by Gabriel Gavin
Thursday, 7
April 2022
Dispatch
07:00

Russians are apathetic about Putin’s crimes in Ukraine

In Moscow few care what's occurring south of the country's border
by Gabriel Gavin
Meet the new Russia, just like the old Russia. (Photo by Alexander NEMENOV / AFP) (Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Moscow

After Bucha, there has been no outrage in Russia. While the small number of people who usually post anti-government content continue to do so, everyone else is carrying on with life as normal. Reports that their country is perpetrating a genocide just across the border are easy enough to access but few, it seems, seek them out and even fewer are prepared to do anything about them.

Imagining Russia as some Orwellian autocracy, those on the outside often ask if Russians know what is going on. Unfortunately, more and more it seems to boil down to whether they care.

“What’s it got to do with me?” one Moscow friend replied when asked about his thoughts on the invasion. “I’m not a soldier and I’m not a politician.” Another, a 29-year old trilingual interpreter working for an international firm, told me that my own social news feeds had become boring since the start of the war in Ukraine. “I don’t like politics and I don’t want to be involved in it,” she said.

Likewise, the campaign to put jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny behind bars went largely ignored by the majority of the population, despite the fact prosecutors themselves barely bothered to pretend they were following the law. “Nobody is talking about Navalny,” Maria, a 22-year old student told me during his trial last year. “He’s just as bad as all the other politicians.” Some of her classmates did take to the streets to protest, she said, but they stopped after the university threatened to expel anyone detained by authorities.

This lack of belief that anything can ever change unsurprisingly leads to indifference. Many know that what they think simply doesn’t matter, wondering therefore what the point is in thinking about these issues at all.

In last year’s crucial parliamentary elections, for example, top analyst Sergei Shpilkin claimed that fewer than one in three citizens had bothered to vote for the next government, and that fake ballots had topped the turnout figure up to around 50%. However, the public once again shrugged off reports the polls were rigged. The state may insist it is supported by a majority but, in reality, it governs not by consent but by resignation.

While it may feel hypocritical and wrong to condemn those left behind for not taking action, to do so would likely do nothing but land them in serious trouble. Human rights group OVD.info estimates that at least 15,389 detentions have been made at anti-war protests and the police have carted off and beaten activists for as little as flashing blank placards.

But, collectively and over the course of decades, Russians have been more than happy for elites to worry about running the country while they focus on their own affairs. It may have no real history of democracy, but their society has failed to develop even a sense of civic responsibility since the fall of the Soviet Union.

There, your only duty is to yourself and your family, and the decision-makers in the Kremlin feel very far away indeed. The corpses lining the streets of Bucha might be among the worst war crimes Europe has seen for a long time, but they are also evidence of Russians’ greatest sin — apathy.

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AC Harper
AC Harper
2 months ago

Perhaps the general population of Russia has been trained by decades of Government repression? Active apathy as self defense perhaps? It may not be virtuous but survival trumps virtue.

Jane Morris-Jones
Jane Morris-Jones
2 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

I think it is more than decades— the only approximation to democracy that Russia has ever known was the chaos and (for most) impoverishment of the Yeltsin years, well remembered by any Russian over 40. It is tragic but understandable that ‘active apathy’ is the order of the day.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
2 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

On. my last visit to Russia, I was struck by the hostility to the West, especially from anyone over 40. A big contrast to the friendliness of the ‘90s.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Yup, the apparently permanent feature of Russian culture, poor s*ds, as you say ‘survival trumps virtue’.
On the other hand, they’re perfectly willing, enthused even, to give up their lives en masse for a cause like fighting Nazis.

Last edited 2 months ago by Ian Stewart
Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 months ago

‘Many know that what they think simply doesn’t matter, wondering therefore what the point is in thinking about these issues at all.’

Is it any different here?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 months ago

Yes, it is!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 months ago

Let me introduce you to the woke and trans activists, who have achieved the ridiculous in this country…

David Harris
David Harris
2 months ago

They’ll soon notice when their income and lifestyle takes a dive after sanctions and boycotts take their toll.

Stuart Sutherland
Stuart Sutherland
2 months ago

Apathy is not confined to the Russians. I’ve always thought that the UK population is pretty apathetic too!

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
2 months ago

I was thinking while reading this, the lack of agency we have in the UK. One local example is the imposition of LTNs (low traffic neighbourhoods), opposed by the majority at consultation, implemented despite this by our elected representatives.

David McKee
David McKee
2 months ago

So what did we expect? That vast crowds, animated by disgust, would be storming the walls of the Kremlin? The war is precisely 42 days old. It took years before the American and Russian people started to react against Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

A vast crowd animated by disgust “stormed” (were invited in by police) the US capitol on January 6, 2021 to protest an obviously stolen election. A vast crowd animated by disgust used their convoy of trucks to protest Canadian vaccine mandates. Result? Participants were jailed, hounded, demonized, had their bank accounts frozen, lost their livelihoods, and became forever outlaws. This in 21st Century North America. The Russians have had centuries of experience living with the crimes perpetrated by their overlords. Their apathy may seem cold and wrong, but it’s understandable.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 months ago

Quite rightly people concentrate on what they can achieve in life. If protesting gets you thrown into a very unpleasant prison in Siberia and your chances of altering State policy is as near to zero as you can get anybody sensible will keep their head down and do what they can to improve life for you and your family. Hats off to the protestors. In England they would probably be disrupting ordinary life for the rest of us over some more abstract concern like climate change or TERFs with little risk to themselves.

R S Foster
R S Foster
2 months ago

…possibly the only answer for Russia is a genuine “Good Czar”…are there any suitable Romanovs around?

Last edited 2 months ago by R S Foster
Michael K
Michael K
2 months ago

“What’s it got to do with me?” one Moscow friend replied when asked about his thoughts on the invasion. “I’m not a soldier and I’m not a politician.”

My thoughts exactly! Same goes for COVID. How many innocent people do you think have died due to the government’s handling of COVID? And what exactly could I have done about it?

“Extra 10,000 dementia deaths in England and Wales in April”
-Guardian, Jun 5, 2020

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 months ago
Reply to  Michael K

Oh do please change the record! That must be the thousandth time I’ve read that view, which, by the way I largely agree with. But, no, covid restrictions really aren’t quite as bad as a full scale invasion, indiscriminate shelling and the massacre of civilians. It is almost grotesque to keep changing the subject to covid at every turn. All restrictions have been lifted in England; it almost seems as some people can’t let go.

Some critics have pointed out that you can’t consistently argue that excess deaths due to covid have been overblown, and that in any case everyone does die of something, only to engage in different emotional and exaggerated claims about excess deaths by other causes, including suicide (which was hugely exaggerated by lockdown sceptics), dementia or whatever. That way you are playing essentially the same game.

It is also a comfortably privileged conceit to in any way compare the situation of living in a dictatorship with living in the UK, where is imperfect but where we have free elections and largely free speech, as us lot sounding off here demonstrates. It reminds me of those ridiculous left wingers in the 80s saying that Thatcher was as bad as Hitler.

Last edited 2 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Richard Burgess
Richard Burgess
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Thank you Andrew. Some common sense.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 months ago

Very much agreed – perspective, perspective, perspective

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

But article author analysis of Russian psyche stands, I think.
In other Soviet Block countries people still got on with their lives but did not always meekly accept their fate (Poland 1956, 1970,1980. Hungary 1956. Czechoslovakia 1968).
Russia history of being vassals of Mongols, then ruled by God like Tsars followed by genocidal violence of communism was not conducive to creation of civic society.
I doubt it will ever change.
Well, at least not within next 100 years.
Hopefully West will learn some lessons from Ukraine debacle in context of China.
I doubt it though

Last edited 2 months ago by Andrew F
Michael K
Michael K
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

First, not every UnHerd reader lives in the UK, and some EU countries still have restrictions, including mine.
Second, I didn’t “change the conversation to COVID” to say that it’s the same as a full-scale invasion. I changed it to COVID because the same principle of “what should/can I do about it?” applies. Common sense hasn’t been common these last two years, so anybody clinging to it is just going to drive themselves mad.
The point is that we can’t expect the few clearheaded people to save us so long as media propaganda creates one mass psychosis after the other. If you can’t even discuss every possibility without being called some kind of far-right fringe activist, common sense won’t be coming back any time soon. Next stop: climate change, by the way!

David Bell
David Bell
2 months ago

The Russian public are terminally pathetic and deserve no sympathy. May they and their rotten system slide into the abyss.

Michael K
Michael K
2 months ago
Reply to  David Bell

A terminally pathetic public? Sounds familiar…

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 months ago
Reply to  David Bell

That is a bit harsh

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 months ago

Yes, tho there is a lot of enabling going on in Russia……

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
2 months ago

Wasnt the last election monitored by OSCE, and maybe embassy staff? Was this the election where Putin got 49%

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
2 months ago

Brave to return to Russia, when earlier the author was in Armenia and Istanbul, according to his Twitter page.

Abe Stamm
Abe Stamm
2 months ago

In March of 2003, a war hunger Bush administration couldn’t wait to unleash the “shock and awe” of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a misplaced vengeance against perpetrators of the 9/11/2001 terrorist attack. Though none of the airplane hijackers were Iraqi nationals, the U.S. military and its “collation of the willing” willingly murdered 7,186 Iraqi civilians in 2 months time. Unlike the coverage from Ukraine, we didn’t get to view the dead bodies on our nightly news feeds or via streaming video from smartphones. America’s response to these civilian casualties, this collateral damage, was a collective yawn of disinterest…pure apathy. We were too busy shopping [being a mandate from President Bush aimed at kickstarting a flagging economy] while Bagdad was being bombed.
Americans, who spend little time learning the geography of the world beyond North America, couldn’t find Ukraine on a map two months ago, but we don’t seem to be adverse to fighting the second most powerful military in the world in a locality where they have home-court advantage. God help us if Zelensky’s constant reprimands directed at NATO and the U.S. for not starting WWIII triggers the implementation of a “no fly zone” over Ukraine.

Travis Wade Zinn
Travis Wade Zinn
2 months ago

We need creative forms of protest-engagement that inspire and engage and empower – people feel powerless in the West too; in the US our neoliberalist ‘two-party’ plutonomy has had a similar stultifying effect.

Last edited 2 months ago by Travis Wade Zinn