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A tale of two sanctions

We may be aiming for Russia’s war economy, but the collateral damage
could be a lowering of the iron curtain on information

In Russian, the title says, “Welcome to Facebook” … but nothing ever loads.

Editor’s notebook
By Aubrianna Snow

THERE IS no good way to talk about war. It does, however, need to be talked about. Something we generally take for granted in Western democracies is that we have the information we need – often too much of it, in fact. This is not the case for those living under the rule of Vladimir Putin.

The Russian war on Ukraine has brought change even to the lives of those on the other side of the world from it, but there’s been significantly less discussion of what those changes have meant for citizens of the Russian Federation.

Regardless of whether they support the war and the broader Putin regime, Russians have had their lives upended by the instability that their leader’s decisions have brought upon the country. With the Kremlin seeking to keep its people in the dark, access to the Internet is helping to prevent the Iron Curtain from closing on young urban Russians, who often feel blindsided by the conflict.

“I started thinking differently,” Alex, a banker, says. “I used to love my country very much and believed that I only needed to wait for a change of power.”

Alex, like the others interviewed for this piece, asked to have his identity protected in light of the Kremlin’s tight new censorship campaign that could see them imprisoned for speaking out.

Russian media paints a rosy picture of the country’s unprovoked aggression in Ukraine, and the Kremlin has also blocked most Western-based avenues of information.

The moves of various multinational corporations to restrict access to their services and platforms in Russia have significantly magnified the problem of disinformation.

Many young and tech-savvy Russians are using VPNs to continue their Internet access mostly unfettered. Those citizens without the digital know-how, however, are left to parse the truth from the narratives spun in national media.

“I want to laugh because of the absurdity [of what’s being presented in Russian media],” Alex says. “Our authorities call it a ‘special operation’ that began through the fault of NATO and the West. They blame all the destruction on the Ukrainian military.

“All news is the same. They just repeat themselves from day to day. I know the truth, and I know that they are blatantly lying to us. I hate our government; and every time I see the news, I just want to spit on the screen.”

‘The problem is that the average Russian thinks all
these things will magically come back one day’

Even with signs of Russia scaling back its invasion of Ukraine, the damage has been done – both to Russia’s place in the global order and to the global order itself. There is simply no guessing when, if ever, Russia will regain its former role as a relatively trusted key player in global decision making.

There’s no way to know, either, whether life will ever return to normal for those Russians who have grown accustomed to life in a globalized country.

“The problem is that the average Russian thinks all these things will magically come back one day,” Leo, a web designer, says. “But I guess they won’t come back that fast and easily. I can’t imagine how much things would need to change to get these companies back.”

Some of the rationale behind the sanctions may lie in the belief that being deprived of Western comforts will spur action against the Putin regime from within the Russian populace.

“I doubt turning off Pokemon Go in Russia will make Putin surrender,” Leo says. “If you think this will make us riot, you have no idea how protests work here.”

The country’s internal crackdown on anti-war protesters has been extreme.

“Elderly people get beaten up and taken to the police station,” says Anna, an artist who has been forced to relocate from Russia since the war began to retain her employment with an international company. “Kids get threatened with their families losing jobs and their futures being destroyed.

“I know it’s not enough for people scared for their lives, and it’s not my place to try and explain … people here are scared for their lives, too. It’s easier when you have only yourself to think about, but I’m much more scared for my little sister’s future. For my parents’ and grandparents’ well-being.”

Russia represents a threat to the global order not seen in the 21st century; however, behind one strongman in government, there are millions of people who would reverse these decisions if given the chance.

“I personally don’t know a single person who would support any of this or the man himself,” Anna says. “Nobody ever expected it to be this bad, and I hate that people’s lives get destroyed over a madman’s paranoid idea of power.”

Ultimately, the comforts of globalization and constant communication have come to represent a vital lifeline of information and well-being, and the innocent masses are not to blame for the actions of a crazed tyrant. Cutting Russians off from the global network only serves to further isolate those living under the regime and make them more vulnerable. 

Humanity has benefitted tremendously from globalization and free access to information. This vital historical moment, when the very fate of the world seems up to the whims of leaders and policymakers, is hardly the time to disempower those looking to support change.

Information is power, and power belongs to the people.

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