Photos of daily life in Russia belie the tension of a country at war

The Kremlin, Moscow. (Emmanuel Guillén Lozano)
The Kremlin, Moscow. (Emmanuel Guillén Lozano)

The war in Ukraine has been going on for months now. Every day, images of horror slide across all forms of media. Those are vitally important images that need to keep being published. We all need to be made aware of the despicable nature of war. I can’t think of a good argument to quell any of them. Fatigued? Well, that’s nothing compared with what the people in the line of fire experience every single day.

Of course, far from the front lines, life will, and does, carry on. But daily life is rarely cause for a news story. We just don’t see much of it. In Moscow, for example, people continue to live their lives. And photographer Emmanuel Guillén Lozano spent some time there recently documenting what would on any other day be pretty unremarkable, Lozano’s artistry notwithstanding. Yet because of the war, along with myriad other bits of friction coming from Russia toward the rest of the world, including the United States, these photos carry an extra weight. It doesn’t hurt that Lozano also has an excellent eye for detail.

As you’ll see below, the seemingly calm scenes of everyday life (yes, made by an outsider) belie anxiousness and tension that exist underneath the surface for many Russians.

Here’s Lozano in his own words:

After watching the war unfold from afar, I decided to try my luck this summer and get a visa to visit Moscow and St. Petersburg. Despite a lot of contradictory information and difficulties with the Russian Consulate, I obtained the necessary documents and traveled through Serbia, where the surprised agents at the Belgrade airport told me I was the only non-Russian passenger on the flight.

This ended up being an omen for the rest of the trip, since during the weeks I spent there, I didn’t see any other apparent foreigners. As soon as I landed and took a taxi to my hotel, I started seeing Z’s (a symbol for the war effort) painted on passing cars and on the entrances of some businesses, but besides that — and the palpable absence of tourists — everything looks like nothing is happening. Public squares teem with cultural and political events, bars are busy, and typical scenes of daily life make it clear that attempts to resist and protest the war were very quickly left behind.

The control of the narrative is enforced not only by the authorities but also by the common citizen. On a train from Pushkin to St. Petersburg, a friend pointed out to me the interaction between a group of young men and a lady in our carriage. The teenagers were listening to loud music — “I did not ask for this war, and I do not support this war,” my friend translated the lyrics for me. The lady strongly demanded that the young people stop the music, saying she did not want to hear such a thing. Russians policing other Russians was something I witnessed several times during my trip.

On another occasion, at a bar, a young student was talking to me about how he had recently moved to Moscow from a smaller town near Yekaterinburg because he was fed up with how closed-minded people can be in the less-urban areas of Russia; the support for the war, even of people close to him, was the final straw that made him leave his hometown.

He told me: “You have to understand one thing: All Russians love their country, their motherland, but not everyone loves the government nor the decisions they’ve made. The Russian government is not the Russian people.” We were in the middle of that conversation when an older gentleman approached us and spoke to him firmly in Russian. He said the man told him, “You shouldn’t be talking to a foreigner about these things.” After that, he got visibly uncomfortable, looked around and said, “Well, maybe it’s not that different here than in my town after all.”

Other stories I constantly heard took place in the metro services of both Moscow and St. Petersburg, where some people who had attended the first protests were suddenly arrested weeks later during their daily commute after being identified by facial recognition technology in the stations’ security cameras. In the Moscow metro, I witnessed twice what has become a common occurrence: officers randomly checking people’s phones to look at their conversations.

Those who use terms other than “special military operation” to refer to the invasion are arrested on the spot. That explained why almost everyone I kept in touch with via Instagram and Telegram deleted our conversations once they ended, and why none of the antiwar people I met were willing to have their portraits taken, even anonymously. All of them were eager to share their feelings and thoughts with me, but no one felt safe going any further.

On the other hand, people who are in favor of Russia’s military action in Ukraine feel completely comfortable talking about it, proudly wearing hats and T-shirts with the characteristic Z’s on them and willing to talk to strangers and foreigners like myself about how Russia had no choice but to attack — to stop what they call a genocide of Russian-speaking people in Ukraine and to prevent an imminent attack by Ukraine against Russia.

Being a foreigner was a particularly strange experience in this context. Wherever I went, the first thing I had to acknowledge was that I don’t speak Russian. Often all the people in the room would go completely silent as soon as they heard me speak English. Almost every single time they’d first ask, “Where are you from?” Once I responded that I was from Mexico, they’d ask in shock — acutely aware of their country’s current pariah status — “And what are you doing here now?”

In the best of cases, more than one person would approach and start a conversation with me, and no matter what the initial topic was, they would always ask me anxiously what I thought of “the situation” in Ukraine, to which I responded cautiously, without using the words “war” or “invasion” until I was absolutely sure that we shared similar views. It was clear that one has to be extra careful nowadays; most people prefer not to talk about the war at work, at school or with their relatives. Like in the Stalin era, Russians are turning each other in to the authorities, facing fines and the possibility of jail time.

After more than 15,000 people were arrested in the antiwar protests, many of those who opposed the invasion felt that even if they decided to take a stand, it wouldn’t make any difference. A lot of anti-regime Russians left the country as soon as they could to places like Turkey and Georgia, among other countries. Most of the people I met knew someone who had left with no intention of returning.

Those who can’t afford to leave or have decided to stay are faced with the decision of cutting off contact with their relatives or friends who support the war or resigning themselves to the idea that they will not be able to change their minds and simply avoiding the subject of the war in their conversations.

While their family members and acquaintances continue to watch the state’s propaganda, the younger generations of Russians are using VPNs on their phones to access Western apps that were banned by the government. They look for alternative sources of information and follow Telegram channels that spread the type of news that the Kremlin has tagged as “fake.” They continue to see with horror the pain that their country is inflicting on a sovereign nation, a nation of people they consider their brothers and sisters. There is a palpable feeling of hopelessness in the air as daily life carries on as usual, mainly because it’s become clear that if there is anything or anyone that can stop the war, it will not come from within Russia.

You can see more of Lozano’s work on his website, here.