What it’s like inside Moscow amid Ukraine war: Reporter’s Notebook

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Rumors have been swirling about possible martial law coming to Russia amid concerns the war in Ukraine could prove the boiling crisis that blows the lid off a controlled society, a sort of hybrid police state with Starbucks and vibrant social media.

That last bit of description, of course, applied only until very recently, when cheerful young baristas were sent home and Instagram was served its death sentence. Most independent news outlets in Russia have been shuttered with writers now in exile to avoid going to jail for as many as 15 years for crossing the Kremlin’s latest and arbitrary “fake news” red line.

The last journalistic brand of note left standing in Moscow is Novaya Gazeta. Its editor-in-chief won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps Novaya is too famous to fail, too feted to flee. But it is now under enormous pressure. The deputy editor told Fox News about the mood in Moscow as he sees it.


“It’s kind of tragic because we have our society collapsed and no economic hopes, and we also don’t see any political future for our homeland, our country,” Kirill Martynov said. “We have a lot of pro-war propaganda. It’s quite stupid and aggressive. And basically, you start to feel like a person who lives in a kind of occupied land, like it’s not your country. It’s a country which was occupied by some foreign invaders, some kind of enemy.”

A police car is parked in Red Square, with St. Basil's Cathedral in the background, in Moscow, Russia, March 4, 2022.

A police car is parked in Red Square, with St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background, in Moscow, Russia, March 4, 2022.
(AP Photo, File)

Martynov added that, compared to what Ukrainians are living through, he feels Russians have nothing really to complain about. But still, for many, this is a painful time and is pitting Russian against Russian.

“I feel like all the situation has us on the edge of civil war, basically because hate is rising in Russia,” he said. “Propaganda feeds this hate, and we have more and more hate and distrust in Russia.”


I put the question everyone wants to know – second only to what is on Putin’s mind? – to Martynov: What percentage of Russians support the war on Ukraine?

He estimated about 25%. Another quarter – and his answers are based on what he feels – simply support President Vladimir Putin, believing whatever he chooses to do must be right. Another quarter are scared, Martynov thinks, just keeping their heads down and trying to take care of their families. And the last 25% or even less are strongly against this war.

A woman passes by a mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, March 12, 2022.

A woman passes by a mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, March 12, 2022.
(AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

I asked Martynov if he thinks anyone in Putin’s inner circle is watching the images of Ukraine being broadcast by channels that do not belong to the Russian state. And if so, do they feel badly about the damage, deaths and refugee crisis?

“I feel like there are smart people around President Putin, and I believe that they understand pretty well what happens in Ukraine,” Martynov said. “They can see the same as we are, as we still have some, some independent source of information left — YouTube, Telegram and some other social media — which was not completely blocked in Russia for now. But I feel like they have decided that they are war criminals, so they can’t break this ties with Mr. Putin.”


He also believes that the political consequences of the war could mean the dissolution of Russia.

“Or, let’s say, the USSR. You feel like in 1991 the USSR was just wiped off the map, the political map, but I feel like it was just an illusion. I feel like in these 30 years the USSR in form of the Russian Federation was still alive. It’s still alive.”

Map shows Russia's invasion of Ukraine as of March 11, 2022.

Map shows Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as of March 11, 2022.

Novaya Gazeta made the decision to keep working based on feedback from subscribers. He went directly to his readers and asked if his should continue publishing, even if he could not report on the war. It can’t report on the war because if it refers to the conflict as a “war” or “invasion” rather than a “special military operation,” it would face punishment.

Novaya’s editorial board refuses to mince words. But if the publication were to report a version of events at odds with the official one, its employees would risk jail. It turned out, its readers want it to keep writing about anything it can, about everything else happening in Russia, which under current circumstances, is mostly the fallout from the war, the economy and street demonstrations.


Martynov said the newspaper just put out perhaps its best cover ever showing ballerinas dancing to “Swan Lake” against a backdrop of a mushroom cloud. All it says on the cover is “This edition of Novaya is in compliance with the changed criminal code of Russia.”

The symbolism is strong. Russian state television looped performances of “Swan Lake” during the 1991 coup attempt of the Communist hardliners against Mikhail Gorbachev.

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