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Nina L. Khrushcheva is a professor of international affairs at The New School and the co-author (with Jeffrey Tayler) of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones.

During the Second World War, the iconic American film director Frank Capra created a documentary series entitled Why We Fight. Originally produced by the U.S. Department of War as a training film, the theatrical release was meant to convince Americans that the anti-Hitler coalition warranted their support, and that the defeat of the Nazis directly served U.S. interests. The project was a success, though it is impossible to measure the film’s impact precisely.

In the Soviet Union, another major party to the fight, the public needed no such convincing. The battle for survival was happening on their own territory.

That is not the case with Russia’s war against Ukraine. The Kremlin certainly wants to portray its “special military operation” as a patriotic endeavour. But far from chanting the Second World War slogan, “Our fight is just; victory will be ours,” many Russians are wondering why they are fighting at all.

In a Levada poll in January, some 25 per cent of respondents – and over 60 per cent of city-dwellers and younger people – said they do not support the war. Only 27 per cent of young people surveyed voiced their support. This is notable in a country where expressing doubts about the government’s actions can land you on a “foreign agents” list, or worse.

More than 500,000 Russians have left the country since the launch of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and according to a recent Gallup-Romir poll, 48 per cent of those who have stayed report experiencing significant financial uncertainty – the highest rate in the 56 countries covered. Even among the 45 per cent of Russians who say they support the war unequivocally, only 25 per cent do so actively, such as by volunteering or providing financial assistance.

None of this is good news for the Kremlin. The campaign, Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared, aims not only to “demilitarize” and “denazify” Ukraine, but also to prevent the West from succeeding in its purported mission to destroy Russia. What is at stake, according to the Kremlin’s propaganda, is nothing less than “the survival of Russian statehood” and the future of its young people. Furthermore, Russia’s latest foreign-policy doctrine asserts that the country is fulfilling its “unique historic mission” to “maintain a global balance of power” and “build a multipolar” world order.

That is propaganda worthy of the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call the Second World War, and the public is being smacked over the head with it. Television is dominated by war narratives. Billboards celebrating Russian war heroes and advertising tank shows line Moscow’s streets. “Victory will be ours,” they declare, as in the Second World War slogan – though they leave out the first part.

As shocking as the war has been for the West, its impact there cannot compare to how it has upended Russian life. The war has meant a sudden, forcible, and bewildering transformation of Russia’s economy and society. European civilization, in particular, has always been part of Russia’s cultural code, despite lengthy periods of confrontation with the West. But, according to Mr. Putin, Russia is now a “self-sufficient state-civilization,” and European culture is slowly being eliminated from Russian theatres and museums, if not from restaurants and cafés (which are still French and Italian). For example, the 19th-century play Cyrano de Bergerac has been removed from the repertoire of Saint Petersburg’s Alexandrinsky Theatre for supposedly discrediting the Russian armed forces.

As war propaganda has grown louder and more insistent, the Ukraine war is now at the forefront of Russians’ minds – though not in the way the Kremlin wants. Rather than fight for Mr. Putin’s “patriotic” cause, evidence of Russians’ covert resistance of the “silent majority” can be found everywhere.

Peredelkino, a village less than 32 kilometres from Moscow, is known for its wooded terrain, through which Soviet writers often ambled. Now, the high-profile oligarch and Putin ally Roman Abramovich, who is rumoured to oppose the war, owns much of that land – and “no to war” carvings mark the tree stumps that line the forest paths.

At a bookstore on Saint Petersburg’s central Nevsky Prospect street, a display of patriotic books on Russia was adorned by a mug emblazoned with an image of George Orwell and the caption, “Let Big Brother think that there is tea in this mug.” Inspired by the brave arranger of this display, I bought that mug. The next day, it was replaced with another. This one displayed a quote from Orwell’s masterpiece 1984: “If you are in a minority, and even alone, this does not mean you are crazy.”

This is how we fight. As in the Second World War, no one has to tell us why.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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