Two years later, anguish, anger, acceptance

It’s been over two years now that troops arrived and tanks rolled into Ukraine: the country, and the world, awoke to a full-scale Russian invasion. Two years ago we spoke with several Russians to hear their thoughts on the war, and a year ago, we caught up with them to see how their lives had changed.

In what has become a grim tradition, we today once again: what’s changed, what hasn’t, what’s next?

Challenges & Change

For Kirill, who relocated to Italy after the start of the war, things have settled. “I have more or less adapted. I began to understand Italian culture and the country as a whole,” said the St. Petersburg native who now lives in Milan. “If you compare it with last year, I feel much more confident, and much calmer somehow.”

For Yulia, currently in Moscow, plans to leave Russia are underway, but have yet to be realised. “Me and my girlfriend planned to immigrate this past year but turns out we weren’t prepared at all and still have very low resources,” she said. “We are getting there, but at a slower pace. Anti-LGBT extremist law is so horrifying and ridiculous at the same time. We feel more unsafe than ever.”

While the war in Ukraine has raged on, a string of new laws within Russia have created more dangers for its citizens. In late November 2023, The Supreme Court in Russia declared the “international LGBT movement” as an “extremist organisation.” Under Russian criminal law, participating in or financing an extremist organisation is punishable by up to 12 years in prison.

Another crippling law is on freedom of speech: Human rights group and watchdog OVD-info reported that 19,855 have been detained at anti-war protests since Feb. 24, 2022, while 896 criminal cases have been filed against anti-war dissidents.

But even as threats abound, life has no choice but to go on, even for those who oppose the war. “Not much has changed, except a new batch of repressive laws has been implemented,” said Evgeny, also in Moscow, who says that ultimately, his day-to-day life hasn’t changed significantly. “The cost of living's increased significantly, but inflation's a global trend. There was a loss of western services and brands; it's a minor inconvenience at worst.”

“So far the biggest challenge is to stay empathetic and hopeful.”

Numbness for survival, fear from afar

As one can imagine, caring deeply every time bad news emerges is exhausting and unsustainable, especially when you are surrounded by it. While far from indifference, numbness has become a survival tactic for those who oppose.

“I think most people became numb to all the bad news,” said Evgeny. “At least, I'm not in the trenches or under constant bombardment.”

“I feel like I became more numb to everything,” said Yulia. “I guess I’ve felt so much pain for such a long time that now wherever I see something I just accept it as a fact — I don’t process, don’t let it in.”

When there is a need to keep going, and to get out, staying still to grieve can be a luxury few can afford.

“I can still cry watching cute commercials and movies,” said Yulia. “But I try to dissociate myself from all the pain in the world. So I can survive, move, and help.”

“Even being here in Italy, I still have a strong fear that Russia is still pursuing me. I’m afraid that if I say that I’m against the Russian army or against Russia, they could just put me in prison,” said Kirill. “Although I have been here for 2 years now, I am very much afraid for my loved ones who stayed there.”

The loss of Navalny

Just shy of the invasion’s second anniversary, opposition Russians were hit hard once again: this time with the death of the face of Russia’s opposition and to many, the last symbol of hope, Alexei Navalny. While Russia’s left were hardly Navalny’s biggest fans, the loss of what he represented is impossible to ignore.

For all three, his death was inevitable – but it has now brought a sense of hope.

“Navalny died. And I didn’t cry and didn’t feel hopeless as many I know did,” Yulia said. “To be honest, I was living waiting for this news, I knew they wouldn’t let him live, I feel like I was ready long ago for his death.”

“His death was sad but predictable,” said Evgeny. “I wasn't his biggest supporter, as he engaged in some right wing populist rhetoric. Condolences to his family and loved ones and supporters.”

“I am not a supporter of Navalny in general, I don’t like him very much, but every person has the right to life,” said Kirill. “I can’t compare Navalny’s death to how I felt on Feb. 24, 2022, but it is similar when you understand that Russia and the Russian government are simply headed to the bottom and taking the country with them.”

But with Navalny’s death now comes a newfound hope. “I feel how people are leaning to each other, how they consolidate, unite. Like something is rising. And I feel it in the air,” said Yulia. “I don’t think there will be a revolution soon, but people uniting makes me feel hopeful. I know they are scared of us – that’s why they push harder and harder and harder. And the harder you push – the harder the kickback will be.”

Still, uncertainty remains.

“The opposition has lost its symbol of resistance and resilience,” Evgeny said. “I’m not entirely sure what would happen next, or what the opposition would accomplish. So far, all their activity's been pretty futile.”

“It’s some kind of totalitarian terrible regime, that if you don’t support us, you don’t support the war, you’ll either be in prison or you’ll be killed,” said Kirill. “For the Russian opposition, they simply killed their most important commander.”

“They can just kill a person like that, in front of everyone, without being afraid of anything at all.”

A dark future

In the aftermath of significant events like a 2-year commemoration or the murder of Alexei Navalny, everyday life creeps on, along with the sombre realisation of how much time has passed.

“I almost forgot about it,” Yulia said. “A few days ago I suddenly realised, ‘it's the 24th in a few days’. And it feels like more than two years have passed. I am still in Russia. Still planning to leave.”

“[But] I am much more aware about history now – the situation obliges," Yulia concluded. “Before Feb. 24 I hated my country. Now I know I love it. I love it so much, I want it to be free and progressive and fair and safe. But even more than that I want for Ukraine to win and heal.”

“In two years my life has changed completely – my worldview, my language, work, the people who surround me,” said Kirill. “I am very sad that my past life has ended. I'm trying to move on with my life, trying to build a new life from a blank slate. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t, sometimes I rejoice, sometimes I cry.”

“Today is February 24. I'm going to a rally in support of Ukraine – it is my civic duty.”