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Inside Moscow’s growing darkness, as the war on Ukraine subtly changes the Russian capital


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Inside Moscow’s growing darkness, as the war on Ukraine subtly changes the Russian capital

What’s it like in Moscow?

Over four years living in the Russian capital, I fielded the question countless times.

My pat answer went something like this: It’s a fascinating place with history and drama on every street corner. Clean and bright and safe on the surface, but with dark and menacing forces that emerged at the slightest hint of a challenge to President Vladimir Putin’s power.

Beyond the lights and glamour of the Bolshoi Theatre, human rights abuses. Barefaced repression at Pushkin Square demonstrations. The contrasts of a city where Detsky Mir (a popular children’s shopping mall) is separated from the Lubyanka (the headquarters of the FSB and the KGB before it) by just four lanes of traffic.

And this is to say nothing of the yawning gulf that exists between conditions in Moscow and the rest of Russia.

What is it like now, nearly four months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? After four months of economic sanctions meant to bring Putin to heel?

My impression from a weeklong visit to Moscow, three months after leaving the country, is that the intended damage has yet to be done.

On the surface, the city is just as electric and lively and bright as ever it was.

Last weekend was a public holiday to celebrate Russia Day, which recognizes the start of constitutional reform in 1990 in the former Soviet Union.

Moscow’s restaurants were filled to bursting. Fashionable young people and families with young children basked in the heat of the approaching summer. From a second-storey balcony of a building on my street, an opera singer gave an impromptu concert for delighted pedestrians.

But the lurking darkness just beneath Moscow’s inviting façade is spreading and intensifying. Cracks are emerging in the face that the Russian capital presents to the world, even if it is still mostly out of view of the general public.

Some changes can’t be completely hidden away.

At the Atrium, a shopping mall next to Moscow’s Kursky rail terminal, the effect is most visible on the second floor, where foreign retailers including Nespresso, Reebok, Levis, Vans and Uniqlos are all shuttered “for technical reasons,” according to signs posted by the mall’s management.

But fast-food giant McDonald’s has already been reincarnated under Russian ownership and is serving a nearly identical product. New Lada cars are rolling off the former Renault production lines — without, for now, safety systems such as anti-lock brakes, airbags and traction control.

And retail experts say that the demand for western brands is being met by a surging Russian resale market, whether through private sales of western brands spirited into the country, in second-hand stores, or at specialized off-price department stores similar in concept to Winners and Marshalls.

Outside, in the streets, life motors on.

Moscow is an ostentatious city. People with money make a show of it, and luxury cars continue to clog the city. BMW, Porsche and Mercedes may have all ceased their Russian operations, but while Canada’s spiking gas prices approach $2 a litre, Russians benefit from a low and stable price at the pumps that hovers around half that.

Some suspect that this is the work of a Russian president whose justification for waging war in Ukraine — to rid the country of Nazis — may be detached from reality, but who is keenly aware that the idle grumbling of motorists about gas prices can fuel widespread discontent.

Conspicuous signs of either support or opposition to the war were rare in the capital.

At the end of a 12-hour drive to Moscow from Riga, Latvia, I awoke to the sight through the windshield of a stylized letter Z with the black-and-orange stripes of the Ribbon of St. George. The symbol, which decorated the side of a temporary shelter at a police checkpoint on the highway, has been embraced as a show of support for the Russian invasion, and likened by the war’s opponents to the Nazi swastika.

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In Moscow itself, the symbol’s sharp and divisive lines appeared infrequently: in a button attached to the chest of woman selling bouquets (lily of the valley) on the street; on the shoulder patch of a young man’s sports jacket; and on the side of a building overlooking one of Moscow’s busy ring roads.

The discomfort in conversations about the war is more noticeable.

“Yes, war is certainly a horrible thing,” one Moscow resident tried to explain when we broached the conflict in Ukraine. “But …”

But what? Such conversations are rare and delicate — perhaps because they are conducted with a western journalist — and they twist in all sorts of unsatisfying directions.

“But Ukrainians and Russians are one people …”

“But the Donbas is Russia’s historical land …”

“But Poland will itself inevitably take over western Ukraine …”

“But what can be done?”

Some see a sense of powerlessness starting to take hold in the population.

Speaking about support for the war, political scientist Kirill Rogov told the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta recently that Russians who have not fled the country since Feb. 24 have switched into survival mode.

“They stop looking at alternative sources of information because this information is not needed. It destroys their lives, destroys their well-being,” he said.

In short, it is dangerous. In four short months, Putin has pivoted from a mere authoritarian leader to the head of a state that is becoming even more blatantly repressive.

OVD-Info, an organization that tracks political repression in Russia, has counted 15,451 detentions related to anti-war demonstrations since the Feb. 24 invasion.

Of the 67 such arrests made on Russia Day, June 12, 43 people were reportedly located by police using facial recognition software recently installed in Moscow’s metro system, OVD-Info said on its Telegram channel.

One day this month, the popular writer Maxim Glukhovsky, an outspoken opponent of the war, was informed of criminal charges against him for allegedly discrediting the Russian military. The next day, a Moscow theatre cut short the run of a play based on one of his novels, “Text.”

And all signs point to a chilling Russian summer.

One bill before the Duma, the Russian parliament, would expand the criteria for those who can be deemed “foreign agents,” allowing the government to deny such individuals and organizations tax benefits and barring them from teaching children or producing information that could sway young minds.

Another bill threatens lengthy prison terms and crushing fines for those who co-operate with foreign intelligence services.

And in a country that has proudly hosted both the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup, top lawmaker is musing about banning public advertising in any languages other than Russian.

Some see in the grand assault both on Ukraine and on the Russian population Vladimir Putin’s bid to rebuild an empire. But through the cracks of Moscow’s carefully cultivated image, the emerging contours of the new Russia resemble something of a fortress — one that can be neither breached nor escaped.

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