Atide of Russians flowed toward Red Square as Vladimir Putin declared his annexation of Ukrainian territory that would herald a shining new era of perpetual war with Ukraine and the west. “Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Russia! Together for ever!” reads the banner hanging on Manezh Square by the Kremlin.
There were busloads of tough men from a factory near Moscow alighting by the statue of Karl Marx to celebrate, university teachers passing out invitations to a pop concert to their students, workers lugging armfuls of Russian flags to distribute. Some of the tricolours bore the image of Putin himself.
This is the Russia that Putin envisions after 22 years in power: united, simple, cynical and slavish. But real life is not a staged rally. And as Putin gathered his lackeys and satraps in the gilded Grand Kremlin Palace, across the country, from the ethnic minority republics of Dagestan and Buryatia, to the hinterlands of Pskov and Penza, to cosmopolitan Moscow, communities are in turmoil.
Hundreds of thousands of men are leaving their homes: some contracted and mobilised into fighting in Ukraine, and still more fleeing for the borders to dodge the draft. In both cases, they do not know when they will come home.
Tensions have not been as high in Russia as they are now for decades, according to a new poll from the state-run Public Opinion Foundation. Of those surveyed by the centre this week, 69% said they had felt “stress”, nearly double the 35% who told the pollster they felt tense before Putin announced his mobilisation.
“I feel we are going into the unknown, going into nowhere,” said Anton, a Moscow resident who passed into Georgia after waiting more than three days on the border. He described men desperate to reach the border before Putin spoke today, with fears that the annexations would set off a tit-for-tat response with the west leading to a potential border closure.
At the same time, videos have shown Russian men called up to the army arriving at trash-strewn barracks with no officers or simply dumped in snowy fields with no tents or instructions. “Nobody needs us,” said one man in a video posted from a field near Berezniki in the Ural mountains. “They’ve driven us here like a herd of sheep.”
These scenes are nothing compared with the horrors of war that Ukrainians have endured at Russian hands over the last seven months. But they are new and shocking for Russians who have tried to ignore the war and now cannot. Polling shows that Putin’s mobilisation is having a more acute effect on Russian society – and perhaps on his hold on power – than any event since February.
The mobilisation has played out as a tragicomedy. In Tuva, southern Siberia, the authorities will give your family a sheep if you sign up for military service, independent media outlet Holod reported. In Dagestan’s Derbent region, police with loudspeakers drove through residential neighbourhoods telling all draft-age men to leave their homes and go to local draft centres. “Fucking idiots!” raged the head of Dagestan, Sergei Melikov, in response in a video circulating on social media, as the backlash to the draft and attempts to mollify the public reached fever pitch.
At the root of reactions is deep unease at the nuclear standoff that the Russian president is leading the country into. As soon as the Kremlin event was announced, state TV began broadcasting a 24-hour countdown to Putin’s speech. By the time the signing ceremony began in the Grand Kremlin Palace, even some of Putin’s most loyal supporters looked tense.
“Is everyone ready to follow Putin into heaven?” asked Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the R.Politik political analysis firm. “Putin is basically proposing to the world that if the west doesn’t give us Ukraine, then there’s going to be a nuclear war. Is the Russian elite to support Putin until the end in this bet? I have great doubts about that.”
The most enthusiastic are also suspect. “We’ll conquer everyone, we’ll kill everyone, we’ll loot whoever we need to, and everything will be just as we like it,” said Vladlen Tatarsky, Vostok battalion fighter and pro-Kremlin blogger, who was in the audience for Putin’s speech, in a video blog.
On Nikolskaya Street, most were preoccupied with just making an appearance at the concert. One teacher photographed each of his students holding up their invitations as they entered the event. A group of women fretted about the weather and the traffic that would delay them coming and going. “Let’s wait until it starts to go in,” one said.
It was a very different scene to the one eight years ago, when Russia annexed Crimea and Putin rode a wave of political euphoria that buoyed his support and fractured his critics. The opposition never recovered.
And it was a world away from the picture in 2018, when world flags were hoisted on these streets by revellers during the World Cup – a triumph for Russia considering it had fomented war in Ukraine just four years earlier.
Now Russia has new symbols. In front of the storied Bolshoi theatre, men walked by in hats bearing Zs, a tactical sign adopted as a pro-war symbol. They carried flags of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Novorossiya, invented polities that the Kremlin claims are real. An American in attendance wore a motorcycle jacket with an image of Stalin and Putin superimposed over the 1945 storming of the Reichstag.
In Red Square, the concert began. Pop diva Alla Pugacheva, a Russian icon for decades, fled the country with her children days ago. Instead, there were Oleg Gazmanov and Grigory Leps, loyal artists for the pro-Kremlin masses.
Hours before the signing, the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said he needed to confirm the borders of the territories that Russia was claiming to annex on Friday.
“This is truly a historic day,” said a male MC addressing the crowd at the concert. “We still need to grasp what has happened today. Understand it and endure it. But look at how together we all are.”