Still, he admitted the capital seems emptier and people look sadder.

`In trenches, or worse'

Perhaps the biggest shock came in September, when the Kremlin mobilized 300,000 reservists. Although billed as a “partial” call-up, the announceme­nt sent panic through the country since most men under 65 — and some women — are formally part of the reserve.

Flights abroad sold out in hours and long lines formed at Russia's border crossings.

 ?? THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Cars in Moscow, Russia, on March 30, 2022, drive past a building decorated with a huge letter “Z,” which has become a symbol of the Russian military operation in Ukraine, along with a hashtag reading, “We don't abandon our own.” The symbols serve as reminders of the conflict that has dragged on for a year.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Cars in Moscow, Russia, on March 30, 2022, drive past a building decorated with a huge letter “Z,” which has become a symbol of the Russian military operation in Ukraine, along with a hashtag reading, “We don't abandon our own.” The symbols serve as reminders of the conflict that has dragged on for a year.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States