It is often said that it is impossible to fully understand Russia without visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg, the country’s two largest and most cosmopolitan cities.
Winter in Yekaterinburg, the fourth largest city in Russia, only confirmed the truth of this statement for me. Yekaterinburg is one of three Russian cities that I call home and with which I have family ties. As in Moscow and St. Petersburg, life there seems to go on as usual, despite the war in Ukraine. The only visible change is the propaganda of war on the streets. The most notable case is the giant “Z” symbol on the building of the Academy of Arts, which was unfurled in honor of Putin’s planned visit to the city in December. He ended up canceling his trip the night before.
Just like Muscovites and Petersburgers, many Yekaterinburgers are protected from the obvious consequences of the war by their relative wealth, backed by profits from hydrocarbons. That being said, most people don’t seem to be indifferent to the “special military operation” – although the authorities have succeeded in completely stifling the debate.
Since the fall of the USSR, creative industries and technology companies have flourished in Yekaterinburg, and by 2019 there were more than 500 start-ups in the city, mostly in trade and services. By the end of 2021, Yekaterinburg was full of optimism and was preparing to host the 2023 World Universiade. The Games, of course, will not take place because of the war, optimism has faded. Many entrepreneurs, technicians and representatives of the creative classes have either canceled their projects or left the city and country altogether, and the rupture of educational and cultural ties with the West has led to isolation in these areas.
There are only five diplomatic missions left in the city, and the British consulate is regularly subjected to verbal attacks from the local press, as well as cyberattacks. One media outlet even sent a group of newsmen to stand at the entrance, accusing the locals who attended the consulate event of being a “fifth column”.
But shopping center windows that were empty after Western brands left Russia are filling up again. Supermarkets are packed, as are restaurants, bars and theaters, despite skyrocketing prices. Inaccessible products were replaced with domestically produced counterparts – only food packaging became more minimalistic and less colorful than before, due to the high cost and difficulty of importing ink.
At a student round table at a local university, any discussion of Ukraine is prohibited. One student seriously told me that he did not trust the European Union because of Napoleon and Hitler. When I asked him what they had to do with the EU, he looked genuinely puzzled – the connection was obvious to him. The same student said that he and his friends would like to visit Europe again in the future. Another student asked if foreign scientists would be visiting soon and saw no contradiction between the issue and the collective distrust of Europe that had just been so clearly demonstrated.
All of this runs counter to Yekaterinburg’s traditional liberal focus — after all, the city was Boris Yeltsin’s power base before he became Russia’s first democratically elected president. In 2013, local residents elected opposition politician and anti-corruption activist Yevgeny Roizman as their mayor, prompting the Kremlin to cancel the city’s mayoral election when his term expired in 2018.
Yekaterinburg also has several independent outlets, including Republic and It’s My City, although both outlets’ editor-in-chief Dmitry Kolezev left Russia in April and now works in Lithuania. In November, Russian authorities branded Kolezev a “foreign agent” and put the outspoken Kremlin critic on a wanted list, though the charges against him remain opaque.
Former mayor Roizman, who himself was declared a “foreign agent” in August, is now under house arrest on charges related to his anti-war stance. Surprisingly, the governor of the Sverdlovsk region, Yevgeny Kuyvashev, a member of Putin’s United Russia party, came to Roizman’s defense, saying he deserved “justice and respect.” Pro-Kremlin politicians defending opposition politicians are unimaginable in other regions of Russia, and this detail adds to the fluidity of Yekaterinburg’s political identity.
The source of Ekaterinburg liberalism is difficult to determine, but it is indisputable. Nationwide protests against the arrest of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in early 2021 brought about 5,000 protesters onto the streets of the city, including Roizman himself, in one of the highest turnout rates in Russia.
Nearly a year after the start of the war, I see Ekaterinburg as a symbol of Russia’s future potential and at the same time its current stagnation and power that only looks back. Here you can see with your own eyes how the Kremlin maintains its power, built on a temporary paradox: life here either progresses, or regresses, or freezes at the same time.