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How war has changed Russian society

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Nina Khrushcheva joins us next. She is back in the United States after spending several months in Russia researching a book on her great grandfather, the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev. Good morning.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So I'm thinking about the way that when there's been bad news, a death in the family, layoffs in the company, sometimes people talk all about it, and sometimes people don't want to talk about it at all, like there's nothing to say. So when you were in Moscow and St. Petersburg, how, if at all, did people talk about the war?

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, that's the only thing they talk about, actually, even if on the surface sometimes it seems that nothing has happened. But the only thing they talk about is that. I mean, it's almost like a society in a suspended state. Your correspondent just said that Putin has cast it as an existential battle between Russia and the West. And - but since there is no exit, really, there's no understanding how that existential battle is going to be resolved and what's next. It is kind of a very terrifying moment for most Russians. They just - despair there is palpable.

INSKEEP: Do people accept Putin's frame for this war then, we must win or we die?

KHRUSHCHEVA: To some degree, they now have to. I mean, if we talk about a year, the rhetoric changed. I mean, it used to be much less existential and more about saving the brothers, the Russian brothers or Russian-affiliated brothers in Donbas, in East Ukraine. But now it is this sort of the Lord Voldemort fight for the Ministry of Magic against everybody else for eternal glory. It's pretty much like that. And so people do have to accept it because where else they're going to go? But I would calculate - and you cannot really trust any Russian polling because when you're going to be arrested for saying no, that you're not supporting Putin, then of course you're going to say, yes, you are. But if you recast it and rethink how these questions are asked and what people really mean, I would say that about 70%, those 70% who say they support Putin actually want out of it, although they don't see how Russia can get out of it. Because if we are indeed threatened by the West, what else we're going to do?

INSKEEP: So privately, they would like Putin to go, but publicly, they are effectively supporting him because they see no alternative.

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, publicly, some people say they're effectively supporting him because they really have no alternative. But, yes, I mean, Russia really just - many in Russia think that they're going to wake up from this bad dream. And I'm really saying it cautiously because if it is a bad dream for Russia, for Ukraine, it's a nightmare. But, yes, Russians also feel that it's a nightmare to live through.

INSKEEP: We have, of course, followed the news of the flow of people out of Russia over the past year. I'd like to know how that feels in the places that people are leaving behind. Have enough people vanished that you feel their absence in a place like Moscow?

KHRUSHCHEVA: Absolutely. I mean, all people - most people I know, I knew were gone. And, I mean, people are meeting elsewhere now. People just asking, where are you? Are you in Riga? Are you in Vilnius? Are you in Berlin? Are you in London? Let's get together. So a lot of people are gone. I mean, some still there, but a lot of people are gone. And when Putin says - and there's a quote we just heard that the Russian society is behind it, Russia essentially, I mean, once again, this is a very soft figure, as we don't know, but probably about a million and a half left Russia since the beginning of the operation. So this is technically the country that pretends that it's just a special military operation, not the war. So lost 1% of its population just because people left. But also, let's remember that in many, many places in Russia, there are dead bodies coming back and people are aware of that. And they have these burials, and they are told not to talk about it. So this is something that, as I said, society in a suspended state.

INSKEEP: What kinds of things do you hear from people about America when you meet them and you say, I'm coming from the United States, I live in the United States, I'm heading back to the United States?

KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, people say I'm lucky because, I mean, you know, a lot of people want to go. They ask me, oh, is - Biden really think that he's going to win over such a great country, such as big 11 time zone country such as Russia? But generally, it's more - people see it as a political fight, really not a fight against, you know, Russian people against American people in any way. But that reminded me of the Cold War animosity. And that's the thing that Putin did is that sides suddenly became the battle between the two systems or that Russia doesn't have a system, separate system, and yet he managed to do it.

INSKEEP: Nina Khrushcheva, thanks so much for your insights, really appreciate it.

KHRUSHCHEVA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.