Putin can still convince Russians that the whole world is conspiring against them

By | March 1, 2022

Masha Gessen writes:

Take a walk through Moscow these days, and you will see giant, gaudy light displays—entire galleries and faux building façades composed of light bulbs. You will see gleaming arrays of luxury goods, messengers scurrying with cubic backpacks, and restaurants that fill up late in the day and stay full well into the night. Some of those restaurants have giant televisions, and you may see sports competitions, music videos, and news channels on them, but what you will not see is what dominates television screens elsewhere in the world: the images of the war in Ukraine. You will not see bomb shelters in the grand Soviet-era subways, bombed-out apartment buildings, or charred tanks. From most appearances, Moscow is a city at peace.

Anything that disrupts this appearance—whether it’s a person standing alone with a sheet of paper that says “No to War” or the small group that gathered and stood silently in Moscow’s Pushkin Square on Saturday night, or the thousands who have attended antiwar marches around the country since last Thursday, the day that Russia began its large-scale invasion of Ukraine—is intercepted by police quickly and brutally. Occasionally in Moscow, you might see a clump of police officers in riot gear and a prisoner bus parked on the side of the road, its engine off—which means that the people inside are getting very cold as the bus slowly fills up. In the center of town, police buses have been parked for days, apparently on reserve in case of a larger operation. OVDInfo, an organization that tracks political persecution, has documented about sixty-four hundred detentions since Thursday, in more than a hundred cities. Twenty-eight hundred of these—in fifty-six different cities—were on Sunday, February 27th, on the seventh anniversary of the murder of the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.

Last Thursday evening, Grigory Yudin, a sociologist and philosopher, and his wife Anastasia Yudina, a marketing researcher, went to Pushkin Square to protest the invasion. They got off the subway and then, Yudin told me, “Something happened. I realized that I was falling down.” Yudina was taking a picture of the swarms of police in riot gear at that moment. When she turned around, her husband had disappeared. Yudin had been loaded onto a police bus, and, with many other people, he was taken to a precinct on the outskirts of the city. The next time that Yudina saw him, about an hour and a half later, it was in an ambulance outside the police station. “He was in a neck brace,” she told me. “He was covered with dirt—they must have dragged him. He was confused.” Yudin had been in and out of consciousness. When we met on Sunday, at one of those cozy and delicious Moscow restaurants, Yudin still had a swollen eye and a noticeable scrape on his left temple.

We weren’t meeting to discuss the story of Yudin’s arrest and beating—these stories are plentiful—but because Yudin is one of the most insightful analysts of contemporary Russian politics and society. “I think now is a turning point,” he said. We were talking about the end of the world as we know it: Would it be the end of Vladimir Putin’s long reign or, well, the end of the world? “If they can’t secure a military victory—at least take Kyiv and Kharkiv—then Putin will shift to treating U.S. sanctions as a declaration of war. It will be the world against Putin, and Putin will have to raise the stakes—by, say, threatening to lob a nuclear weapon at the center of the world, which he believes is in New York.” We had our phones off during this conversation. When I turned mine back on after about an hour, I saw that Putin had put Russian nuclear forces on high alert. “So it begins,” Yudin said. And yet, he added, “In this new situation, I can’t really imagine that he will be able to maintain his hold on power. On the other hand, we have always underestimated his ability to hang on.” [Continue reading…]

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