‘It’s hard to know what’s true and what’s false’: Foreigners navigate life in Russia during Putin’s war

In the week since Vladimir Putin started waging war on Ukraine, foreigners living in Russia have been trying to make sense of what is happening as Moscow ramps up efforts to control the narrative. Sanctions imposed by the West have started to bite and many expats in the country are planning to leave or have already done so.

Faced with growing opposition to the invasion, Mr Putin’s government is censoring the way that the rapidly worsening conflict is described and portrayed in the media. Moscow on Friday passed a new law meaning citizens who spread what it described as “fake” information about the military can be jailed for up to 15 years.

“The news is saying it’s a special military operation, but whether you agree depends on what side you are on,” Italian political development student Francesca Cuozzo told The Independent.

“The people who support it see it as a matter of national security, but those who don’t recognize it as a war,” the 24-year-old added.

An Italian masters student studying in Moscow, Ms Cuozzo is planning on staying in the country despite most of the international students at her university having decided to leave. “They started to leave right after the first bomb fell on Kyiv,” she said.

Her Russian friends are evenly split in terms of being for or against the invasion, she said, and many have stopped posting their views on social media because of the ensuing online fights.

Those who support the invasion cite Mr Putin’s claims of a genocide in the Donbas region of Ukraine – where Ukrainian troops have been fighting pro-Russian rebels since 2014 – and say that the eight-year war there has gone on too long. Others see Ukraine as a brotherly country that is being horrifically and needlessly attacked by Mr Putin.

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Ms Cuozzo said she is getting her news from “both sides”, using Telegram and Instagram to read Ukrainian media and listening to the state Russian channels, such as RT.

“My Russian friends who support the invasion say that I am biased from Western propaganda, and my Western friends are saying that I should be careful I am not biased by Russian propaganda,” she said.

“I am trying but it is hard to understand what is true and what is false.”

This map shows the extent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

(Press Association Images)

The United States issued a stark warning on Wednesday saying that the “Kremlin is engaged in a full assault on media freedom and the truth.” The US State Department added in a statement: “Moscow’s efforts to mislead and suppress the truth of the brutal invasion are intensifying.”

Access has been restricted to the independent news outlets Radio Ekho Moskvy and Dozhd TV, and access to Facebook has been partially limited by the Russian authorities.

Dozhd’s editor in chief Tikhon Dzyadko announced that he had decided to temporarily leave Russia, saying: “I have made the decision to leave Russia for a while. A similar decision was made by a number of editorial staff. It is obvious that the personal safety of some of us is under threat.”

Liberal radio station Echo of Moscow has also been taken off air, prompting Russian author Dmitry Glukhovksy to write: “Military censorship, which prohibits telling the truth about Putin’s war with Ukraine, turned my country into a dictatorship in just a week.”

The Russian government has also told the media to only use official state sources for their reports on the invasion and not to use certain words to describe the conflict. “Attack, invasion and war” are all banned, according to the Russian news website Meduza, and state media outlets are referring to it only as a “special military operation”.

On Thursday, the country’s foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said that the BBC was being used to undermine the internal political situation in Russia and that foreign media was offering only a partial view of the world.

People stand in line to withdraw money from an ATM of VTB Bank in downtown Moscow, Russia


Duane, a British business owner in the Moscow region who only gave his first name, is following both European and Russian news outlets.

Originally from the north of England, he is now sympathetic to the reasons Russia has given for their “special military operation” in Ukraine. “The Russian military doesn’t wish to cause harm to any Ukrainians,” he said. “They try to avoid it as much as possible, but a conflict is a conflict.”

Duane mainly reads The Guardian and RT to get “both sides”, but said “there is no thing really as independent news”.

“A lot of people don’t like the fact that there is an operation in Ukraine. Ukraine is part of their culture, their heritage and they have relatives there. People here are mainly stressed that things could escalate globally,” he said.

The police presence has increased in Moscow, Ms Cuozzo observed. “The city is so full of police that you kind of feel scared even to say the word Ukraine while walking in the streets,” she added.

An inscription reading “No to war” is seen on an advertisement board as riot police officers stand guard nearby during a protest in Saint Petersburg.

(AFP via Getty Images)

Demonstrations have taken place in more than 100 Russian cities since the invasion broke out, with more than 6,500 people having been arrested during protests, according to the OVD-Info project, an independent Russian human rights monitoring group.

Briton Annabelle Jones*, 25, was on a fellowship program in Moscow until Monday when she was evacuated from Russia along with the other people on the scheme. The young Russians she is friends with are all critical of Mr Putin and vocal about their opposition to the war in Ukraine, she said.

“Friends can’t get dollars out of the bank anymore. Some Russian friends are getting out to central Asia or the Baltics, but others don’t want to leave their families yet,” she told The Independent. “The fear is getting to them.”

“They see this as Putin’s war. And it’s the only thing people can think about at the moment. People prior to this weren’t going to protest, but now a friend is considering it.”

*Name has been changed.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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