Vijai Maheshwari was until this week a writer and entrepreneur based in Moscow. He tweets @Vijaimaheshwari.
When I was an aspiring writer in the humiliated Moscow of the 1990s, I remember admiring Russians for what many writers before me had described as their seemingly infinite capacity for suffering. To my young mind, their poetic, vodka-fueled melancholia seemed much more soulful than smiley American optimism. But Moscow has changed a lot since then. It has become more like America, as a new middle class enjoys the city’s recent transformation into a smart and sophisticated European metropolis.
Or so it seemed until just a few weeks ago, when Russia began its vicious invasion of Ukraine — and everything changed in an instant. Overnight, the city went from gay to gray. The smiles were gone, and instead everyone walked around in a daze, their grief and fear so intense it bordered on complete despair.
There was wisdom in that despair. Police had brutally arrested hundreds of protestors across the country at spirited anti-war demonstrations. The government had also blocked Facebook and Twitter to insulate Russians from the truth about the war. The brutal attack was a signal that the regime would stop at nothing to attain its goals; its tactics a reminder that Russians were indeed living in a police state, unlike their freer Ukrainian neighbors.
Russians and Ukrainians share a history going back hundreds of years. Most Russians have Ukrainian blood and vice-versa, and the two nations were, until very recently, intrinsically intertwined. It is indeed a tragedy for some Russians that Ukraine has chosen to embrace the West, but the divorce fuels regret and disappointment — not anger. Instead, liberal Muscovites admire Ukraine for having the courage to break free from its Soviet past.
But Russians don’t control the narrative in their own country. Vladimir Putin does. And he refuses to accept the disappointment and regret, always choosing to escalate instead. He can’t stomach the idea of a people so close to Russia turning their backs on their Slavic brothers. The idea of NATO membership and U.S. missiles in Ukraine is a “red line” in his paranoid worldview. And so he chose a brutal war to assert raw power over Ukraine again, just as the Czars had done centuries ago.
Putin didn’t consult Russians before launching his invasion. Most of them were oblivious to his war games, eagerly anticipating a frivolous spring after the long pandemic winter. Looking back on the giddy, flirty night of February 23 — a holiday commemorating the Defenders of the Motherland, the Russian version of Memorial Day — our celebrations in a Prohibition-style jazz bar in central Moscow now seem like the day before the carefree world as we knew it ended.
The next day Muscovites woke up hungover to the news of an unthinkable war, with missiles raining down on a brotherly nation. The city felt grief- and panic-stricken. There were people crying in the metro and in the bars. Everyone looked like they’d been beaten up.
“I have friends and relatives in Ukraine. I see their videos on Facebook, of them sleeping in bomb shelters and their cries for help, and I don’t understand how my country is doing this,” cried a former girlfriend.
They might not have wanted this war, but they know they’re all culpable in the eyes of the world. They’re all complicit in Putin’s dirty war, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Ukrainians and the whole world will blame them for Putin’s aggression, and they’ll just have to take the pain and suffer for it.
But many Russians share the fear that infects Ukrainians. They are scared of the menace and naked aggression of their president, and what it portends for their future. “We’re all sad and freaked out, and wondering what our psychotic President will do next,” wrote a close friend.
Since the invasion, the crackdown on free speech and media has grown, with Russia’s last remaining independent outlets, Echo Moscow and TV Rain, now shut down. Russians are getting fired for posting against the war on social media. The Kremlin just announced that those speaking out against the war would be forcibly conscripted to fight. And with sanctions already choking Russia’s economy, long lines snake around ATMs, as Russians gird themselves for the dark times ahead. The liberal intelligentsia are panicking, many leaving the country in a rush, on whatever flights are still available after the West closed its airspace. Tickets to neighboring Armenia have been going for as high as $1,000.
Given everything, you’d think more Russians would spill out onto the streets to protest this brutal fratricide — at first many did and more still might — but for now, Putin has cowed them into submission. The glitzy bars and Michelin-star restaurants are now empty, and Moscow’s almost as quiet as it was during COVID-19. The city is still lit up at night like it’s Christmas time, but now Russians stay home and drink away their sorrows as the Russian ruble turns to rubble.
Dostoevsky famously said that “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.” And Russians seem to be taking his words to heart, many of them falling back on that famed capacity for suffering to ride out the war and the economic hardships that will follow.
Indeed, there is a nobility to suffering, and it’s brought out a soulfulness that was absent before. People are playing chess again and tuning in to Russian poetry; they are hosting alcoholic dinners in their claustrophobic kitchens instead of going out. Friends spontaneously recite couplets from poets like Anna Akhmatova or Alexander Pushkin, both of whom experienced great suffering in their lifetime.
Now that the war has entered its third week and the West has shut its doors to Russia, I sense a paradoxical yearning among some, for the simplicity of their insular Soviet past, for a time before globalization and status signaling, when everyone was united by their common misery, and just vodka and sausage was enough to bring everyone together.
The smiley millennial generation in Russia is famous for its healthier lifestyle, but I fear that this horrible crisis will erase their dreams of a better future, leaving them as dispirited as their fathers that came home broken from a savage war in Afghanistan.
We hope that Russia’s cancellation by the West will push them to rise against the regime, but it’s more likely to push them to seek refuge in the melancholia of their ancestors, who lived through even more terrible times. This war is a picnic, said a friend, compared to World War II, Afghanistan and the terror of Stalin’s purges and gulags in the 1930s.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope that Moscow is rocked by anti-war protests and demands for a new regime. I hope Russians become democratic and treat their neighbors with respect. But I sense that they will instead take all this pain and fear and find some deep meaning in the trials it has imposed on their souls.
Putin is our monster, they’ll decide, but we can learn to live with his demons. That’s how Russia has endured as a dictatorship for so many centuries, and I worry that it might not change for another generation.