MOSCOW – “We have a tradition in Russia that whenever you meet two people with the same name, you have to stand between them and make a wish,” Dmitry, a small business owner in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don told me last Wednesday night, the day before Russian armed forces invaded Ukraine.
He and his friend, a construction worker also named Dmitry, were out drinking at a local bar, just 50 miles from the border with Ukraine. I closed my eyes and said I hoped there would be no war.
“Why would you waste a wish on that? There is no fighting here - you can see it yourself,” he insisted.
Just hours later, the city woke up to the sound of warplanes flying overhead. In a late-night televised address, Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced that he was ordering a “special operation” in the neighbouring country. As he pledged to “demilitarise” and “de-Nazify” the Ukraine, cruise missiles and rockets smashed into airports, landing strips and military warehouses, with explosions reported near major cities and columns of tanks streaming across the frontier from Russia and Belarus.
While the invasion has shocked the world, few have been taken aback as much as ordinary Russians. For weeks, Moscow had been writing off Western claims that an offensive was imminent as “hysteria,” with Putin’s own press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, going as far as to claim that the country “has never attacked anyone” in its entire history. “We, who have survived so many conflicts, are the last people who would ever want to utter the word war,” he said.
Now, while fierce fighting rages across Ukraine, hundreds of miles away in Moscow, panic is starting to set in and people are leaving, fearing they will be dragged into the conflict.
A doctor who works in a hospital in the Russian capital speaking to VICE World News on condition of anonymity, got on a last-minute plane out of the country with his girlfriend, paying more than twice the normal rate for last-minute tickets - they would usually cost about 50,000 rubles (£335) but he paid 110,000 rubles. He did this after a colleague was told to start drawing up a list of medics who could be sent to the army at short notice. “I don’t want to take part in this disgraceful war,” he said. “Man, if this lasts, every doctor will end up being drafted.”
“We had no time left,” his girlfriend said after they landed in a safe country. Shortly after they got out of Russia, flights to the region were suspended without warning. They have no idea if and when they might be able to come back.
Rosgvardia, the National Guard, have also reportedly begun chasing up conscripts who failed to appear for duty. Nadezhda, a translator who spoke to VICE World News using an assumed name for fear of reprisals, got a panicked call from her brother after officers showed up at his apartment looking for him. He was called up last year but decided not to go, hoping to move abroad. With no valid exemptions and without the money to pay his way out of it as many Russians do by leaving the country, his name is now on the wanted list. “The officers were banging on the door shouting for me to come out,” he told her. “I stayed quiet and they went away after a while.”
Taras, an IT consultant with family living in Ukraine, said on Sunday that he felt it was his duty to oppose the war. “My relatives in Chernihiv [a city in northern Ukraine] are writing about shelling and rockets being fired, so how am I supposed to feel? I’m thinking of going out to join the protests. It’s the least I can do to support my family.”
However, after Putin ordered the country’s nuclear strike capability to be put on high alert on Monday, Taras decided he and his wife would be better off leaving Moscow to stay at a friend’s dacha in the countryside. “It is better to be there if there is civil war,” he said.
Some foreign nationals are also planning their routes out of the country. The manager of Moscow’s best curry house said his staff were trying to get out. “It’s not good at all,” the manager said. “It will cause a lot of problems.”
For those remaining in the city, life in a pariah state is becoming increasingly difficult.
Hard-hitting sanctions imposed by the US, Britain and the EU have targeted Russia’s central bank and cut off access to foreign investment, sending the value of the ruble crashing by nearly half and sparking a run on the banks.
Long queues have formed at cash points and currency exchanges as people scramble to take out their money, fearing their savings could be worthless in just a few days. “I waited for nearly an hour to buy dollars,” Kyle, an American citizen working in Moscow, said. “But the woman in front of me got the last ones.”
Those who can’t get their hands on foreign currency have been putting it into almost anything they can, with electronics stores and jewellers seeing a flurry of customers looking to convert their salaries into valuables. “We have one MacBook left,” a worker at the Apple reseller on Moscow’s upmarket Tverskaya Street said. “But it’s the small one. The bigger ones have all gone.”
Inflation - which was already spiralling out of control before the invasion - and Washington’s threat of banning American-made products are also driving up prices. Online, new iPhones have been selling for half a million rubles – which would have been equivalent to around £5,000 just two weeks ago - with people fearing they might be unable to get hold of them before long. On Tuesday night, the news came in that Apple would pull out of the country. Some retailers didn’t even open their doors the following morning.
On Monday, Apple Pay and Google Pay stopped working on the Moscow Metro, forcing commuters to queue to buy tickets. VTB, the banking giant that operates the billing system, is among those facing sanctions from Western nations in response to the invasion. Access to Twitter has now become virtually impossible without downloading a VPN, and Russian regulator Roskomnadzor has warned it will begin to restrict access to Facebook as part of a dispute that saw officials accuse the US tech giant of “violating the rights of its users”.
Many Russians feel shock and shame at the sudden attack on a country that many have strong ties with. “This is a disaster, a crime and a tragedy,” Kirill, an insurance broker said. “I feel hopeless. But the most terrifying part is that there are people who try to justify it,” he said, “as though there is nothing wrong with it and it is perfectly normal to invade other countries and kill people.”
He is hoping to get a visa for an EU country and to resettle there with his girlfriend. “It would be extremely sad to leave - my parents are here, my friends. But I don’t see any other options for myself.”
However, while many Russians are against the war, the majority still point the finger at the West, believing the threat of Ukraine joining NATO forced their country into a corner. One study, by Moscow’s Levada Center - an independent polling organisation registered as a “foreign agent”’ by the government over links to overseas funding - found that 60 percent of the 1,600 people surveyed blamed the US and its partners in Europe for the rise in tensions in the Donbass and the subsequent conflict.
Professor Jeremy Rinker, an expert on peace on conflict studies at the University of North Carolina, said, “When you start putting sanctions on people it has a wider impact, and it remains to be seen whether this will bring people out or if they’ll buy into the propaganda rhetoric Putin is putting forward.”
“There are always people who will trust what the government is saying, and that can come from propaganda. We saw the same in the US where there were huge protests against the Iraq war, but then there were also lots of people saying well, if the government says they have WMDs, that must be true. The narrative can stick.”
Many Russians, however, appear sceptical of the reasons for the invasion, and horrified at the prospect of paying the price for Putin’s war with their jobs and their savings. Just across the border their sons, and countless Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, are paying for it with their lives.