I’m Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL’s Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.
Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what’s ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.
A deadly strike in Dnipro hits one of Putin’s prime targets: normal life in Ukraine. And imprisoned Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny begins his third year behind bars with a message of hope: “The darkness will disappear.”
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
It’s Not Normal
After the U.S.S.R. fell apart in 1991, a sentiment often expressed by people in Russia and its other former republics was the desire to live in a “normal” country — the hope that their country could soon shed both the debilitating legacy of the past seven-plus decades and the wrenching uncertainty that the collapse of Soviet Union brought into their lives.
One of the countless phenomena that contributed to the sense of abnormality was the way sections of shoddily built apartment blocks sometimes collapsed into rubble, usually as a result of household gas explosions or, in the case of Russia, bombings blamed by the state on separatists from Chechnya.
The blasts sometimes made for grimly absurd images, tearing away exterior walls and exposing whole rooms, more or less intact, to the open air and the floodlights shone by rescue workers in the night — surreal remnants of lives blown to pieces.
It was hard not to recall those incidents on January 14, when a Russian missile struck a multistory apartment block in Dnipro, Ukraine, bringing down an entire section of the building and killing at least 45 people, several of them children.
‘Do I Even Exist?’
Indelible images showed one of the survivors, Anastasia Shvets, 23, crouching near a bathtub in the ruins of her family’s apartment. Her parents were killed, though she did not know their fate when she wrote, in a social media post from the hospital a day after the attack, “I just want my parents. I’m in pain. Do I even exist?”
Another photo showed the largely intact yellow kitchen of an apartment that reports said belonged to the family of Mykhaylo Korenovskiy, a top regional boxing coach who was killed in the attack. His wife said she and their two young daughters were outside on a walk and Mykhaylo had planned to join them after stopping by the apartment to eat after a tournament, the media outlet Meduza said in a report on several of the victims.
The lives of many of the victims and survivors had already been upended — or torn apart — by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Shvets’s boyfriend was killed at the front a few months ago, and the father of a 19-year-old woman, Liana, who was killed along with her mother, Tetyana, is a captive of Russia.
Trying To Live
But images like those of Shvets and the Korenovskiy family’s kitchen were stark testaments to Ukrainians living normal lives — or trying to do so. The overarching aim of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, more than 30 years after the countries peacefully parted ways in the Soviet collapse, seems to be simply this: to deprive Ukrainians of the chance to live normal lives.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has used many arguments in his attempts to justify the invasion, as well as Russia’s aggression against Ukraine since 2014, when it seized Crimea and fomented war in the eastern Donbas region. Several of them boil down to the claim that the country posed a threat to Russia.
A more detailed and even less defensible version of that argument, which Putin and others have made repeatedly and without evidence, is that the West was seeking to use Ukraine as a staging ground to destroy Russia.
But many analysts suspect that what Putin really fears is the prospect of Russians looking at a thriving, democratic Ukraine — a “normal” country — and wondering what’s stopping Russia from acquiring those attributes.
“A democratic, Westward-oriented Ukraine with [a] strong market economy would pose [a] nightmare for [the] Kremlin and [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov,” Steven Pifer, a foreign policy analyst and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, wrote on Twitter on January 19, after a press conference at which Lavrov said — among other things — that there “must be no military infrastructure in Ukraine that poses a direct threat” to Russia.
“That Ukraine,” Pifer wrote, “would cause people in Russia to question why they cannot have same political voice and democracy that Ukrainians have.”
The large-scale invasion that Putin launched last February has had a devastating effect on Ukraine, killing tens of thousands of civilians and combatants and driving millions from their homes. It has also plunged Russia’s future into uncertainty, prompting hundreds of thousands of citizens to flee as soldiers and mercenaries die at the front, often poorly prepared and ill-equipped, and Western sanctions and decreasing reliance on Russian energy exports add to burdens on the economy.
The prospects for a democratic Russia whose citizens have a political voice substantially eroded over Putin’s first two decades in power and have been set back still further since January 17, 2021, when opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was arrested upon his return to the country following treatment for a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning he blames on Putin.
Over the past two weeks, groups of Russian doctors and lawyers have urged the authorities to stop what the attorneys called the “blatant torture” of Navalny, who has been placed in solitary confinement and, according to his associates, putting his health and life at risk by denying him medicine.
More than 80 local and regional lawmakers across Russia — a tiny fraction of a political system dominated by the Kremlin-controlled party — voiced their support on January 18. They demanded Putin, the Prosecutor-General’s Office, and the presidential Council For Human Rights immediately provide Navalny with medical assistance and stop placing him in punitive solitary confinement.
Navalny, meanwhile, marked two years behind bars with an Instagram post in which he vowed to continue doing everything in his power, limited as it is by his imprisonment, to oppose Putin’s government.
Russia “needs to be saved,” he wrote — it has been “robbed, wounded, dragged into an aggressive war, and turned into a prison led by the most dishonest and deceitful villains.”
He added an upbeat remark: “I believe the darkness will disappear.”
That’s it from me this week. If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).