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In patriotism push, Russians send handmade gifts to troops in Ukraine

Women at a volunteer center in Lobnya, in the Moscow region, sew camouflage nets for Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine. (Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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RIGA, Latvia — Russian volunteers are crafting girdles from dog hair to help keep the soldiers fighting against Ukraine warm. Children as young as 6 are tasked in school with sewing balaclavas and making amulets believed to protect soldiers. Elderly “knitting battalions” are churning out chunky socks to send to the front.

In Magnitogorsk, a city near the Ural Mountains, Sergei Loza’s bakery collects wild hops to make soldiers whole-meal sourdough rusks based on his grandmother’s recipe. Technical school students from Voronezh, in southwestern Russia, have made trench candles and welded chunky metal camp stoves.

Schoolchildren across Russia’s vast expanse write letters and make drawings in support of the military.

These seemingly spontaneous gestures are often top-down efforts organized by local officials, schools, state-financed pro-Russia youth groups and federal “Active Aging” centers, in a Kremlin-led effort to reverse declining support for the war in Ukraine and to spur a renewed wave of patriotic fervor, as President Vladimir Putin doubles down on his long, expensive and bloody campaign to seize Ukrainian lands.

Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy chief of staff for Putin, has stated openly that Russia must mobilize the entire population in support of the war, or it might lose.

“Russia has always won any war — if it became a people’s war,” Kiriyenko told a forum of head teachers in October. “We are bound to win this war, both the hot war and the economic and psychological information war being waged against us. But to do this, it has to be a people’s war.”

Kiriyenko, who has traveled frequently to occupied Ukraine, was a key figure steering Russia’s claimed annexation of four Ukrainian regions — a violation of international law that Putin has nonetheless cheered as a “meaningful” achievement, despite his military not fully controlling those areas.

“Every contribution to the victory is valuable,” Kiriyenko, one of Putin’s trusted cheerleaders for the war, told the head teachers. “Someone with a letter to a fighter; someone at production facilities, ensuring the necessary supplies of equipment,”

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But Kremlin propaganda is losing its edge as the ratings of state TV talk shows — generally popular among Putin loyalists — decline.

The social mobilization effort comes amid deepening public unease over Russia’s rising casualties and its bungled military mobilization. According to November polling by the independent Levada Center, 53 percent of respondents now want peace talks, compared with 41 percent who want Russia to fight on.

“So far, we do not see a lot of people who are mobilized. I mean, in the sense you’re talking about,” Denis Volkov, a pollster with the Levada Center said in an interview. “I would say the overall reaction is, ‘Do it without us. We don’t want to participate.’”

The core hard-line group galvanized to fight on is down to about 15 to 20 percent, Volkov said.

“They’re patriotic. They say, ‘You should be firmer, just go on fighting,’” he added. “But it is those people who will not go and serve. They are elderly people, mainly men.”

After years of Russian authorities quashing public activism and suppressing free discussion, it makes sense that the new patriotism push is stumbling, according to independent sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Globalization and Social Movements.

“Popular social mobilization is not something you can do through writing decrees and through just a few public speeches, and so on,” Kagarlitsky said. “It also needs a sort of social, political and even cultural mechanism, which is absent in today’s Russia, at least on the side of the government.”

Shortly after the invasion started, Russia outlawed criticism of the military and other dissent. “The irony of the situation,” Kagarlitsky added, “is that in the process of destroying any oppositional mobilization, the system also destroyed the very capacity of the society to mobilize itself around issues.”

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As women knit, they earnestly tell Russian state and regional TV interviewers that they put love into every stitch, while echoing state propaganda about the war.

Nikolai Bondarenko, head of Predgorny district in southern Russia, who organized a local effort, insisted to local media that children had “voluntarily” knitted 200 pairs of long warm socks for soldiers.

In Chuvashia, east of Moscow, Natalya Nikolaeva, the governor’s wife, is leading a collection of food and gifts for soldiers.

In Lipetsk, south of Moscow, the youth wing of the All-Russia People’s Front, a political coalition founded by Putin in 2011, and a state-funded craft center established the “Knitting Battalion,” targeting women in senior residences and people with disabilities as knitters.

The knitting, baking, letter-writing and fundraising builds on Russia’s self-mythologizing as the nation that saved the world from the German Nazis in World War II, in hopes of deepening ordinary Russians’ involvement in the war.

The goal appears to be to foster a collective sense of purpose and hope amid Russia’s repeated battlefield setbacks and its persistent logistical problems training and outfitting some 300,000 mobilized soldiers.

One knitting group calls itself the “Night Witches,” after the famous World War II Soviet female pilots who flew bombing sorties against the Nazis.

The point of the exercise appears to be to provide a warm glow on state TV propaganda, balancing the Kremlin’s alarmist narrative that Russia is a victim of Western aggressors eager to gobble it up.

The Kremlin’s message that Russia’s very survival is threatened has increased the levels of public anxiety, the Levada Center reported last month, with 80 percent of poll respondents saying they are worried about the war.

“If we don’t win it, we won’t lose. We will simply cease to exist,” former Russian space agency chief Dmitry Rogozin said recently in an interview on RT television. Rogozin leads a group supporting Russian military units.

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Russian psychologist Ekaterina Kronhaus, based in Israel, said the attempt to foster pro-war activism was partly feel-good propaganda, portraying Russia as a savior. Volunteerism, she said, also helps citizens assuage their horror about the war.

“We had that in the Soviet period. We know it. It’s: ‘I will make some ceramics or send some socks or my last rubles.’ It’s about patriotism — we need to put up the flag, we need to sing anthems and all that stuff,” Kronhaus said.

Zinaida Yevmenkova, 82, of Ulyanovsk, a city on the Volga River, did spend her last rubles — donating 300,000, or more than $4,000 — to buy a small quadcopter drone for the Russian military, the Giving Kindness charity reported. Russia’s average monthly pension is about $266.

In gratitude, a soldier flung himself at Yevmenkova’s feet and bowed, touching his forehead to the ground and promising “to win and keep more guys alive.”

For some volunteers, however, there has been less joy. Police in the city of Oryol, southwest of Moscow, were called in after a pensioner found the socks she had knitted for soldiers on sale at the local market. The woman had to be rushed to hospital with a heart problem, a local paramedic posted on social media. The paramedic did not respond to messages from The Washington Post.

In a sign of anti-Western sentiment, administrators for the Night Witches knitting group declined an interview request from The Post, declaring in a message on Telegram that “Putin is the President of the World” and signing off with a string of obscenities about NATO and the Pentagon.

Loza, the baker, similarly did not respond to interview requests. Eleven other knitting groups or members of groups in cities across Russia either did not respond or declined to be interviewed.

“For a mobilization, you need enthusiasm, or at least there must be some kind of collective fear,” Kagarlitsky said. “But at this point, the only source of fear in Russia is the state itself.”