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‘The grimmest it has been’: Russians flee home as Putin cracks down

Accurate polls are hard to come by; some surveys suggest that around half the population still supports the war. For Putin’s critics, that’s unsurprising given how many people watch state-controlled TV, which serves as little more than a Kremlin mouthpiece and now faces little to no competition from independent or international media.

The networks parrot Putin’s baseless claim that the invasion is a small, targeted operation against “neo-Nazis” controlling Ukraine who have been backed into conflict with Russia by the West.

With Facebook and other social media sites restricted, many people have simply not seen the images of Ukraine’s destruction or their own army’s becoming bogged down and taking heavy losses. Those who consume a diet only of state TV wouldn’t be likely to even know their country was fighting a war that has shocked the rest of the world.

Some have shown support for the war using the letter Z, which was first emblazoned on the Russian tanks invading Ukraine, perhaps to avoid friendly fire. In recent days it has appeared on the jersey of the Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak, in the merchandise store of the state-controlled broadcaster RT and on bus stands and car windshields in photos shared on social media.

“I am aware that I’m in a bubble of progressive, open-minded people, but some of the conversations you hear on the trains are unbelievable,” Aglaia said. “I heard someone say: ‘Oh, a dollar costs a lot again? Why does that matter if you don’t go to the U.S.?’”

March 8, 202200:49

Because the Kremlin hasn’t released official figures, it’s also difficult to know just how many Russians have fled. But from Helsinki and Tbilisi to Istanbul, there are reports of Russian influxes on planes and trains.

Searches for “visa” and “political asylum” spiked on Russian Google last week, a trend first spotted by The Economist, an international magazine.

But actually getting out is easier said than done.

Dozens of countries in North America and Europe have closed their airspace to Russian aircraft. And the state carrier, Aeroflot, has stopped all international flights, a decision industry analysts say would prevent the seizing of planes leased from Western companies under international sanctions.

On the ground, tickets for the twice-daily, 3½-hour train to Helsinki topped 9,000 euros (about $9,800) last week. The cars have been so packed that its operator, Finland’s VR Group, has introduced a third daily service.

“Half of the sky is closed for us, so it’s already hard to leave Moscow,” one Muscovite, 23, said by phone, asking not to be identified because of fears of reprisals by Russian security services.

She described the scenes she has witnessed over the past week, such as the friend detained by police at a subway station for sharing a tweet criticizing the war or the street-sweeping truck that cleared away a display of flowers and candles left outside the city’s Ukrainian Embassy.

“Putin destroyed the lives of three countries — not just Ukraine but also Russia and Belarus, as well,” she said. “It is very important to segregate Putin’s regime and supporters from people who live in Russia. We’ve never wanted this to happen, and we’re strongly against it. But unfortunately they’re doing everything to shut us up.”

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