- BBC News Chinese special correspondent from St. Petersburg
Peter the Great, a famous monarch in Russian history, in order to “embrace the world” and open to the outside world, in 1703 he chose to build the new capital of the Russian Empire, St. Petersburg, on a desolate swamp at the mouth of the Neva River; Window to Europe”.
More than three centuries later, President Vladimir Putin, known by some Russians as the new Peter the Great, has repeatedly stated in public his ambition to restore and reshape the former glory of the Russian Empire.
However, international sanctions following the Ukraine war have closed Russia’s windows to Europe and the world one by one in just a few months. In addition to the huge impact of the new crown epidemic on the economy for more than two years, ordinary Russians have a deep understanding of it in their daily lives.
BBC News Chinese special correspondent Shen Ping recently lived in St. Petersburg and observed the actual impact of international sanctions on Russians from the perspective of daily life.
Closing the door and difficulties in going abroad and shopping
The interpretation of the Ukrainian war and the right and wrong are very different in Russia and the West. From the perspective of the international community, which is dominated by Western countries, Putin launched a war of aggression, and being sanctioned was asking for trouble, closing the country’s door and cutting off relations with the outside world. However, from the perspective of many Russian people, this A wave of sanctions is that the West has closed the window on Russia and is “bullying Russia”.
All direct flights to Western countries have been grounded since Russia invaded Ukraine. Today, if you want to go from St. Petersburg to Europe, the most “convenient” route is to transit through Turkey or Dubai in the Middle East. Two flights plus a connecting flight are waiting. Now, it takes 10 to 20 hours for Russians to travel abroad to Europe and America, which is easier said than done.
Such troubles were unimaginable for ordinary Russians before the Ukrainian war and the outbreak of the new crown epidemic. Back then, a direct flight from St. Petersburg to London took just over three hours, and when the airfare was cheap, the round-trip was just over £200 (about $300). A return flight now costs around £1,000, almost five times as much.
Petersburg borders Finland to the north and Estonia to the northwest. For a long time, locals like to join tour groups on vacation and take a tour bus to Finland for day trips. In fact, traveling to Finland is not the main purpose. Russians in Finland mainly scan the supermarkets, because the market there is relatively “cheap and high-quality.”
At that time, St. Petersburg residents could easily apply for a Schengen visa issued by Finland, with multiple round trips for 5 years. According to local Russians, the list they used to scan in Finland often included: all kinds of smoked fish, cheese, frozen meat, non-staple food and so on.
Now that Finland has closed its borders, one-day trips have become a memory of the past, and it has become impossible to travel to Europe with a Schengen visa through Finland.
In addition, it was originally a seven-hour drive from St. Petersburg to reach Tallinn, the capital of Estonia; it used to be another popular tourist destination for St. Petersburg. In fact, a quarter of Estonia’s population is of Russian descent, and Estonia is one of the former Soviet republics, so Russians have basically no problem communicating in language in Estonia. Likewise, the Baltic EU member state has completely shut its doors to the Russians after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russian people in St. Petersburg and the surrounding areas can only travel in Russia for a day now.
In addition to the above inconveniences, due to economic sanctions, Russians can no longer use Visa and Mastercard issued by Russian banks when traveling abroad, and foreigners can no longer use credit cards issued by European and American countries in Russia. For foreigners visiting Russia, it is a great inconvenience, and it also embodies the reality that the Russian economy is basically derailed from the international mainstream.
Russian version of McDonald’s
Perhaps the most iconic event of decoupling from the world is the closing of the American fast-food chain McDonald’s and the subsequent reopening of the Russian version of McDonald’s.
On June 12, the Russian operator chose to open the Russian version of McDonald’s in Moscow on “Independence Day” (also known as Russia Day), perhaps to express the confidence that “Russia can stand on its own without fear of the United States“. International media scrambled to report that although the level of excitement was not comparable to McDonald’s opening in the Soviet Union for the first time in 1990, its symbolic significance was not inferior; it was just that the last time Russia opened its doors to the world, this time it was the exact opposite.
According to online information, the Russian version of McDonald’s also opened five restaurants in St. Petersburg on June 13. The BBC reporter also took a bus to a branch near the Winter Palace in the city center, and wanted to taste the taste of the Russian version of McDonald’s. How do you know that the hamburger is not eaten, but a bowl of closed doors is eaten. The door of the restaurant was locked, and it was dark inside, and there was no sign that it was ready for business. The door just posted a notice to recruit employees, and did not explain why the door was not opened.
Looking around, there are a few groups of Russians looking lost, as well as a couple from China. No one knew what was going on. After watching the news online in the evening, I learned that there was a communication problem in the St. Petersburg branch. Those sitting in the office thought everything was ready and posted business information through social media, but the frontline restaurant had not even recruited employees.
In fact, most of the original McDonald’s restaurants in St. Petersburg have not replaced new signs, but the doors are locked. The new company plans to reopen 200 locations in Russia by the end of June and all 850 by the end of the summer. But judging from the situation on the second day of the plan, I can’t help but wonder, can I complete the goal on time?
In addition to the withdrawal of American companies such as McDonald’s, Starbucks, Microsoft, Apple, and Google, most European, American and Japanese companies have also withdrawn from the Russian market. The market gap left is naturally filled by Russian companies or the Western chain restaurant industry controlled by Russian capital. Some people think that from a certain point of view, this seems to be beneficial to the Russian local economy.
However, there are also signs that Western sanctions have pushed up prices in Russia. The daily consumer goods in supermarkets have risen by 10% to 20% compared with the beginning of this year, and restaurants have also increased prices significantly. A large restaurant that the reporter has visited before has a new price for each dish: a dish that used to be 590 rubles, for example, is now 710 rubles. A meal for three people is more than 5,000 rubles, which is equivalent to one-third of the monthly pension of ordinary retired workers.
For reference, the monthly salary of ordinary Russian police officers is less than 40,000 rubles, the pension of primary school teachers after retirement is 20,000 rubles a month, and the pension of ordinary workers is only 15,000 rubles. Of course, the low-income people listed here are unlikely to go out to restaurants often.
The flow of people seen by reporters in shopping malls, or the number of customers in stores, are obviously less than in the same period in the past, which may show signs of cautious consumption by the public to some extent.
In addition, the new crown epidemic that has lasted for more than two years, coupled with the war in Ukraine, has also had a serious impact on the tourism industry of St. Petersburg. The Moscow Railway Station in the center of the city used to see groups of tour groups from mainland China every day – people took the high-speed rail from Moscow to visit the birthplace of the “October Revolution”. Now that Chinese tour groups have disappeared, the Russian people who depend on tourism for a living are complaining a lot.
The mystery of popular support for Putin
Although living standards have declined, since the Ukrainian war, the survey results of several independent opinion polling agencies in Russia have shown that the public’s support for Putin and the “special military operation” of the Russian army in Ukraine has reached 80%. Not to be confused, I think the poll results are not true.
But the BBC reporter who lived in St. Petersburg for more than three weeks has come to appreciate why so many people continue to support the president and the war: the power and successful propaganda operations of the Russian state propaganda machine.
In the West, what people see in the media every day is how the Russian army killed civilians in Ukraine and how the Russian army was repelled by the Ukrainian army. In Russia, what people see every day is how the Ukrainian army bombed the ethnic Russians in the Donbas region, how the Russian army carried out humanitarian relief in the controlled area, built hospitals, and distributed relief daily necessities to the people.
President Vladimir Putin appears on TV news almost every day, presides over various meetings, meets families and children across Russia via video on Children’s Day, and awards medals to outstanding citizens in the Kremlin on Russia’s “Independence Day”.
In Russia, despite the development of online information, according to a survey by the Levada Center, an independent polling agency based in Moscow, 64% of the public only rely on TV news as their main source of information. Many home kitchens double as dining rooms, spending a considerable part of the day in the kitchen, and the kitchen is usually equipped with a television that broadcasts state-controlled television programs, including news, of course.
According to the law passed by Russia earlier, neither the media nor the public can use “war” or “invasion” to describe the actions of the Russian military in Ukraine, nor can they criticize the Russian military. Over time, if you just watch the Russian media, you will naturally form such a perception: the Russian army rescues the locals in Ukraine and fights the brutal Ukrainian army.
Western media said: “Russian people are brainwashed”. The Russians said in turn: “You Westerners have been brainwashed by a media that pretends to be impartial”. From this perspective, it may be difficult for the two sides to negotiate.
From Peter the Great opening his door to the West to the new Peter the Great decoupling from the West again, Russian history seems to have come to a fork in the road again.