Russia-Ukraine: What do young Russians think about the war?

Young Russians tell us about a war few wanted and how the sanctions are affecting their lives.

People walk past a currency exchange office screen displaying the exchange rates of U.S. Dollar and Euro to Russian Rubles in Moscow's downtown
Sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine have targeted banks, oil refineries and key members of the Russian regime and oligarchs close to the Kremlin, but have also led caused the value of the rouble to plummet and inflation to soar, impacting the daily lives of Russian citizens [Pavel Golovkin/AP Photo]

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, an outcry has arisen around the world. On March 2, the UN voted overwhelmingly to approve a resolution demanding the end of the invasion, with only five countries opposing – Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria. As the war rages on, thousands have been killed according to Ukrainian authorities and many more injured.

In response, the US, EU, UK and other countries have levelled sanctions, both general and targeted, and doors have closed to Russians around the world, from research institutions to sporting events, in protest at Russia’s invasion.

Sanctions have targeted banks, oil refineries, military and luxury product exports as well as members of the Russian regime and oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin. Companies, too, have closed their doors in Russia, including fast-food giant McDonald’s which has temporarily shut its roughly 850 outlets.

Surveys have suggested that the majority of Russians support the invasion. But it is difficult to determine how reliable these surveys are, in light of new crackdowns on free speech and dissent in Russia, where even the use of the word “war” to describe the invasion is now a crime. In the meantime, sanctions affect every Russian citizen in their daily lives – both those who support and those who oppose the war, those at home and those abroad.

Al Jazeera spoke with five young Russians about their views on the invasion, and how the blowback has affected them.

Anna and friends tied green ribbons, one of the anti-war symbols, to trees and plants around a park in Moscow
Green ribbons, anti-war symbols, are tied to trees and plants in Moscow [Courtesy of an interviewee]

Anna*, 22, Moscow – ‘None of us wanted this war’

I’m doing OK, but the whole situation is quite tough. Literally, all of my friends and me are shocked. None of us wanted this war, and we stand in opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions. But we have no right to express our position. At demonstrations, people are detained for several days or fined. Now, any anti-war speech can result in up to 15 years of imprisonment. Some of my friends are leaving the country right now, and I understand them.

Russian authorities want to declare Meta (which owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) extremist. All those platforms will stop working in Russia, but I hope that with a VPN, it will be possible to continue using them.

I deleted some of my messages because the police check social media chats on public transportation. In addition, the police recently searched the flat of a close friend of mine and then put her under house arrest for two months. I was very frightened. She had been putting up posters that said “No to war” around the city. The investigation is ongoing, but she is fine. But the whole situation is awful, of course.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the older generation is drowning in propaganda and believes that Putin’s actions are justified.

It is surreal. I’ve already stopped communicating with my father and grandfather for a while.

Now, I’m very encouraged by the fact that the world understands that the Russian people did not choose this war, that instead it was started by a president who lives in some absurd reality of his own. And if I am not imprisoned soon for speaking out against war, I want to try – together with like-minded people – to do everything I can to give our country hope for a peaceful future.

A photo of a McDonald's building.
A McDonald’s restaurant in Moscow’s Prospect Vernadskogo district [Courtesy of an interviewee]

Yana*, 25, Moscow – ‘It feels like we don’t have any control’

When I think about the conflict, I feel anxious, sad, and frustrated. Mostly because I don’t understand how anyone could take this step – to send people to fight, to kill others. It’s scary.

On one hand, it’s affected everyone – psychologically, economically, and in many other ways. And on the other hand, I understand that we could be hurt if we did something to try and change it. It feels like we don’t have any control. Petitions and protests are forbidden. People are arrested for even walking around the area where a protest was scheduled.

Right now, we can see that the situation is changing every day, and we’re trying to figure out things like, “How can we pay for foreign goods if the bank doesn’t work?” Or, “What are we going to do with these publications, university admissions, and conferences that we’ve been rejected from because we are Russians?”

For example, we can’t access Zoom. And other specialised apps, like Matlab (a programming and computing platform) and Coursera (an online course platform). Also, prices for some ordinary things, like cosmetics and food, have doubled, but in many cases, we have no alternative because there are no factories here that produce those products.

I have a colleague in my laboratory who is a reviewer at an open access science publisher. Now, those who want to publish and are affiliated with Russia have been asked to withhold applications, though they have not yet been officially withdrawn. The same thing with conferences – international events that take place in Moscow are all cancelled.

It’s affected me. I was planning to publish this month. And we’re seeing products disappear from shelves – rice, flour, sugar, canned food – but I guess that’s really just because of mass panic. I have never seen empty shelves in stores in the centre before. Yesterday, I couldn’t buy contact lenses because they ran out in the store where I would normally buy them. It seems like it will close – I saw employees removing shelves and emptying boxes, and the light was turned off.

There aren’t long lines at ATMs any more, but we saw them a few days ago. Right now, we cannot withdraw other currencies at ATMs until September.

I was thinking about leaving Russia, but there is the problem of money – ticket prices have increased tenfold, and also, there’s no one waiting for me over there.

It’s hard to differentiate global problems from everyday ones, as you can see. But to combat the anxiety, we try to remember our connections with friends and family and enjoy the spring weather.

A photo of a sign that says the word "world" with a leaning L and D on an illustration of planet earth.
An anti-war painting by Tatyana* describes a feeling that the world has changed forever and that it is vanishing [Courtesy of the interviewee]

Tatyana*, 28, from Moscow, currently in Germany – ‘My parents can justify the war in their heads. I can’t understand why’

I’m OK, physically. Mentally, I’m a bit of a wreck, but I’m managing.

I moved to Germany last year to get my Master’s. However, my whole family is in Russia.

I was planning to go see my family right about this time, but it doesn’t seem possible any more. I mean – there is probably a way to go to Russia, but almost zero way for me to come back to study, and as a new semester is coming, I’m not risking it. I have a residency permit right now, but it expires in May. Because of everything escalating so rapidly, I’m anxious about whether I’ll have issues renewing it due to me being Russian.

Due to Russian cards getting blocked and Russia being disconnected from SWIFT (the international payment system), my family had to send me some money in advance, just in case, and I had to withdraw it really quickly before I lost access to it.

My family has already seen changes in prices. My sister was struggling to get baby products for my nephew because the prices skyrocketed. One of my brothers-in-law and my father will potentially lose their jobs because their businesses worked very closely with European businesses, and all of those lines of communication are closed off now.

We have a distant relative who lives in southern Ukraine. Their town has been directly affected, so we are worried about them. Right now, they are relatively safe, but it’s a constant worry for my family.

We are all affected mentally, scared, and stressed. I’ve been struggling with my mental health for months and everything that’s happening is affecting that a lot.

I’m against the war, and most of my friends and people I know feel the same way. These are mostly people around my age with the same level of education. However, when it comes to family, I, unfortunately, do have a conflict with my parents. This has been pretty hard as we have very different views.

I can’t even really tell why they believe what they believe. It could be their Soviet past, or the government propaganda that has been poured out for so many years, or just that there is too much fear and anxiety to actually allow the thought that the world is different from what they expect. Regardless, I’m having a pretty hard time with it. Being far away from them helps because we try to prioritise keeping our relationship intact and caring for each other more than anything. Sometimes I can’t help but try to convince them, which obviously doesn’t work. For the record, they don’t support the war in general, they do want it to stop; however, they can justify it in their heads somehow.

A closed H&M shop on Avtozavodskaya Street in Moscow
A shuttered H&M shop on Avtozavodskaya Street in Moscow [Courtesy of an interviewee]

Kira*, 20, Moscow – ‘I don’t want to live in isolation here’

It’s true that all my favourite shops like H&M, Bershka, and P&B are closed. I’m a little bit upset because of this. However, I have my favourite Russian showrooms, so the spring collection will be great, too.

I just bought an iPhone. It was three days before the inflation. It was rather cheap, but now I want to buy AirPods and they’re really expensive. They were 7,000 roubles and now cost more than 14,000 roubles.

My friend was going to be a trainee at an international magazine publisher, but they stopped working in Russia on his first day there. As for me, I’m involved in the sports industry. I’m sure you know about the FIVB world volleyball championship 2022 which was planned in Russia. It won’t be in Russia, now. It’s like having your legs cut out from under you. It’s shocking. How do you live without the thing you were living for?

I got a government email saying that we had until March 14 to download all files from Instagram. After that, it wouldn’t work. TikTok isn’t available either. We have VK (a Russian substitute for Facebook), but it’s not the same.

I can’t even look at the word “Telegram” any more, it was on every story on Instagram. People were linking to new Telegram channels because Instagram is no longer working, saying, “Let’s keep in touch” or “This is my last story, see you on TG.”

Most of my friends say that our government is awful. I don’t support that view, but I do think we need some changes.

There were rallies against the war. But the older generations are for our president. One of my friends is against our government while her grandmother supports them, and I know that’s caused a quarrel between them.

My feelings are mixed regarding the decision of our president.

I want peace, but my grandmother thinks our military is needed to protect Russians in eastern Ukraine. Also, my neighbour is from western Ukraine. She supports our president, despite the fact that her whole family is still over there. When I hear it from Ukrainian people, I begin to doubt that our president’s strategy is wrong. Maybe Putin and his people know more and it’s really all justified. I hope so, and I hope they’ll stop it soon.

The situation in our economy isn’t good today. Our president should care about us, about his people. What about my future? I don’t want to live in isolation here.

I really cannot understand why Russians don’t have the right to eat in McDonald’s. Of course, that may be a strange example, but I just mean those of us who are against war still suffer from it.

A photo of an illustration of a sketch with a person going through a maze on the left and text that reads "Military Operation" which has been crossed out and the words "WAR in Ukraine" below it.
An anti-war sketch made by Katya, which shows text saying “Military operation” as crossed out, while under “War in Ukraine”, in brackets, is written “Road to nowhere” [Courtesy of Katya]

Katya, 21, Moscow – ‘I don’t attend protests. It’s too scary, the idea of dying or being locked up for life’

Most of the sanctions seem strange to me. The heads of government started this horror, but prohibitions and sanctions have been imposed on ordinary people. Closing ordinary stores and removing some food from shops is illogical. Why take away even something insignificant from ordinary people? We’re in deep s*** already. The world hates us all, that’s already enough.

As for me, personally, I lost the opportunity to move into my own apartment, which I was supposed to do soon because the renovations became too expensive. Because of this, I will have to live for a long time in a place where I’m not very comfortable.

I can do without access to the blocked social media platforms. But many Russians are being deprived not only of a meaningless feed with entertaining content, but also of memories, work, and also important and truthful information about what is happening, which can’t be obtained from a zombie box (television). They blatantly lie to us on there.

Where I am, people typically express their opinion at rallies, on social networks and among their inner circle. Usually, people will spread the word about protests secretly. But everyone who wants to participate can easily find out about it. For example, in certain online communities, they’ll just post a single number (indicating a date) and everyone understands everything. But I don’t feel safe expressing my opinion, especially when I talk about it online or on the phone. I don’t attend protests. It’s too scary, the idea of dying or being locked up for life. Plus, I can see that despite many years of huge protests, the people have not achieved anything at all. The government doesn’t need the people.

The majority of the people in Russia are against the war. Many shout about it openly, but it doesn’t end in anything good. We really want to help, but we haven’t been able to solve problems even in our own country, and now requests are flying around that we stop the war in another country. Trust me, we’re still trying. We write about it on social networks, sign petitions, send money, go to rallies, but so far this hasn’t yielded any results, the government only hits us with a truncheon.

And, well, if you really want to throw anger at someone, shout at least that Putin is an a****** and his retinue, and not ordinary citizens. What have we to do with it?

As told to Delaney Nolan.

Edited and condensed for clarity and length.

*Names have been changed at the interviewees’ request.

Source: Al Jazeera