In Estonia, Ethnic Russians Start Questioning Putin’s War

NARVA, Estonia — Like many of the ethnic Russians who live along Estonia’s eastern border with Russia, Stanislava Larchenko could not believe that President Vladimir V. Putin had gone on a killing spree in Ukraine.

Ms. Larchenko, 51, got angry with her son when he said in February after Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine that Russian soldiers were killing civilians. She insisted the carnage was the work of Ukrainians dressed in Russian uniforms, a trope of the state television beamed in from Russia that she watched.

“For me, Russia was always a liberator, a country that got attacked but never attacked others,” Ms. Larchenko said in the Estonian border city of Narva, NATO’s easternmost outpost and the European Union’s most ethnically Russian city.

But after four months of war, Ms. Larchenko said she had “taken off my rose-colored glasses” — and stopped quarreling with her son, Denis, 29, after taking his advice to stop watching Russian state TV.

“Psychologically,” she said, “I have passed over to the other side.”

In a city where nearly everyone speaks Russian instead of Estonian and faces social pressure to stick with their ethnic group, Ms. Larchenko is unusual in her willingness to state openly that she no longer sees Russia as a force for good but as an aggressor.

That so few Russians in Estonia’s free and democratic society are ready to do this is perhaps an indicator of how difficult any change of heart will be for people in Russia, where open criticism of the war is a criminal offense.

Beneath the surface, however, the mood in Narva is changing, particularly among younger ethnic Russians. For some, this shift carries a worrying message for the Kremlin: Private doubts are eroding public support for what Mr. Putin calls his “special military operation.”

Others see only lock-step loyalty ahead: Russians, said Raivo Raala, a dyspeptic ethnic Estonian retiree in Narva, “are not people, but slaves.”

Ms. Larchenko’s son, a member of the City Council, said most ethnic Russians in Narva “now know that Russia was wrong to attack Ukraine” but still struggled to reconcile this with a foundation of their identity — deep pride in Russia’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Sergey Tsvetkov, a Russian critic of the Kremlin who fled to Narva from Saint Petersburg in 2014 and now aids refugees from Ukraine, said he was disappointed that so few ethnic Russians in Estonia had spoken out against the war.

But, he added, “people are now starting to think a bit more — most have not changed their minds, but they are having doubts” about Russia’s rationale for invading Ukraine, principally its claim that Ukraine has been overrun by fascists and needs to be “liberated.”

Mr. Putin last month helped stoke those doubts by reframing the invasion as part of a mission to “return and strengthen” territory he said had belonged “since time immemorial” to Russia. “This,” Mr. Putin said, “applies to Narva,” conquered by Peter the Great in 1704.

Narva’s mayor, Katri Raik, an ethnic Estonian historian, scoffed at Mr. Putin’s reading of history as untrue. Nobody in Narva, including native Russian speakers, more than 95 percent of the city’s population, she said, wants to be part of Russia.

Around 36 percent of the city’s 60,000 residents have Russian instead of Estonian passports, but, the mayor said, “nobody is leaving to live in Russia,” where salaries are far lower, corruption runs rampant and health care and other services are much poorer.

“Everybody here knows what life is like over there,” Ms. Raik said.

Despite this knowledge, however, many ethnic Russians in Estonia still looked favorably on Mr. Putin when the war started.

A public opinion survey in March by Globsec, a Slovakian research group, found that 22 percent of Estonians — a figure roughly coinciding with the ethnic Russian population — had a positive view of Mr. Putin, down from 30 percent last year.

The mayor said she believed Mr. Putin’s support had since shrunk, particularly as people can no longer easily watch Russian state television after an Estonian ban on cable services carrying it.

Updated 

July 2, 2022, 4:12 p.m. ET

To affirm Narva’s separation from Russia, the city recently adopted a new slogan: “Europe Starts Here.”

Even ethnic Russian politicians who had tilted toward Moscow conceded that Russia’s despotic system was not one that anybody wanted installed in Narva.

“We live in a democratic society — those who don’t want this have already left,” said Tatjana Stolfart, a member of the City Council for the Center Party, a previously pro-Russia political force. Shortly after Russia’s invasion, the party abruptly canceled its partnership agreement with Mr. Putin’s United Russia party.

In an interview, Ms. Stolfart was initially cautious about saying who was to blame for the killing in Ukraine, but then she acknowledged: “Yes, Russia is the aggressor.”

The tarnishing of Russia’s image has helped rally support, even among some ethnic Russians, for the Estonian Defense League, a volunteer militia under the Ministry of Defense. Roger Vinni, an ethnic Estonian organizer of the league in Narva, said half of its 300 members in the city were ethnic Russians. “They are Estonian patriots, just like we are,” Mr. Vinni said.

Many older Russians, he added, still harbor nostalgia for the Soviet Union, but their children and grandchildren are more integrated, speak Estonian and “see themselves as part of Estonia and Europe, not the Soviet Union or Russia.”

Younger Russians in Narva have also joined efforts to help Ukrainians, many from Mariupol and other occupied towns, who fled to Estonia to escape Russian troops.

Kristina Korneitsuk, a 23-year-old volunteer who washes bedding for a refugee hostel, said that while she blamed Russia and Ukraine for the conflict, Mr. Putin “has perhaps lost his mind a bit.”

His comments about Narva belonging to Russia, she added, should be taken seriously. “If he can attack Ukraine there is reason to think that the next step could be the Baltics,” she said.

While Russia has not issued specific threats against Estonia, Moscow on Monday threatened Lithuania, another Baltic state, with retaliation if it did not reverse its ban on the transportation of some goods to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave between Lithuania and Poland.

Some older ethnic Russians, despite their strong emotional ties to Russia, express dismay at the aggression and paranoia that has gripped Russian society. Gennady Suslov, a mechanic, complained that when he cycled across the bridge connecting Narva to the adjacent ramshackle Russian town of Ivangorod on his Ukrainian-made bicycle, he had to put tape over the “Ukraine” brand name on the crossbar to avoid risking detention.

Russia, he said, “has gone a bit crazy.”

That perception has given a boost to a long, often faltering campaign by the Estonian state to get more ethnic Russians to embrace the country where they live.

“With Putin’s help, the process of Estonization has been catalyzed,” said Artemy Troitsky, a veteran Russian journalist and Putin critic who moved to Estonia in 2014. Mr. Putin, he added, has made his country “totally uncool” and so toxic that hardly anyone is ready to defend its actions publicly.

Estonia has also banished from cable television four Russian television channels, which had previously been the main source of news for many ethnic Russians, who make up nearly a quarter of Estonia’s population.

Russian television can still be watched in Narva with the purchase of a small antenna, but Moscow has nonetheless lost its propaganda stranglehold. Ms. Larchenko, the mother who shed her illusions about Russia, said she had not watched Russian television for three months and now gets all of her news from the internet, including from sites critical of the Kremlin.

Alyona Boyarchuk, a Ukrainian single mother who took refuge in Narva soon after Russia invaded her country, said that when she first arrived, she faced hostility from ethnic Russians. She is now mostly treated with respect and gets asked whether what Moscow says about the war is true.

“People here are no longer zombies,” she said.

To counter Russian propaganda, Estonia’s state broadcaster has its own Russian-language service, ETV+, which reflects the government’s position that Ukraine is the victim of an illegal and brutal attack by the Kremlin.

Sergei Stepanov, a news editor for ETV+ in Narva, said the “Soviet mentality” of an older generation pining for the days when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union still made it difficult for many to see Russia as an aggressor.

His mother-in-law, he added, considered him and his wife “fascists” because they support Ukraine. “There is a mental war going on between generations,” he said.