What you will notice sooner or later when you are in Russia is that people avoid talking politics in public. I am used to people discussing politics in public spaces in Switzerland – for example, you can overhear a debate between two passengers about the current polling on the train, political topics are discussed and dealt with at university or high schools, or people actively exchange views on social media. In Switzerland, I feel comfortable expressing my opinion in public and it doesn’t bother me much if passers-by catch parts of the conversation. Depending on the milieu, I defend my political views more vehemently or try not to stir up conflicts and therefore choose my words more carefully.
During the first weeks of my stay in Moscow, I have noticed that people in public are very quiet, for example in the Moscow metro. Friends or families travelling together on the metro do talk. However, I hardly picked up any political conversations in the public space and asked myself what the reasons for this were. Are people in Russia not interested in politics? Through conversations with locals I learned that people in Russia do discuss politics, but prefer to do so within their own walls or at friends’ homes, a phenomenon that was already common in the Soviet Union. Some people told me that older generations in particular are still not used to taking active interest in politics because of the Soviet past, since the assumption prevails that they cannot influence politics anyway.
However, when I met with young Muscovites, they discussed a wide variety of things with me, such as ecology, religion, feminism as well as Russian politics. I was surprised that the generation of 19- to 27-year-old students at universities in Moscow was definitely interested in debates and that our political views were often very similar. This put into perspective the picture of an apolitical Russia that I had initially painted for myself.
However, with the events around 24th February 2022, things changed. On the one hand, many of the students with whom I had had lively exchanges about all sorts of things just a few days before suddenly seemed dejected and quiet. On the other hand, some people adjusted their posts on social media to the new media law that was passed at the beginning of March this year and prohibits the use of some words in certain contexts. At first, many people openly spoke and wrote about “war”, actively posted on social media and some lecturers explicitly spoke out that they condemn the Russian activities in Ukraine. With the new law, however, all this changed noticeably. Uncertainty about the threat of devastating penalties increased and many seemed to adjust their behavior. This was even the case for me. I don’t want to use the term “special operation” because I don’t want to obscure what really happened, as this term has in itself. Nevertheless, I avoid the word “war” in social media because I am not sure to what extent people who are not active in public are also controlled. Even more so, I avoid the word in conversations with people on the street or in the metro. I seem to have subconsciously adopted the practice of self-censorship as a matter of course. I now feel that it would be uncomfortable for me as well to speak my mind out loud in public – I would be afraid. I notice that I avoid the name of the Russian president and instead of his name I only say “president”. Why this cautious choice of words? I do not know to what extent boundaries can be explored and where the point of crossed boundaries is and consequences would follow. That is probably how my Russian fellow students and especially lecturers, who would lose their jobs, feel like.
Just a few weeks ago in Switzerland, I would not have thought that I would adapt so quickly when it comes to discussing politics in public or that I would phrase my posts on social media so carefully. I therefore reflect on my prejudices that people in Russia are apolitical. I have met numerous people with whom I have had such debates as I would have with students in Switzerland. However, something has changed with the events of February 2022. Debates seem to have become even quieter – out of self-protection. And I – as a person who would declare myself to be highly interested in politics – have also adopted this practice of self-censorship for self-protection. Therefore, I would not want to claim that the people in Moscow whom I have met are apolitical or less interested in politics than people in Switzerland. Instead, I would argue that the environment and the political and legal context play a role in whether one feels ready, comfortable or at least safe enough for political discussions.