Vladimir Lenin famously said that there are “weeks where decades happen.” He was talking about the Bolshevik Revolution, but the panic-stricken weeks after Vladimir Putin shocked even his own people by invading "brotherly" Ukraine will also be remembered as an intensely transformative period in Russia’s history, when the ground shifted and Moscow was yanked back to its Soviet past. Those crazy weeks when my phone rang non-stop now feel like decades in retrospect, especially from the perspective of New York.
The changes were apparent even after the first mad days of the "special operation." Anti-war Russians...
Vladimir Lenin famously said that there are “weeks where decades happen.” He was talking about the Bolshevik Revolution, but the panic-stricken weeks after Vladimir Putin shocked even his own people by invading “brotherly” Ukraine will also be remembered as an intensely transformative period in Russia’s history, when the ground shifted and Moscow was yanked back to its Soviet past. Those crazy weeks when my phone rang non-stop now feel like decades in retrospect, especially from the perspective of New York.
The changes were apparent even after the first mad days of the “special operation.” Anti-war Russians had panicked at Putin’s cruel gambit and fled the country by the tens of thousands, along with thousands of Western expats. Meanwhile, hard-hitting sanctions smashed the comforting “Western bubble” that had seduced many into thinking they’d been living in a modern European city like London or Paris. No more. The iconic McDonald’s in Pushkin Square that had opened during perestroika was shuttered, and even beloved IKEA was gone. Europe once again disappeared behind an iron curtain.
But what was truly shocking about post-war Moscow was how rapidly the zeitgeist flipped and the Russian psyche transformed under the sudden onslaught of war, fear, and loathing. Timid men turned fearless; fearless men became timid; and many saw opportunity in empire and chaos and sharpened their fangs in anticipation. Russia was in free fall, hurtling backwards into its Soviet past at light speed amid a sudden onrush of nostalgia, for a time when Russians were the masters of Eastern Europe.
The first time I became aware of this metamorphosis was through my hipster photographer friend, a Russian stoner who loved Goa and talked of moving to Bali and living in tune with nature. He came over one night soon after the war started and was literally foaming at the mouth.
“I support this war,” he snapped after I blamed Russia for the conflict. “They stole our land from Soviet times. It’s time to take it back.”
Igor was a slim and wiry character, whose struggles with money showed in his threadbare clothes and hangdog expression.
But that night he was different: there was a swagger in his attitude and he looked me straight in the eye when he spoke. I knew he resented my relative wealth but that evening his envy had been subsumed by a newfound pride in Russia and its military might.
When we parted after a few shots of vodka, his handshake was firmer and his former hunch was gone. He was my age but had always lived on the edge of poverty, barely surviving off the occasional photo shoot. Perhaps the war made him yearn for the good old Soviet days of his youth when society was more egalitarian and Ukrainians looked up to the Russians. Even though I was dumbstruck by his sudden patriotism, it didn’t shock me. Artists like Igor had never made the transition to a competitive capitalist economy and the past still held an appeal.
Igor wasn’t aggressive or violent that night, fortunately. But there were others who had also been down on their luck and who seized on this moment to strike back at foreigners and at Russia’s wealthy pro-Western class.
I’ve been visiting an American Prohibition-style jazz bar in central Moscow for years now. It’s a kind of Western outpost where natty bartenders in bow ties serve up whiskey sours and Negronis to a cosmopolitan crowd that mostly loved America.
But after terror was unleashed on Ukraine, the mood changed instantly. Everyone was shocked and despaired for a few days as they processed the enormity of the war, but as the Kremlin cracked down hard on anti-war protests, the bullies and the America haters emerged out of nowhere. Their long-suppressed anger at Russia’s humiliation by the West, and its newfound dependence on fast food and expensive gadgets, burst out into a shared consciousness.
The mood was tense and aggressive on my final night at the jazz bar, almost two weeks into the war. I was chatting in English with Anna, an attractive Russian girlfriend, while a saxophonist played Duke Ellington classics, when a young unshaven man in a hoodie interrupted.
“Why are you speaking English?” he demanded. “We’re in Russia.”
“This is an American bar,” I countered.
He growled and banged his fists against the wall.
“I know,” he finally acknowledged. “But soon the whole world will speak Russian.”
I was shocked at his naïveté (Russia is more isolated than ever before) and wanted to engage him in conversation, but he looked like he could snap at any instant.
I was drinking with Anna and her friends from St. Petersburg in the cozy smoking room later that evening when he reappeared. He was drunker this time and leering at her friends, obviously peeved that they were flirting with a “foreigner” instead of a true Russian like him. He began interrogating me about my reasons for being in Russia.
“You’re not a spy?” he asked suspiciously.
I had lived in Russia during the turbulent 1990s and knew enough to stand up to bullies. I stood my ground and asked him politely but firmly to leave us alone until he turned away with a snort.
A few minutes later, we overheard him arguing with an Englishman, an expat lawyer for an international law firm, about Ukraine. Suddenly he punched the man in the face a few times. The poor Englishman slumped over bleeding, while moaning about a flight to Istanbul. It turned out that this had been his last night in Moscow. What a tragic farewell it had been. There was blood and broken glass everywhere and the girls were almost in tears.
The horror and brutality on display in the Bucha massacres a month later didn’t surprise me. I had experienced the rage of a lost generation.
I was certain then that it was time to leave Russia for good. The Moscow that I knew and loved was disappearing into an abyss and there were too many cheering its rapid descent.
I had hoped for some comfort from my “liberal” Russian friends, but many had already left the country, and the ones who stayed were silent and fearful. With Facebook, Twitter and Instagram blocked, they retreated into themselves and talked instead about the terrible suffering of their grandparents during Stalin’s terrors. The one brave friend who openly called Putin a war criminal on his Facebook page was called in for questioning and left for Israel in a hurry. Even courageous journalist colleagues from independent Russian sites like TV Rain, Echo Moscow and others went dark as their news outlets were shut down.
Fear now stalked the city like an enemy. Riot police swarmed central Moscow, randomly stopping pedestrians, checking their phones for signs of anti-war sentiment. Friends were afraid to confide their feelings, and everyone looked over their shoulders as they must have in Soviet times. It had all become very Orwellian very quickly.
For your two minutes of daily hate, all you had to do was turn on the television where incendiary hosts like Vladimir Solovyov called for the total destruction of Ukraine and its NATO partners. I felt as helpless as Winston Smith from 1984 and was on the edge of despair.
Fortunately, my cool-headed and clear-sighted Russian girlfriends tempered the madness. Despite the mass hysteria around them, most remained steadfast in their conviction that the war was an evil travesty and that it was insane to cheer a return to a totalitarian Soviet past.
“I don’t want to live in North Korea” was a common refrain among the city’s cosmopolitan women who had embraced the West with fervor during those freewheeling post-Soviet decades. They had made no bones about their preference for Barcelona over Sochi, Netflix over Russian cinema, and Big Macs over Russian dumplings.
Many of them sensed at some subconscious level that this war was about them too. It was the final revenge of a geriatric Soviet generation that had never been comfortable with their country’s beauties endlessly aspiring for iPhones and a Western lifestyle. They wanted to turn the clock back to a time when Russia was heaven enough, and a holiday by the Black Sea in Crimea was a rare extravagance.
Most Russian men consider Ukrainian women to be more beautiful, feminine, and kind than Russian women. Ukraine’s embrace of America and hatred of Russia thus strikes them as supremely tragic, because in many respects warmer and romantic Ukraine represents the best of Russia. Putin has always channelled Russia’s dark subconscious, and his obsession with Ukraine springs from a shared yearning for a lost paradise.
Ukraine is his Helen of Troy, seduced by the cunning Americans; the military build-up on his country’s border in February was his Trojan Horse. He had been certain that he would overrun the weaker Ukrainians with his surprise attack and subdue them with the shock and awe of his sophisticated missiles, but things haven’t gone to plan. He might not even be able to capture the Donbass, given his failure to take over Mariupol after weeks of brutal shelling. His economy is tanking, and he might have to eventually settle for an unpopular peace deal.
But now that the beast inside Russians has been unleashed, it can’t be corked back again. Most Russians floundered under capitalism. The average salary outside Moscow was just a few hundred dollars a month. They could handle the poverty but missed the glory of being a superpower that dominated the world. Russia’s great poet Anna Akhmatova summed up their thinking this way: “If I can’t have love, if I can’t have peace, give me a bitter glory.”
Since the onset of war, Russians have given up on capitalism and are now braying for empire again. And as Western brands scramble for the exits and time runs backwards, many will welcome a return to the past. They will not stop now despite the mounting costs. They have been primed for victory and Putin must deliver.
Moscow’s Westernized women are horrified but helpless to stop their grandfathers from turning back time. By the time I left Moscow for Dubai, and eventually New York, sixteen days after the invasion, Russia already smelled like the Soviet Union of yore.
Moscow was eerily silent, like New York during the pandemic, and felt again like the city I remembered from the early 1990s, its restaurants and public spaces deserted as its people stayed home and pondered the future darkly. The cinemas had stopped showing Hollywood films, the city’s gleaming modern art museums had paused exhibitions, the Westerners had mostly fled, and the only foreigners were from “friendly” countries like China or India. It was back to “vodka and selyodka” (vodka and picked herring), and I knew by then that a majority preferred this reality to a Russia enthralled by Western consumerism. Even the jokes now had the self-deprecating irony of those from the late Soviet era.
“Do you know why we’re now going to be the healthiest nation on earth?” joked my taxi driver on the way to the airport. “That’s because we don’t eat American fast food anymore.”
I called my landlord in Moscow from New York two weeks later to inform him that I wouldn’t be renewing the lease on my pricey flat in central Moscow. He wasn’t pleased that I’d left Moscow on such short notice but answered without missing a beat.
“You’ll come back to Russia. Life is better here.”
His confidence sent a chill through me, and I realized that neither Ukraine nor the West will live in peace so long as Russia remains proud and defiant. It’s clear that sanctions won’t change Russia’s mind; they’ll just encourage a backlash against the West. The recent meme of Russian glamor girls cutting up their expensive Gucci bags in protest over the luxury brand’s “Russophobia” is a symptom of this angry pushback against the West and its desire to cancel Russia.
We need an off-ramp from the sanctions so that Russia can join the world again after the war ends and Ukraine has been left in peace. Otherwise, this hatred will spawn fury and the fury will spawn murderous rage. Instead of pushing for regime change and hoping that sanctions will spark a revolution, we need to remember that common Russians have long been disillusioned with the post-Soviet status quo, and the consumerism of the West means less to them than their hunger for glory and redemption.
Taking a moment to understand the frustration and anger of the average Russian is crucial for ending this madness before it potentially engulfs us all.