Friday, October 28, 2022

What is Going on in Russia from a Former Expat Perspective

World events shape each generation of man creating a unique and semi-collective life experience.  I am proudly a child of the 1970s and share certain experiences with all Americans who are my age.  The Cold War. Neil Armstrong. Vietnam. Watergate. Iran Hostage Crisis. Ronald Reagan. Mikhail Gorbachev. Glasnost. The Fall of the Berlin Wall.  These are the collective world events shaping the collective psyche of Gen X, and I have been fascinated by these remarkable historic events my entire life.  

As most of you know, I ended up learning Russian and working in Russia and eastern Europe in the mid-90s.  Having had that experience and when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, I was keenly interested in what is going on in Russia.  Living in the USA, it is not incredibly difficult to gauge American public opinion, but it is quite difficult to assess public opinion in Russia from a far.  As is abundantly clear to any regular readers, I do not trust what I am told by the media or by the government.  I operate as Ronald Reagan advised in reference to the USSR, "trust but verify."

So instead of relying solely on American media which tends to parrot the government's talking points, I started calling my friends from Russia and listening to Russian podcasts in order to get an idea of what is really going on in Russia.  One of my Russian friends who lives in the USA is full-on Qanon.  While this contact provides little evidence of public opinion in Russia, the fact that my Russian friend who lives here is completely tripped out about global authoritarians lurking among us is noteworthy.  My Russian GenXer friends have a collective experience in the 1970s as well.  Political Persecution.  Religious Persecution.  Political Prisoners. The Gulag Archipelago. Mikhail Gorbachev. Glasnost. The Fall of the Berlin Wall.  Russian Gen Xers know authoritarians when they see them, and many of them living in the USA are apoplectic about American political trends towards restriction on free speech and domestic totalitarianism.  If you know a Russian-American in their 50s, ask them about it.  They will explain American totalitarianism to you chapter and verse and will provide ample examples.  Indeed, our government is not far behind Russia on the scale between liberty and totalitarianism, but that is a topic for another day.  In this day of censorship in the USA, we fear being "cancelled," while Russian citizens fear being thrown in jail.  Whether being cancelled or thrown in jail, curtailment of the freedom of speech is the most important tool of the would-be totalitarian.  

In any event, as I said before, Russian Gen Xers know authoritarians when they see them, and my Russian friends are clearly living under an authoritarian regime in Russia.  Many of these folks are afraid to talk about it over the phone or text for fear of "the knock on the door" from the government.  Speaking of Alexei Navalny, who was allegedly poisoned by the Russian government for criticizing Putin, is ill-advised.  One of my friends told me that she had deleted a couple of our messages for fear of having them on her phone.  She and other Russians are using as many social media outlets as possible to connect with the outside, because they fear that outlets may be shut down by the government or by the West.  Others who have spoken out against the Russian government have fled their homeland for other countries as political refugees.  The fear of censorship is real in Russia and is palpable.  In fact, although my sample size is small, it seems to me that the vast majority of Russians know that the Rubicon has been crossed and that they live in a totalitarian state.  The government controls the media in Russia and, therefore, has complete control of the national message and the narrative.  Journalists, who complained too much or asked too many good questions, were regularly assassinated in Moscow when I lived there in 1993-1994.  It was common.  Journalists shot by "bandits" while exiting their building or while exiting their flats.  I remember that one was found dead in the bathtub of his flat, and this happened when Russia was a new "democracy."  The name may have changed, and the constitution of its government is different, but Russia was and is still like the USSR.  Under Putin, it was like USSR-light.  Russia kept its citizens in check through fear and intimidation in amounts that most people could tolerate so long as life was economically better.  Hence, no mass exoduses, at least not until Putin initiated the partial mobilization.

On September 21, 2022, Putin announced a "partial mobilization" which is basically a national draft of 300,000 reservists and men with previous military experience between the ages of 18 and 27.  

Well, because national military service was compulsory anyway before Putin's draft, the vast majority of Russian men have the required military experience.  Basically, most men in Russia are eligible to be conscripted into the Russian military, and I have to tell you, tens of thousands of them ran for the border after Putin's announcement.  There were traffic jams trying to get out of Russia near the Georgian and Kazak borders.  Putin quickly banned air travel for draft-eligible men.  I am told that, if you were draft-eligible and you were found on the street, you could be taken and immediately conscripted.  Draft-eligible men are hiding out in their flats.  

So, considering this reaction to Russia's draft, I also wondered what Russian Gen Xers think about Ukraine and the present situation there.  This question definitely resulted in a wide variety of answers.  First and foremost, Russians nearly universally believe that Ukrainians are their brothers and sisters and, consequently, hate what is happening.  They cannot believe that Ukrainians, with whom Russians have a common historic bond, have been killing ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine for the past eight years.  Ethnic Russians living in eastern Ukraine have been migrating east into Russia for quite some time.  Now that the fighting escalated and intensified in February, Russian families are fleeing Ukraine to nearby Voronezh and Rostov.  

It must be understood that, when the USSR collapsed and the Soviet republics all became sovereign nation-states, the ethnic populations were very mixed with different ethnicities living scattered across all different republics.  Russians in Ukraine and Estonia.  Georgians in Russia and Belarus.  Armenians in Kazakhstan and Lithuania.  Similar to the USA, the Soviet Union was a melting pot of sorts.  When it all fell apart and wherever you were living that was your new country, and it did not work out so well in eastern Ukraine.  There are a ton of Russians there.  In fact, Crimea has a majority of ethnic Russian population.  After President Viktor Yanukovych, who is pro-Russian, was ousted by pro-western forces inside Ukraine in 2014 with aid from the USA in favor of a pro-western Ukrainian leader, the Russians both inside and outside Ukraine were justifiably upset.  Yanukovych was elected President largely with the help of the Russians in eastern Ukraine.  Over the years, this tension between pro-western and pro-Russian supporters in Ukraine has blown out of control and into the world war we see today, which as many Russians see as "Russia against the West."

Many Russians believe that they are fighting for the very survival of Russia.  Russians fear western expansion and western global hegemony.  While there was a flood of young men dashing for the borders, there were also tens of thousands of young men who enlisted which will further increase the number of soldiers in the Russian military.  Russians are no less patriotic than we are.  Maybe more so.  While my Russian friends hate what is happening in Ukraine many of them understand this war as a necessary evil.

One individual told me that she wished the West had never defeated the USSR and that it was the worst thing that had ever happened.  Yep.  That's what she said.  I was flabbergasted.  We are friends only because the Berlin Wall fell.  Absent the collapse of the USSR, I never would have met her or her wonderful family who took me in as if I was born there.  Though my children have never met her, they have known her name their entire lives.  As an American and a former-Soviet citizen, we are so happy to have met each other, to drink vodka together, to truly understand each other, and to see into the other's soul.  We learned that it was never the people that had a problem with each other.  It was always our governments who had the problems.  Who would have thought in 1970 that Russian GenX would cross with American GenX in the near future?  Crazy.  Then again, in 1989, who would have thought that we would right back in the exact same place under the shroud of possible nuclear war a little over 30 years later, yet here we are.  My Russian friends equally blame both Putin and the West. I cannot say that I disagree.

Editing Note:  Having re-read this article, I would like to offer one point of clarification.  Above, I stated, "While my Russian friends hate what is happening in Ukraine many of them understand this war as a necessary evil."  By using the word "evil," I meant to convey that all war is evil in some way.  I have videos from my research of horrific war atrocities occurring in Ukraine.  Videos that I would only share in the most extreme of circumstances in order to make a necessary and relevant point.  Horrific does not even come close to describing them.  War is evil by nature.  It is the intentional mass killing of our fellowman.  Nothing could be more evil.


  1. Very insightful. It's my understanding that Russia's influence (control) of Belarus is dominant. How has Ukraine's resistance affected the people and politics in other former Soviet satellites? Has it emboldened them to pull away from Russian control, scared them into compliance, or is that what's at stake?

  2. I don’t know Dave. I do know Belarus and Russia are tight. Lukashenko has been in power in Belarus since 1994 and is a former communist. Most of the countries in the former CIS are relatively close with Russia as far as I can tell though I have not done much research on that.