ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA—Oleg Sirota has spent the last seven years making cheese.
Now, he’s making boxes and filling them with food and clothing for Ukrainian war refugees — the ones who look to Russia to protect them.
The world has embraced Ukraine, its cause and its camera-friendly president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The world has shunned Russia, its military aggression and its increasingly isolated leader, Vladimir Putin.
But there are still many Russians who, like Sirota, offer no apologies for what Moscow calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine and who harbour no doubt about the man who ordered it.
“We support our president,” Sirota said in an interview from his farm in the town of Istra, 50 kilometres west of Moscow.
“My relatives were being killed. They are Donetsk people — that’s where my family is from … For us, what’s been happening for eight years has been a huge tragedy for our people and we have decided to put an end to it.”
In justifying the decision to dispatch forces into Ukraine, Putin has cited the “genocide” being carried out in the eastern Donbas region, which is home to a Russian-speaking majority. He has referred to the Ukrainian leadership as “neo-Nazis” and “drug addicts.” (Experts say claims of a genocide against Russians in the Donbas region are baseless.)
The depth of Putin’s anger, which has surprised many longtime Kremlin observers, is deep.
As it is for those who continue to back him, despite international condemnation.
A recent poll even showed Putin’s support rising in the days since the invasion to 71 per cent from 60 per cent.
Across Russia, people have begun attaching stickers with the Latin letter “Z” to the windows of their automobiles. Similar white markings appear on some of the Russian tanks and armoured vehicles that have been sent into Ukraine.
In a public square in Samara, a southwestern town, officials posted a giant appreciation to the Russian president, erecting a sign that read “Putin-Zashita” (Putin-Protection) and using the Latin letter Z instead of its Cyrillic equivalent.
The southern Siberian town of Kuzbass has also taken to using the Latin letter Z to spell its name in official correspondence, following a decision of the regional governor.
“While our guys are carrying out the tasks of demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine, residents of Russia and, in particular, Kuzbass faces unprecedented economic and moral pressure from other countries, with a wave of disinformation about the course of the special operation and a sharply negative attitude,” Sergey Tsivilev said in a statement. “Z is primarily a sign of support for our fighters and a symbol of solidarity with our society.
It was in 2014, that Ukrainians took to the streets in protests that eventually forced their pro-Russian president to flee the office and the country.
Russia, in turn, annexed the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, and supported separatist fighters in the Donbas — the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk — where the majority are Russian speaking.
Ukrainians and Russians agree on one thing: The conflict is not, as of Thursday, in its eighth day, but in its eighth year.
“Now I believe that Vladimir Putin is ending the war that (the Ukrainians) started,” Sirota said. “It’s not the beginning. It’s the end.”
The world appears determined to deny Putin his victory, to prove Sirota wrong.
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It has sanctioned a swathe of Russian banks with ties to Putin’s government and the military. It has frozen the Russian Central Bank’s access to a financial cushion of more than $600-billion. Now multinational corporations are shunning the country with brands such as Apple, Disney, Nike and General Motors all scaling back operations or severing business ties with the Russian market.
Adding to the economic chaos building in Russia over the last tumultuous week was the call Wednesday from jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny for round-the-world protests against the invasion of Ukraine at 7 p.m. each night and 2 p.m. on weekends and holidays.
“We must, gritting our teeth and overcoming fear, come out and demand an end to the war. Each arrested person must be replaced by two newcomers,” he said in a series of Twitter messages.
The uncertainty and the disconnect between Putin’s truth and the truth shown on social media and by independent news outlets is great.
Russia’s communications and media regulator has ordered media to describe the Ukraine invasion as a “special military operation” rather than a war, attack or invasion. A radio and TV station were even taken off the air for violating the hastily enacted regulation.
The stress of who to follow, who to believe, may be starting to take its toll on the population. Many who have supported Putin all these years as a source of stability in the country after the fall of the Soviet Union are now feeling the earth moving under their feet.
At a meeting of the St. Petersburg faction of United Russia, Putin’s ruling political party, state Duma deputy Sergei Boyarsky announced that the party would be arranging psychological assistance for those feeling the stress of the moment.
“We are witnessing an information campaign unfolding against our country and the decision of the president,” he said in a statement on the party’s website. “People who are emotionally afraid and do not understand what is happening … should come and see us.”
The Russian government has also set up a new website — explain.rf — that seeks to debunk panicked rumours making the rounds about such things as the dependability of social security payments, the imminent closure of certain banks and whether a cash-strapped state would have the power to take money from individual bank accounts.
Sirota himself admits that hard times are upon Russia.
“The coming months will be very difficult, but in the longer term it will be better.”
If he believes this, it’s because he’s already profited from western sanctions.
He owes his entire business to the ire of the west over the illegal annexation of Crimea.
A year to the day after the first economic penalties were imposed upon Russia, Sirota opened his farm and cheese production facility. Today, he has more than 80 different sales points in the Moscow area.
The company website — parmezan.ru — speaks to the goal of replacing what was lost when Putin imposed countersanctions on the west, banning the importation of some types of cheese products.
Sirota says he is in the Russian majority. That all his friends support the war. That his followers on social media do as well.
While he prepares shipments of support for Ukrainian war refugees in Russia, trying to connect them with willing employers in their new home, he is also aware of people who have taken up arms to fight in defence of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, as it fights with Russia’s backing for territory that Russia has recognized as an independent state.
At the same time, he is not unmoved by the images of Ukrainians in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, Mariupol and other cities.
“War is horrible,” he said. “But there was no other option, unfortunately.”
Allan Woods is a Moscow-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @WoodsAllan
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