An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How life in Russia has changed since its invasion of Ukraine


Tomorrow marks one year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. NPR Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes is one of the few Western journalists who remained in Russia after the war began. He reports on how life there has changed.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Our story starts on the balcony of an apartment on the sixth floor. It's close to midnight in the outskirts of St. Petersburg.

ANTON: What we are looking at - this is, like, the spare parts for their night vision.

MAYNES: It's a night vision scope to see in the dark, military grade.

ANTON: And this is the original box.

MAYNES: And this is Anton - no surname by request. He's worried he'll end up on a Western travel ban, for Anton is part of an informal volunteer network that provides badly needed equipment to Russian troops in Ukraine inspired, he tells this American reporter, by a familiar phrase.

ANTON: Thing which Kennedy said - don't ask what a country can do for you. Ask yourself what you can do for your country.

MAYNES: What Anton can do is try and help a Russian military campaign in trouble. The original invasion poorly planned, he says. The mobilization of additional troops? A total mess. But Anton says, the second guessing? That's all for another time because he has no choice but to support his troops now that they're in Ukraine.

ANTON: Is it a good war or is it a bad war? The main thing is not to try to change global things in our country right now, because if you will start this discussion now, you will lose.


MAYNES: A year ago, in the days before the Russian invasion, I was in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, reporting near the Ukrainian border. What struck me then and still does is just how many people were convinced war with Ukraine was impossible.

ANDREI ROSLIE: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Andrei Roslie, local instructor at Rostov-on-Don's journalism school, told me the very idea was just media hype.

ROSLIE: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "I can't name one friend who's even remotely worried about a war," he told me, "if that there was a military buildup, we would have seen it." The next day, President Putin announced the invasion had begun.



MAYNES: And life in Russia began to change. The Kremlin quickly criminalized anything that contradicted the government line. Even calling the war an actual war was banned. With journalists facing years of prison under new censorship laws, the vast majority of Russia's independent media scene shut down. One of the early victims - the Echo of Moscow radio station in the capital.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: A beacon of free speech dating to its launch in the latter years of the USSR, Echo, as Russians call it, found its signal cut mid-broadcast.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: (Speaking Russian).


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Today, propaganda blankets the airwaves and extols the conflict as a war of necessity to defend Russian speakers in Ukraine or protect the homeland. And a vast majority of Russians - some 80%, according to polls - agree.

IVAN KURILLA: If there is a support of war, the state would not probably introduce these new draconian laws.

MAYNES: But Ivan Kurilla, an academic researcher in St. Petersburg, is among those who argue Russian views on the war are far more circumspect. He notes, for example, that there was no crackdown after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 because it was relatively popular with the public. And Kurilla says that's not the case now.

KURILLA: Western media and Western politicians' first reaction was to accept the Russian propaganda thesis that all the Russians support the war, this is Russia's war against Ukraine, which is plain wrong. I mean, that is a Kremlin war, not anything that the Russian people wanted.

MAYNES: Back in the fall, I went to check in on a protest against the draft in Moscow. It turned out to be one of the last. Riot troops were positioned well in advance. Agents in street clothes filmed everyone using small cameras. I approached a young Russian guy watching from the sidelines to ask what he thought about what was happening.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: As he started to answer, police approached and took him away.

So everybody I seem to talk to is getting arrested or are being filmed. So I think we will wrap this up soon.

Meanwhile, it seemed everywhere you looked, people were leaving the country.


WOODEN WHALES: (Singing in Russian).

SVETLANA MATVEEVA: I can't do, like, sing about the flowers and butterflies when I think about the people dying from the bombs.

MAYNES: Svetlana Matveeva is from the northern city of Murmansk. She also fronts the band Wooden Whales, a bright spot in Russia's indie music scene in recent years. When we met in Moscow, she was about to join her husband, who fled the draft for Kazakhstan, one of hundreds of thousands of Russians who've left the country over the past year, and not because she or they wanted to.

MATVEEVA: For me, the war was like there's a very angry grandpa sitting, and he feels like everyone hates him. And he's decided to, like, make it worse. And yeah, for me, it was like a very - the cheating.

MAYNES: Cheating, she said, because their future had been stolen by a country and leader increasingly obsessed with the past.


MAYNES: From the very beginning of the war, President Putin has sought to draw direct parallels between the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II and the current military campaign against so-called neo-Nazis in present-day Ukraine.


MAYNES: In May, I watched the parade on Red Square for Victory Day, when Russia honors the some 20 million Soviets, including Ukrainians, who died fighting Hitler's armies. Tanks and soldiers paraded past the Kremlin, and President Putin's voice echoed across the square. It felt like one of the most important events that had ever happened was happening all over again, only in front of your eyes.

PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

ANDREI NIKOLAEVICH: We have already had this victory once in 1945.

MAYNES: Andrei Nikolaevich, an older Muscovite I met there, told me the Nazis have returned.

NIKOLAEVICH: And we expect peace, but peace should be with a victory over the Nazis, new Nazis who occupied all the country of Ukraine.

MAYNES: Do you worry about Russian forces killing other people though, like innocent civilians, too?

NIKOLAEVICH: No, it's all fake because we don't kill human beings that are peaceful. We kill only their soldiers.

MAYNES: Our story ends where it started, in St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: ...This time, in the studio of the artist Elena Osipova.

ELENA OSIPOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Osipova was born in the city just months after the Soviet victory in 1945, back when it was called Leningrad. She lost family members to the Nazi siege of the city. Like the people I saw in Red Square, Osipova had never forgotten the war, but she had drawn different conclusions.

OSIPOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "How could Russia, which suffered more than anyone in World War II, attack another country," she asked. Osipova is well-known locally. Her participation in anti-government protests, usually holding political artworks of her own making, had earned her the nickname The Conscience of St. Petersburg.

OSIPOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "Russia is not Putin," The Conscience tells me. Her country, she said, gifted the world ideas - art, science and literature.

OSIPOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: In Osipova's paintings, Russia is a bird, capable of soaring to fantastic heights, but one that after a year of war and repression, she now shows, is wounded and struggling to find its way. Charles Maynes, NPR News, St. Petersburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.