How the Outlooks and Hopes of Anti-War Russians Shifted in 2023
January 13, 2024
  • Anna Kuleshova
    Sociologist, coordinator of the New Russian Diasporas Outside the EU project, Social Foresight Group
Based on interviews with Russians who are against the current regime and war in Ukraine,
sociologist Anna Kuleshova says that the expectations for an end to the conflict that had circulated at end-2022 were replaced in 2023 by fear of what the future might bring.
The original text in Russian was published in Republic. A slightly shortened version is being republished here with their permission.

As part of the sociological project Skrytye mneniia (“Hidden Opinions”), which I started on my own initiative in 2022 and continued in 2023, I talked with Russians of different ages, professions, identities and lifestyles, both those who stayed in Russia and those who left.

Happy new year, happy new fear

In 2023, a lot changed in the lives and outlooks of my respondents. At the end of 2022, they spoke more often about hope for an imminent peace, that in the winter of 2022-23 there would be a turning point and the regime would collapse; the duration of the war was being counted in days, not years. By the end of 2022, many who had left still had property in Russia, were trying to work remotely and were in no hurry to adjust to the everyday life of their host countries. Those who stayed hoped that the darkness enveloping the country would not last long, and that soon life would go back to normal. It was very hard on women, some of whom had to hide from strangers the fact that their husbands and/or sons had dodged the mobilization, and sent them money earned in Russia so that they would have something to live on in a foreign country. They lived in hope of a speedy reunion.

By the end of 2023, fatigue from unmet expectations and fears about the future began to be acutely felt. For those who remain in Russia, it is a fear that the worst pages of the country’s twentieth-century history will be repeated: more and more people will be forced to speak in whispers, to fear denunciations.

Those who plan to leave the country have a different fear of the future: it is the unknown and the awareness of the inevitability of unforeseen difficulties. One respondent succinctly formulated it this way:
“So we are choosing what is better: to sit quiet, like water under the sea, or to get out over our skis.”
An administrative building in Astana, Kazakhstan. Source: Wiki Commons
Those who left also fear the future, unsure whether they will be able to stay in their chosen country, whether they will be forced to go back to Russia or move again to other countries, and what such an excursion might ultimately cost, whether it will be possible at all.

Countries have changed their policies quite abruptly: while doing research, I saw how Russians went, for example, to Turkey, learned Turkish, enrolled their children in schools, then were refused a residence permit; in the end, they were forced to turn, for example, to Kazakhstan. Now, in Kazakhstan they carefully follow the news, fearing that they will be denied a residence permit again and that they will have to travel further for some other reason.
Among my respondents, there are those who left Russia temporarily, as they say, as long as Putin is alive (known by the Russian abbreviation PPZh), but they are now worried that they will never get back, never see their own home, never hug their loved ones again.
“For more than a year I hoped to return. Now, the stage of denial, the idea that this is not forever, is probably in the rearview mirror. But it is still a little scary. I understand that the Russia that I loved no longer exists, that I am now an alien element there. This does not mean that I belong here in Georgia, that I will stay here forever. I need to raise my youngest son, I’m a single mother, and then I’ll see where I am... I’ve written so much on social media during this time that it’s pointless to think about going back. Especially in the first months after the war, I signed all kinds of petitions, put avatars up, reposted media materials that are now considered either objectionable or extremist... The main thing is that I don’t think anyone needs me in Russia, I don’t know how to keep my opinion to myself, to speak in whispers, and if you can’t do those things, there is no place for you there now...”
Many of those who left Russia in 2022 returned in 2023 due to trouble with finding work and legalizing themselves in their host countries, as well as because of longing for loved ones. For some, the unstable life and emigrant poverty became unbearable.

For them, the fear of the future has to do with how they will be received at home, whether there will be difficulties with getting a job, whether they will be able to easily adapt to the new language of everyday life, new rules and norms, what unforeseen events they will encounter at kindergartens and schools.
“I’m thinking that I really miss my children’s beloved school, miss the teachers... The theaters that I would go to. But if I come back, and there’s a Z hanging on the school door (it is definitely not the case now, but everything is changing quickly) or at the theater... Will I be able to stand it? ”
A rally in support of Palestine in London,
November 4, 2023. Source: Dzen
Some fears “migrated” from 2022 to 2023. In particular, those who remain in Russia still fear a nuclear escalation, a reemergence of Covid, the return of soldiers with PTSD and former prisoners, and conflicts that could stem from that.

The biggest shock of the year for many respondents were the signs of increasing anti-Semitism in Russia and abroad (including in European countries), which became visible after the October 7 attack on Israel. It is important to note that respondents often classify criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism.
“My friends are in Europe now, they were at a rally where they saw flags with swastikas with their own eyes, and are now thinking about coming back home. This is literally happening everywhere, in Berlin, in Paris. How did we get to this point? They tell me I shouldn’t have left Russia, it’s not safe in Israel, they recommend moving to Europe. But I don’t see the point... What’s the point in being hated both as a Russian and as a Jew?”
New roles

In 2023, I often heard from respondents about teenage children who had suddenly grown up. It was the kids who had been the butt of complaints that they were not interested in anything besides their phones that took on a lot of responsibility. Many of them are not even 18, but they have already seen a pandemic, a war and the loss of loved ones.

From the first-hand experience of their families, they discovered that not every adult can withstand personal trials on the scale of recent years, and against this backdrop, teenagers were forced to become mothers and fathers to their parents.
“My parents fought with my grandpa and with each other because of stress; suddenly I’m the only one in the family who doesn’t use foul language and can take on the role of negotiator.”
The conversations from December showed the difficult psychological state in which sexual minorities living in Russia found themselves.
After the nonexistent “LGBTQ movement” was labeled extremist in Russia, some decided to leave, some negotiated partnerships with members of the opposite sex to give the appearance of a heterosexual couple, some began taking antidepressants.
“I was 18 years old when the mobilization began. I wanted to leave. I thought my parents would support me, since I don’t have my own financial backstop. They were like: you want to run away?! Are you a traitor? At that point, I realized that they wouldn’t help. I quickly began to retrain for IT and earn extra money and save it so I could leave. When they started passing all these anti-LGBT laws, my parents voiced their approval. I said that their son was “one of them.” Luckily, I had somewhere to go. Now, I already have a plan, I’ll leave soon, I actually used this period to finish learning the language.”
It seems that some IT specialists who stayed in Russia find themselves in a peculiar situation. They note that they are quite free to express their views, have no problems reading materials from “foreign agents” at their workplaces and even post links to such materials in work chats.
“They leave us alone, as long as we work and don’t leave the country...”
Such freedoms, in a sense, are reminiscent of the special position enjoyed by some Soviet scientists, who could go on business trips abroad, read foreign books, had a special level of access to materials, censored their speech less and even expressed views in opposition to the general line of the party.

New news

Another result of 2023 was a significant change in media consumption. Those still in Russia have honed their self-censorship skills: whereas in 2022 they sent a lot of news through messengers and reposted it on social media, now they have become more restrained and careful. Even liking news or a post today is considered by respondents to be a very real risk. Some told me that they began to sort content, creating separate folders on their phones for resources and channels that are safe/acceptable to open in public (for example, while riding public transport) and those that can only be safely opened “in the kitchen,” at home.

Both those who left and those who stayed have seen their attitude toward the news shift.
Many of my respondents said that they had reduced the number of Telegram channels to which they subscribe to two or three, whereas in 2022 they were subscribed to dozens and read them almost around the clock.
A year later, many said that they had realized that the psyche could not withstand such a flow of information, while some were simply tired of the endless replaying of the same news.

Meanwhile, some have shifted to a fundamentally different type of media consumption, one that helps them to better adapt and come to terms with what is going on, to understand the new rules of the game and go on living in the country. In particular, they find relatively neutral sources of news about local life and cultural events that are not ideologically tinged, and also follow pages that talk about opportunities opening up in modern Russia, about projects in which they could get involved.

At the end of 2023, we saw a significant change in the cultural landscape. More Chinese and Iranian content has appeared in Russia (Chinese fantasy can now be found in bookstores, Iranian series can be seen on TV, etc.), while those who left have become more deeply immersed in the cultures of their host countries; many talk about their experience of mastering the local language.

Russians who do not support the war and remain in Russia note that they are more likely to learn English (and other languages) not so much because they might come in handy when moving to another country (not everyone has such plans), but rather to be able to maintain contact with the outside world, to keep themselves in shape intellectually and psychologically.
Maxim Katz, a Russian politician and public figure, is the author of one of the most popular Russian Telegram channels about society and politics. He left Russia after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Source: Wiki Commons
As important achievements in 2023 respondents in Russia also named: adapting to the new social situation; learning how to speak ambiguously and cryptically; sharpening the skill of finding likeminded people (for example, by carefully first asking which bloggers a person watches); and establishing an uncensored space for free communication and creativity. In addition, secret exhibitions and underground concerts appeared, which for some respondents offered a return to their youth.

New communities and new practices

Contrary to what might be expected given the current level of repression, my interviews indicate that political activism persists in Russia, even quiet protests of various kinds, often unseen and unheard outside the country, but nevertheless important for those who take part in them. Many who stayed say that they still listen and watch opinion leaders who left Russia, they remain interested in their views, but at the same time note that the authors who left may no longer fully understand what is going on in the country and how people live.
“I’m listening to Shulman, Naki, Varlamov. I listened to them before, and I still do. But, of course, they understand less and less about how we live. Katz is good, but he speaks in such a language that is only for people who left [and], probably, an ordinary Russian cannot understand him... there is a certain feeling of [them] being detached from reality.”
A turn toward local problems, based on the impressions I got from interviews, is also an important trend for 2023. In 2022, people quarreled and argued more about geopolitical and political issues; now, they have learned not to discuss them with others who hold different views. Many refuse to follow current events, focusing on their own problems, on what they can change, on self-development, on their work, on helping others, on what allows them, in the words of respondents, to “keep their head on straight” and not go crazy. The phrase “internal emigration” is often used to describe this.

Whereas in 2022 I often heard about disappointment in relatives and ties being cut, in 2023 it was about strengthening relationships with loved ones who remained on the same wavelength, with likeminded people, and this is noticeable both in Russia and abroad.
Existing friendships have become stronger, new connections have emerged and respondents often note that their communication has become more careful. Those who went back to Russia also note that they have received more care and support than could have been expected.

The spread and emergence of new gray-market enterprises and practices is another result of 2023, and this is also partly due to the emergence and strengthening of new communities. These practices come in many different shapes and sizes, ranging from kindergartens and clubs where the organizers pledge no “Z-patriotism” to “parallel imports” and funneling money into crypto for various needs (including supporting activists).

Almost all my respondents (regardless of whether they were in Russia or not) noted that 2023 was a financially difficult and unstable year. Yet despite all the difficulties, those who left Russia, for example, for Armenia, supported refugees from Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), donated to help political prisoners and journalists in Russia, adopted children from orphanages and volunteered in hospices. In other words, 2023 showed that the fabric of goodness and mutual assistance is still holding up.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy