More than 6,400 Russians have been arrested in anti-war protests since President Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine, but not one bone-crunching detention has made state TV.
Navigating the paradoxes of Putin’s authoritarian rule is a way of life here. Intuition nourished by a lifetime of state-fed lies gets most people through. And for many it consists of a quiet life with a steady income.
But what’s happening now may be challenging some to push out of the old boundaries of the ‘see but don’t question orthodoxy’ that historically reinforced Putin’s grip on power.
By Tuesday morning in Moscow, more than 1 million signatures had been added to a Russian-language Change.org petition against the war in Ukraine.
On Moscow’s streets police vans loiter at most major intersections, riot-ready cops menace the sidewalks, and the city’s fabled Pushkin Square – a once-popular protesters’ haunt – is surrounded by a vast metal barricade.
What’s going on is an all too obvious, overt opposition to Putin’s rule. The cost of joining, the government warns, could be “arrest” and a “criminal record” that “leaves a mark on the person’s future.”
Protests are only considered for approval if requested no more than 15 days in advance and no less than 10, and even then there is no guarantee it will get the nod.
Putin has no reason to publicize the anger at his rule and every reason to snuff it out.
Instead of anti-war protests, the Kremlin’s vast constellation of newspapers, magazines, websites and TV stations keep up a steady drumbeat of anti-Ukrainian propaganda that tries to rationalize the reasons their brothers, sons and husbands have been sent to war, and possibly their deaths, hundreds of miles away.
The Kremlin has all but crushed Russia’s independent media, and is gagging what’s left of them. Ten publications got a letter late last week from the country’s communications watchdog warning them not to use the words “invasion,” “attack” and “declaration of war” under threat of having access to their publications “restricted.”
The same letter said that correct information about the “Special Military Operation” – as the Kremlin calls the war – was freely available on government websites.
But Putin doesn’t control all the narratives all the time. A generation here has grown up willfully ignorant of state disinformation, weaned instead on social media, so are impervious to the lies that cowed their parents. They are, however, still contained by the massive state security infrastructure that is the real muscle behind state media’s messaging.
In short, they think for themselves, want the freedoms that come with that awareness but are bound by the brutality they meet when they protest.
One young woman CNN met on the margins of the first night of protest on Thursday was near tears explaining she loves Russia, but not her leader, so has concluded she must leave the country.
There is a real frustration in that generation, but they are a minority – less than 10% of the nation.
Indeed, the latest polling by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM), a state-owned but nevertheless internationally respected organization, found that 68% of people say they support the decision to carry out the “Special Military Operation,” 22% oppose it and 10% had difficulty answering.
It is a sobering assessment that when Putin puts his finger in the wind of public opinion he can be reasonably sure it is blowing in the direction he instructed his state organs to set it.
CNN’s Nathan Hodge and Jill Dougherty contributed reporting.