Is Putin winning the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary Russians?   

Thousands of miles from the fighting in Ukraine, the frontline in Russia seems to be not on the ground - but in the mind, ITV News journalist Emma Burrows reports

On the whitewashed walls of a school in the tiny village of Komary in western Russia hangs a stone plaque in honour of a soldier who died in battle.

Here, on the Eastern Front, millions of Soviet soldiers died fighting Hitler’s Nazi invasion.

In a battle dubbed the ‘meat grinder,’ Soviet forces sustained massive casualties for almost no gain: the army was bogged down in mud in the spring, froze in the winter, and fought through shortages of food and weapons before finally driving Nazis out of Russia.

But the stone plaque on this school is not for a soldier who died in this great battle to defend his own land, but rather for one who was killed as he advanced across someone else’s. 

"Here studied Sergey Vladimirovich Muraviev, Senior guard sailor, awarded the Order of Courage posthumously," the plaque reads.

Russians venerate their war dead as Putin doubles down on the war. Credit: ITV News

Adopted into a family whose ancestors were called up to defend their country during the Second World War, Muraviev served in Russia's military before becoming one of its first soldiers sent to Ukraine.

He was dead, aged 22, not even a month later. 

He died, his parents were told, protecting his comrades and “peaceful citizens,” as the Russian military advanced through the Zaporizhzhia region of southern Ukraine. 

Since his death, thousands more Russian - and Ukrainian - soldiers have lost their lives as Vladimir Putin’s Special Military Operation has dragged into its second year.

The operation has been sold by the Kremlin to Russians as an attempt to protect Russian-speaking citizens in the eastern Donbas region. Many Russians have no idea of the true scope - and failures - of the Russian military operation in Ukraine. 

They also have no idea how many of their countrymen have died. Western officials say up to 200,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded while Russia’s Ministry of Defence has only officially admitted to almost 6,000 deaths. 

But even as Ukraine has fought back, as the death toll has risen and as Putin has mobilised his men into battles once again dubbed the ‘meat grinder,’ the resolution and belief of the villagers in the man who sent their sons to war seems not to have wavered.

“Our family’s opinion about the Special Military Operation has not changed over the last year. Instead our faith has strengthened in the fact that our president does everything correctly,” Sergey Muraviev’s aunt Svetlana Chernetsova said in audio interviews collected for ITV News by a local journalist.

“Fascism and Nazism have no place on earth. We totally support our president because his actions are aimed at defending our fatherland, our citizens and we are together with him.”

The view is apparently widely shared in this group of villages.

“After a year, our relationship to the Special Military Operation has only become more steadfast and confident,” said Natalia Simonova, leader of a local volunteer movement in the nearby village of Bely.

“We have a strong understanding that the country is in danger. We need to protect her. My countrymen undoubtedly support their president Vladimir Putin. For us, he is a real example of a leader.”

Traditional Russian wooden houses dot the landscape of the Tver region of western Russia, some drunkenly slanting as they collapse into the earth, as some of their inhabitants perhaps once did inside them. Many are abandoned, their owners dead or gone in search of a better life elsewhere.

The people here are poor in comparison to those in regional Russian cities. Russia is an energy superpower but these villages are not connected to the gas grid: the villagers can see the pipelines that once carried gas to Europe before the war - but not to them.

Bogs and silver birches dot the landscape of the Tver region of western Russia. Credit: ITV News

“Our grandfathers fought for a peaceful life for their children and grandchildren,” Natalia Simonova said.

Our generation clearly understands - not one step back, we should only go forward. We look forward to a calm future with no evil, no explosions, without children’s tears and cries, without fear for your life,” she said.

But in these rural Russian villages, there are no bombs, nor missile strikes which rip homes and families apart. There is no thump of artillery or the sound of air raid sirens. Instead, the birds sing to the sound of woodcutters sawing.

Thousands of miles from the fighting in Ukraine, the frontline here seems to be not on the ground but in the mind.

For his war, Putin has mobilised not only his foot-soldiers but also his information warriors.

In these villages, of which there are thousands across Russia, there is limited phone signal and internet but there is satellite television.

Beamed into homes around the clock are state television programmes showing the Kremlin’s view of the war: telling Russians they are fighting for their own survival; that Ukraine is full of Nazis and that the West wants to destroy Russia.

There are no reports on the men allegedly sent to the front with little training and rusty weapons; told to use female sanitary products instead of first aid kits.

Allegations of Russian war crimes, especially around the Ukrainian city of Bucha, are twisted as ‘fake news.’ The true number of Russian casualties is not disclosed. 

Sergey Muraviev’s family commemorate the soldier, who was killed in Ukraine. Credit: ITV News

“The activity of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his supporters, the countries of the West, is inhuman,” Sergey Muraviev’s aunt Svetlana Chernetsova said.

“They are determined to destroy all the principles and morals of humanity, they unleashed this war, they have no concern whatsoever for improving the lives of their people,” she added.

“I never thought that Western politicians would push the heads together of two brotherly nations -Russians and Ukrainians,” said Yakov Andryushin, a representative of the local paratroopers union in the village of Bely. 

“For more than ten years in Ukraine, an open hatred of Russia has been stirred by the West. We can all see what it led to: to brothers against brothers. Ukrainians hate Russians for the fact that we are one people - how brainwashed they are!”

Almost as soon as Putin came to power in 1999 he started a creeping clampdown against independent media, bringing it increasingly under the Kremlin’s control.

Last year, he finally accomplished his task. 

Russian independent publications closed and their journalists fled after their newsrooms were raided: they were branded ‘foreign agents’ and threatened with legislation which punishes spreading ‘fake news’ about the Special Military Operation in Ukraine with up to 15 years in prison.

“This media is specifically for people in rural Russia, so that they vote for Putin. It’s for the electorate, the people who live in villages,” a journalist still working for Russian state television told ITV News on condition of anonymity. 

“We know [Russian state media] is lying and sometimes you think, ‘what are you talking about?’ But we know there are many people who believe it. They have the internet but don’t have access to other information: they don’t need it; they don’t want to find other sources and analyse it.”

Polling is very difficult in a country where expressing a negative view of the war can lead to a prison sentence.

Polls from Russia’s Levada Center suggest Russians are conflicted: most appear to still support the war and are proud of Russia’s military -although they seem to find the conflict concerning and want Russia to start peace negotiations.

Around 20% of respondents say they are against the invasion. 

Levada Center polls noted a spike in anxiety among Russians around the time of the invasion, and also in September when 300,000 men were mobilised, but this later subsided.

“Last year people were afraid of war. And now they just say, ‘yes, of course we need to fight,’” the Russian state television journalist said.

Russians are told, “Ukraine is our brother and they are lost. But the main theme is that Europe and America are fighting Russia: they are the enemy,” the journalist added.

As well as men and media, Putin has also mobilised memory: history is being rewritten to bolster support for the president and for the war in Ukraine. 

During a broadcast to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory in the Battle of Stalingrad, Dmitry Kiselyov, a Russian state television anchor declared that, “it was in Stalingrad that we beat back the onslaught of the collective West against our country... all of Europe was on the side of fascist Germany."

Mr Strelkov called Vladimir Putin a 'nonentity'. Credit: AP

Connecting wars past and present, Putin told his citizens that Russia is, once again, under attack.

“The ideology of Nazism in its modern form and manifestation again directly threatens the security of our country,” Putin said.

“Once again, we are threatened with German leopard tanks with crosses on their sides. Once again they are going to fight Russia on Ukrainian soil with the hands of Hitler’s descendants."

The commemorations for the anniversary included erecting signs temporarily renaming the city from its present day name of Volgograd to Stalingrad.

There were victory reenactments and a military parade - broadcast across Russia’s 11 time zones on its vast state television network.

“Today, I am wearing an extremely important thing to me - my great-grandmother’s beret which she wore for the entire war. Both my great-grandfathers also fought at the front,” Daria Vysokova, a young member of a military reenactment group, proudly told President Putin at a meeting.

“You embrace the heroic history of your family as your own,” Putin told her. “This is extremely important.” 

The Kremlin is taking steps to make sure all of Russia’s children feel the same way.

And since the beginning of the war, Russia’s Ministry of Education has introduced ‘Important Conversations’ to the curriculum, in which children are told it is “not scary to die for the motherland.”

The ministry has ordered that older children must be taught basic military training, including knowledge of weapons and first aid.

In a slickly produced video, a cartoon character with bows in her hair and a skirt in the colours of the Russian flag tells young children how the Russian army “turns boys into real men.”

In many rural Russian villages, both adults and children alike appear to have romantic ideas about the soldiers going off to war. Credit: ITV News

The character tells soldiers: “Don’t attack, but defend, preserve our land! We need to keep the peace with your strong hand so that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will have a happy life.”

New teaching materials produced since the invasion have ordered teachers to foster the values of “patriotism, love for the motherland, historical memory and continuity of generations,” in children. They also link to an official government document called 'National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation.'

In Russia, young minds appear to be a security threat.

Pushed by Putin, Russia has based a large part of its identity since the chaotic and traumatic collapse of the Soviet Union on victory against fascism during the Second World War. 

Natalia Simonova, the leader of a volunteer movement called ‘For the Victory of Bely,’ said she frequently speaks to the wives and mothers of men who Putin has sent to Ukraine

“The families understand that this is for the defence of the motherland. Their loved ones clearly understand why they are going,” she said.

“They are going to fight fascism and cruelty and will fight with justice. They are going to rescue people who are guilty of nothing and they go there with the confidence that they will win.”

The confidence is bolstered by the fact that, despite the military setbacks, Russia is in control of more Ukrainian territory than it was a year ago.

In the village of Bely, not far from Komary where Muraviev grew up, Simonova said she was not ordered to create her group, but rather the town voluntarily came together, "to give a bit of warmth to our boys who were mobilised.”

In these villages, both adults and children alike appear to have romantic ideas about the Russian soldiers who are going off to war.

Russian children send soldiers triangular letters decorated with Z-signs, red stars and Russian flags. Credit: Supplied/ ITV News

Faced with a shortage of envelopes and paper, 80 years ago Soviet soldiers created a method of folding letters into triangles.

Although Russian soldiers have been slammed by pro-war Russian bloggers for using mobile phones near the frontline - allowing them to be wiped out by Ukrainian strikes - the children still send them triangular letters in the post. They are decorated with Z-signs, red stars and Russian flags.

“We believe in victory! We wait for you at home alive and healthy!” one child’s letter reads.

“Our boys in the Special Military Operation zone get these letters and carry them in their chest pockets, like amulets, as sacred gifts,” Simonova said.

“Our children write such touching words to our soldiers: how they wait for their return home, how they are proud of them, how they want to be as brave and just like them.”

A memorial to Sergey Muraviev is laden with tributes. Credit: ITV News

Around 100 men from the Tver region, including Muraviev, have been killed in Ukraine according to data shared with ITV News by the BBC’s Russian Service which is tracking Russian military deaths.

Many more have been mobilised and, likely, wounded.

But unlike their forefathers- and contrary to what their children are being taught at school - the Russian soldiers in Ukraine are not defenders and peacekeepers. 

During the Second World War, the Nazis swept through this region of Russia, committing systematic war crimes: rape, massacres, murder.

At her son’s graveside last year, Muraviev’s mother, Natalia Archakova, described to ITV News how Nazis had burned down every house in their village apart from one. 

To question the Kremlin’s version of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine, particularly in this part of Russia, would be agony for Muraviev’s family.

“To find out the truth would just be too painful for them,” the Russian state television journalist told ITV News.

“If you just watch state channels, you’ll find all the arguments given in these shows and you will be shocked. But they [rural Russians] find all the answers to their questions there: why the war started, why they carried out mobilisation and so on.”

“They won’t believe other information. For them it is easier to believe in state media because it is safe.”

It may be safe, and for rural Russians from poor villages, it may also be the only option.

As president and prime minister, Putin has ruled Russia for more than twenty years. In those three decades, he has totally silenced dissent: imprisoning those who stood against him and crushing independent media.

Confronted with Western economic sanctions, ahead of the election the Kremlin appears to be selling Russians a romantic vision of the past in place of a prosperous future. 

In May 2022, shortly after their son’s death, Muraviev’s parents led a procession in memory of Russia’s war heroes - both past and present.

They stood holding aloft a photo of their son, at the front of a crowd of paratroopers, members of the public and schoolgirls in military-style jackets and berets, with bows in their hair and Z-signs pinned to their chests. 

People join a Russian procession in honour of fallen war heroes. Credit: ITV News

For now, the lure of history seems to be galvanising some of Putin’s voters. Many Russian mothers are still sending their sons into the 21st century ‘meat grinder,’ and there is no pressure on Vladimir Putin, from this part of Russia at least, to change course.

Although they are thousands of miles away from the frontline, the villagers of Komary could help decide the course of the conflict.

Putin’s war is not only being fought on a battlefield: the outcome of the war in Ukraine depends, in large part, on what people believe inside Russia itself. 

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