Overcoming the paradoxes of Putin’s authoritarian rule is a way of life here. Intuition, fed by lies, fed by the state, helps most people. And for many, this is a quiet life with a stable income.
But what is happening now may force some to push past the old boundaries of the “look but don’t doubt” principle that has historically bolstered Putin’s power.
By Tuesday morning, a Russian-language petition against the war in Ukraine on Change.org had over 1 million signatures in Moscow.
On the streets of Moscow, police vans loiter at most major intersections, riot-ready cops threaten the sidewalks, and the city’s legendary Pushkinskaya Square – once a popular spot for protesters – is surrounded by a huge metal barricade.
What is happening is all too obvious, overt opposition to Putin’s rule. The government warns that the price of joining could be “arrest” and “conviction” that “leaves a mark on a person’s future.”
Protests are only considered for approval if they are requested no more than 15 days in advance and no less than 10 days in advance, and even then there is no guarantee that they will be approved.
Putin has no reason to advertise his dissatisfaction with his rule and has every reason to suppress it.
Instead of anti-war protests, a huge constellation of Kremlin newspapers, magazines, websites and TV channels keeps up a constant drumbeat of anti-Ukrainian propaganda that tries to explain the reasons why their brothers, sons and husbands were sent to war, and possibly their deaths, hundreds of miles away.
The Kremlin has practically suppressed the independent Russian media and muzzles what is left of them. Late last week, ten publications received a letter from the country’s communications watchdog warning them not to use the words “invasion”, “attack” and “declaration of war” under the threat of “restricting access to their publications”.
The same letter stated that reliable information about the “Special Military Operation,” as the Kremlin calls the war, was freely available on government websites.
But Putin does not control all narratives all the time. The generation here has grown up willfully ignoring government misinformation, brought up on social media instead, so they are immune to the lies that intimidated their parents. However, they are still held back by the massive state security infrastructure that is the real force behind state media reporting.
In short, they think for themselves, want the freedom that comes with this awareness, but are bound by the brutality they face when they protest.
One young woman CNN met on the sidelines of Thursday’s first night of protests nearly burst into tears as she explained that she loved Russia but not her leader, and concluded that she should leave the country.
There is a real disappointment in this generation, but they are a minority – less than 10% of the nation.
Indeed, the latest poll by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), a state-owned but nevertheless internationally respected organization, showed that 68% of people say they support the decision to conduct a “Special Military Operation”, 22% object, and 10% found it difficult to answer.
It’s a sobering assessment: When Putin points his finger at the wind of public opinion, he can be pretty sure it’s blowing in the direction he’s instructed his government agencies to point.
Nathan Hodge and Jill Dougherty of CNN contributed to the story.