‘People are turning off’: Muscovites put the war aside and enjoy summer

As Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds into its fifth month, Moscow is a city doing everything it can to turn a blind eye to the conflict. It is a champagne-soaked summer like any other in the Russian capital, despite the thousands of dead and many more wounded in a war increasingly marked by acts of savage brutality.

In Gorky Park, outdoor festivals, cinemas and bars were all jammed on a recent evening, with young couples twirling to ballroom dance music as others stopped for selfies along the Moscow river nearby.

“Yes, we are having a party,” said Anna Mitrokhina, one of the dancers at an outdoor dance platform on the Moscow river, wearing a blue-sequin dress and heavy eye-makeup. “We are outside of politics, we want to dance, to feel and have fun. I can’t worry any more and this helps me forget.”

Walk through the city or switch on a VPN to scroll through Instagram or Facebook and you might not even know the country’s at war, a word that the Russian censors have banned from local media and that, even among many friends, has become taboo.

People on the street as daily life continues in Moscow, Russia.
People on the street as daily life continues in Moscow, Russia. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A lifestyle Instagram blogger with more than 100,000 followers who was opposed to the war said that she had consciously decided to stop speaking about the topic – because of the official restrictions but also the backlash she received from subscribers.

“Nobody wants to hear about the war, the special military operation, any more, they tell me to stop talking about this and get back to normal topics like beauty and fitness,” she said, asking that her name not be used. “Every time I mentioned it I would get so much hate in my messages. It hurts me, it hurts my business. I stopped mentioning it. It just doesn’t exist for many people.”

“What hurts the most is it is not really [because of the law], there is just no desire to talk about this,” she said. “People are turning off.”

In a forthcoming paper shared with the Guardian titled “How public opinion is hiding from the truth”, Russian-based political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov and Levada Centre pollster Denis Volkov write that the war has become “routine” for many Russians.

“The inability to influence what is happening makes people think less about global political issues and focus more on everyday subjects, on life here and now,” the authors write.

If Russians were shocked by the outbreak of war in March, they said, then by June far fewer listed it as the most significant issue for the country right now.

Children cool themselves in the water of the Neglinnaya river enjoying the end of a hot day near the Kremlin Wall, in Moscow, Russia.
Children cool themselves in the water of the Neglinnaya river enjoying the end of a hot day near the Kremlin Wall, in Moscow, Russia. Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

And many have found it easier to join the “mainstream” of support or indifference to the war, they added, calling it the “most comfortable” position, and one that doesn’t force people to “observe or, most importantly, think”.

After a wave of repressions, there are fewer voices now speaking out publicly against the war. But some remain.

At a table by the window in Moscow’s Pushkin cafe, Alexey Venediktov is loudly decrying the conflict as “catastrophic” as the waitstaff look on with an air of concern. The former head of Echo of Moscow, the Russian radio station that was shut down after its public opposition to the war, has now been declared a foreign agent. “I was an enemy, now I am a traitor,” he says of his relationship with Vladimir Putin.

Venediktov had played a careful game for years, both protecting his radio station’s independence while maintaining good relations with senior Kremlin officials. That all ended after Russia’s invasion in late February.

“I told my staff that the closure of Echo was the price of our freedom,” he said. “And your unemployment is also the price … you wanted freedom, I provided it. I was your krysha (protection). Now we pay the price.”

He was also friends with people such as Margarita Simonyan, the head of the RT television station and one of the top cheerleaders for the war on television. “I showed her photos of the dead children in Mariupol,” he said. “I could see her eyes get glassy. And then I heard what I hear from the television: ‘They did it to themselves. It’s staged. It’s Nazis …’ So we don’t speak any more. I just don’t understand how as a mother she can allow for this. And it’s like that in every family.”

Those tensions are playing out in families across the country, particularly in big cities where younger generations are often liberal. At a small church attached to a monastery in north-west Moscow, father Alexei says that for months he has had parents breaking down to him because of family tensions due to the conflict, many asking for advice on how to quell family disputes or change their relatives’ opinions about the war.

“I can’t tell you how many people have come to talk to me … dozens, maybe hundreds,” he said, saying that in particular he’s had a steady stream of pensioners since February. “People are under immense stress. Families are being ripped apart.”

As those tensions often play out in private, Moscow is busy keeping up appearances, desperate to show that it is resisting sanctions and isolation as western brands have fled the capital.

The country’s first McDonald’s on Tverskaya Street has now been renamed as Tasty and That’s It, a facsimile of the American fast food brand that also serves to keep Russians at work. “Some things change but stable employment remains,” a banner screams out. It reads like a rallying cry for Russia, which is keen to decry sanctions while ignoring the conflict that provoked them.

A worker removing McDonald’s logotype from a Moscow restaurant in June.
A worker removing McDonald’s logotype from a Moscow restaurant in June. Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

“I think our guys are top-notch,” said Dmitry, who had bought a double cheeseburger and a large fries with several sauce packets still bearing the McDonald’s logo. “We can make all the same things, the same food, the same design, without the western owners. I hope that they’re all thrown out.”

But many people, especially those in business circles, recognise the hit the economy has taken and that the worst may be yet to come. “My parents grew up in a country where there was no foreign competition and we know how that was,” said Alexander Perepelkin, the editor of the Blueprint, a fashion and culture publication, and a marketing director who regularly worked with foreign brands. “It wasn’t good.”

When his publication launched a new pop-up shop catering to local brands at the Aviapark shopping mall – one of Europe’s largest – this week, it was a subdued event. “We don’t think that right now is the time to have a big party,” he said.

But for others, it’s exactly the time to let loose. “I’ve stopped talking about politics and the special operation after March,” says Marina Belova, who was eating at a paella restaurant along the Moscow river on Wednesday evening. “I fought with my parents and realised I could lose them and never change their minds anyway, it was extremely bitter and mean. I keep my friends close, I try to relax, not to think about the future. I hope that I can travel again soon. But I don’t know what others will think of me, or what I will do if I meet someone from Ukraine abroad.”

Others seemed more motivated by rejecting what they claim is western propaganda – in particular, accusations of atrocities – saying how the war is run is out of their hands.

“We have nothing to feel bad for,” said Vadim Presnyakov, who was inline skating in the park. “We are being told to feel guilty but there is nothing that any of us could have done about what’s taking place. And the more that you tell people to feel guilty, they more they will just reject you.”

The alternative is stark: events have panned out poorly for those who have even offered slight criticism of the war. Alexei Gorinov, a Moscow city council member who spoke out against the war, was sentenced to seven years in prison earlier this month for “discrediting the Russian army.”

“What kind of children’s drawing contest can we talk about for Children’s Day … when we have children dying every day?” he had said, the key piece of evidence against him in the trial.

“The saddest thing is that I won’t see my dog,” he told Russian rights defender Eva Merkacheva when she visited him in prison this week. “She won’t be alive by the time I am freed.”