(CNN) — One year ago, when Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine and began Europe’s biggest land war since 1945, it waged another battle at home — intensifying its information blockade in an effort to control the hearts and minds of its own citizens.
Draconian new censorship laws targeted any media still operating outside the controls of the Kremlin and most independent journalists left the country. A digital Iron Curtain was reinforced, shutting Russians off from Western news and social media sites.
And as authorities rounded up thousands in a crackdown on anti-war protests, a culture of fear descended on Russian cities and towns that prevents many people from sharing their true thoughts on the war in public.
One year on, that grip on information remains tight — and support for the conflict seemingly high — but cracks have started to show.
Some Russians are tuning out the relentless jingoism on Kremlin-backed airwaves. Tech-savvy internet users skirt state restrictions to access dispatches and pictures from the frontlines. And, as Russia turns to mobilization to boost its stuttering campaign, it is struggling to contain the personal impact that one year of war is having on its citizens.
“In the beginning I was supporting it,” Natalya, a 53-year-old Moscow resident, told CNN of what the Kremlin and most Russians euphemistically call a “special military operation.” “But now I am completely against it.”
“What made me change my opinion?,” she contemplated aloud. “First, my son is of mobilization age, and I fear for him. And secondly, I have very many friends there, in Ukraine, and I talk to them. That is why I am against it.”
CNN is not using the full names of individuals who were critical of the Kremlin. Public criticism of the war in Ukraine or statements that discredit Russia’s military can potentially mean a fine or a prison sentence.
For Natalya and many of her compatriots, the endless, personal grind of war casts Russian propaganda in a different light. And for those hoping to push the tide of public opinion against Putin, that creates an opening.
“I do not trust our TV,” she said. “I cannot be certain they are not telling the truth, I just don’t know.
“But I have my doubts,” she added. “I think, probably, they’re not.”
‘I don’t trust anyone entirely’
Natalya is not the only Russian to turn against the conflict, but she appears to be in the minority.
Gauging public opinion is notoriously difficult in a country where independent pollsters are targeted by the government, and many of the 146 million citizens are reluctant to publicly condemn President Vladimir Putin. But according to the Levada Center, a non-governmental polling organization, support dipped by only 6% among Russians from March to November last year, to 74%.
In many respects, that is unsurprising. There is little room for dissenting voices on Russian airwaves; the propaganda beamed from state-controlled TV stations since the onset of war has at times attracted derision around the world, so overblown are their more fanatical presenters and pundits.
In the days leading up to last Friday’s one-year anniversary of the full-scale invasion — according to BBC Monitoring’s Francis Scarr, who analyzes Russian media daily — a Russian MP told audiences on state-owned TV channel Russia-1 that “if Kyiv needs to lie in ruins for our flag to fly above it, then so be it!”; radio presenter Sergey Mardan proclaimed: “There’s only one peace formula for Ukraine: the liquidation of Ukraine as a state.”
And, in a farfetched statement that encapsulates the alternate reality in state TV channels exist, another pro-Russian former lawmaker claimed of Moscow’s war progress: “Everything is going to plan and everything is under control.”
Such programming typically appeals to a select group of older, more conservative Russians who pine for the days of the Soviet Union — though its reach spans generations, and it has claimed some converts.
“My opinion on Ukraine has changed,” said Ekaterina, 37, who turns to popular Russian news program “60 Minutes” after getting home from work. “At first my feelings were: what is the point of this war? Why did they take the decision to start it? It makes the lives of the people here in Russia much worse!”
The conflict has taken a personal toll on her. “My life has deteriorated a lot in this year. Thankfully, no one close to me has been mobilized. But I lost my job. And I see radical changes around me everywhere,” she said.
And yet, Ekaterina’s initial opposition to the invasion has disappeared. “I arrived at the understanding that this special military operation was inevitable,” she said. “It would have come to this no matter what. And had we not acted first, war would have been unleashed against us,” she added, mirroring the false claims of victimhood at the hands of the West that state media relentlessly communicate.
Reversals like hers will be welcomed in the Kremlin as vindication of their notorious and draconian grip on media reporting.
“I trust the news there completely. Yes, they all belong to the state, (but) why should I not trust them?” Yuliya, a 40-year-old HR director at a marketing firm, told CNN. “I think (the war) is succeeding. Perhaps it is taking longer than one could wish for. But I think it is successful,” said Yuliya, who said her main source of news is the state-owned Channel One.
Around two-thirds of Russians rely primarily on television for their news, according to the Levada Center, a higher proportion than in most Western countries.
But the sentiment of Yuliya and Ekaterina is far from universal. Even among those who generally support the war, Kremlin-controlled TV remains far removed from the reality many Russians live in.
“Everything I hear on state channels I split in half. I don’t trust anyone (entirely),” 55-year-old accountant Tatyana said. “One needs to analyze everything … because certain things they are omitting, (or) not saying,” said Leonid, a 58-year-old engineer.
Several people whom CNN spoke with in Moscow this month relayed similar feelings, stressing that they engaged with state-controlled TV but treated it with skepticism. And many reach different views on Ukraine.
“I think you can trust them all only to an extent. The state channels sometimes reflect the truth, but on other occasions they say things just to calm people down,” 20-year-old Daniil said.
A culture of silence
Vocal minorities on each side of the conflict exist in Russia, and some have cut off friendships or left the country as a result. But sociologists tracking Russian opinion say most people in the country fall between those two extremes.
“Quite often we are only talking about these high numbers of support (for the war),” Denis Volkov, the director of the Moscow-based Levada Center, said. “But it’s not that all these people are happy about it. They support their side, (but) would rather have it finished and fighting stopped.”
This group of people tends to pay less attention to the war, according to Natalia Savelyeva, a Future Russia Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) who has interviewed hundreds of Russians since the invasion to trace the levels of public support for the conflict. “We call them ‘doubters,'” she said.
“A lot of doubters don’t go very deep into the news … many of them don’t believe that Russian soldiers kill Ukrainians — they repeat this narrative they see on TV,” she said.
The center ground also includes many Russians who have developed concerns about the war. But if the Kremlin cannot expect all-out support across its populace, sociologists say it can at least rely on apathy.
“I try to avoid watching news on the special military operation because I start feeling bad about what’s going on,” Natalya added. “So I don’t watch.”
She is far from alone. “The major attitude is not to watch (the news) closely, not to discuss it with colleagues or friends. Because what can you do about it?” said Volkov. “Whatever you say, whatever you want, the government will do what they want.”
That feeling of futility means anti-war protests in Russia are rare and noteworthy, a social contract that suits the Kremlin. “People don’t want to go and protest; first, because it might be dangerous, and second, because they see it as a futile enterprise,” Volkov said.
“What are we supposed to do? Our opinion means diddly squat,” a woman told CNN in Moscow in January, anonymously discussing the conflict.
The bulk of the population typically disengages instead. “In general, those people try to distance themselves from what’s going on,” Savelyeva added. “They try to live their lives as though nothing is happening.”
And a culture of silence — re-enforced by heavy-handed authorities — keeps many from sharing skepticism about the conflict. A married couple in the southwestern Russian city of Krasnodar were reportedly arrested in January for professing anti-war sentiments during a private conversation in a restaurant, according to the independent Russian monitoring group OVD-Info.
“I do have an opinion about the special military operation … it remains the same to this day,” Anna told CNN in Moscow. “I can’t tell you which side I support. I am for truth and justice. Let’s leave it like that,” she said.
Keeping the war at arm’s length has, however, become more difficult over the course of the past year. Putin’s chaotic partial mobilization order and Russia’s increasing economic isolation has brought the conflict to the homes of Russians, and communication with friends and relatives in Ukraine often paint a different picture of the war than that reported by state media.
“I have felt anxious ever since this began. It’s affecting (the) availability of products and prices,” a woman who asked to remain anonymous told CNN last month. “There is a lack of public information. People should be explained things. Everyone is listening to Soloviev,” she said, referring to prominent propagandist Vladimir Soloviev.
“It would be good if the experts started expressing their real opinions instead of obeying orders, from the government and Putin,” the woman said.
A film student, who said she hadn’t heard from a friend for two months following his mobilization, added: “I don’t know what’s happened to him. It would be nice if he just responded and said ‘OK, I’m alive.'”
“I just wish this special military operation never started in the first place — this war — and that human life was really valued,” she said.
Piercing Putin’s information blockade
For those working to break through the Kremlin’s information blockade, Russia’s quiet majority is a key target.
Most Russians see on state media a “perverted picture of Russia battling the possible invasion of their own territory — they don’t see their compatriots dying,” said Kiryl Sukhotski, who oversees Russian-language content at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the US Congress-funded media outlet that broadcasts in countries where information is controlled by state authorities.
“That’s where we come in,” Sukhotski said.
The outlet is one of the most influential platforms bringing uncensored scenes from the Ukrainian frontlines into Russian-speaking homes, primarily through digital platforms still allowed by the Kremlin including YouTube, Telegram and WhatsApp.
And interest has surged throughout the war, the network says. “We saw traffic spikes after the mobilization, and after the Ukrainian counter-offensives, because people started to understand what (the war) means for their own communities and they couldn’t get it from local media.”
Current Time, its 24/7 TV and digital network for Russians, saw a two-and-a-half-fold increase in Facebook views, and more than a three-fold rise in YouTube views, in the 10 months following the invasion, RFE/RL told CNN. Last year, QR codes which directed smartphone users to the outlet’s website started popping up in Russian cities, which RFE/RL believed were stuck on lampposts and street signs by anti-war citizens.
But independent outlets face a challenge reaching beyond internet natives, who tend to be younger and living in cities, and penetrating the media diet of older, poorer and rural Russians, who are typically more conservative and supportive of the war.
“We need to get to the wider audience in Russia,” Sukhotski said. “We see a lot of people indoctrinated by Russian state propaganda … it will be an uphill battle but this is where we shape our strategy.”
Reaching Russians at all has not been easy. Most of RFE/RL’s Russia-based staff made a frantic exit from the country after the invasion, following the Kremlin’s crackdown on independent outlets last year, relocating to the network’s headquarters in Prague.
The same fate befell outlets like BBC Russia and Latvia-based Meduza, which were also targeted by the state.
A new law made it a crime to disseminate “fake” information about the invasion of Ukraine — a definition decided at the whim of the Kremlin — with a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for anyone convicted. This month, a Russian court sentenced journalist Maria Ponomarenko to six years in prison for a Telegram post that the court said spread supposedly “false information” about a Russian airstrike on a theater in Mariupol, Ukraine, that killed hundreds, state news agency TASS reported.
“All our staff understand they can’t go back to Russia,” Sukhotski told CNN. “They still have families there. They still have ailing parents there. We have people who were not able to go to their parents’ funerals in the past year.”
His staff are “still coming to terms with that,” Sukhotski admitted. “They are Russian patriots and they wish Russia well … they see how they can help.”
‘Russia has lost control of the narrative’
Outlets like RFE/RL have openings across the digital landscape, in spite of Russia’s move to ban Twitter, Facebook and other Western platforms last year.
About a quarter of Russians use VPN services to access blocked sites, according to a Levada Center poll carried out two months after Russia’s invasion.
Searches for such services on Google spiked to record levels in Russia following the invasion, and have remained at their highest rates in over a decade ever since, the search engine’s tracking data shows.
YouTube meanwhile remains one of the few major global sites still accessible, thanks to its huge popularity in Russia and its value in spreading Kremlin propaganda videos.
“YouTube became the television substitute for Russia … the Kremlin fear that if they don’t have YouTube, they won’t be able to control the flow of information to (younger people),” Sukhotski said.
And that allows censored organizations a way in. “I watch YouTube. I watch everything there — I mean everything,” one Moscow resident who passionately opposes the war told CNN, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “These federal channels I never watch,” she said. “I don’t trust a word they say. They lie all the time! You’ve just got to switch on your logic, compare some information and you will see that it’s all a lie.”
Telegram, meanwhile, has spiked in popularity since the war began, becoming a public square for military bloggers to analyze each day on the battlefield.
At first, that analysis tended to mirror the Kremlin’s line. But “starting around September, when Ukraine launched their successful counter-offensives, everything started falling apart,” said Olga Lautman, a US-based Senior Fellow at CEPA who studies the Kremlin’s internal affairs and propaganda tactics. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said.
Scores of hawkish bloggers, some of whom boast hundreds of thousands of followers, have strayed angrily from the Kremlin’s line in recent months, lambasting its military tactics and publicly losing faith in the armed forces’ high command.
This month, a debacle in Vuhledar that saw Russian tanks veer wildly into minefields became the latest episode to expose those fissures. The former Defense Minister of the Moscow-backed Donetsk People’s Republic, Igor Girkin, sometimes known by his nom de guerre Igor Strelkov — now a a strident critic of the campaign — said Russian troops “were shot like turkeys at a shooting range.” In another post, he called Russian forces “morons.” Several Russian commentators called for the dismissal of Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov, the commander of the Eastern Grouping of Forces.
“This public fighting is spilling over,” Lautman told CNN. “Russia has lost control of the narrative … it has normally relied on having a smooth propaganda machine and that no longer exists.”
One year into an invasion that most Russians initially thought would last days, creaks in the Kremlin’s control of information are showing.
The impact of those fractures remains unclear. For now, Putin can rely on a citizenry that is generally either supportive of the conflict or too fatigued to proclaim its opposition.
But some onlookers believe the pendulum of public opinion is slowly swinging away from the Kremlin.
“One family doesn’t know of another family who hasn’t suffered a loss in Ukraine,” Lautman said. “Russians do support the conflict because they do have an imperialistic ambition. But now it is knocking on their door, and you’re starting to see a shift.”
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