I stood up to leave and say my goodbyes.It was my final day of class, and I was flying out the following morning. But as I kicked back my chair and picked up my bag, my teacher burst into tears. “I’m so sorry,” she said—half to me, half to herself. “I’m so sorry you have to go.”
I stood there, awkwardly and in shock. Katarina Ivanovna was a hard woman. The most emotion I had seen out of her in my five weeks in Vladivostok, Russia, had been the not-so-subtle looks of exasperation at my failure to pick up basic Russian grammar concepts. “Tak, tak, tak…,” she would say with an eye roll and a shake of her head. But there she was, stood before me crying because I was leaving.
Five days earlier, on February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. I had actually been in a karaoke bar when it happened, singing Bruno Mars and drinking Jack Daniels apple whiskey with my girlfriend and our two Russian friends. I saw the notification on my phone but figured that it was a problem to deal with tomorrow. When tomorrow came, I quickly realized the severity of the matter.
So, my girlfriend and I left. People like to use the word “evacuated,” but that makes it sound far more exciting than it really was. The reality was that we got a taxi to the airport, flew in business class and, after a day of traveling, touched down safely in Kyrgyzstan. Nobody questioned us, nobody cared where we were going, and nobody acted any differently than they had before. While a war raged on the other side of the country, nothing was any different for those of us in Russia—it felt like there wasn’t a war at all.
That was day six, and this is day 365. But the truth of the matter is this: except for families with a member in the armed forces, daily life has changed little for the vast majority of Russians, even one year on.
Within a month of the conflict’s outbreak, Western powers moved to impose heavy and far-reach- ing sanctions on Russia. On March 1, 2022, the U.S., EU, Britain and Canada agreed to remove Russia from the SWIFT banking system, effectively prevent ing Russia from moving money in or out of its borders. Meanwhile, several big-name companies opted to withdraw from Russia altogether.
But while Western sanctions were brisk, they haven’t been effective. According to the International Monetary Fund, the Russian economy is set to grow by 0.3% in 2023 after shrinking by 2.2% in 2022. What’s more, according to research conducted in De- cember 2022, only around 8.5% of EU and G7 companies have divested at least one of their Russian subsidiaries since the war began.
It certainly appears, then, that Western sanctions have been neither as broad reaching nor as catastrophic to the Russian economy as many early analysts had predicted. And perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. When the G8 hit Russia with sanctions in 2014, the Russian economy recovered quickly then, too. That’s because, for at least the past decade, Russia has been safeguarding itself against Western sanctions by increasing economic cooperation with China and restructuring the country’s economy to withstand financial pressure.
As such, even though the withdrawal of big companies like Adidas, H&M and McDonald’s may have made headline news, the real effect of their exits from the Russian market has been negligible. Sure, Russians can’t indulge in a Big Mac or buy their sweatpants from an Adidas store anymore. But instead, they can eat a Double Grand at Vkusno i Tochka (the restaurant opened up in former McDonald’s) and buy the same pair of Adidas sweatpants from Sportlandiya, a Russian sports store.
With all of that said, it may seem as if Russian life is completely normal. And in many ways, it is. That karaoke bar I was at when the war started? Still open, and still hosting hordes of partygoers every evening. My roommates at the university? Some are still study- ing, and many others have graduated, found work and begun their regular, adult lives.
But something has changed in the Russian psyche, something that I saw on that final day when my Russian language teacher cried as I left: a return to isolationism.
The Soviet Union may feel like a far-back historical artifact at this point, especially to those of us too young to have lived through it. But those that did live through it (about 61% of the Russian population) will distinctly remember a Russia before the Republic, before the opening up of Russia to new people, ideas and yes, money.
The Russian economy is set to grow by 0.3% in 2023, according to the International Monetary Fund
It is little wonder, then, that as many as 700,000 Russians have fled the country since the conflict began. Of course, a great number of draft-eligible men have flocked to neighboring countries to escape coscription orders. But this demographic only makes up only around 5% of the Russian population. What’s more, at least 200,000 of those that fled did so in the first month of the conflict, half a year before Putin introduced his conscription policy.
For most departed Russians, moving to neighboring countries has been an opportunity to avoid isolation from the cosmopolitan, international way of life they are used to. People who work for international companies or rely on international trade for business have had little choice but to move away from Moscow’s control. As a result, large communities of Russian expatriates have popped up in cities like Tbilisi, Almaty and Antalya.
Meanwhile in Russia, Putin’s propaganda machine continues to churn out pro-war, pro-expansionist materials. Throughout the conflict, the Russian government has tried to tie the military campaign in Ukraine to the nation’s vic- tory in World War II, which is still a source of great pride for Russians. And especially for those Russians that look back on the Soviet Union with fondness, it’s easy to see why this kind of rhetoric is effective.
The wartime propaganda is perhaps the biggest reminder for Russians that not everything is as it seems. In Russian elementary schools, for instance, schoolchildren make candles for troops on the frontline. A new art exhibit in Moscow, named “NATOzism,” is on display in the Victory Museum. And Victory TV, a Russian TV channel dedicated to cele- brating World War II, is pro- ducing live talk shows.
Does all of this change daily life for Russians? Not really. But that’s not the point. Rather, the idea is to occupy mental space and infiltrate the zeitgeist of the Russian people. In turn, the Ukraine crisis becomes one and the same with a great patriotic war where Russia is the hero of the day, just like in World War II.
The changes in Russian life are subtle, sometimes barely noticeable. But that is exactly what Putin wants: a war of ideology. And as things stand, that’s exactly what he’s creating.