The West doesn’t get it – Russians aren’t ‘zombified’, and most of them are pro-Putin

The West doesn’t get it – Russians aren’t ‘zombified’, and most of them are pro-Putin
Many of the closed McDonald's in Moscow. Several foreign businesses have shut down their operations in Russia amid heavy sanctions imposed by the international community after Russian troops entered Ukraine on 24 February 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Yuri Kochetkov)

By far the majority of Russians, while heartbroken, believe Russia was forced into the war.

I have just got off the phone with my niece who lives in London. She asked where I was. On hearing it was Russia, at all of five years old, she exclaimed: “Why are you in that naughty country?”

I’ve been in this “naughty country” since just after the war in Ukraine started. Visa and Mastercard no longer work. I’m running out of cash and there’s no way to wire any here. Russia is no longer part of the Swift international monetary system and the hotel I’m staying at accepts only rubles. Three nearby banks are out of money; I’m told it’s temporary and to come back later to exchange American dollars.

Across the road, a McDonald’s franchise has been closed all week. Every so often, someone still comes and tries to pry the door open. The closure of more than 400 foreign companies has prompted online memes and jokes. One goes: With the departure of McDonald’s, Russians will now be the healthiest and fittest people in the world. Another: The devil doesn’t wear Prada anymore; the devil wears Belarusian cotton knit.

I’m eating a sandwich in Subway, another American multinational fast food restaurant, but here it’s business as usual. Not all big-name firms have been able to withdraw from Russia, because of complicated franchise agreements.

As a result of sanctions, brands such as Mastercard Visa have suspended their services in Russia. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Maxim Shipenkov)

A few days ago, I waited in a Starbucks queue while drinking from an orange juice bottle I intended to buy. By the time I reached the counter, my credit card was no longer working and I had no rubles. I returned the next day to pay what I owed but the coffee house had already been closed down.

Russia is facing its worst sanctions yet. The US and Europe are hoping they’ll lead to some kind of revolution against President Vladimir Putin. But sanctions have a chequered history. They didn’t get rid of Castro in Cuba or the Kim family in North Korea. It took more than a decade for sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s to bear fruit. And Russia is Russia.

One lesson I’ve learnt reporting from Moscow is that there’s no shared reality between the sides. It is doubtful that sanctions will lead to Putin’s downfall and, regardless of Western leaders’ insistence that they are not at war with the Russian people, it is interpreted that way here and is likely to lead to Putin leveraging even more power.

Foreign audiences don’t get it. The war is popular in Russia and official statistics suggest as many as 75% of Russians support it. Even if those figures are exaggerated, it still points to a majority who are in the Putin camp. The only way Western audiences can understand this is by accusing Russians of being “zombified” – there’s no free press in your country, they argue, which means Russians are fed a media diet of what Putin wants them to think.

Russians laugh off these accusations. If we are brainwashed, they say, then we are no more so than Western audiences by the likes of Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and others. The fact that sanctions were implemented so quickly points to one of three things, they tell me: Russophobia; the West was just looking for a reason to sanction Russia and everything was already in place; or both.

As with people everywhere, humour helps. Russians joke they are waiting for sanctions on bears and balalaikas. Blocking TikTok and Instagram and closing McDonald’s and KFC seems like our mothers have sanctioned us, they chuckle.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once said: “I write to understand as much as to be understood.” I find myself constantly double- and triple-checking myself to make sure I haven’t been caught up in the pro-Russian rhetoric. I am trying to remain outside of the debate and merely report on what I see and hear. But it’s like living in a parallel universe.

People pass an exchange office in Moscow on 10 March 2022. It has become difficult to exchange dollars for rubles. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Maxim Shipenkov)

I addressed Russian students of international relations at the prestigious Moscow State University. Many came up afterwards to hug and thank me for giving them hope.

I’d spoken about the feelings in the West towards Russia and implored these future leaders to think outside the box and for themselves. Nothing I said surprised them, but they surprised me with their questions.

How do we engage with students our age in America about what’s happening, they asked, because every time we go on to a Western platform like Instagram, we’re blocked because we’re from Russia? How can we bypass the information wall and defeat Western double standards so they can hear what we think? Incidentally, as to what they think – they all support Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Russians are naturally heartbroken by the pictures of destruction and death across their border, but many believe Russia was forced into this war.

For eight years pro-Russian citizens living in the east of Ukraine were shelled by the Ukrainian army and the world did nothing. Many Russians believe their army is liberating their countrymen and to do that it has to destroy all of the military installations across Ukraine. It’s also getting rid of tens of thousands of neo-Nazis who have risen to prominence and who are using Ukrainian civilians as human shields, accounting for the high casualty count.

The information war is at an all-time high. It’s true that what Western audiences see is not being portrayed on Russian state media. But the charge goes the other way, too.

On 14 March, a rocket fired at the centre of Donetsk, a pro-Russian city in eastern Ukraine, killed 23 people and wounded 28. The Russian media reported live around the clock from the devastating scene: an old man crying “Luda” as he bent over the body of his dead wife; another woman wailing as she tried to regain her senses…

For the Russians, it was obvious that only a Ukrainian missile would target Russia-supporting civilians. Kyiv, on the other hand, blamed Russia for the attack, suggesting it was a false-flag operation staged to cover the deaths of civilians by Russian forces in other cities. The bombing got little to no coverage in the Western media.

Russians complain that the figures of their dead are inflated. Younger people have access to the internet and some are questioning the justification of this war. Some, but not all. And it’s too easy to say that everyone who supports Putin has been brainwashed.

There is a hangover of the Cold War here; a deep mistrust for the West and, as Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said recently: “We are under no illusion that we can rely on our Western partners… The US wants a unipolar world, to marginalise and stop Russia’s development and to reduce her to having a zero role in the international arena.”

A woman watches a recorded feed of Russian Channel One’s evening news broadcast that was disrupted by a station employee with an anti-war poster on 15 March 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE)

Ukraine is ranked 97th out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Russia is ranked 150th. Neither has a proud record. Russian state media are now banned in many parts of the world, although since 2014 they have been prevented from broadcasting inside Ukraine, which has given the Kyiv government carte blanche to say what it wants to its public about Russia without Moscow being able to refute the claims.

Former UK prime minister Winston Churchill once said: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” The West believes itself to be at war with Russia, as Russia does with the West. Both sides claim to hold the higher moral ground. Many outsiders don’t know who – or what – to believe anymore, and while the pursuit for truth is a noble venture, it’s as subjective as the many people claiming to own it. DM168

Paula Slier is an international war correspondent who hails from South Africa. She is CEO and founder of “Newshound Media International,” a production company based in the Middle East.  She also held the position of Middle East Bureau Chief for RT (Russia Today)

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.



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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ion Williams says:

    Glad to see they support his war because they are going to have to pay for it as well as compensate the Ukrainians. If they were against it it would be a difficult sell. How they are going to replace they lives they have taken is also going to easier if they consented to taking them.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Oh common Paula Slier, you and RT have absolute zero credibility! There is no and never was any press freedom in Russia, let alone the Soviet Union. The state controls the media and all information with an iron fist and woe betide anyone who transgresses. All the media that had a sliver of freedom of expression have been shut down under draconian laws. 15 years await anyone who dares differ from the bile and propaganda forced-fed by the state media and opposition figures like Navalny are in prison on trumped up charges.

    Any nation that was under the Soviet Union and now Russia would run 100 miles to be free from repression, bullying, torture and corruption. Russia today is like SA on steroids – a predatory and criminal cabal of state capture, corruption and nepotism by the elite and privileged few with Putin the mafia don. Yet you dare compare western media with your pathetic state-sponsored RT!!! Shame on you!

  • Bruce Sobey says:

    You may not believe that the Russians are zombified, but they do not have a free press. You underestimate the effect of press propaganda! I suggest that you read the article by Vitaly Katsenelson. “The war in Ukraine Part 3”. In which he says “I wanted to see what was going on in Russia and Ukraine from the Russian perspective, so I went on a seven-day news diet: I watched only Russian TV – Channel One Russia, the state-owned broadcaster, which I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years – and read Pravda, the Russian newspaper whose name means “truth.”” He goes on to tell the effect of this: “….After watching Russian TV, you would not want to read the Western press, because you’d be convinced it was lying. More important, Russian TV is so potent that you would not even want to watch anything else, because you would be convinced that you were in possession of indisputable facts.
    Russia’s propaganda works by forcing your right brain (the emotional one) to overpower your left brain (the logical one), while clogging all your logical filters.”
    Vitaly was born in Ukraine, brought up in Russia, but has lived in the USA for 30 years.
    Secondly – truth, by definition, is not subjective. Wikipedia definition: “Truth is the property of being in accord with fact or reality”. If there are two different perceptions, one will not to correspond to truth (or reality). One, or both, of the sides is wrong.

  • andrew.linington says:

    No surprise from an RT presenter

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    Perhaps the little blurb at the end – the one which states ‘ She also held the position of Middle East Bureau Chief for RT (Russia Today)’ should have been at the start of the story. Then I would have read it with a pinch of salt…

  • Biff Trotters says:

    “Many Russians believe their army is liberating their countrymen and to do that it has to destroy all of the military installations across Ukraine. It’s also getting rid of tens of thousands of neo-Nazis who have risen to prominence and who are using Ukrainian civilians as human shields, accounting for the high casualty count.” – Why do many Russians believe this? It seems that this is the flavour of the cool-aid. I have been searching for evidence of these neo-Nazis, and found none, Yet.

    Naturally, both sides have their agendas and the media will be skewed accordingly. But I am able to access multitudes of sources to achieve a better balance. Can the Russians do that?

    And Paula, what have you written here? Are you trying to represent the opinion of the average lay Russian, or is this position yours?

  • Just Me says:

    What most countries in the ‘West’ don’t get is that they cannot outsource international geo-political strategy setting, and printing of a global reserve currency, to the US any longer, or even let the US think that they can plant lethal weapons willy-nilly in places like Ukraine.

    • Johan Buys says:

      You do know that this is not the “West” against Russia??? It is basically everybody except BRICS and the usual basket cases.

  • Szivos David says:

    I would also add that Moscow does not equal the rest of Russia.
    a significant proportion of the Russian population lives in extreme poverty and under such employment that – in many other countries – would be considered slavery with no light of hope anywhere in sight (think mining towns, northern outpost, pretty much entire Siberia etc).
    There are many aspects of the Russian attitude and reaction that are not mentioned here (such as the massive influx of middle-class Russian into Finland and Estonia). Most who disagrees or concerned and could afford to leave Russia already left. The remainder – for their own protection if for nothing else – will either stay quiet or parrot back anything that may save their life, job etc.
    The alternative is not necessarily getting killed but you can easily find yourself in the Russian army or at the very edge of civilization. The expression: don’t trust a Russian has a a lot of foundation but not in the standard way you may think. Many Russian will simply not open in an unsafe environment and what you will see and hear from them is not from their heart but from their self-preservation mode (think their history going back centuries of constant aggressive oppression of their own kind). A drunk, naked Russian in the middle of an empty forest east from the Ural will tell you the truth in whispers and then deny it until he dies.
    Thats my experience anyways growing up in the Eastern Block.

  • Johan says:

    In most discussions about Russia the word “Navalny” settles the argument.

  • Manfred Hasewinkel says:

    Depending on whether you are outside or inside Russia and relying on state media, I accept that there are two different perceptions of this particular military operation. As far as Paula Slier is concerned, I suspect that she is singing for her supper.

  • Richard Coetzee says:

    Thank you Daily Maverick for allowing an opposing view of the general narrative. It is desperately needed in a time when all opposing views are systematically removed from public discourse.
    To assume that western media doesn’t have an agenda as well is infantile. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. We are moving into a world it seems that empathy is sorely lacking.
    And before anybody labels me a Putin supporter. or Russian apologist…Nowhere in my post did I condone any of the Russian actions nor the war. What I am against is the black and white narrative that is being shoveled down our throats. We good, they evil. It is appaling.

    • Tim Price says:

      Its all very well to call for alternative viewpoints but is this that? It references interactions with Russians subjected to state media and Putin’s age old and outdated Soviet Union era dreams for years.

      Does Putin’s theory of the world pass muster and even if it does (which you’d be hard pressed to establish), does it in any way justify attacking another country and killing thousands of people in the process. No sensible person who recognizes basic human rights and the rule of law could agree that it does. So yes, in a way this is a battle between good and bad, evil even. Putin is indisuptably an authoritarian undemocratic kleptocrat whose actions amount to murder and war crimes.

  • Johan Buys says:

    the author got only one thing right : she compared Russia to North Korea and Cuba.

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