Through towering pine forests and untouched meadows, the road to Lake Baikal in southern Siberia winds past cemeteries where bright plastic flowers mark the graves of Russians killed in Ukraine. Far from the Potemkin paradise of Moscow, the war is ever visible.
On the eastern shore of the lake, where white-winged gulls plunge into the steel-blue water, Yulia Rolikova, 35, runs an inn that doubles as a children’s summer camp. She is some 3,500 miles from the front, yet the war reverberates in her family and in her head.
“My ex-husband wanted to go fight — he claimed it was his duty,” she said. “I said, ‘No, you have an 8-year-old daughter, and it’s a much more important duty to be a father to her.’”
“People are dying there in Ukraine for nothing,” she said.
He finally understood and stayed, she told me, with a look that said: Mine is just another ordinary Russian life. That is to say the life of a single mother in a country with one of the highest divorce rates in the world, a nation plunged into an intractable war, fighting a neighboring state that President Vladimir V. Putin deemed a fiction, where tens of millions of Russians, like herself, have ties of family, culture and history.
I spent a month in Russia, a country almost as large as the United States and Canada combined, searching for clues that might explain its nationalist lurch into an unprovoked war and its mood more than 17 months into a conflict conceived as a lightning strike, only to become a lingering nightmare. The war, which has transformed the world as radically as 9/11 did, has now taken 200,000 lives since Feb. 24, 2022, roughly split between the two sides, American diplomats in Moscow estimate.
As I traveled from Siberia to Belgorod on Russia’s western border with Ukraine, across the vertigo-inducing vastness that informs Russian assertiveness, I found a country uncertain of its direction or meaning, torn between the glorious myths that Mr. Putin has cultivated and everyday struggle.
Along the way, I encountered fear and fervid bellicosity, as well as stubborn patience to see out a long war. I found that Homo sovieticus, far from dying out, has lived on in modified form, along with habits of subservience. So with the aid of relentless propaganda on state television, the old Putin playbook — money, mythmaking and menace of murder — has just about held.
But I also heard ambivalent voices like Ms. Rolikova’s, along with a few raised in outright dissent, especially from young people in a country with a stark generational divide.
It was this restiveness, this impatience with the seeming incoherence of the war and with the insouciance of the privileged in Moscow and St. Petersburg, that formed the backdrop to the short-lived revolt led by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner group, in late June. It was not for nothing that he named his uprising the “march for justice.”
“That Prigozhin rebelled was symptomatic of many social problems, but the way he advanced toward Moscow unhindered also demonstrated nervousness about whether all army units would fight,” said Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “Putin clearly did not want to give an order to fire he was unsure would be implemented.”
Making a martyr of Mr. Prigozhin was too risky in the short term for other reasons, too. Wagner’s role in avoiding recourse to an unpopular draft, by recruiting many thousands of criminals to bear the brunt of much heavy fighting in Ukraine, has been crucial. If Mr. Putin, 70, did not blink, he certainly flinched.
Yet, after 23 years leading Russia, Mr. Putin’s hold on power is still firm as fighting intensifies in southern and eastern Ukraine. He learned long ago, indeed from the outset of his rule in 2000, that, as the author Masha Gessen has put it, “wars were almost as good as crackdowns because they discredited anyone who wanted to complicate things.”
He has always used war — in Chechnya, in Georgia and in Ukraine — to unite Russians in the simplistic myths of nationalism and to usher them to the simplistic conclusion that his increasingly repressive rule is so essential that it must be eternal.
Still, as far as possible, the war must be invisible, banished to places like Ulan-Ude, near Lake Baikal, not far from the Mongolian border. That is done, in part, by paying recruits about $2,500 a month, a huge sum in a region where a monthly salary of $500 is more typical.
“Money is the main reason people go to fight,” Ms. Rolikova said. “The contracts being offered volunteers are crazy by our standards.”
But all of the money that Mr. Putin showers on remotest Russia only brings the war into sharper relief. It is etched in the fearful faces of young recruits lining up at the airport for flights to Moscow, and from there overland to Rostov-on-Don and into Ukraine. It is in the freshly turned soil of cemeteries where young men are laid to rest. It is in the air, a pall of dread. [Continue reading…]