Putin’s Forever War – The New York Times

Vladimir Putin wants to lead Russians into a civilizational conflict with the West far larger than Ukraine. Will they follow him?

Roger Cohen and Nanna Heitmann traveled from Moscow to Siberia to Russia’s border with Ukraine to report and photograph this article.

Through towering pine forests and untouched meadows, the road to Lake Baikal in southern Siberia winds past cemeteries where bright plastic flowers mark the graves of Russians killed in Ukraine. Far from the Potemkin paradise of Moscow, the war is ever visible.

On the eastern shore of the lake, where white-winged gulls plunge into the steel-blue water, Yulia Rolikova, 35, runs an inn that doubles as a children’s summer camp. She is some 3,500 miles from the front, yet the war reverberates in her family and in her head.

“My ex-husband wanted to go fight — he claimed it was his duty,” she said. “I said, ‘No, you have an 8-year-old daughter, and it’s a much more important duty to be a father to her.’”

“People are dying there in Ukraine for nothing,” she said.

He finally understood and stayed, she told me, with a look that said: Mine is just another ordinary Russian life. That is to say the life of a single mother in a country with one of the highest divorce rates in the world, a nation plunged into an intractable war, fighting a neighboring state that President Vladimir V. Putin deemed a faction, where tens of millions of Russians, like herself, have ties of family, culture and history.

I spent a month in Russia, a country almost as large as the United States and Canada combined, searching for clues that might explain its nationalist lurch into an unprovoked war and its mood more than 17 months into a conflict conceived as a lightning strike, only to become a lingering nightmare. The war, which has transformed the world as radically as 9/11 did, has now taken 200,000 lives since Feb. 24, 2022, roughly split between the two sides, American diplomats in Moscow estimate.

As I traveled from Siberia to Belgorod on Russia’s western border with Ukraine, across the vertigo-inducing vastness that informs Russian assertiveness, I found a country uncertain of its direction or meaning, torn between the glorious myths that Mr. Putin has cultivated and everyday struggle.

Along the way, I encountered fear and fervid bellicosity, as well as stubborn patience to see out a long war. I found that Homo sovieticus, far from dying out, has lived on in modified form, along with habits of subservience. So with the aid of relentless propaganda on state television, the old Putin playbook — money, mythmaking and menace of murder — has just about held.

But I also heard ambivalent voices like Ms. Rolikova’s, along with a few raised in outright dissent, especially from young people in a country with a stark generational divide.

It was this restiveness, this impatience with the seeming incoherence of the war and with the insouciance of the privileged in Moscow and St. Petersburg, that formed the backdrop to the short-lived revolt led by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner group, in late June. It was not for nothing that he named his uprising the “march for justice.”

“That Prigozhin rebelled was symptomatic of many social problems, but the way he advanced toward Moscow unhindered also demonstrated nervousness about whether all army units would fight,” said Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “Putin clearly did not want to give an order to fire he was unsure would be implemented.”

Making a martyr of Mr. Prigozhin was too risky in the short term for other reasons, too. Wagner’s role in avoiding recourse to an unpopular draft, by recruiting many thousands of criminals to bear the brunt of much heavy fighting in Ukraine, has been crucial. If Mr. Putin, 70, did not blink, he certainly flinched.

Yet, after 23 years leading Russia, Mr. Putin’s hold on power is still firm as fighting intensifies in southern and eastern Ukraine. He learned long ago, indeed from the outset of his rule in 2000, that, as the author Masha Gessen has put it, “wars were almost as good as crackdowns because they discredited anyone who wanted to complicate things.”

He has always used war — in Chechnya, in Georgia and in Ukraine — to unite Russians in the simplistic myths of nationalism and to usher them to the simplistic conclusion that his increasingly repressive rule is so essential that it must be eternal.

Still, as far as possible, the war must be invisible, banished to places like Ulan-Ude, near Lake Baikal, not far from the Mongolian border. That is done, in part, by paying recruits about $2,500 a month, a huge sum in a region where a monthly salary of $500 is more typical.

“Money is the main reason people go to fight,” Ms. Rolikova said. “The contracts being offered volunteers are crazy by our standards.”

But all of the money that Mr. Putin showers on remotest Russia only brings the war into sharper relief. It is etched in the fearful faces of young recruits lining up at the airport for flights to Moscow, and from there overland to Rostov-on-Don and into Ukraine. It is in the freshly turned soil of cemeteries where young men are laid to rest. It is in the air, a pall of dread.

The life partner of Ms. Rolikova’s best friend was killed in Ukraine in February, leaving the friend with two young children. Her half brother has fled to Georgia. Her grandfather was from the Donetsk region of Ukraine, a family tie that compounds her anguish.

Ms. Rolikova gazed out at the vast shimmering lake that contains more than 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. The wind was suddenly up; the gulls beat their wings hard against it to hold still. She said she tried to derive wisdom from nature, finding in it a refuge from the turmoil of war.

For her daughter Valeriya’s sake, at least, Ms. Rolikova hopes the war will be over within two years. “We are told one truth, they are told another truth,” she said. “But why do we need to kill each other like in World War I?”

In Moscow, a world away from Ulan-Ude, Western sanctions appear to have had little effect beyond stores like Dior that have signs saying, “Closed for technical reasons,” and the comical renaming of departed Western businesses, like “Stars,” for Starbucks.

The subway is spotless; restaurants offering a popular Japanese-Russian fusion cuisine overflow; people make contactless payments for most things using their phones; there is a ridiculous concentration of luxury cars; the internet functions impeccably, as it does in all of Russia.

The war is nowhere to be seen, other than in the billboards from the Ministry of Defense and, until recently, Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner Group (now of uncertain future) that try to lure recruits with slogans like, “Heroes are not born, they become heroes.”

These may be found next to a multitude of new high-rise developments with English names like “Trendy Towers” or “High Life.” For all of Mr. Putin’s efforts to vilify the West, it still lives in the Russian imagination as a chimera of cool.

I first visited Moscow four decades ago, when it was a city devoid of primary colors eking out existence in the penury of Communism. Gazing at Moscow today, it is possible to discern why Mr. Putin earned so much respect from his countrymen. He opened Russia, only to slam it shut to the West; he also modernized it, while leaving the thread to Russia’s past unbroken.

Sitting at a cafe overlooking the Patriarch’s Ponds in one of the toniest areas of central Moscow, Pyotr Tolstoy, a deputy chairman of the State Duma and a direct descendant of the great novelist Leo Tolstoy, exuded confidence as a moneyed crowd ate large crab claws and other delicacies.

When I asked him how Russia proposed to pay for a prolonged war effort, he shot back: “We pay for it all from our sales of oil to Europe via India.”

This was bravado, but it had some truth to it. Russia has rapidly adjusted to the loss of European markets with oil sales to Asia — and India has sold some of it on to Europe in refined form.

“Our values are different,” Mr. Tolstoy said. “For Russians, freedom and economic factors are secondary to the integrity of our state and the safeguarding of the Russian world.”

Mr. Putin’s rule is all about the reconstitution of this imagined Russian world, or “Russkiy mir,” a revanchist myth built around the idea of an eternal Russian cultural and imperial sphere of which Ukraine — its decision to become an independent state never forgiven — is an integral part.

As for the future, Mr. Putin has very little to say, leaving people guessing.

Rarely in Moscow or elsewhere in Russia is Mr. Putin’s image visible, other than on television, even if he has ventured out a little more of late. He governs from the shadows, unlike Stalin, whose portrait was everywhere. There is no cult of the leader of the kind Fascist systems favored. Yet mystery has its own magnetism. The reach of Mr. Putin’s power touches all.

It is evident in the bodyguards bursting into upscale Moscow restaurants to make room for some capo or oligarch of a system where great wealth comes only at the price of unwavering loyalty to the president.

Above all, it is in the fear that causes people to lower voices and hesitate before uttering that treacherous word of Mr. Putin’s double-think — “war.”

The Kremlinology of the Cold War has been replaced by the equally arduous pursuit of trying to penetrate the utter opacity of the Kremlin to read the mind of a new czar, Mr. Putin, now in the autumn of his rule.

Repression has become fierce and the war Mr. Putin started in Ukraine has been waged with near total unconcern for the consequences of his decision, a human trait that John le Carré once described as “a primary qualification for psychopathy.”

Putinism is a postmodern compilation of contradictions. It combines mawkish Soviet nostalgia with Mafia capitalism, devotion to the Orthodox Church with the spread of broken families, ferocious attacks on a “unipolar” American world with revived Russian imperialist aggression — all held together by the ruthless suppression of dissident voices and recourse to violence when necessary.

An increasingly disarming phenomenon in Russia is that it looks familiar to an American or a European, yet it is not. It is “operating on a different software,” as Pierre Lévy, the French ambassador, put it to me. The definition of state secrets keeps shifting.

I was advised to accept no document, unless it was a menu, and even then, to use a QR code to order food whenever possible.

Five time zones away from Moscow, a dilapidated Soviet-era coal-burning power station belches smoke over the corrugated-iron roofs of modest wooden homes in Ulan-Ude. A bust of Lenin’s head, the world’s largest at 42 tons, still towers over the central square of this city of more than 400,000 people.

Now, this quiet capital of Russia’s Buryatia Republic, a center of aircraft and helicopter production that was closed to foreigners during the Cold War, finds itself enmeshed in another war against the West, whose roots lie in the breakup of Lenin’s Soviet Union.

Aleksandr Vasilyev, 59, an economist, was about to return to the distant front for a second tour, having signed one of those $2,500 contracts with the Ministry of Defense.

Last December, a Ukrainian shell killed his closest friend, Viktor Prilukov, near Soledar, in eastern Ukraine. Days later, Mr. Vasilyev was blown into the air by a grenade. “I am not a very good bird,” he said. He returned to Siberia with a shattered shoulder, now largely healed.

“Of course, the money is nice, but it’s not the main reason for going again,” said Mr. Vasilyev, a vigorous man who makes regular use of the weights on the floor of his Soviet-era apartment.

“I fight out of duty to the motherland,” he said. “Our grandfathers went all the way to Berlin in 1945 to ensure we not have an enemy country next door. We won’t allow America to install that.”

As Mr. Vasilyev spoke, a clock with the faces of Mr. Putin and his servile sometime stand-in, Dmitri A. Medvedev, stared down at him from the wall of his kitchen.

“My mother gave me the clock 10 years ago because she thought I criticized them too much!” he said. “You know, our usual Russian grumbling, taxes and corruption. We criticize — the czars, Stalin and his gulag, Yeltsin — and we accept.”

Others’ embrace of the war is still more ardent. Nikolai Vorodnikov, 44, invited me to his garage where he repairs and readies vehicles to be sent to the front. About 100 SUVs and trucks have already made their way from his Siberian garage to Ukraine.

He himself fought in Mariupol, a Ukrainian city pulverized by Russian forces. In April 2022, as he stormed the main administration building there, Mr. Vorodnikov took two bullets to his chest. He recuperated for many months back in Ulan-Ude after receiving emergency care.

Like Mr. Putin, he believes that the 10th-century Kievan Rus — comprising territory that partially overlapped with today’s Ukraine — was the birthplace of modern Russia and that the region has always constituted the inalienable borderlands of greater Russia. Russia and Ukraine are “one body,” he says.

“The body has a tumor — it is in Ukraine, and we have to cure it,” he told me. “The tumor comes from Americans who go places they have no need to go. Our task is clear and will be accomplished, justice restored, fascism defeated.”

I asked him about Mr. Putin. “He was sent to Russia by God,” he said.

In a time of terror, the great mass is enthusiastic, compliant, calculating or cowed. A few brave people, by contrast, move to an inner compass.

The problems of Yevgeny Vlasov, 39, started late last year when he began posting critical commentary on Vkontakte, or VK, a Russian version of Facebook.

A tall, lean man with a disarming frankness and fearlessness, Mr. Vlasov, an electrical engineer in Ulan-Ude, posted a graphic from an opposition website illustrating the war’s toll.

It showed that for every Muscovite who dies in the war, 87.5 people die in Dagestan, Russia’s southernmost republic; 275 people in Buryatia, where he lives; and 350 people in Tuva, home to an Asian minority and the poorest region of Russia.

In contrast to all the recruitment billboards, whose images are almost exclusively of white ethnic Russians, a disproportionate number of those dying at the front come from Russia’s ethnic minorities, a pattern confirmed by Mediazona, among other independent news outlets. That was Mr. Vlasov’s point.

His friends told him to stop posting. He paid no attention. As a nobody, he thought nobody would be interested in his antiwar videos.

Mr. Vlasov’s friends, most of whom admire Mr. Putin, asked him when he had last watched TV. He replied: “I stopped watching 10 years ago. It’s all garbage. And that’s why I have a different view.”

What view is that?

“I have been angry,” he said. “I just did not understand why we had to attack Ukraine last year. There was no normal reason.”

The president, Mr. Vlasov argued, had lost his bearings. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 went so smoothly that Mr. Putin thought eliminating Ukraine would be easy.

“The only problem,” Mr. Vlasov said, “was that Ukraine was preparing all this time, while Putin’s cronies were stealing billions all this time, which is why our soldiers were scrounging for socks.”

Mr. Vlasov thought for a moment. “Putin is a thief,” he said. “The war in Ukraine has shown Russians how much money has disappeared to build his palaces.”

Last December, a police officer called and ordered Mr. Vlasov to report to the local police station. Mr. Vlasov demanded the reason. None was given. He went anyway and was asked if the social media page containing the criticism of the war was his. He said it was.

The police compiled a report saying that he had admitted guilt — he had not — and that he would be fined 60,000 rubles, or about $630, and be imprisoned if he did it a second time.

Mr. Vlasov hired a lawyer, Nadezhda Nizovkina, who has been active in the political opposition in Ulan-Ude. “I fight for freedom of speech, but I also fight against all that is going on,” she told me. “Under the Constitution, my client should be free to post what he wants.”

Over the past six months, Mr. Vlasov has appeared in court three times. His fine was eventually halved, then dropped in April, but he has not received any official communication that the case is closed.

With his children aged 10, 9, 4 and 2, Mr. Vlasov wants to leave Russia. He sees no future for the family in Ulan-Ude. His dream is to become an electrician in California; he thinks his wife could find a job in a nail salon.

“Putin has been in power so long that children do not ask who the next president will be, they ask who the next Putin will be,” he said. “That is not a good thing.”

Mr. Vlasov recalled going in 2021 to a demonstration in support of Aleksei A. Navalny, the imprisoned opposition leader who was sentenced this week to a further 19 years in prison under brutal conditions. “There were lots of people protesting,” he said. “Support for Putin was down.”

Two years on, some of his friends who protested are now supporters of Mr. Putin, a change he attributes to “this magic solution brought about by the war!”

We agreed to meet the next day at the Southern Cemetery, a 40-minute drive from Ulan-Ude, in a pine forest. There is no more room in the cemeteries in the city center.

We strolled through the vast burial ground, past scrawny stray dogs and picnic tables and large bouquets of multicolored plastic flowers glinting in the sunlight around newly dug graves of soldiers.

An entire section of the cemetery is given over to Ulan-Ude’s dead in the war.

An old couple was preparing a grave, shoveling the earth and beating it back down. A level lay on the ground next to the headstone they were about to place.

I asked who they were burying.

“Our grandson.”

How old was he?


What happened?

“Ukraine happened.”

The headstone read: Andrei Malykh, born May 4, 2003, died Oct. 31, 2022.

As I read it, their daughter approached, threatening to call the ubiquitous Federal Security Service, or F.S.B., if the conversation continued.

The celebration of the centennial of the Buryatia Republic was held on May 30 at the ornate Ulan-Ude opera house beneath a frescoed ceiling of Soviet planes with red stars and a Soviet flag emblazoned with Lenin’s image.

The governor, Aleksei S. Tsydenov, of Mr. Putin’s United Russia party, spoke for a half-hour, extolling the 39,000 Buryats who died in World War II. He then honored eight local soldiers of the current war already elevated to the status of “Hero of Russia.”

The whole theater rose to applaud the pinning of medals on the lapels of three of these heroes, as well as on the lapels of several veterans of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945.

It was a perfect image of the far-fetched fusion of the two wars that Mr. Putin has sought to engineer.

“Today, the role of conquerors of Nazism is played again by a new generation,” Mr. Tsydenov declared. “Our army will win. During all the stages of history there were those who wished evil on us. But we overcame all obstacles.”

A theatrical performance, of stylized Soviet influence, followed, including an all-male dance troupe that gyrated to a hymn to coal production, slashing their arms downward as they sang: “YES! YES! COAL PRODUCTION IS ON OUR SHOULDERS AND ALL RUSSIA IS BEHIND US!”

Outside, the mood was less exultant.

Salaries averaging a few hundred dollars a month mean a hardscrabble existence for many.

Irina Kontsova’s two daughters, 7 and 9, learned on TV of the death of their father, Maksim Kontsov, 33, last year in Ukraine. She had found herself unable to tell them. Her older daughter, Margarita, was back from school early and saw a TV announcement that her father had received a Gold Star Hero of Russia award.

We drove to the high school where the couple first met. A plaque is newly affixed to the facade. It commemorates the heroism of Mr. Kontsov, killed in a distant land in service to an aging leader’s obsession.

Ms. Kontsova, a forestry expert, stood beside the plaque. “You cannot break the Russian people,” she said. “Especially Russian women.”

Watching her, all I could think of was the waste, the fatherless children, the poisonous bequest of tangled history, and all of those medals handed out to glorify the bloody sacrifice of war.

To reach the Moscow office of Dmitri A. Muratov, the Nobel Prize-winning editor of the shuttered independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, you walk past the office of Anna Politkovskaya, murdered by the Putin regime in 2006 for her reporting on Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Her typewriter sits on her desk, along with her glasses and notes and a book with a title that sums up the impunity of the Putin era: “History of an Inconclusive Investigation.”

You walk on past the photographs of six other Novaya journalists killed since 2000. In different ways, they had adhered to a maxim of the great wartime photographer, Robert Capa, that Mr. Muratov cited in his Nobel acceptance speech: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

Mr. Muratov, 61, sits in an office featuring a photograph of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the leader now reviled by many Russians, who rejected Communism in favor of free speech, free enterprise and open borders.

His restructuring and openness — perestroika and glasnost — of the late 1980s led to the dismantling of the Soviet Union and, peacefully and fleetingly, brought a divided Europe together in liberty. In the photograph, Mr. Gorbachev, who died last year, holds an egg.

“He was very careful with live things,” Mr. Muratov tells me. “He was a farmer. He valued life. Now, in our state, death is more important than life.”

The past 17 months have resembled a funeral march. The government closed down Novaya, along with most independent media, soon after the war began. A branch of the paper, Novaya Gazeta Europe, now publishes in Riga, Latvia. Mr. Muratov stayed on in Russia, a country “where truth is now a crime,” as he put it.

The truth speakers — Mr. Navalny, the outspoken Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza, the war critic Ilya Yashin, the theater director Yevgeniya Berkovich, the playwright Svetlana Petriychuk and countless other writers and poets — are all in prison.

“We are the suffocated society,” Mr. Muratov says. “Russia has become a tower of silence.”

Nobody, he argues, knows what the country really thinks. All that is known is that the older generation believes in Mr. Putin with a religious passion.

As for the young, up to one million of the best and the brightest have left since the war began. These young Russians, Mr. Muratov tells me, did not want to kill or be killed. They did not think that glory was attained through bloodshed. If anything, they believe glory lies in art and intellect. To replace them will take a generation or more, he believes.

There are angry young people in Russia, too.

In the Belgorod region, close to Russia’s western border with Ukraine, where Ukrainian cross-border attacks have forced thousands of Russians to flee their homes, I met Ilya Kostyukov, 19.

He was thrown out of college last year for his opposition to the war but learned enough about the law to work as what he called a “lawyer,” mainly helping Russians desperate to avoid or leave the war’s front.

“We put an F.S.B. guy at the top of the government, we allowed bandits to operate and rule, we thought whatever went wrong could be rectified in an election,” Mr. Kostyukov said, “but it was too late when people started to realize — and here we are!”

Beneath the surface of Russian life, a stark generational conflict lurks. It is unclear when it will erupt, but it seems possible that one day it will.

In Moscow, I asked Mr. Muratov what drove Mr. Putin to his reckless invasion of Ukraine.

“He developed utter contempt for the West,” Mr. Muratov said. “All these leaders and politicians would come to Moscow and go to Politkovskaya’s grave in the morning, and talk about human rights with representatives of civil society, and then they would go see Mr. Putin and sign deals for oil and gas.”

“After they left office,” he said, “Mr. Putin would buy them — former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, former French Prime Minister François Fillon — they were all happy to take Putin’s money. So he concluded all this Western talk of values was garbage.”

Mr. Putin, in Mr. Muratov’s view, also reached another conclusion: Western powers had exploited a period of post-Soviet Russian weakness to undermine the glory of the Red Army that had fought its way to Hitler’s Berlin in 1945. In effect, the West had insulted the 27 million Soviets lost to the war, among them Mr. Putin’s older brother. His father was badly injured.

The West did so by expanding NATO east toward Russia’s borders, a broken pledge in Mr. Putin’s view.

“So Putin decided to win the already finished World War II,” Mr. Muratov said. “He resolved to protect the result of that war. That is why we are told we are fighting Nazis and Fascists.”

The miraculous bloodless end of Soviet totalitarian Communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 were not bloodless after all.

For Mr. Putin, the war has expanded in character, becoming the culmination of a civilizational war against the West. It may unfold in Ukraine, but Moscow’s enemies lie beyond.

The United States, Europe and NATO are now consistently identified as sources of “outright Satanism,” in the recent words of Sergei Naryshkin, the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service.

Being ideological, the war is doubly intractable. “There are currently no grounds for an agreement,” Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, told me. “We will continue the operation for the foreseeable future.”

Anti-Western invective has attained phantasmagorical proportions. It is part of an emergent state ideology that is setting a course for possibly decades of confrontation.

Thirty years after Russia — in the midst of the ardent liberal hopes of the 1990s — adopted a Constitution whose Article 13 said, “No ideology shall be proclaimed as State ideology,” Mr. Putin’s Russia is hurtling toward a new official ideology of conservative values.

The possibility of an amendment rescinding Article 13 has been raised by the justice minister, Konstantin Chuychenko, among others.

This anti-Western ideology is based around the Orthodox Church, the fatherland, the family and the “priority of the spiritual over the material,” as laid out in Mr. Putin’s decree on spiritual and moral values issued in November.

The enemy, it proclaims, is the United States and “other unfriendly foreign states,” intent on the cultivation of “selfishness, permissiveness, immorality, the denial of the ideals of patriotism” and “destruction of the traditional family through the promotion of nontraditional sexual relations.”

If the West was portrayed during the Cold War as the nightmarish home of ruthless capitalism, it is now, as Russia sees it, the home of sex changes, the rampages of drag queens, barbaric gender debates and an L.G.B.T.Q. takeover.

“For how long should Russia tolerate open warfare from the West using Ukrainian meat?” Sergei Karaganov, a well-connected Russian foreign policy expert, asked in an interview.

“There is a high risk of nuclear war, and it is increasing,” he said. “The war is a prolonged Cuban missile crisis, but this time with Western leaders who reject normal values of motherhood, parenthood, gender, love of country, faith, God.”

This scarcely veiled Russian nuclear threat is part of a relentless onslaught against the West. From late March to May, Russia signaled that a new phase of outright confrontation had begun.

In the first arrest of a foreign correspondent since the Cold War, Evan Gershkovich of The Wall Street Journal was detained on charges of espionage that are vehemently denied by the United States government and his newspaper. Four months on, he languishes in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison.

The Anglo-American School of Moscow, an institution at the core of Russian-American cooperation for almost 75 years, shut down for good on May 12 after a court ruling and charges by a local newspaper that it was propagating L.G.B.T.Q. values.

Mr. Putin will no doubt use this ideological onslaught and the war in Ukraine relentlessly in the run-up to Russia’s next presidential election, in March 2024. His re-election, nearly inevitable, would be for a renewable six-year term.

“Our presidential election is not really democracy, it is costly bureaucracy,” said Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman. “Mr. Putin will be re-elected next year with more than 90 percent of the vote.”

The only time that Mr. Putin’s popularity plunged was last September when a partial mobilization was ordered. “We saw the biggest overnight drop in support for Mr. Putin in 30 years of polling,” Denis Volkov, the director of Levada Center, the only major independent pollster in Russia, told me in Moscow. “Suddenly the war was here!”

Mr. Putin’s approval rating fell to around 50 percent from 80 percent, according to Levada, which focuses on door-to-door polling. Support for Mr. Putin has since returned to around 80 percent, in so far as polling can be trusted in the current environment.

By insisting, against all evidence, that Ukraine is a nation run by Fascists and Nazis, and by suggesting that the West wants Ukraine to be another home of gender-transitioning moral decay, Mr. Putin has successfully turned a war of aggression into a defensive war, essential to save Russia from those intent on ripping apart its physical and moral fabric.

“What we see is not the measured language of an establishment in power for decades,” said Mr. Baunov, the fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “It has the ardor of revolutionaries, and it emanates from a major world power with a nuclear arsenal.”

A mirror effect is at work in this late Putin era. The accusations he levels at the West and Ukraine — aggression, fascism, nuclear threats — become his own actions. Russian-pulverized Mariupol in Ukraine in 2023 looks like nothing so much as Nazi-pulverized Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in 1943.

The vindictive fever churning inside the Russian leader came to a head on the eve of the war in Ukraine. The loss of Crimea, in particular, as the Soviet Union broke up was a festering wound because of the widespread Russian sentiment that it is a core part of the country’s history.

“Putin was obsessed with justice, as he saw it,” said Aleksei A. Venediktov, whose popular Echo of Moscow radio station was shut down soon after the war began. “He told me in 2014, ‘You might not like the annexation of Crimea, but it’s just.’”

Mr. Venediktov says he knows Mr. Putin well. He believes everyone, himself included, got the Russian leader wrong.

“We did not see the Putin who was on a historical mission of revenge,” he told me. “We thought he was a corrupt guy from a poor family who wanted yachts and palaces and girls and money. We did not see the K.G.B. officer who thought the loss of the Soviet Union was unjust. We thought he was a cynic. In fact, he was a romantic.”

Nationalism is not fascism, but it is an essential component of it. Its perennial essence is a promise to change the present in the name of an illusory past in order to forge a future vague in all respects except its glory.

“History for Putin is an instrument to shape current events. He is absolutely uninterested in historical truth,” said Oleg Orlov, a leading human rights activist for more than three decades at the head of Memorial, which was shut down in 2021.

Mr. Orlov, 70, is now on trial for “public actions aimed at discrediting the use of Russian Federation armed forces.” He faces up to three years in prison.

For years, Mr. Putin’s regime has deployed all means to re-energize and redirect history. “My History” theme parks spread, to remind Russians of their heroism, from resistance to the Mongols in the 13th century until the Nazi invasion. Children are indoctrinated through lessons and extracurricular activities built around military themes.

The march of millions of Russians carrying images of their dead forbears in parades across the country became a feature of the May 9 Victory Day celebration, marking the Russian triumph in the Great Patriotic War. This year, however, in a subdued ceremony, these so-called Immortal Regiment events were dropped.

“Perhaps there was a fear in the Kremlin that someone would march with a photograph of a son killed in Ukraine,” Géza Andreas von Geyr, the departing German ambassador to Russia, told me.

At the beginning of the war last year, Mr. Orlov stood alone on Red Square with a banner saying, “1945: A country victorious over fascism. 2022: A country where fascism is victorious.”

He told me that there were now two options. The first was that Mr. Putin would be replaced somehow, and that a period of reform would start, as under Khrushchev after Stalin.

“The second option, which is more realistic, is that the regime stays in place and Russia will be slowly dying,” Mr. Orlov said. “It will fall behind other countries, and to make this regime stable, the level of repression will rise.”

Mr. Putin almost certainly has enough of his country, and enough cash, behind him to pursue the war for at least another 18 months to two years, three Western ambassadors to Russia told me in Moscow.

I asked Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, if Russia sought more Ukrainian territory beyond the four provinces annexed.

“No,” he said. “We just want to control all the land we have now written into our Constitution as ours.”

The fishery museum on Lake Baikal, a wooden building that has partly subsided into the water, is officially closed. But Ms. Rolikova, the innkeeper, thought it was important to see it, and so she opened the padlocked door to reveal a palimpsest of Russia over the past century.

Scattered here and there were barrels in which salted fish once lay, sleds, nets, benches and faded photographs of fishermen headed out in wooden boats onto the immense lake. I was reminded of the observation of Roland Barthes, the French philosopher, that in every old photograph lurks catastrophe.

Soviet posters from the time of the Great Patriotic War adorned the walls: “Big Fish to the Front Line!” “The Duty of Every Fisherman is to Exceed the Plan!”

A vision of vats of salted fish being hauled across thousands of miles of Russian steppe to nourish the Red Army battling its way to Hitler’s Berlin seemed to capture the immensity of the Soviet resolve and sacrifice that Mr. Putin insists he must honor through yet more war.

“Nobody came and asked us: Do we want this war or do we not?” Ms. Rolikova said.

On the road back to Ulan-Ude from Lake Baikal, the toll of Mr. Putin’s war to reverse history was inescapable.

In one cemetery lay Andrei Mezhov, a Marine, born in 2000 and killed on March 6, 2022, in Ukraine. He was from the nearby town of Talovka, had studied at the Baikal State University and served in the army in Vladivostok.

A Marine flag flapped in the wind above a bouquet of flowers. On it was the Marines’ motto, “Wherever we are, there lies victory.”

On each visit I made to a cemetery to see the graves of the war dead, F.S.B. agents would park their car 50 meters away, a gentle reminder.

On my last day in Moscow, I went to the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge beneath the Kremlin. A small shrine marks the spot where Boris Y. Nemtsov, a towering opposition figure, was gunned down on Feb. 27, 2015 — a flagrant political murder.

Somebody is always present at the shrine, watching over it, making sure there is a fresh bouquet of flowers. On this day, the task fell to Arkady Konikov, who told me: “Nemtsov was an honest politician, a very unusual thing. He was a brave man, a great man.”

The year before Mr. Nemtsov died, almost a decade ago, as the Russian-instigated fighting in the Donbas region of Ukraine began, he wrote on his Facebook page: “Putin has declared war on Ukraine. This is a fratricidal war. Russia and Ukraine will pay a high price for the bloody insanity of this mentally unstable secret-police agent. Young men will die on both sides. There will be inconsolable mothers and sisters.”

More recently, just before Mr. Gorbachev’s death on Aug. 30, 2022, Mr. Muratov, the Novaya editor, visited his friend as he lay in a Moscow hospital. The condition of the Soviet leader who decided to set Russians free, and whose funeral Mr. Putin would not attend, was grave. He could not understand much.

There was a big TV in his room. On it, playing over and over, were images of bombings and explosions in Ukraine. As Mr. Muratov left the room, he heard Mr. Gorbachev say: “Who could be happy because of this?”

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