One month into a senseless, savage war that has overwhelmingly brutalized, displaced, and killed Ukrainian citizens and destroyed civilian infrastructure, Russia has become an international pariah. Cut off, forced out, and erased from trade, travel, and interaction with other countries, President Vladimir Putin’s war is also hurting his own people.
From the outside, Russia is usually viewed through the lens of Moscow and St. Petersburg, but 146 million Russian citizens in 11 time zones, from Kaliningrad and Murmansk in the west to Magadan and Kamchatka in the east, are paying a steep price for Putin’s war.
If only in geographic terms, Russia is largely an Asian country. East of the Urals, beyond the vastness of Siberia, stretches Russia’s Dalnyi Vostok or Far East, an enormous region that includes nation-sized administrative districts extending from Yakutia (Sakha), a republic larger than India to the Russian Arctic, jutting into the Chukchi and Bering Seas, south to volcanic peninsulas and archipelagos to Scotland-size Sakhalin Island with its swamps and taiga to the temperate forests that border China and North Korea. While sparsely populated relative to its size, the Russian Far East has at least ten cities with populations over 150,000 including Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Yakutsk, and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Though often overlooked, this region saw large anti-Putin protests in 2020 and has seen smaller anti-war protests in recent weeks.
“IT JUST MAKES NO SENSE TO ME”
Russians in the Far East, no matter their position on the war, are facing the same unprecedented sanctions, a crumbling economy, and draconian clamp down on free speech and dissent as their compatriots in the west. In a recent televised address, Putin said that the Russian people will always be able to distinguish between “true patriots and scum and traitors” warning that “a natural and necessary cleansing of society would only strengthen our country.”
By channeling his inner Joseph Stalin, Putin has stifled some opponents, but others are protesting anyway. Russian citizens contacted for this article declined to talk, save for one woman who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. This woman, called “Oksana” here, described how she and others are impacted by the backlash against the war.
Russians in the Far East, no matter their position on the war, are facing the same unprecedented sanctions, a crumbling economy, and draconian clamp down on free speech and dissent as their compatriots in the west.
Oksana, who is a researcher in a Far Eastern city, says she lives and works with many Ukrainians, some of whom are the descendants of people who emigrated in the late 19th century and still retain a spoken dialect particular to Ukraine. Oksana is herself the child of mixed-Ukrainian heritage with a Ukrainian family name, but she has never been to Ukraine and considers herself Russian. She says, “we are basically the same people” and calls the war “just completely insane.”
As Russian troops amassed on Ukraine’s border earlier this year she thought, “what kind of madness is going on?” She didn’t believe Putin would invade but was instead posturing, showing off Russia’s military strength. Now she says she feels horrible, helpless, and hopeless.
“Because when he was, well, he—you know who I mean,” Oksana says, purposely not mentioning the aggressor by name. “He was saying we would help protect these regions in Ukraine, we are trying to keep the Russian language.” She acknowledges the difficult situation ethnic Russians face in Ukraine’s Donbass region, based on stories she’s heard from refugees, but says the explanation that Russia is “denazifying” Ukraine, is completely ridiculous and without logic.
“It just makes no sense to me.”
She recognizes that people have different perspectives and explanations for what led to this situation but says support for the assault is the result of propaganda. The war has caused a rift among family members. Her father supports Putin, but her mother does not.
“I think he who started [the war] definitely had this whole thing planned out. I don’t think he is a lunatic or like a crazy person. He knows what he is doing. The thing is, we basically can do nothing about it. Just we have to deal with the consequences. Yeah, so it sucks, pretty much.”