Narva, Estonia – Like many Russians who live along Estonia’s eastern border with Russia, Stanislava Larchenko couldn’t believe President Vladimir Putin had gone on a killing spree in Ukraine.
Ms Larchenko, 51, was angry with her son when he said in February after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine that Russian soldiers were killing civilians. She insisted the massacre was the work of Ukrainians in Russian military uniforms, an allegorical image of state television broadcast from and watched by Russia.
“For me, Russia has always been liberated, a country that has been attacked but never attacked others,” said Ms Larchenko in the Estonian border city of Narva, the easternmost city of NATO and the EU’s largest ethnically Russian city.
But four months into the war, Mrs. Larchenko said she had “taken off my rose-tinted glasses” — and stopped quarreling with her son, Denis, 29, after taking his advice to stop watching Russian state television.
“Psychologically,” she said, “I just passed over to the other side.”
In a city where everyone speaks Russian rather than Estonian and faces social pressure to conform to their ethnic group, Ms. Larchenko is unusual in her willingness to state publicly that she no longer sees Russia as a force for good but as an aggressor.
Perhaps how few Russians in Estonia’s free and democratic society are willing to do so is an indication of how difficult any change of opinion can be for people in Russia, where public criticism of the war is a criminal offense.
But beneath the surface, the mood is changing in Narva, particularly among young people of Russian descent. For some, this shift carries a troubling message for the Kremlin: private suspicion is undermining public support for what Putin calls his “special military operation.”
Others see close loyalty in the future: the Russians, as Raivu Raala, a retired Estonian with Narva dysentery, said, “are not human beings, but slaves.”
Ms Larchenko’s son, a city councilor, said most Russians in Narva “now know Russia was wrong to attack Ukraine” but still struggle to reconcile this with the basis of their identity – a deep pride in Russia’s role in defeating Nazi Germany.
Sergei Tsvetkov, a Russian critic of the Kremlin who fled to Narva from Saint Petersburg in 2014 and is now helping refugees from Ukraine, said he was disappointed that so few Russians in Estonia had spoken out against the war.
A better understanding of the Russo-Ukrainian war
But he added, “Now people are starting to think a bit more — most of them haven’t changed their minds, but they have doubts” about Russia’s rationale for invading Ukraine, primarily its claim that Ukraine was and should be overrun by fascists. “Editor”.
Putin last month helped stoke those suspicions by reframing the invasion as part of a mission to “return and strengthen” lands he said belonged “a long time ago” to Russia. “This applies to Narva,” Putin said, which was conquered by Peter the Great in 1704.
The mayor of Narva, Kateri Raik, a historian of Estonian descent, derided Mr. Putin’s reading of history as incorrect. Nobody in Narva, including Russian-speaking, more than 95 percent of the city’s population, she said, wants to be part of Russia.
About 36 percent of the city’s 60,000 residents have Russian passports instead of Estonian ones, but the mayor said, “No one leaves to live in Russia,” where salaries are much lower, corruption is rampant and health care and other services are poorer.
“Everyone here knows what life is like there,” said Ms. Rayk.
Despite this knowledge, however, many Russians in Estonia viewed Mr. Putin favorably when the war began.
Public opinion poll in March By Globsec, a Slovak research group, it found that 22 percent of Estonians — a number roughly identical to the ethnic Russian population — have a favorable view of Mr. Putin, down from 30 percent last year.
The mayor said she believes support for Putin has since diminished, especially since people can no longer easily watch Russian state television after the Estonian ban on cable services.
To confirm Narva’s secession from Russia, the city recently adopted a new slogan: “Europe begins here.”
Even Russian ethno-politicians leaning toward Moscow admitted that the Russian authoritarian regime was not one that anyone wanted to install in Narva.
“We live in a democratic society – those who don’t want it have already left,” said Tatiana Stolfart, a city councilor for the Center Party, which was once a pro-Russian political force. Shortly after the Russian invasion, the party abruptly canceled the partnership agreement with Putin’s United Russia party.
In an interview, Ms Stolfart was initially cautious about determining who was to blame for the killings in Ukraine, but then admitted: “Yes, Russia is the aggressor.”
The demonization of Russia helped garner support, even among some ethnic Russians, for Estonian Defense League, Volunteer militia of the Ministry of Defense. Roger Finney, an Estonian organizer for the league in Narva, said half of the city’s 300 members are of Russian origin. “They are Estonian patriots, just like us,” said Mr. Finney.
He added that many older Russians still feel nostalgic for the Soviet Union, but that their children and grandchildren are more assimilated and speak Estonian and “see themselves as part of Estonia and Europe, not the Soviet Union or Russia.”
Younger Russians in Narva also joined efforts to aid Ukrainians, many of them from Mariupol and other occupied cities, who had fled to Estonia to escape Russian forces.
Kristina Kornetsuk, a 23-year-old volunteer who washes bedding in a refugee hostel, said that while she blamed Russia and Ukraine for the conflict, Mr. Putin “may have lost his mind a little”.
She added that his comments about Narva, which belongs to Russia, should be taken seriously. “If he can attack Ukraine, there is reason to believe that the next step might 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 back down on its ban on the transfer of certain goods to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave between Lithuania and Poland.
Some older Russians, despite their strong emotional ties to Russia, express their dissatisfaction with the aggression and paranoia that has gripped Russian society. Gennady Suslov, a mechanic, complained that when he cycled across the bridge linking Narva to the ramshackle nearby Russian town of Ivangorod on his Ukrainian-made bike, he had to tape over the brand name “Ukraine” on the crossbar to avoid risking arrest.
Russia, he said, “has gone a little crazy.”
This perception gave impetus to a long, and often faltering, campaign by the Estonian state to persuade more Russians to embrace the country in which they live.
“With Putin’s help, the colonization process was catalyzed,” said Artemy Troitsky, a veteran Russian journalist and Putin critic who moved to Estonia in 2014. Mr Putin added, he made his country “not quite nice” and very poisonous. That hardly anyone is willing to defend their actions publicly.
Estonia has also removed four Russian TV channels from cable television, which were previously the main source of news for many Russians who make up nearly a quarter of Estonia’s population.
It is still possible to watch Russian television in Narva with the purchase of a small antenna, but Moscow nevertheless lost its stifling propaganda grip. Ms Larchenko, a mother who has given up her illusions about Russia, said she has not watched Russian television for three months and is now receiving all her news from the Internet, including from sites critical of the Kremlin.
Alyona Boyarchuk, a Ukrainian single mother who took refuge in Narva shortly after Russia invaded her country, said she faced hostility of Russian origin when she first arrived. She is now mostly treated with respect and asked if 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, news editor at ETV+ in Narva, said the “Soviet mentality” of the older generation eager for the days when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union still made it difficult for many to see Russia as an aggressor.
He added that his mother-in-law considered him and his wife “fascists” because they support Ukraine. “There is a mental war between generations,” he said.