Moscow seeks ‘sense of normality’ amid Ukraine conflict

MOSCOW (AP) — At Moscow’s sprawling Izmailovsky open-air souvenir market, shoppers can find mugs and T-shirts commemorating the deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine but the 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula. about the “special military operation” that began six months ago.

all over the capitalThere are few clear signs that Russia is involved in the worst fighting in Europe since World War II. Hardly any signs of the letter “Z” are visible, which was initially spread as an icon of the fight, replicating the insignia painted on Russian military vehicles.

There are only a few scattered posters on bus shelters, showing the impassive face of one or another soldier and the words “Glory to the heroes of Russia.” The posters give no clue as to what the man did or where he did it.

The public reticence, or denial, about the operation in Ukraine is surprising in a country where military prowess is deeply embedded in the social fabric. The annexation of Crimea produced almost instant memes, in particular images of President Vladimir Putin. who called him “the most educated person”. a cocky variant of the characterization of Russian troops as polite. Victory Day, marking the defeat of Nazi Germany, is obsessively observed weeks in advance.

A Lamborghini dealership on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, one of Moscow’s main thoroughfares, still displays a Victory Day banner, though the showroom is dark. Lamborghini pulled out of Russia, along with hundreds of other foreign companies that suspended or ended operations. after Russia sent troops to Ukraine.

Darkened storefronts and deserted spaces in malls that once housed popular fast-food outlets like McDonald’s and Starbucks they are the most visible sign of the conflict in Moscow. The exits of the companies they were a psychological blow to Muscovites who had grown accustomed to the glittering comforts of consumer culture.

“At first, we were very disappointed,” said Yegor Driganov, a young man looking out at the view along the riverbank facing the city of Moscow, a group of gleaming towers that includes four of the five tallest buildings in Europe. . “But stores started popping up to replace them.”

Former McDonald’s and Starbucks outlets were bought by Russian businessmen who moved quickly to reopen with near-coal operations.

“We walk, we turn around as usual,” said Driganov’s partner, Polina Polishchuk, characterizing the mood of the city.

Although the belief that Russia can create local alternatives to the companies that left has become an article of faith among officials, many Russians have private doubts.

A survey by the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent pollster, found that 81% of Russians believe the country will be able to replace foreign food operations with domestic alternatives, while only 41% think local industries can. completely replace electronic products and only a third believe that domestic car production can compensate for the loss of imports.

The auto industry was hit by sanctions that dried up the supply of parts. The state statistics service said car production in May had fallen 97% from the same month in 2021. Putin recently admitted that Russia’s shipyards are also suffering from supply shortages.

The panic that gripped Russia in the immediate aftermath of sweeping Western sanctions and the abandonment of the country by foreign companies has subsided. The ruble, which lost half its value against the dollar just after the sanctions, not only recovered but rose to levels not seen in years. But if that’s good for national pride, it’s a burden on export-dependent industries whose products have become more expensive.

Russia’s economic prospects they are far from clear cut amid cross-sectional statistics. Unemployment is down, contrary to many predictions. But gross domestic product fell a hefty 4% in the second quarter of the year, the first full period of the struggle, and is forecast to contract by nearly 8% for the full year. Inflation is calculated at 15% for the year.

“It seems to me that it is obvious to everyone that it will not be like before,” warned the head of the Russian Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina, at the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, a prominent annual meeting aimed at investors. “External conditions have changed for a long time, if not forever.”

But if impending economic troubles are obvious, they don’t seem to be causing much anxiety.

Izmailovsky souvenir seller Mikhail Sukhorukov played down concerns, even though European sanctions on air travel to Russia have cut off much of the tourist trade that was important to him. “It’s periodic, like a wave,” he said, adding that he chose to be optimistic rather than “go to the graveyard.”

“Moscow is leading its normal life because people are trying to preserve their sense of normal and relative psychological comfort,” said Nikolai Petrov, a senior fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House. “Russia is going full steam ahead to a dead end and people, in general, prefer not to think about it and live their lives.”

Petrov also suggested that Muscovites are in the midst of a “summer effect… when a person does not so much look at what is happening in the world, even in a neighboring country, but builds his own reality with family, vacations, etc.”.

The desire to take vacations has been a peculiar success story for Russia’s sense of self-sufficiency in the sanctions era. No easy air links to Western Europe: Industry insiders say Russian travel to popular Italy has dwindled to almost nothing. Russians have found exotic domestic destinations, such as Sakhalin Island, 6,300 kilometers (3,900 miles) from Moscow, where tourism is reported to have increased by 25%. ; traffic to the Baltic Sea beaches in Kaliningrad has reached all-time daily highs.

However, tourism in Crimea is expected to be 40% lower than usual.

Although the streets of Moscow show few signs that a conflict is brewing, the airwaves are full of news. The main news program on state television, Vesti Nedeli, recently devoted almost an hour, about half of its broadcast time, to the operation in Ukraine. Long segments described the Kremlin’s armed forces as highly effective, using top-of-the-line weapons.

Some 60% of Russians trust state television as their main news source, but may find it unreliable. A Levada poll this month found that 65% of Russians do not believe some or all of what they see in state media about Ukraine.

“There are many (media) sources” to counter state television, Driganov said, relaxing by the river.

However, many of those sources can only be accessed through a VPN or virtual private network. Russia has banned or blocked a variety of foreign news outlets, intimidated critical domestic outlets into shutting down, and banned the use of Facebook and Twitter.

In a repressive environment, the assessment of the views of the population as a whole, even by an internationally respected pollster like Levada, is uncertain.

Levada polling polls found that about 75% of Russians support the military operation, but less than half do so unconditionally.

Some of the equivocators probably expressed support “just in case, fearing repercussions for themselves.” Levada director Denis Volkov said.

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Associated Press reporter Dasha Litvinova in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed.

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