Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine eight weeks ago, Americans—both news anchors and regular people—have been asking me the same question: When coffins of Russian soldiers start coming home, won’t Russians rise up against the war, and against Vladimir Putin? Won’t grieving Russian mothers go out into the streets to protest the senseless conflict that took the lives of their children?
Setting aside the deeply patriarchal assumption embedded in the latter question—why is it the responsibility of women to end a war that men started without their input?—the whole idea has always struck me as impossibly solipsistic and naive. It assumes that everyone else, including Russians who live on the other side of the world and have their own history and culture, sees the world exactly as we do. It assumes that what is obvious to me and to most of us in the West—namely, that this is an unprovoked and unjustified war of Russian aggression—is obvious to the Russians themselves. It ignores the reality of what it is like not just to live in an authoritarian state with full control of the media, but to have lived in one for over two decades, an entire generation.
Many of the Russian soldiers dying in Ukraine right now were born in and around 2000, the year Putin became president. They have known no president other than Putin, no system other than his, no truth other than the one his propaganda machine has fed them both in the classroom and through the media. It took Fox News and the right-wing media just one year to convince a majority of Republicans that Joe Biden didn’t really win the 2020 election, and that’s in a country with a free press, where other sources of information are easily and readily available. Now imagine what Fox News and Breitbart could do if they and their ilk were the only media outlets in the country—for twenty years.