In Moscow, the War Is Background Noise, but Ever-Present

Metro trains are running smoothly in Moscow, as usual, but getting around the city center by car has become more complicated, and annoying, because anti-drone radar interferes with navigation apps.

There are well-off Muscovites ready to buy Western luxury cars, but there are not enough available. And while a local election for mayor took place as it normally would last Sunday, many of the city’s residents decided not to vote, with the result seemingly predetermined (a landslide win by the incumbent).

Almost 19 months after Russia invaded Ukraine, Muscovites are experiencing dual realities: The war has faded into background noise, causing few major disruptions, and yet it remains ever-present in their daily lives.

This month, Moscow is aflutter in red, white and blue flags for the annual celebration of the Russian capital’s birthday, No. 867. Its leaders marked the occasion with a monthlong exhibition that ended last Sunday. Featuring the country’s largest hologram, it showcased the city of 13 million people as a smoothly operating metropolis with a bright future. More than seven million people visited, according to the organizers.

Attending a performance of the Kremlin School of Horse Riding last month in Moscow.
Troopers of the horse riding school performing last month.

There is little anxiety among residents over the drone strikes that have hit Moscow this summer. No alarm sirens to warn of a possible attack. When flights are delayed because of drone threats in the area, the explanation is usually the same as the one plastered on signs at the shuttered luxury boutiques of Western designers: “technical reasons.”

The city continues to grow. Cranes dot the skyline, and there are high-rise buildings going up all over town. New brands, some homegrown, have replaced the flagship stores like Zara and H&M, which departed after the invasion began in February 2022.

“We continue to work, to live and to raise our children,” said Anna, 41, as she walked by a sidewalk memorial marking the death of the Wagner mercenary leader Yevgeny V. Prigozhin. She said she worked in a government ministry, and like others interviewed, she did not give her last name because of a fear of retribution.

Soldiers last month in Moscow.
Pedestrians in Moscow walking past an army recruitment point in May.

But for some, the effects of war are landing harder.

Nina, 79, a pensioner who was shopping at an Auchan supermarket in northwestern Moscow, said that she had stopped buying red meat entirely, and that she could almost never afford to buy a whole fish.

“Just right now, in September, the prices rose tremendously,” she said.

Nina said that sanctions and ubiquitous construction projects were some reasons for higher prices, but the main reason, she said, was “because a lot is spent on war.”

“Why did they start it at all?” Nina added. “Such a burden on the country, on people, on everything. And people are disappearing — especially men.”

When asked about the biggest problems facing Russia, more than half of the respondents in a recent poll by the independent Levada Center cited price increases. The war, known in Russia as the “special military operation,” came in second, with 29 percent, tied with “corruption and bribery.”

“In principle, everything is getting more expensive,” said Aleksandr, 64, who said he worked as an executive director in a company. His shopping habits at the grocery store have not changed, but he said he had not traded in his luxury Western-branded car for a newer model.

“First of all, there are no cars,” he said, noting that most Western dealerships had left Russia and that Chinese brands had been taking their places on the roads.

When flights are delayed because of drone threats in the area, the explanation given is usually “technical reasons.”
Moscow’s metro recently stopped making announcements in English, with a Russian-language voice announcing every stop twice.

The war has made itself evident outside supermarkets and auto dealerships. Moscow may be one of the few cities in Europe without sold-out showings of the movie “Barbie.” Warner Bros, which produced the film, pulled out of Russia shortly after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine, and bootleg copies of “Barbie” were shown only in a few underground screenings.

Theaters regularly show movies that premiered more than five years ago because of licensing issues and strict new laws banning any mention of L.G.B.T.Q. people.

Advertisements to join the military are plastered on roadside billboards and on posters in convenience stores. Moscow’s metro recently stopped making announcements in English, with a Russian-language voice announcing every stop twice.

Cosmetically, Moscow is changing, too. A statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet political police, was inaugurated this past week in front of the headquarters of the foreign intelligence services. It is a copy of a statue that stood in front of the headquarters of the K.G.B. until it was torn down in 1991 by Russians hungry for freedom.

The election for mayor also underscored the sea change in Russian politics. A decade ago, the opposition politician Aleksei A. Navalny stood as a candidate against Sergei S. Sobyanin. Now, Mr. Navalny is in jail, and there was no real competition for Mr. Sobyanin, who won a third term with an unprecedented 76 percent of the vote.

A sidewalk memorial near Red Square in Moscow was set up after the death of the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, last month.
“People prefer to tell one another ‘let’s not talk about it here.’ And that’s why you can’t see in the mood,” said Aleksei A. Venediktov, who headed the liberal Echo of Moscow radio station.

Other parties, including the Communist Party, fielded a candidate against the incumbent, but they are all considered “systemic opposition” parties, or groups in Parliament nominally in opposition but who align their policies with the Kremlin on most issues.

“Before the war, I still voted,” said Vyacheslav I. Bakhmin, a chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest human rights group in Russia. “I don’t want to vote now because, well, the result seems to be clear, right?”

Many in Moscow chose not to vote, though turnout was at a two-decade high because of electronic voting that allows Muscovites to cast a ballot online. There is also heavy-handed encouragement of public sector employees to vote.

Mr. Sobyanin, 65, benefited from a carefully cultivated image as an effective manager, and Moscow’s cleanliness and ease of getting around is praised even by people who oppose his political party. He has made transportation a hallmark of his tenure, and he not only keeps the trains running efficiently, but is opening brand-new stations.

The elections in Moscow and in more than 20 Russian regions are widely seen as a test run for presidential elections in March. Mr. Putin has not declared his candidacy, but he is widely expected to run.

As Mr. Putin presides over a war with no end in sight, the authorities have worked to limit public expressions of dissent and make things seem as normal as possible. Aleksei A. Venediktov, who headed the liberal Echo of Moscow radio station before the Kremlin shut it down last year, said that the government had engineered the war’s absence from political spaces.

Moscow City, the financial center where several drone attacks happened over the summer.
A Chinese company’s stall at an automotive aftermarket trade fair in August in Moscow.

“This war, it is mainly on TV, or on Telegram channels, but it is not on the street, it is not even discussed in cafes and restaurants, because it is dangerous, because the laws that have been adopted are repressive,” Mr. Venediktov said. He noted cases in which people expressing antiwar views were denounced — or in some cases reported to the police — by those sitting next to them on the subway or in restaurants.

“People prefer to tell one another, ‘Let’s not talk about it here,’” Mr. Venediktov said. “And that’s why you can’t see it in the mood.”

In Moscow City, an area of skyscrapers that is the Russian capital’s answer to New York’s Financial District, many people casually dismissed a series of drone strikes that damaged some of the buildings there but resulted in no casualties.

One woman, Olga, who said she worked nearby, just nodded as a colleague shrugged off the potential risk.

Later, Olga sent a New York Times journalist a message on the Telegram messaging app: “I couldn’t say anything, because at work they don’t talk about a position like mine,” she wrote. “I am against war and I hate our political system.”

When there is a drone strike inside Russia, she said, “I always hope that maybe someone will think about what it means to live under shelling, and regret the loss of our normal life before the war.” She said that if the explosions do not cause casualties, then “I don’t regret damage to the buildings at all.”

Mr. Venediktov said that even if changes on Moscow’s surface were hard to see, and increasingly harder to discuss, people were truly transforming inside.

“People are starting to return to the Soviet practice, when public conversations can lead to trouble at work,” he said. “It’s like toxic poisoning — a very slow process.”

A recruitment ad for the Russian Army is displayed on a Moscow billboard.

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