Since the invasion of Ukraine a year ago and the start of the biggest war on European soil since 1945, Russia has been fighting another battle at home and reinforcing its information blockade in an effort to control the hearts and minds of its citizens.
Draconian new censorship laws are targeting all media outlets that still operate outside the Kremlin’s control, and most independent journalists have left the country.
A digital iron curtain has been established, cutting Russians off from Western news sites and social networks.
And while the authorities dealt with thousands of people in a crackdown on anti-war protests, a culture of fear descended on Russian cities and towns, preventing many from sharing their honest thoughts about the war in public.
A year on, this grip on information is still strong – and support for the war seems strong – but cracks are beginning to show.
“First I supported it,” Natalia, 53, from Moscow, told CNN, referring to what the Kremlin and most Russians call a “special military operation”.
“But now I am totally against it. Why have I changed my mind? First, my son is at an age when he can be mobilised, and I fear for him. And secondly, I have many friends there in Ukraine and I talk to them. That’s why I’m against it,” he explains.
CNN did not give the full names of the individuals who have spoken critically of the Kremlin, as public criticism of the war in Ukraine or statements discrediting the Russian military can lead to fines or imprisonment.
For Natalia and many of her compatriots, the impact of the war on their personal lives sheds new light on Russian propaganda.
And for those hoping for a rising tide of public opposition to Putin, it opens up possibilities.
“I don’t trust our television. I can’t be sure they are not telling the truth, I just don’t know. But I have my doubts,” says Natalia.
“I don’t trust anyone completely”
Natalia is not the only one in Russia who has turned against the conflict, but they seem to be in the minority.
Measuring public opinion is very difficult in a country where independent pollsters target the government and where the majority of the 146 million citizens do not want to publicly condemn President Vladimir Putin.
But according to the Levada Centre, an opinion polling NGO, support for Putin among Russians fell by just six per cent between March and November last year and now stands at 74 per cent.
In many ways, this is not surprising.
There is little room for dissenting voices on the Russian airwaves; the propaganda broadcast by state TV stations has repeatedly drawn worldwide ridicule.
In the days leading up to the first anniversary of the war, a Russian MP said on state television Russia 1 that ‘if Kiev must remain in ruins to fly our flag, so be it’.
“There is only one peace formula for Ukraine: the liquidation of Ukraine as a state”, said radio presenter Sergei Mardan.
And in a pretentious statement that confirms the existence of an alternative reality on state TV channels, another pro-Russian former MP said of Moscow’s military advance: ‘Everything is going according to plan and everything is under control’.
Such messages are usually aimed at a certain group of older, more conservative Russians who long for the days of the Soviet Union, but they also reach out to other generations and have succeeded in changing the minds of some.
“My opinion about (the war in) Ukraine has changed”, says Ekaterina, 37, who watches the popular Russian news programme “60 Minutes” after coming home from work.
“First I thought: what is the purpose of this war? Why did they decide to launch it? It makes life much worse for people here in Russia”, he says.
The conflict has had personal consequences for her.
“This year my life has taken a turn for the worse. Fortunately, none of my loved ones were mobilised. But I lost my job. And I see radical changes all around me,” she adds.
However, Katarina’s initial opposition to the invasion has disappeared.
“I understood that this special military operation was inevitable. It would have happened anyway. And if we had not acted first, a war would have been launched against us”, he says, echoing the false claims about Russia being a victim of the West that the state media relentlessly propagate.
“I believe the news completely. Yes, they come from the country, but why shouldn’t I trust them?”, Yulia (40), a human resources director at a marketing company, told CNN.
“I think the war is succeeding. It may last longer than we would like. But I think it’s succeeding,” she says.
According to the Levada Centre, about two-thirds of Russians rely mainly on television for information, a higher percentage than in most Western countries.
But Yulia and Ekaterina’s relationship is far from universal.
Even for those who generally support the war, Kremlin-controlled television is still far from the reality many Russians live in.
“I divide everything I hear on state channels into two halves. I don’t trust anyone completely”, says accountant Tatyana (55).
Everything needs to be analysed, because certain things are avoided or not said”, says Leonid, a 58-year-old engineer.
Several people interviewed by CNN in Moscow this month share similar views, stressing that they watch state television but receive information with scepticism.
“I think you can only trust them to a certain extent. Sometimes state channels present the truth, other times they claim certain things just to reassure people”, says 20-year-old Danil.
Culture of silence
Although Russia banned Twitter, Facebook and other Western platforms last year, around a quarter of Russians use VPN services to access blocked sites, according to a survey conducted by the Levada Centre.
Searches for such services on Google reached record levels in Russia after the invasion began and have since remained at their highest level in ten years.
Meanwhile, YouTube remains one of the few major global sites still available, thanks to its popularity in Russia and the fact that the Kremlin sees it as a way to disseminate its propaganda videos.
“YouTube has become a substitute for television in Russia. The Kremlin is afraid that if they don’t have YouTube, they won’t be able to control the flow of information to younger people”, says Kirill Sukhotsky, who handles Russian-language content at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S. media outlet funded by Congress and broadcasting in countries where information is controlled by state authorities.
And this opens up opportunities for censored organisations.
“I watch YouTube. I watch everything, everything. I never watch state channels. I don’t believe a word they say. They lie all the time! You just have to turn on logic, compare some information and you will see that everything is a lie,” a Moscow resident who is passionately opposed to the war told CNN.
But sociologists who monitor public opinion in Russia say that most people in the country fall between these two extremes.
“Very often we only talk about a large number of those who support the war. But not all of these people are happy about it. They support their side, but they would like the war to end and the fighting to stop,” says Denis Volkov, director of the Moscow-based Levada Centre.
Even if the Kremlin cannot expect full support from the population, sociologists say it can rely on apathy.
And the so-called culture of silence – imposed by the authorities, as illustrated by a couple arrested in January in the Russian city of Krasnodar for allegedly expressing anti-war views during a private conversation in a restaurant – has disabused many of their scepticism about the war./Danas/