Behind the statistics: How the Russian invasion of Ukraine affected the average person.

In recent months, due to a lack of Spotify Premium, advertisements in between songs has made me aware of a new podcast by The Economist – titled Next Year in Moscow. This podcast, like the name suggests, is about Russia, Ukraine, and the conflict that began more than a year ago. However, unlike many earlier podcasts, articles, and journalism about the topic, Next Year in Moscow penetrates into the livelihoods of Russian citizens, past and present, and how their lives were irrevocably changed by the events of February 2022. Listening to the episodes has me thinking: Since February last year (and, to be honest, years before that), the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or, as some idealists in objectivity call it, the Russo-Ukrainian War, has dominated the headlines, but do we really know how the average Joe in Russia or Ukraine is affected? 

Now, more than a year on, leaked documents, nuclear threats, and military strategies still manage consistent headlines across almost all of the world’s major news sources. Yet, beneath the grand geopolitical narratives of war and invasion that we are so frequently exposed to lies two countries with a cumulative population close to 200 million, almost all of whom have been touched by the unending conflict. Perhaps it would not do to commemorate the struggles of the everyday people with only superficial social media posts and ceremonies on the 24th of February. Perhaps it would be better to visit, through a piece of writing that’s nowhere near thorough enough, the lives of the people living under the smog of war.

The history of the Russo-Ukrainian tension is long and rich, and Ukraine’s modern era seems to feature the recurrent theme of struggling for independence, sovereignty, and national dignity. To worsen the tension, history seemed to have blurred all lines of individuality by hiding them beneath the ill-defined categorisations of Cossacks and the like. Almost one century ago, Mikhail Sholokhov published his Magnum opus, And Quiet Flows the Don – an epic that offered some comprehensive insight into the livelihoods of the peoples near the river Don (bordering modern-day Russia and Ukraine). Though published in the 1920s, Sholokhov’s characters are hauntingly similar to those currently living under the shadows of the Russo-Ukrainian war. 

An anonymous Ukrainian soldier wrote: “I was afraid our goodbyes would be too final, too fast, too brutal. I tell them that I’m going to be away for a while. That I’ll be studying. I try to find a way of doing it that’s less painful.

Since the start of the war, diaries and first-hand accounts of soldiers on the front-line have frequented major news. An anonymous Ukrainian soldier wrote: “I was afraid our goodbyes would be too final, too fast, too brutal. I tell them that I’m going to be away for a while. That I’ll be studying. I try to find a way of doing it that’s less painful.The rapidity with which this soldier said his goodbyes is not a one-off. All in Ukraine were fleeing from the unending shelling and artillery fire. One journalist reported that he “found an old man’s cane, a bouquet of flowers by a tyre, a surgical glove with a stroller.” Evidently, the war had taken its toll on the Ukrainian people. Of course, however, with Ukraine not being the instigator of the conflict, it is easy to empathise with the anti-war sentiments of the thousands of Ukrainians struggling in a fight they never wanted to be a part of. 

However, behind the unforgiving missiles and attacks of the Russians lies a similarly troubled and disillusioned population also seemingly eager to return to the pre-war era of general tranquillity. Interestingly, one month into the formal invasion, the LSE compiled survey results taken immediately before the invasion and concluded that while not all Russians supported the invasion before the outbreak, “a majority of about 60% did.” At first glance, these statistics seem to support a rather bleak outlook: Russians are a violent people. 

Chart showing Russian public opinion on the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022

But the majority concluded by the data isn’t necessarily an objective indicator. The day before Putin’s official declaration of war on 24th February last year was Russia’s Defender of the Fatherland Day – a day dedicated to celebrating the efforts of the Russian Armed Forces. This chronological coincidence expediently set Russian state media, namely Channel 1, up to hearken back to the Soviet days of bloody military conflict, evidently inflaming a sense of national military pride. For months after that, mainstream media in Russia, consequent of being set in the backdrop of a strong, interventionist state that grew increasingly authoritarian, expertly reshaped the narrative in Ukraine by not showing (almost at all) Russian violence and offensives in the cities of Kyiv, but rather portraying Ukrainian dissent, neo-Fascism, and, quite overtly, a need for Russia to wipe-out the burgeoning “Nazification” in Ukraine. As such, it is becoming increasingly evident in Russia that a division of opinion surrounding the righteousness or necessity to be at war with Ukraine is not only rooted in personal beliefs, but also set along generational lines – the older generation who grew up subscribing to the belief of the truth of television and radio are more likely to be in support of or agreement with the state-directed direction. In contrast, the younger generation, whose sources of receiving news are more diverse, global, and independent, see a different picture, one that pushes them to disapprove, disagree, and protest with the Russian state.

To many, it might seem such ardent subscription to the “archaic” modes of media – television, radio, and the like – is, simply, childish. However, while the post-1991 (dissolution of the Soviet Union) generations, particularly Generation Z, may be highly individualistic, post-materialistic, and desiring a career promising personal happiness, the generations that grew up in Soviet-era Russia subscribed to a different set of values that propels them to typically endorse state military action. Moreover, the atomisation of the older generations caused by the dissolution meant a rigid breakdown of inter-generational ties which facilitated the re-emergence of the Putin-led authoritarian regime – its reminiscence to the Soviet days unmissable. Finally, the reliance of the older generations on state-provided benefits such as retirement pensions also explains their adherence to state media. 

The divide in opinions which now plagues inter-generational households is prevalent. Arina, a 25 year old resident of Moscow, who hasn’t watched TV in 7 years and relies on internet-based sources of media, says that she and her mother, an ardent subscriber to television-based news, had a “fierce argument” surrounding the necessity of war. She reflects that her disagreements with her mother were not an anomaly between the “young Russians…with their parents and others.”

Even two people of the same generation, living under the same roof, have been torn apart by the war. Galina, a violinist from the central Russian city of Samara, is highly critical of the Russian move against Ukraine. In contrast, her husband, Vladimir, a former criminal investigator, supports the war. The two spoke of their marital difficulties caused by a disagreement in the righteousness and necessity of the war in the documentary Broken Ties, which explores the devastating impact the war has had on many Russians.

In the grand narrative of the Russo-Ukrainian War, the anonymous Ukrainian soldier, Arina and her mother, Galina and Vladimir, and countless others are nothing but specks in the masses affected by the conflict. But their unique circumstances reveal stories more nuanced than the statistics of 60% public approval for the war. They reveal generational differences and the entailed differences in habit, values, and beliefs; they unveil, to an extent, the penetrative influence of the state, the media, and other political, social, and economic factors in shaping the narratives of war to those indirectly affected. 

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” While Tolstoy may have written this in the context of marriage and familial well-being in Imperial Russia, it similarly rings true in 2023. The myriad of factors which disrupt the life, dreams, and families of the average person in Russia and Ukraine is much more nuanced than statistics suggest. One can only hope that unlike Anna Karenina, this story ends in something akin to “happily ever after.”

 

Image description: A human chain in Ukraine protesting against the war by holding candles 

Image credit: Ziko van Dijk via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)