The Majority Never Had It So Good
September 19, 2023
  • Sergei Chernyshov

This is Sergei Chernyshov’s first-hand account of life in provincial Russia, where people’s everyday experiences and mindset, including their view on the war in Ukraine, differ strongly from those of Russians living in large urban centers.

The original version in Russian was published in Sibir.Realii. We are republishing a slightly shortened version with their permission.

My parents have been living in the “private sector” of a big city (what Russians call a district within a city with freestanding houses on small lots – RP) for the last 20 years. It is an injection of rural life into the fabric of big cities. There are no asphalted roads, no sewage system (though almost everyone has bathrooms), telephones and natural gas appeared about 15 years ago. Gas means that in winter you do not have to, as before, carry coal in buckets from the shed two (or even three) times a day and light the stove. Gas is still a luxury; it is not available everywhere. About 10 years ago, foreign cars started appearing next to the fences. Nothing has changed in the last five years.

This summer, I picked up my son from my parents after a weekend. “Come no later than 10 in the morning,” my mother told me. I arrived exactly at 10. At 11, a funeral was scheduled on a neighboring street in this “private sector.” At 11, the nephew of the neighborhood elder was brought there.

The “elder” is a respected person, like a class leader, only for the neighborhood. His nephew, a deceased “participant of the special military operation,” must be seen off with dignity – people should go and honor his memory. He was mobilized in the spring, he fought for six months, returned home on leave and went back again. On the very first day back in Ukraine, he came under fire. He would come home again only in a zinc coffin, with even the glass painted over. That’s why I had to pick up my child at 10 – my mother knows that I would not approve of his participating in this memorial event.
Men from Russia's poor and remote areas are bearing the brunt of the war. In the photo: men at a draft center in occupied Crimea. September 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
On my parents’ street there is another “war hero” – a former Wagner soldier and before that a hardened criminal – living at his parents’.

As long as I can remember, he was always in prison, either for petty theft or hooliganism. He would get out for a couple of months, drink, rob and end up back in prison. If during those months something disappeared from someone’s garden or house, he was the first suspect. Now he has a medal and a brand-new car. He took his parents to the sea [for vacation]. They supposedly cried with pride for their son.

And right across the road is a lady who worked as a tram conductor – maybe because of this she is known to swear loudly. Over the past year and a half, she says that her son-in-law has been talking more and more about volunteering for the war. After all, the loans will not pay themselves back. And that is the truth – another neighbor drank himself to death because of loans; his heart could not stand the drinking, and before the spring the whole street also came out to bury him.

I lived on this street for 10 years. My parents still live there. This is where they have their banya, their garage, their vegetable garden – not like “in those apartments of yours, where you are on top of each other.” As for the Wagner veterans in the neighborhood – well, where are they now not in the neighborhood?
“Every time I hear ‘experts’ telling me from their warm studios in the Netherlands or Israel how people are suffering under the yoke of the Putin regime, and how these people have lost everything due to the war and sanctions, I think about this street.”
I think about it when I watch the usual YouTube debates between “liberal” emigrants, where they say that because of the unbearable pressure of sanctions, the people will soon understand that the “Putin regime” took everything they had away. They will understand and hopefully rise up. Maybe not rise up, but at least sabotage the regime. Or something like that.

Recently, the well-known psychologist Lyudmila Petranovskaya tried to list all the losses of the Russian people in order to prove that “not all Russians are benefitting from this war.” The list included: the national currency and property values in “FX equivalent” collapsing; the world being “closed” for tourists; the prospects for children to study abroad being cancelled; civil rights and freedoms being curtailed; education and culture degrading; families being separated “due to emigration;” etc. After reading this list, I once again thanked fate that I was not born in Moscow and still had not lost touch with reality.

Because if we take two thirds of the Russian population as the “Russian people,” then the “Russian people” have not lost any of this. Because they had none of it to begin with. The last time they, the people, held dollars in their hands was 1997 – to amuse themselves, nothing more. They never went to theaters and did not notice how the best directors left Russia and left them, the people, with nothing.

Their children go to the same school that they once went to – perhaps they even had the same teacher, who is already 70 years old. It never occurred to them, the people, that children can be taught without shouting and that they can walk on school lawns. Finally, if their families were “separated,” it was only because of prison, mobilization or contract service (in the army). They, the people, did not leave for Georgia or Kazakhstan – none of their relatives ever got outside their city.

And so what that prices in stores have gone up - the people never believed in stores. The people have potatoes and jars of pickles in basements for the whole winter. We will survive somehow.

So, overall, the people have not lost anything. They have nothing special to lose.

But what did they get? They got a lot. First of all, money. So much money.
“Sure, tens of thousands of Russian soldiers did not come back, but hundreds of thousands did! And they came back with so many millions of rubles that they could not have imagined before.”
Kingisepp, Leningrad Oblast. Source: Wiki Commons
In my wife’s hometown (not as big as ours, but much more industrial), one man came home with three million rubles, which he and his friends spent in 10 days. Three hundred thousand a day for the guys – limitless alcohol and prostitutes. That is life! Those who have families, meanwhile, come home and go to the sea, buy apartments, upgrade their cars.

Secondly, they get to feel like they are part of something great. Just as our grandfathers defeated fascism, we are defeating Nazism in Ukraine (or whatever is there now). At the same time, we are beating the gays, the Jews, the entire collective West, Freemasons, everyone. Those who are older rejoice at the revival of the pioneers, military training in schools, school uniforms and generally all the fixtures of their youth. It’s about time, or else today’s youth would completely let themselves go! And all these gains without any effort at all, usually without even getting up from the couch.

And what can be offered to the people who, thanks to the war, got rich and feel great, like kings? Clips about the palaces of corrupt officials? The people have known for a long time, since the 90s, that they were robbed, that is not news. Discussions about how the people (who remained) are to blame for the crimes of the regime? Interviews about democracy and human rights? The tragic stories of the imprisoned Berkovich or Melkonyants? Who even are those people – they did not say anything about them on the TV or internet (for example, on the Komsomol’skaya pravda website).

The cash handouts – which the people would not make in years and years from their normal jobs – coupled with the feeling of being part of something great, is an explosive mixture. If you do not take this into account, you might endlessly wonder why in the last elections it was mainly the villages (and not large cities) that voted for the governors appointed by the Kremlin and the “ruling party” – even though it was precisely the village that suffered the most from the mobilization.

It is this explosive mixture that pushes grandmas, who come to the polling stations in dresses they bought 20 years ago, to vote for the regime. They sincerely are for the regime, which they believe will soon build a great country – to spite our enemies, of course.
“And it is this mixture that gives rise to a total misunderstanding between the thin layer of those who really lost everything from the war and the overwhelming majority of the population, which did not lose anything and in fact gained everything.”
In our intellectual conversations, as we hope that the nightmare will end soon, we try not to remember this fact: the many hundreds of thousands of men and women who have already taken part in the current war and the process of “rebuilding the new territories” have millions of children.

These millions of children believe that their fathers and mothers are now doing heroic things. They sincerely believe it, as their parents cannot be monsters. These millions of children put on a tricolor tie on September 1 for the start of the school year, watch the same TV, listen to their fathers’ stories about “ukropy” (a derogatory term for Ukrainians) and travel through destroyed Mariupol on their way to vacation in Crimea (with or without their fathers).

For public repentance after the end of the war, we will have to wait until these children grow up and have their own children, so that these (not yet born) children can be told that their grandfathers committed undignified acts. For some reason, it’s easier to hear about grandfathers than fathers. Internal, rather than external, repentance in Germany began in the 1970s – just when the children of the children of the Nazis grew up.

Thus, by the end of the 2040s, it will be possible to talk to the people about the losses that Russian society actually suffered from the current war. At least some of them will really listen. In addition, by that time teachers whose careers began under Brezhnev will finally stop teaching.

In the meantime, the people are experiencing perhaps the best period in their lives. Sure, some of them periodically come back from the war in zinc coffins. On the other hand, the whole street will be out for the funeral – how is that for reviving traditional values.
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