In Moscow few care what's occurring south of the country's border
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.