In recent months I was fortunate enough to interview a Russian individual. Due to security concerns, the individual wishes to be identified as John Doe, and for the purposes of this piece, they will be referred to as such. Mr. Doe is not your typical Russian. His intellect and thinking are western in nature, and his view on the war in Ukraine stems from his family’s experiences with the Soviet Union and present-day Russia. Last week, I conducted a lengthy interview with Mr. Doe, talking about everything from his upbringing, feelings about the Russian state, the war in Ukraine, and trying to understand how a young Russian living abroad feels about their homeland.
Mr. Doe was born in Uzbekistan, a place he characterized as “quite chill,” and moved to Moscow at age three. His father, a business-minded liberal thinker, moved the family there, hoping for a better and more prosperous life. As Mr. Doe was describing his upbringing, he focused heavily on his parent’s influence on him and their way of teaching him to think for himself. Mr.Doe’s infatuation with enlightenment thinkers and western European culture is partly due to his parent’s encouragement of free-thinking and political independence and likely explains his opinions on Russia today. Mr. Doe describes previous generations of his family as anti-communist and skeptical of the Soviet state. To him, these generational influences have profoundly impacted his view of Russian culture and politics. As Mr. Doe describes being a young student in Russia during the 2014 invasion of Crimea, he characterized the Russian school systems as perpetuating “lies and propaganda.” “I didn’t get my news from there, ” he added, “my news always came from my parents who did everything they could to show me the west, taking me to western Europe, seeing and reading western media.”
Despite Mr. Doe’s western and liberal influences, he has experienced and knows plenty of friends and family affected by Russian propaganda over time. Although he says he sometimes misses Russian food and his family, he tells me the generational Russian propaganda, which he believes has brainwashed the Russian people, makes it challenging to nostalgize it. The lack of western media and the Russian people’s desire for a strongman has allowed Putin to create a web of disinformation so widespread in scale, says Doe. He does not, however, that it is essential for westerners to understand the cultural differences between them and Russia. Russia is a “collective” culture, says Doe. “They have no desire for democracy and want a leader like Putin or Stalin they can unite around. The democracies of the west often miscalculate that liberalizing Russia is possible; it is just not going to happen.” With this said, Doe believes a coalition of Russians, people like him, ages 18-26, believe in democratic freedoms and reforms. “It is the young people of Russia who see Putin for who he is. Likewise, the assassination of Boris Nemtsov outside the Kremlin shows young people, with smartphones and a desire to live a western lifestyle, that Putin is evil.” According to Doe, events like Nemtsov’s murder and imprisonment of Alexey Navalny have caused a brain drain of Russia’s young professionals, leaving the Russians in the country to be unduly pro-Putin. Doe shared anecdotes of friends he still has in Russia trying to “escape” Russia for freedom in the west.
“The propaganda, lies, and economy of Russia are hard. You see many young people moving to the west and get jealous; they no longer want to live there.” This phenomenon is strictly amongst young people, says Doe. He highlighted that older Russian diaspora populations, such as one in New York City’s Brighton Beach Neighbourhood, are overly supportive of the war. Doe similarly shared the story of his grandparents, now residing in Germany. “They are overly supportive of Putin and his war,” he tells me. In conversations Mr. Doe has had with them, they repeat arguments and propaganda similarly heard on Russian state TV and have expressed their desire to return to Russia someday. As Doe tells me, they see Putin as a hero. The economic reforms and liberalization of Russia in the mid-2000s, along with the “special military operation,” too many, signifies he [Putin] is putting Russia back on the right track. Additionally, Doe tells me that the western narrative that Russia is a failing state doesn’t matter. “Russians don’t want to change; they are happy with the way it is.”
Doe expresses that he feels terribly for the Ukrainian people. He says that Russia’s invasion is morally wrong, and their justification that it is to rid Ukraine of Nazis is “stupid.” “There are Nazis everywhere! Is that a reason to invade a country? There are Nazis in America; why doesn’t Putin invade there?” Although Doe admits he is no political expert or fortune teller, he believes Ukraine will keep up their resistance and will never become entirely Russian. He says metaphorically, “Russia may win the battle, but Ukraine will win the war. Ukraine is western, Putin’s propaganda may tell you otherwise, but if you talk to Ukraianns on the street, they will tell you they are western.” Although he admits there is some territorial difficulty when discussing the Donbas region, where many Russian speakers reside, he tells me Russia exaggerates this claim. “They have facilitated the crisis in Donbas to perpetuate division,” he says. “Like every other thing with this guy [Putin], he uses half-truths to fuel division and makes broad generalizations that are untrue.”
On a possible Ukraine victory, Doe believes that Ukraine will win if NATO remains fully supportive. “Russia can’t match up against America,” he says. “If NATO continues to support Ukraine, Ukraine wins; they stay western.” Although this might be slightly reductionist, it nonetheless symbolizes Doe’s adamant belief in western liberal principles. He tells me he could care less about Russia and is solely focused on obtaining his Canadian citizenship and living the rest of his life in the west. Mr. Doe has no plans to ever return to Russia and tells me that the war has only reinforced his opinions of Russia and, more specifically, Vladimir Putin.
I have known Mr. Doe for four years. He is an innovative, ambitious, and creative fellow passionate about liberalism, free markets, and free speech. These are values not similarly shared by most Russians, who value collectivism, social conservatism, egalitarianism, and a state-centered economy. Doe’s fundamental beliefs likely explain his rejection of Russian society and culture but represent a growing faction of Russians in the digital age. As Doe explained, Russia’s demographics largely explain who is supportive versus who rejects the war. Older Soviet nostalgists love Putin, desire a strongman and an empire, and want a collectivist, state-centered society. At the same time, young people like Mr. Doe wants a free and liberal culture where free speech is valued. The war is the manifestation of these beliefs. It represents sending Russia back to an age of importance, where when the state succeeds, the individual succeeds. Disinformation can therefore be seen as the tool the Russian government needs to justify their actions and as the foundational instrument to place their society into the epoch of Russian greatness.