A year on, what do young Russians think of the war in Ukraine?

We speak to six young Russians about the devastating conflict, which has entered a second year.

Yuri, 20, now in Tbilisi, says the war is 'a political theatre where human life is worth nothing' [Courtesy: Yuri]
Yuri, 20, now in Tbilisi, says the war is 'a political theatre where human life is worth nothing' [Courtesy: Yuri]

Finding out what young Russians really think about the war in Ukraine is not easy.

Polls have suggested that even though they are the least likely to support the invasion, many still back it.

But as anti-war sentiment is heavily cracked down on, few are truly open about their beliefs.

What we do know is that young Russians, unlike their elders, are growing up in an era of smartphones and social networks, and therefore have access to a wider range of information compared with what they are told about the war on state media.

Some teenagers have been arrested for sabotaging railways, sharing anti-war memes on social media, and taking part in peace rallies – although actual criminal charges for under-18s are relatively rare.

At the same time, there have been cases of pro-war pupils recording their teachers making dovish statements in class, and reporting them to the authorities.

We spoke to six Gen Z Russians about their views:

‘We were nervous so we left in a hurry’

Kim, 18, originally from Novosibirsk, now living in the United States

“Since we lived in Russia, the war affected us quite a lot. My mother and I were very afraid for our lives, so the decision was made to leave. We were nervous so we left in a hurry. With the move, my life has changed dramatically.

“I am against any war. This special operation is complete nonsense and an absurdity that no one needed. Although Ukraine is a much smaller country, it is strong patriotically. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is just another man who has been in power too long. After all, what are elections for? One person shouldn’t be in power for a long time, all this power twists and corrupts people. His strange behaviour was noticeable a long time ago. It was the same in 2014, with his decision to annex Crimea.

“I follow everything on Telegram and independent analysis from both sides. The future is very dark. Everything that’s happening does not give me any hope for a stable resolution.”

‘There are a lot of lies. Both on our side, and from Ukraine’

Jasmine, 21, Moscow

“It’s scary. You don’t know when your friends and family will be taken away for mobilisation. Relatives of friends are already dying on the front. I’m afraid they will announce a full mobilisation and take everyone.

“Other than that, we haven’t been affected much yet. The economy hasn’t been stable for a long time and the sanctions haven’t gone away. Travel is hard – you can’t go anywhere with a Russian passport. But there’s also a positive side. Many Western brands leaving Russia have paved the way for young entrepreneurs and new, high-quality Russian brands are thriving.

“About the war, I don’t know much about this situation, so I can’t judge. Everywhere they say different things and I don’t know who to believe. One thing I know for sure – there are a lot of lies on TV. Both on our side, and from Ukraine.”

‘The war is f***** up and wrong’

Yuri, 20, Tbilisi

“It so happened that I served a year in the army right before the war. It was my own fault for not studying instead. I’m physically completely healthy, no flat feet or asthma. I demobilised in November 2021.

“The war is f***** up and wrong, a political theatre where human life is worth nothing.

“[At the start], I saw more and more people in clothes with symbols and inscriptions of the pro-war position. Each time I was thrown into rage and regret – how can you think that what is happening is normal? But I was no better: I didn’t try to convince any of them, I didn’t go to rallies. I sometimes shared breaking news on Instagram, and talked to my relatives on this topic. Fortunately, no one in our family watches TV and no one has voted for Putin for a long time.

“On September 21, 2022, my girlfriend woke me up with the words, ‘Wake up, the circus is in town again.’ I understood everything from Putin’s [mobilisation] speech perfectly, and that I need to buy tickets to Tbilisi immediately, since many friends and acquaintances were already there. Airfares were growing each time I refreshed the page and having reached the figure of 300,000 rubles ($4,000), I understood that an alternative was needed and bought bus tickets to Tbilisi with my girl from Moscow for 5,000 rubles ($66) each.

“On the 27th of September, we got stuck in a traffic jam on the Lars crossing. I realised that if we don’t get off the bus, we won’t cross the border. We bought two bicycles in from Vladikavkaz for 15,000 rubles ($200) each and rolled to the border. Every cop from Moscow to customs said, ‘You won’t get through, they won’t let you in, everything is already closed there.’

“It was so much easier to breathe in Tbilisi. The concentration of human beings – and not cyborgs with eternally gloomy faces – per square kilometre is much higher here than in Moscow. It’s nice. But if you have imperialist views, you will not be able to live in Tbilisi for long. I found a job and a very good place.

“Two days after I crossed the border, my aunt called me and said that people in uniform came to the apartment where I was registered and asked if I lived there.”

‘I‘m not going to leave here and give up. Russia is my home’

Asya, 19, Arkhangelsk

“At the beginning of the war, I cried constantly. It seemed to me that all this was not real and could not last long. I very much sympathise with all the residents of Ukraine. But as time passed, I got used to it, no matter how terrible it was. People get used even to war, especially if they live far from the battleground.

“I also began to think differently and started learning new topics: decolonisation, anthropology, and anarchism.

“My father has a very strange position – it seems that he simultaneously supports and does not support the special military operation. Overall, he’s always had nationalist views, so it’s not surprising. I haven’t lived with my parents for many years, but even if I did, I wouldn’t argue with them, because it’s their business what to think.

“I know activists from other countries and they support Russian activists, but they don’t understand how we can continue to live and work under the war and the current government. There are likely many others who hate Russia, but it must be remembered that it’s necessary to separate the Russian government, a mad machine of repression and destruction, and the people of Russia, who for the most part are not guilty.

“I’ve come to terms with that it’s only going to get worse in the future. As for politics – I don’t believe that the opposition in Russia will succeed in the coming years, but I‘m not going to leave here and give up. Russia is my home.”

‘After such colossal losses, the army will have to be rebuilt again’

Nikita Karpov, 25, Noginsk

“At the beginning, I took a favourable position [of the campaign], because even before February 24, I considered it necessary to eliminate the Ukrainian problem. But now time has passed, it’s become obvious that no positive outcomes are to be expected.

“Putin is a president born of the Soviet system. This man has a certain political style, to which most of the Russian population is already accustomed. He is not a bright leader, and not the tyrant that the opposition paints him as, but he is definitely not the best thing that could happen to Russia.

“Since the Russian Federation is the largest state in the world at the moment with a huge population, it follows that this is a dangerous beast. It is impossible to write off Russia just like that, as many people do, predicting defeat, reparations and so on.

“The conflict between Russia and Ukraine may last for several more years. I believe that the political system in Russia will be severely degraded in the coming years. Business, housing and community services, medicine, education – everything will sag. After such colossal losses, the army will have to be rebuilt again.

“It all looks scary, but my generation will definitely have something to do.”

‘We do not deserve Russophobia’

Renazimov, 16, Moscow region

“In the past few years, I’ve become closely involved with volunteering. And my life hasn’t changed too much. Roughly speaking, I just started helping another part of the population. Over 2022, I helped with humanitarian aid for visiting refugees from the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, collected humanitarian aid, and wrote letters for mobilised servicemen. For that, I was named ‘Volunteer of the Year’ in my hometown of Odintsovo.

“Everyone has their own opinion but in general, I believe that children and teenagers should not directly express an ardent point of view about politics, and about the special military operation.

“For me, the special military operation is a stage that must be passed – whether there should be an intrusion into so many lives is another matter. My goal is to help people who are struggling right now.

“It’s also important to consider the information war and Russophobia. My position on Russophobia is that we, the citizens of the Russian Federation, do not deserve this. I don’t see a really solid argument to be hated.”

Editor’s note: Some interviews were edited for clarity and brevity.

Source: Al Jazeera