I have a clear memory of that July day in 1987. My friends and I were on the bus, a group of 14-year-olds from Orel, some 220 miles southeast of Moscow, returning home after judo practice, when the traffic suddenly stopped. The road was blocked by a funeral procession. The casket, carried on the shoulders of young guys in sailors’ vests and blue berets, was open. We could see the body, a 20-year-old perhaps, in a paratrooper’s uniform. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in 1980; such processions in Orel and other Russian cities were not uncommon.
On TV and in the newspapers, they talked about Soviet soldiers planting flowers and helping to build schools in Afghanistan. My friends and I knew there was a war in that faraway land and that people were dying. Most of us worshipped the paratroopers, and some even cherished the dream of serving in Afghanistan.
Lately, I have been thinking of that day — and that war — because of the current war in Ukraine. And because of the arguments that are raging now among our group of childhood friends.
I remember that day in particular because of what happened while we watched the mourners, the women in black who followed the casket.
“I won’t go to fight in Afghanistan,” my friend Egor said. “My neighbor, who returned from there, told how they burned a whole village just like that. First, our soldiers kill civilians, and then their mothers die crying because their sons are killed.”
“Stop lying!” This was another friend, Victor. “No one touches the civilians there. And in general, we are not at war with Afghanistan, but with America, and if we retreat there, they will start a nuclear war against us. You, Sasha, are just a bullshitter and a coward!”
They nearly got into a fight. When they cooled down, Kostya, one of the quieter boys in our group, said: “OK, guys, stop quarreling. We will never know the whole truth, and what we should do? They will always decide for us anyway. If it will be necessary, they will send us to Afghanistan. Do not piss against the wind — nothing depends on us anyway.”
All these years later, my friends and I are arguing again. It’s an argument that may help others understand Russian attitudes toward President Vladimir Putin, his “special operation” in Ukraine, and toward the United States.
My focus group
Recent polls in Russia have suggested that Putin’s approval ratings have risen since the war began; some say that 8 in 10 Russians support him. But sociologists in authoritarian societies cannot be fully trusted — this is especially true in wartime — and in any case, the polls don’t dig far below the surface.
I measure the temperature of an organism called “Russia” with my own thermometer, and the best sociology for me is a cross-section of the opinions of friends and acquaintances from my childhood in Orel, population 300,000. These are the guys with whom I studied in high school, went to judo class and learned photography at the Palace of Pioneers.
I am still in touch with many of them, in the year when most of us are turning 50. We communicate in an online chat called “Boys from our backyard,” and these “Boys” are an example of what is hidden behind the dry generalization “Russian people.” Four of us now live in other countries (I live in Brooklyn, New York), but most are still in Orel, where their parents lived, and their grandparents before that.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, something like a civil war broke out in our chat. The four of us outside of Russia immediately opposed the war; the rest rushed in different ways to explain and justify the aggression. Two members whose work involved the government abruptly left the group. Those who stayed decided to stop “discussing politics.” Basically, our chat died.
Three months later, I decided it was time to check in — if not to revive the chat, then at least to find out what my childhood friends were thinking. Had minds changed and opinions shifted, now that the first shock had passed, and as news spread of Russian casualties, and of Russian atrocities in Bucha and Mariupol, and as heavy sanctions began to affect Russia itself?
Taking the pulse — in our chat and beyond
In today’s Russia, opinions of the war can be divided roughly into four buckets. Some publicly support the invasion and the Kremlin propaganda that is disseminated daily. Others are more muted in their support and say things like “War is bad, but things are not so simple.” Still others are against the war but keep silent for fear of persecution. The fourth group — a tiny minority — openly opposes the war. These people risk arrest and jail time for doing so.
Those who are against the war are worth a separate essay. I decided first to better understand what is behind the worldview of my childhood buddies. The ones I know so well, and who stand firmly in those first two categories.
Some questions for the “Boys”
I compiled a list of 14 questions — from “What did you feel when you found out that Russia crossed the border of Ukraine?” to “Does everything suit you in Putin’s domestic politics?” to “How will it end?”
“It’s better to write questions to each separately, the guys will be afraid to answer in the public chat,” Timur Geler advised me. Timur is one of the “Boys” who left Russia; in 1990, he immigrated to Israel with his family. Since the mid-2000s, they have lived in Cologne, Germany. He calls Putin’s invasion “a criminal disgraceful war.”
Timur was right about our friends in Orel. They preferred to share responses individually and spoke under the condition of full or partial anonymity, asking that I not use their full names. “It’s easier for me, I live in a free country,” Timur said. “No one here will condemn me for the fact that I communicate with a journalist from America.”
So I sent my questions to the “Boys” — and waited for their replies.
“The tumor must be cut”
Roman has had a trio of careers — in communications, farming and now as a coin collector.
He describes himself as active on the internet but using only Russian social networks — “various Telegram channels, including Russian-language Ukrainian ones, plus I communicate with people who have relatives there, plus with Khokhol coin-collector friends.” (Khokhol is a derisive term for Ukrainians, used often in Russia).
“What did I feel on February 24?” he wrote. “Confusion and surprise. I didn’t think that troops would be sent in, it was easier to shower [Ukrainians] with Caliber and Iskander missiles. Could Putin solve the problem differently? The tumor must be cut out, here ‘chemotherapy’ will no longer help. It hurts, but there’s no other way.”
Such language mirrors Russian media — the “tumor” meaning the “Nazis” of Ukraine; “it must be cut” meaning this was a war of necessity.
“I personally knew three soldiers who have died there,” Roman said. “It’s a pity, but what can we do? I think that our troops … act very softly — especially against the background of what the Ukrainians are doing with our captured soldiers.”
What the Ukrainians “are doing” refers to a single video from the early days of the war, in which Ukrainian soldiers were seen shooting wounded Russians. The video was distributed widely across Russian media and became a staple of what they call “Nazi cruelty.” The fact that this is the only such video, while there have been dozens of videos and written accounts of Russian atrocities against Ukrainian civilians, does not bother my friends from Orel. Or perhaps they do not know about them.
“I have not seen any video recordings of the Russian army shooting dozens of people in Bucha,” said Alex. “I think these are fakes and provocations that are mounted in Ukraine, in Europe or in your United States.” Here again is the Kremlin line: The massacres in Bucha were staged by the West.
I remember Alex from after-school classes at Orel’s Palace of Pioneers. He was a kind of “frat boy,” his dad a big boss in the Regional Committee of the Communist Party. Alex graduated from the Orel Pedagogical Institute but gave up teaching after the Soviet Union fell, when suddenly you could make much more money in the brand-new private sector. Today, he’s an IT specialist in Orel.
Alex said he has multiple sources of information about the war.
“Eighty percent is the social network, mainly YouTube, mostly independent bloggers, mostly Ukrainian and military correspondents,” he said. “Five percent Russian TV, 5 percent Ukrainian TV — to understand the point of view of the official propaganda of the parties. Ten percent other sources, Western TV and personal communication with acquaintances around the world.”
Knowing Alex, I’m skeptical. Who measures their news intake like this? But that’s less important than the conclusions he has drawn.
“As for all these reports about the killing of civilians and the atrocities of our soldiers — are you sure that these are confirmed facts, and not propaganda?” Alex asked. “Do you seriously believe that Russian soldiers rape children and steal toilet bowls?”
When I sent photos and videos from Bucha, he asked again: “Who are these people? Who killed them? Why are their bodies so neatly laid out along the road?”
And then, the counterattack.
“It’s just interesting,” he said, that U.S. media won’t write about “the wild shelling of the center of Donetsk by Ukrainian Grads. Fifty missiles! And about the dead civilians.”
He raged about “the hysteria of the Ukrainian and world media” over the shelling of the railway station in Kramatorsk, which killed 59 Ukrainian civilians. In Alex’s view, the killers “were the Ukrainians themselves.” Once that became known, he said, the Western media “fell silent.”
I told him there’s plenty of evidence that the Russians were responsible — and that “no one was silent.” But he was unconvinced. So I asked a different question: “Even if we assume that it was the Ukrainians who fired by mistake, would this have happened if Russia had not crossed the border?”
On this Alex and the others in Orel are united. “It was inevitable and necessary,” he said. “This is a war of the West against Russia, destruction with the aim of subsequent plunder with the task of preserving the power of dying capitalism, prolonging its existence for 50 to 100 years.”
I turned next to the file sent to me by Egor, who I have known since I was 9. Egor wanted to study in Moscow, become a TV cameraman, travel the world with me and make films, but in the eighth grade, his parents convinced him that these were stupid dreams and he needed to get a “real, reliable job.” So he entered the local accounting-credit school and went to work in a bank. He became head of the accounting department, and now he’s preparing for an early retirement on the outskirts of Orel.
“For me, as for a normal person, war, the manifestation of any form of violence, is very bad,” Egor said. “But unfortunately, throughout the history of mankind, people have always fought. … In recent history, most of the conflicts were never unleashed without help or at the initiative of the United States of America. This one is no exception.”
Again, a Kremlin talking point. The U.S. started it.
Unlike Alex, Egor seemed to answer questions with the utmost sincerity. As for his sources of information, he cited “Tsargrad-TV,” a Russian television channel and website that a few years ago even Kremlin experts considered marginal because of its fascist ideology. He also said he listens to “independent economists Khazin and Delyagin,” a pair of regulars on Russian propaganda TV shows.
“Was it possible to do without an invasion?” Egor asked. “Don’t know. I do not have enough reliable information, and what I have is very contradictory, a lot of propaganda, fakes, and from both sides of the conflict. Probably it would have been necessary to stop the Ukrainians in 2014 right after the Crimea [annexation].”
But the annexation of Crimea was illegal, I reminded him.
“And who in the modern world acts according to the law? Crimea is Russian land, it has always been like this, we just restored historical justice. Perhaps an aggravation could have been avoided. But again, there is information that an attack was being prepared by Ukraine,” he said.
Alex made the same argument: “They did everything to provoke us. They started talking about international law and completely ignored our arguments about historical justice.”
The world according to Valentina
I reached out to one old friend from Orel who is neither a veteran of our chat, nor one of the “Boys.” Valentina is a successful economist, financial director of a large company in Moscow and mother of three adult children. I sent her the questionnaire separately; she replied with an entire article, which she said was intended “for the thoughtful Western reader.”
Valentina’s article is a stew of contradictions, propaganda myths, conspiracy theories and Cold War-era stereotypes, but what really struck me was her constant emphasis on the “unique wonderful qualities of the Russian people” as opposed to the “soulless West.”
“The key feature of a Russian person,” she wrote, “is the search for justice … justice means to act and know and live according to the Laws of God. The search for justice and living in justice is the highest goal and purpose of the soul of a Russian person.”
She then turned to another staple of Russian media: “Russia had facts that NATO planned to build a military base in Crimea. It was impossible to imagine. Russia has been here for more than 200 years, the land has been repeatedly watered with the blood of ancestors. Imagine Florida, which becomes hostile to the rest of the United States, and from which missiles are directed toward Washington and New York!”
Again, as with the others, I tried to respond. Not only that this is nonsense, but also that there is international law, agreements signed by Russian leaders, that Russia violated when it annexed Crimea.
Valentina had answers: “Higher justice is more important than international law, which is also violated by all and sundry, and above all by the United States.” And anyhow, “our intelligence did have information that the West wants to use [Crimea] as a springboard to attack Russia.”
At this point, I became more provocative. Are these the same valiant scouts, I asked, who promised Putin that Russian troops would be greeted with flowers in Kyiv?
Valentina said she didn’t want to continue to correspond with me “in such a sarcastic manner, when the situation is so serious.”
Sanctions? No problem.
The situation is indeed serious. Especially when you consider the unprecedented sanctions against Russia, which have begun to punish ordinary citizens. But my respondents believe sanctions will hit the West hardest of all. Or at least this is what they say.
“I didn’t think they’d go that far — refusal of gas, closing of representative offices of firms,” Roman said. But he said the pain will be minimal: “Some moan that fashion brands have left, and now everyone, like in the Soviet era, will wear the products of the Bolshevichka factory. But most do not despair.”
Alex responded by saying he and his family are unscathed.
“We were not connected in any way with the sectors in which these sanctions fell,” he said, adding that “it’s a useful inoculation. Now all those who were oriented ‘outside’ in business, summer holidays, shopping, will be oriented ‘inside.’” Translation: Russia will become more self-sufficient. And he thinks that’s a good thing.
Once again, I don’t really believe him. Egor’s answer seems more sincere.
“Of course, the sanctions hit hard,” he said. “Rising prices, high inflation, falling incomes, lower living standards, problems in business. But I think that the problems here are not only in sanctions, but to a greater extent in the failed economic policy of the Russian Federation. It was possible to build a really powerful economy over the years, which in such a situation would not be afraid of any sanctions.”
It’s a rare critique of the Kremlin from one of the “Boys” in Orel.
Reading Valentina’s thoughts about sanctions, I cannot help but remember what an internationalist she was in her youth and marvel at how today she takes the toughest, most nationalistic position of all my childhood friends.
“The West does not understand the unique features of the Russian people. Anti-Russian sanctions cannot scare. The hopes of the West to frighten the people and turn them against their own government turned out to be untenable and caused a backlash. … There is hope that the government will finally take up its own industry, start investing in science and scientific developments, and the production of modern technology,” she said.
And what, I asked, prevented the government from doing all this for 22 years of Putin’s rule?
Valentina always has an answer: “There were many national traitors in the government. Only now some of them have fled to the West. Others will soon be exposed and punished.”
It’s depressing to open and read all these files. I ask my chat friend Timur, the one in Germany, for his opinions. Not just about the war, but about the views of our old friends.
“I went through it all,” he said, meaning coming to terms with Russian (then Soviet) propaganda. “Only when my family left the USSR and ended up in Israel did I realize that all the stories about the aggressive Israeli military that seemed convincing to me before were a myth. Only when I was in Germany did I realize that the stories of Soviet propagandists about neo-Nazis and ‘Hitler’s heirs’ marching through the streets of German cities and dictating the political agenda were lies. You and I have traveled a lot, seen the world, know foreign languages and have long understood the value of Soviet propaganda. And our childhood friends still live in its myths.
“Propaganda that knows what strings of human nature to play is a powerful weapon. In fact, propaganda is more dangerous than the atomic bomb. Because it is propaganda that sooner or later will justify its use.”
We came to my last question: “What’s next? How will the war end?”
This didn’t go well.
Egor said that “to end the war by means of negotiations at this point, I’m afraid, will not work. We just have to finish it. Moreover, even if I don’t like this idea, it will have to be a complete defeat of the enemy.”
“It doesn’t matter what I thought of Putin’s policy before,” said Alex. “During war, any government in your country, whatever it is, must be supported by all means to achieve victory. This is an axiom. Otherwise, you are a traitor and collaborator. History, as you know, is written by the winners. After the victory, we will deal with all the mistakes.”
Then there is Roman.
“If the West had stopped sending weapons, the war would have ended long ago. And now … there can be only surrender, capitulation,” he said. By which he means the surrender of Ukraine. And surrender of “the West.”
Can there ever be a rapprochement with the West? No, said Roman: “This requires mutual respect. Is this possible? Not while in the West, [expletives] are in power. I am not tolerant and will never be. How can you be friends with countries that support gay parades? Is nuclear war possible? It is unlikely, the West is too afraid of it. But if necessary, there will be a nuclear war. Better in the end than living by their rules.
“There will be a big war, but we will win.”
Alex is on the same page. And again, the answers all sound like Kremlin slogans.
“If necessary, we will make any sacrifices, but we will not become fodder for the capitalist West. Nuclear conflict is not out of the question, unfortunately. I hope that there will be enough brains not to bring us to this line. But there is no doubt that at a certain moment we can ‘bang,’” he said.
In search of hope
I keep remembering what my friends were like at age 14. I know that in many ways they have remained the same; in human terms, they are no worse nor better than my current friends — Americans, Canadians or emigrants from Russia. If something goes wrong and I turn to them for help, they will lend a hand immediately, I have no doubt. But I also have no doubt that if, God forbid, Putin appears on Russian television and announces a nuclear strike on New York, all of them will say: “Well, it must be so.”
And they will write something like what Roman wrote when I asked what he thinks about Putin and his policies.
“I do not have the full picture to adequately assess,” Roman said. “We are not even pawns … we are nothing but dust on the chessboard. It is a pity that everyone who can run the state works as taxi drivers and hairdressers. But at the end of the day, you realize that most of [Putin’s] decisions are correct, no matter how terrible they may seem in the moment.”
I want to end the story about my childhood buddies on a positive note. Strangely in a way — given everything else she has written — for this, I turned to Valentina.
“I believe that sooner or later all of us will come to an insight and understanding of the true causes of these bloody events,” she said. “And even those who are now on opposite sides of the ‘barricades’ will begin to hear each other and understand the essence of these events.”
And when I asked Valentina how I should identify her, she requested that I change her name because “next month, I’m having an interview at the American embassy in a European country. I would not like complications. The probability of obtaining a visa is low anyway.”
There it is. My old friend Valentina, blaming the West for the war and other perceived sins, but still planning a vacation in America. I hope she gets her visa.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.