For the past six months I have been living in Kazan, Russia. I came here as an international student from Ireland, studying a masters degree in engineering cybernetics. After a lot of prompting by a friend and comrade of mine, Jose from Chile, who I’m sure will be reading this, I decided to start writing a few short notes from my life here, and thoughts about what may yet happen.
It was the morning of the 24th of February, I was woken by my dormitory roommate, he said “Донал, это война” — it’s war. I was shocked but not surprised. Having listened to the now famous speech of Putin, in which he discussed the history of modern Ukraine, and ascribed its existence to Lenin, I was pretty certain of what would happen, but I thought the operation would be limited to the Donbass region. My roommate along with the students in the university were both shocked and surprised, they considered this kind of talk normal and hadn’t anticipated any military action. Very few people in Russia expected a real war, and the media had done nothing to prepare the population for it.
Since that moment, the world as a whole, with Russia at its centre, has been caught up in a whirlwind of escalation and counter-escalation. The sanctions have been very serious, and for a short time it appeared as through the Russian economy might collapse. That possibility is still non-negligible. Russian society is completely traumatised by the experience of the 1990s, even the students who are friends of mine (and don’t remember those times) speak about it with genuine terror. The possibility of ‘going back to the 90s’ is something worse than the prospect of war. It was a time of absolute chaos, from real hunger to drug abuse and child prostitution. The current Russian state was born out of what many Russians regard as salvation from those times. If you want to know why Putin is genuinely popular here with a large strata of society — that’s why. It’s something that western people never experienced, so they generally don’t get it.
There will be other posts where I’ll speak more about Russian reactions to the war. But I’ll end my first entry on this note: The western policy of sanctions will be remembered as one of the greatest blunders in modern political history. The initial shock on the 24th of February (the word I heard over and over again — “ужас”, meaning horror and extreme disagreement), has now been replaced with something else.
A lot of the students I know belong to Russia’s middle class, they are in their early 20s, and they don’t like Putin. If they have any affiliation, it is towards Navalny, and a general feeling of being ‘held back’ by the current Russian state. That same group of students that I know are now mostly in favour of the war, as strange as that may sound. They see the sanctions of the west as being aimed primarily at them. They think that the aim of western policy is to wipe out their meagre savings, and, simply put ‘to send us back to the 90s’. That the Russian state could collapse, and that the west will not save them after the destruction is complete, any more than they saved the people of Libya. The power of this theory is of course that it is fundamentally not wrong.
Whatever chance there might have been for a popular movement against the war in Russia seems to be gone now — and attitudes are hardening; “либо мы победим, либо этой стране конец” as one friend, a Kazakh student who has made Russia his home, told me, “either we win, or the country is finished”.