The tell-tale heart: “don’t mention the war!”

The Borderguard Academy in Moscow. It’s motto reads: “We do not want a hands-width of foreign land, / But we will not give up our own inch”

How can it be that the war elicits near universal unease and fear, but at the same time, Russians continue to perform all kind of cognitive contortions to persuade themselves that they are the victims? A short update on some blog themes from earlier in the war.

Here we have two eye-witness reports, so to speak, from sociologists recently returned from Russia.

Tanya’s stories:

People say they don’t want to talk about it, but talk – even in the local shop – inevitably turns to it and people reveals all kinds of extreme agitation, unprovoked. It’s reigniting all kinds of traumatic memories – from their families’ history of repression (“did you hear the Ukrainian family bugged out last night, just in time too”), to the downward mobility and precarious existence of the 90s (a successful businessman says, “I fully expect to lose everything and go back to the potato patch”), to the grandma, who “never really liked Putin before”, but now feels his “pain, his burden. I think about our poor president. He’s doing everything to protect the nuclear plant in Zaporozhe. Fascism really is the scourge of our age.”

In more intimate settings, there is certainly plenty of angry defensive denunciation, especially among older people who daily consume TV alone, and for whom propagandists are a comforting kind of para-kinship presence. Tanya didn’t raise the topic with her mother=in-law, but soon enough they came to the topic after talking about the ‘backstabbing’ of multi-companies leaving Russia.

Tanya: “you know the sanctions – it’s for a reason! You can’t expect differently after what’s happened.

“What do you mean, it is preventative. They talk about war crimes? Don’t be ridiculous. It’s all faked. It just can’t be [straining in the voice] that children are raped. [collecting herself after a long silence]… You know, there’s far more diversity in our media, even if it is state media – they always have all kinds of voices on, presenting different sides. I remember you telling me yourself how biased the Western media are…. How are your TV journalists any better? How can you believe them when they talk about hundreds of thousands of orphans being kidnapped. It’s ridiculous.”

What scholar Sam Greene calls Russians’ typical need for social and political ‘agreeableness’ exists, but is strained at the seams:

The typical village barbeque draws fewer visitors this year. Gosha has gone to “stay” in Turkey; his Ukrainian housekeeper is left tending his enormous country pile. Lyova’s family are in the States, they say they’re not coming back. Sasha has quit drinking. Usually he’s the life of the party. Borya – the district ‘minister of culture’, drops by with a bottle of cognac: “why the long faces? [turning to Tanya] “so, my dear, are your precious Europeans ready to freeze yet over there? You wait until the winter, eh”, he says in a jolly manner.

Sveta, a local business owner, looks taken aback and frowns. She’s usually half-cut by this time in the evening, but she is only drinking wine tonight. “Come on Sanya, why talk like that?”. Sanya, though, has a ‘professional question’: “So you’re a sociologist, right? Tell me, do they really judge us over there? Can it be they don’t know their own history, or ours for that matter? Destiny… A word those Europeans have long forgotten it seems.” Tanya answers calmly: “mainly people judge the Russian government, but not the Russian people…” Sveta is less calm: “Sanya, maybe you should attend to your own duties and ‘destiny’: the district children’s library is in a sorry state. My neighbor told me you laid off the two remaining cultural workers from the Linen District…”

Tell-tale overcompensation:

Later, Tanya is approached by the wife of a well-to-do customs officer. She is engaged in much visible organizing of relief efforts for the ‘orphans of Donbas’, though the sum of her efforts are a little sketchy:

“I hope you’ve been able to see that regardless of events, people cannot stop loving their motherland. We support the military operation, but we do not support war. Tell them that. Turning us into outcasts will only make us stronger. We can give up all those baubles, no problem…. What has Europe ever done for us? I hope you are considering and weighing up your own options. For sure things will get better and maybe even you’ll see your way to coming back to your own country.” The woman smiles a little sheepishly, blinking. It’s hard to know what to say in response to this unprompted onslaught.

Emotional pressure cookers:

At the Estonian border is a Siberian woman in her 70s. She’s travelling to her daughter in Belgium:

“You’re looking at my bag? Yes, I always bring some stewed fruit with me – my grandchildren need the vitamins – none of the processed stuff they have over there. Yes, this is frozen mince. I want to make Pel’meny for them when I get there, like when my daughter was a child.”

She starts sobbing silently…. “I don’t know what came over me. I feel dazed all the time. It’s a kind of shock I’ve been in these months.”

Tanya: “It seems to happen a lot now. I often feel like crying too.”

Finally. There’s both paranoia at ‘traitors in our midst’ as well as an acknowledgement that anti-war activism is stubbornly making itself visible.

Auntie Musya: “We reported back in May that someone had cut up all the flags celebrating Victory Day. The same person pushed over the memorial in the next village to fallen in WWII. Then the Ukrainian ribbons appeared at night. We’ve asked the elder to check his CCTV…. I hope they increase the penalty for such disrespect to the army and to veterans

Tanya: “Isn’t it about opposition to the war, not to veterans, Musya? They want to show not everyone consents?”

Vanya the pensioned off cop: “There have been a lot of cases of flags appearing and disappearing. But you know… it makes you think. Keep your head down and your trap shut is what I say.”


Veronika’s more fleeting observations on the compensatory and justificatory lines of thinking and reflection from a southern Russian region. Veronika compressed the lines of argumentation of the people she talked to.

You take a train from Ivano-Frankivsk in the 80s, hear the conductors speak Ukrainian. That’s nationalism, isn’t it? Then forty years later you have to believe that your son died defending the Motherland, otherwise what’s left to believe?

You grow up in the early 2000s Moscow, watching Friends. You speak English so at some point you start hanging out with some contrarian Western leftists enamored with Putin and you end up thinking that it’s all have got to be the Western fault, right? NATO!

You grew up in the Soviet Union: “there is no truth in Pravda and there is no news in Izvestia”. But then those 90s… it was bad, wasn’t it? And Putin came and fixed it, so we have to stick with him, right?

You think that the Soviet Union was not bad, “such a great country was broken”. You used to a job and an apartment from the state. Ice cream was so much better!  Why should we listen to the West now? This was part of their Dulles plan all along!

You are sure the Soviet Union was bad. Oh, the Russia that we lost after the Revolution. We need to go back to the Imperial times, maybe even bring the Romanovs back, but in the meantime let’s stick with Putin, he brought Crimea home.

You have no doubt that the Soviet Union was bad, but we won the war and Stalin was an effective manager. You march with every Victory day in the immortal regiment, and they have Bandera in Ukraine, so we have to be the good guys, right?

1 thought on “The tell-tale heart: “don’t mention the war!”

  1. Pingback: Eclectica, 29 May 2022 – 31 Mar 2023: Wind in these sails [longie] – Russia Reviewed

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