In Estonia, Minority Russians Begin to Question Putin’s War

NARVA, Estonia – Like many ethnic Russians living along Estonia’s eastern border with Russia, Stansislava Larchenko can’t believe that President Vladimir V. Putin has carried out a killing spree in Ukraine.

Larchenko, 51, got angry at her son when he said in February after Putin invaded Ukraine that Russian soldiers were killing civilians. She claimed the massacre was the work of Ukrainians in Russian military uniforms, a clip of state television broadcast from Russia that she had seen.

“For me, Russia has always been a liberator, a country that gets attacked but never attacks another,” Larchenko said in the Estonian border city of Narva, the easternmost outpost of the country. NATO and the most ethnically Russian city in the European Union.

But after four months of war, Ms. Larchenko says she “removed my rose-tinted glasses” – and stopped arguing with her son, Denis, 29, after taking his advice to stop watching TV. Russian state.

“Psychologically,” she said, “I made it to the other side.”

In a city where most people speak Russian instead of Estonian and face social pressure to stick with their ethnic group, Ms. Larchenko is unusual in her willingness to publicly declare that she no longer see Russia as a force for good but as an aggressor.

The fact that so few Russians in Estonia’s free and democratic society are willing to do this is perhaps a sign of any change of heart for people in Russia, where public criticism It is a crime to declare war.

Beneath the surface, however, the mood in Narva is changing, especially among younger ethnic Russians. For some, the change carries an unsettling message for the Kremlin: Private suspicions are eroding public support for what Putin calls “military operations.” especially”.

Raivo Raala, an ethnic Estonian who retired to Narva, said “not a person, but a slave”.

Her son Larchenko, a member of the City Council, said most ethnic Russians in Narva “now know that Russia was wrong to attack Ukraine” but still struggle to reconcile this with the background. their identity – deep pride in Russia’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Sergey Tsvetkov, a Russian critic of the Kremlin who fled to Narva from Saint Petersburg in 2014 and now supports refugees from Ukraine, says he is disappointed that there are so few ethnic Russians in the country. Estonia speaks out against the war.

However, he added, “people are now starting to think more – most don’t change their minds, but they are doubting” about Russia’s reasons for invading Ukraine, mainly claiming that Ukraine has been overrun by the fascists and needs to be “liberated.”

Mr. Putin last month helped rekindle those doubts by curbing the invasion as part of a mission to “return and fortify” territory he said belonged “from time immemorial” to Russia. “This,” Putin said, “applies to Narva,” conquered by Peter the Great in 1704.

The mayor of Narva, Katri Raik, an Estonian historian, mocked Putin’s reading of history as untrue. No one in Narva, not even the native Russian speakers, more than 95% of the city’s population, she said, wants to be part of Russia.

About 36% of the city’s 60,000 residents hold Russian passports instead of Estonian ones, but, the mayor said, “no one is leaving to live in Russia,” where wages are much lower, corruption is rampant and health care and other services are much worse.

“Everybody here knows what life is like there,” Ms. Raik said.

However, despite these insights, many ethnic Russians in Estonia still sympathized with Mr. Putin when the war began.

A public opinion poll in March by Globsec, a Slovak research group, found that 22% of Estonians – a number that closely resembles the population of Russian origin – have a positive view of Putin, down from 30% last year.

The mayor said she believes Putin’s support has shrunk, especially as people can no longer easily watch Russian state television following Estonia’s ban on cable TV services.

To affirm Narva’s separation from Russia, the city recently adopted a new slogan: “Europe begins here.”

Even Moscow-leaning nationalist Russian politicians admit that Russia’s autocratic system is not the one anyone wants to install in Narva.

Tatjana Stolfart, a member of the City Council for The Center Party, a former pro-Russian political force. Immediately after the Russian invasion, the party abruptly canceled a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party.

In an interview, Ms. Stolfart was initially cautious about who was responsible for the murders in Ukraine, but later admitted: “Yes, Russia is the aggressor.”

The tarnished image of Russia has helped to rally support, even among some ethnic Russians, for the Estonian Defense League, volunteer militia of the Ministry of Defense. Roger Vinni, an ethnic Estonian who hosted the tournament in Narva, said half of the 300 members in the city are ethnic Russian. “They are patriotic Estonians, just like us,” Mr. Vinni said.

Many older Russians, he added, still have nostalgia for the Soviet Union, but their descendants are more integrated, speak Estonian and “consider themselves part of Estonia and Europe, not the Soviet Union or Russia.” .

Younger Russians in Narva have also joined the effort to help Ukrainians, many from Mariupol and other occupied towns, who have fled to Estonia to escape the Russian army.

Kristina Korneitsuk, a 23-year-old volunteer doing laundry for a hostel for refugees, said that while she blamed Russia and Ukraine for the conflict, Mr. Putin “probably lost his mind a bit.” .

His comments about Narva being Russian, she added, should be taken seriously. “If he can hit Ukraine then there’s reason to think the next step could be the Baltics,” she said.

While Russia has not made specific threats against Estonia, Moscow on Monday threatened Lithuania, another Baltic state, to retaliate if it does not lift a ban on the movement of certain goods to Estonia. Kaliningrad, a land of Russia between Lithuania and Poland.

Some older ethnic Russians, despite having strong emotional ties to Russia, express frustration at the aggression and paranoia that have pervaded Russian society. Gennady Suslov, a mechanic, complained that when he cycled across the bridge connecting Narva with the neighborhood The ramshackle Russian town of Ivangorod On his Ukrainian-made bicycle, he had to stick tape with the brand name “Ukraine” on the crossbar to avoid the risk of being detained.

Russia, he said, “was a bit crazy”.

That perception has prompted a long, often stagnant campaign by the Estonian state to attract more ethnic Russians to the country where they live.

Artemy Troitsky, a veteran Russian journalist and critic of Putin, who moved to Estonia in 2014. Mr. Putin added: “With Putin’s help, the Estonian process was catalyzed. which almost no one is willing to defend its actions publicly.

Estonia has also expelled from cable television four Russian channels, which were previously the main source of news for many ethnic Russians, who make up nearly a quarter of Estonia’s population.

One can still watch Russian television in Narva with the purchase of a small antenna, but Moscow has nonetheless lost its propaganda encirclement. Larchenko, whose mother has fantasized about Russia, said she hasn’t watched Russian television in three months and now gets all her news from the internet, including from websites critical of the Kremlin.

Alyona Boyarchuk, a Ukrainian single mother who took refuge in Narva shortly after Russia invaded her country, said when she first arrived she faced hostility from ethnic Russians. Now, she is mostly treated with respect and is asked if what Moscow says about the war is true.

“People here are no longer zombies,” she said.

To counter Russian propaganda, Estonia’s state broadcaster has its own Russian-language service, ETV+, which reflects the government’s view that Ukraine is the victim of an illegal and brutal attack. of the Kremlin.

Sergei Stepanov, news editor of ETV+ in Narva, said the “Soviet mentality” of an older generation lurking in the days when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union still makes it difficult for many to see Russia as an invader. comb.

He added that his mother-in-law considers him and his wife “fascists” because they support Ukraine. “There is a spiritual war going on between generations,” he said.

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