In the wake of sanctions against Russia, civilians are spending summer without work, news outlets, and affordable goods.
(image: An idyllic Russian village of dachas (countryside cottages) in the summertime. (Franz Marc Frei / Getty)
By Nadezhda Azhgikhina (originally published at The Nation on 3-8-2022)
Like many Muscovites, I am spending this summer at the dacha. In 2022, there are many more people than in years past vacationing in our village, located close to the former Obiralovka Junction, where Lev Tolstoy tossed Anna Karenina under a train (women leave bouquets at the memorial plaque at the station, thinking that Anna was a real victim of unhappy love and not a fictional character). One reason there are more people is the development of the Internet; many continue working remotely, which they began doing during the pandemic. Besides, almost everyone who usually vacations abroad is spending the summer of 2022 in Russia because of the international sanctions.
The “special operation” in Ukraine that began on February 24 has radically changed many Russians’ lives, particularly members of the middle class, intellectuals, and people who were active civically.
As Western sanctions were levied against Russia, almost all the major international businesses and their affiliates left the country, leaving thousands of specialists without work. Russian scholars, doctors, musicians, and athletes are being expelled from international associations and universities and barred from concerts and competitions, while at the same time Russian colleges and educational institutions have ended programs of international cooperation and student exchanges. An iron curtain has dropped precipitously from both sides. New laws and rules have made political discussion almost impossible in public, and almost all independent media outlets have been shut down or have decided to close.
The list of “foreign agents” is regularly updated with new names of journalists and human rights activists—this process is aided by denunciations from “vigilant citizens,” a long-forgotten Soviet practice. According to data from human rights organizations, by midsummer close to 200 online and off-line mass media sources were blocked and more than 150 criminal cases and more than 200 administrative cases have been started under the new laws on fake news and discrediting the army. Dozens of rights activists, journalists, and information technology specialists have left the country, finding themselves in a difficult, even untenable, situation: Russian banks are under sanctions, and they cannot use their credit cards or transfer money from Russia. At the same time, people in small towns or poor regions, or who work for the state, or who have never been abroad or cared about politics have not seen serious changes. Grocery prices have gone up, but not a lot. Poor families and pensioners received small (but noticeable to them) state subsidies and other benefits. It must be said that throughout Russia the most varied sources of information are available, including blocked foreign resources, through the simple acquisition of a virtual private network (VPN ownership is free and not criminal—what is punishable is disseminating critical information). But far from everyone is interested in alternative opinions.
This spring, analysts Natalya Zabarevich and Yevgeny Gonmakher predicted that the “special operation” and sanctions would most affect the middle class, educated, and pro-West. The poor would remain poor, and the rich and officials would continue in their privileged positions. Founder of the Yabloko Party Grigory Yavlinsky has warned of the dangers of the growing wealth gap. It is clear today that class differences are highly significant. Three strata of society live in different worlds, experiencing events in their own way.
Our dacha community has representatives of all three classes. My businessman neighbor is building a second “cottage” on his lot. Before 2014, he was in oil products, but after the introduction of anti-Russian sanctions, he switched to import replacement and the production of “Russian Parmesan.” His wife continues to buy the real Italian cheese in Europe. His children live in Spain, and he recently visited them. He thinks that Russia had no choice but to start the “operation” in Ukraine.
He is the only one building in the community. Prices for construction materials, many of which are imported, have tripled. Prices for cars, gadgets, and appliances have soared.
Groceries, pharmaceuticals, and the most essential staples have not increased in price greatly. Store shelves are as stocked as they were before. The shortages predicted in the spring have not occurred. Some brands closed their boutiques, but rather quickly fashionable cosmetics and clothing have appeared in other stores—at a much higher price. However, the demand remains high, and people are still spending. Restaurants in and around Moscow are full and you can’t get in without reservations. McDonald’s and Starbucks may have left Russia, but they have been replaced by Russian-owned cafes with other names and similar products. Russians have become avid consumers in recent years, and the authorities understand that. Delivery services in our community work smoothly.
The businessman’s wife has cosmetics and other mystery packages delivered, while his handyman, a former electrician from a neighboring village, gets beer and nationalist publications. He strongly supports the “special operation” in Ukraine and sometimes calls on fellow drinkers at the local bar to go “fight the Nazis.” His wife, a veterinarian, leader of the local animal rights movement, and regular participant in protests of recent years, was recently fined for an anti-war picket. Husband and wife do not discuss politics. They spend all their money on training for their teenage son—he is the Russian champion in karate and hopes that soon the sanctions will be lifted and he will be able to participate in the next Olympic Games. Their older son, a computer specialist, moved to Georgia at the start of the military operation.
My longtime friends at the dacha—writers, doctors, teachers, engineers—and our long evening conversations this summer remind me of those held by the Soviet intelligentsia, our parents, during the Brezhnev “stagnation” years. We discuss the latest news and statements on the Internet, and every evening we talk about what happened to our country, how we lost what we had fought for in August 1991 and the following 30 years, and how to live now. About how we must complete the conversations from 30 years ago which did not clearly assess the Soviet past. About how it is still not too late to do it. What each of us—at university, business, school—can do to resist the return of totalitarianism. After all, history does not depend only on global trends but also on real people. Perestroika was not made only by Gorbachev and Reagan but by the millions of Soviet people who believed in change and inspired Gorbachev. Just like the Americans who believed that the Cold War had to end. That experience of inner resistance to nascent totalitarianism is extremely important today. As are the 300 years of resistance by Russian intellectuals, journalists, and writers to censorship and arbitrary rule. It lends strength. The experience of resistance to bans, censorship, and state pressure is returning to Russian practice, and it will certainly lead to the victory of common sense. This is what my dacha friends, and many other people in Moscow and other Russian cities, are saying. This gives us hope.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis
Nadezhda Azhgihina is a journalist and the director of PEN Moscow, coordinator of GAMAG Russia.