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Nerves and patriotism in Moscow after 18 months of war



Russia’s imperial past looms large over Moscow. The Kremlin walls and towers make visitors feel like tiny specks on Red Square.

Five miles away, I get a similar feeling when I go to Victory Park. It is a sprawling complex of museums and memorials built to commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. The centrepiece – a massive square with an obelisk 141.8m (465ft) high – 10cm for each day of the Great Patriotic War, as the Soviets called their part in World War Two after the Nazi invasion.

When I visit, it is National Day of the Russian Flag. An enormous tricolour – allegedly the largest in the country – is being unfurled on the square.

Ringed by rigid lines of Russian soldiers, the flag is unrolled as a military band plays patriotic music. The museum director gives a speech, stressing that such occasions “unite our people”.

The Kremlin has been more actively encouraging patriotic events like these since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Inside the Victory Museum itself, I find an exhibition dedicated to the “heroes” of the “special military operation”. Information boards compare Russian troops fighting in Ukraine to Soviet soldiers in WW2.

Andrei Afanasiev, a pro-Kremlin blogger and university lecturer, agrees to meet me. He tells me patriotism is more important during wartime, and that what he calls “the West’s war on Russia” has made Russians realise that they’re on their own.

“You can only rely on yourself, your country and your army. Definitely, patriotism is higher than it was before. War mobilises us and unites us,” he says.

Soldiers carrying the flag - flag day at museum
Image caption,Soldiers mark National Day of the Russian Flag by unfurling a huge flag at Victory Park in Moscow

I ask Andrei whether he believes the war is going badly for Russia. “I wouldn’t say [so],” he replies. “I believe in the success of Russia. We are ready for victory.”

On Russian state TV, the talk is also of “successes” and “progress”, but the reality is different.

“The Russian military understand they are in a serious fix. They have lost territory… morale is not very high at all,” a Russian military analyst, who wishes to remain anonymous due to fears of repercussions, tells the BBC.

“They’re not prepared for modern warfare. Losses are high.”

Is the president told the truth about the real situation on the battlefield, I ask? Of course not, he says. “The lying happens on the entire chain of command. As information goes up it becomes increasingly distorted.”

The analyst tells me Russian officers in Ukraine, in the face of Kyiv’s counteroffensive, are “nervous” because “they’re just hanging on”.

It’s not just the Russian military who are anxious. The overall feeling I get in Moscow is one of a general state of nervousness. And there’s plenty to worry about.

People walk past a damaged building of the Moscow-City business centre on 23 August 2023
Image caption,The Moscow-City business centre has frequently been targeted by Ukrainian drones

In June, Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a mutiny and marched on the capital. The leader of the Wagner mercenary group was then reportedly killed in a mysterious plane crash, leading to accusations of Kremlin involvement.

Earlier this month, the value of the rouble plummeted. Add to that the drone attacks on Moscow, which have become a near-daily occurrence.

While Russians don’t seem to worry about these events individually, in general many admit to being concerned about the present, as well as fearful about the future.

The scene in Gorky Park – Moscow’s version of London’s Hyde Park – is idyllic, with families strolling on the embankment and rollerblading. Just opposite, though, is the imposing grey edifice of the Russian Defence Ministry, on top of which is an anti-aircraft system.

It’s a striking contrast: a surface-to-air missile system next to the picture-perfect park.

“The air-defence system doesn’t bother me,” says Svyatoslav. “Let them put a nuclear missile there if they’ll feel better about it. I approve of what is happening, we need to annex [all of Ukraine].”

One woman, Irina, tells me she too is not overly fazed by the presence of missiles in the centre of Russia’s capital. “My mood is stable, my psyche has already adapted. The peak of my worry is over. But I hope that everything will be resolved in a good way.”

Sunbathing on the Moscow river, summer 2023
Image caption,Few Muscovites wear clothes with symbols supporting the war – even when not sunbathing

Pavel is out walking with his wife Olga. They disagree about the war in Ukraine: Olga supports the Kremlin and believes Ukraine is to blame, whereas her husband says Russia is at fault.

“I worry about the drones falling on Moscow,” Pavel admits. “But we decided we wouldn’t talk about politics – so that we don’t argue and provoke each other.”

Many people seem reluctant to dwell on what’s happening in cities and towns in Ukraine – less than one day’s drive away.

There is little indication of “war fever” among Muscovites, despite what Andrei Afanasiev says. Very few people walk the streets in clothing displaying the letter Z or other symbols of Russia’s war. Among most, there is indifference, resignation or meek acceptance.

This mood is also prevalent among many of those in the corridors of power, according to a source close to the Kremlin, who speaks to me on condition of anonymity.

“Officials in the Presidential Administration are either repressed, or depressed. They’ve worked there for so many years they don’t know anything else. They’re pessimistic about the future, but they just go with the flow. There’s no other choice,” the source says.

He tells me people are afraid to speak: “There is no opposition to Putin in the Kremlin.”

Air defence system on roof of Ministry of Defence in Moscow
Image caption,Across the river from Gorky Park, an air defence system sits on the roof of the Ministry of Defence

Fear runs deep in Moscow now. In a small room tucked away at the top of a shopping centre, a meeting of opposition activists is taking place. They’ve laid out a table with biscuits, drinks and snacks.

Leading the meeting is Yulia Galyamina, a local politician who is one of a tiny handful of opposition figures who haven’t been imprisoned or forced to flee Russia.

“Every week someone else is arrested,” she sighs. “I am always ready for the knock on the door. I feel alone, but I think I do the right thing. My people need to have politicians in their country.”

Some of the activists are reluctant to give their real names.

“I’m an anti-war activist who is just lucky to not be in prison yet,” says one, also called Yulia.

She left university after several lecturers expressed support for the Kremlin’s military operation. I ask her what message she has for people in the West who think all Russians support the war.

“I want to say there are a lot of anti-war people here and anti-war activists… humanity will win anyway. We are fighting here and we will do our best.”

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