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Where things stand two years since Russia invaded Ukraine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We start this hour by marking an anniversary. Tomorrow will be two years since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Outwardly, the country projects confidence in the war's progress, and political repression ensures that is also the message at home. So how could one gauge Russia's mood right now? NPR's Charles Maynes found a way, perhaps, in a Moscow theme park.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: There are the official stories told about Russia, and then there are the stories Russians tell about themselves. Amid another year of war that saw hundreds of thousands killed and wounded in armed rebellion in Russia's military ranks and a crackdown on dissent at home, Russian President Vladimir Putin's message to his nation - Russia is not only surviving. It's thriving.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "The country is changing for the better," said Putin at a conference in Moscow this week. "We're becoming more self-sufficient and more sovereign," adding it was now Russia's time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAYNES: A new exhibit in Moscow called simply Rossiya, or Russia, celebrates the best of the Putin era at 24 years and counting. Housed on the grounds of a park once dedicated to Soviet achievements in industry and agriculture, the new exhibit features tributes to present-day successes like the Sputnik V vaccine and Russia's new fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: There's also a massive pavilion dedicated to Russia's regions, the world's largest country housed in a free-to-the-public wonder cabinet of Siberian robots, stuffed polar bears and did-you-know trivia on local history and culture. Galina Shibelkova, a pensioner visiting from Siberia, says she likes what she sees.

GALINA SHIBELKOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "Our Russia has begun to develop in the right way. It's more beautiful, more accessible than ever," says Shibelkova. "And that's all thanks to our president."

SHIBELKOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Walking the length of the pavilion offers a vicarious trip across the country, beginning with Ukraine's occupied territories.

ANNA CHOCHUIA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: In a mock-up of a Donetsk coal mine, 22-year-old Anna Chochuia tells me the story of her region's journey from oppression under Ukraine to its fight for independence and later reunification with Russia. There's also this.

CHOCHUIA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: A six-foot rose sculpted from shrapnel, a symbol of the region's resolve.

CHOCHUIA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "People often ask if we're happy to be with Russia," Chochuia explains. "I tell them that when Vladimir Putin recognized Donetsk, everyone had goosebumps. We'd finally gained our freedom."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

(APPLAUSE)

MAYNES: In September of 2022, at a ceremony at the Kremlin, Putin proclaimed Donetsk and three other Ukrainian regions part of the Russian Federation forever. Never mind that, to this day, Russian forces don't have full control over the area or that the international community condemn the annexation as illegal.

ALEXANDER SHEVCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: At a booth for the occupied Kherson region, local Alexander Shevchenko says that after watching territory shift hands repeatedly in the first year of the war, he now sees battle lines and hearts more hardened.

SHEVCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "Many people no longer talk with friends, brothers, sisters and family who ended up on the other side," he says. "But that's only because Ukrainian propaganda makes contact impossible." Shevchenko says most have adapted to life under Russian rule with its new tax codes, laws and Russian telephone numbers. It's the latest chapter in the region's long history.

SHEVCHENKO: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "Life is always about change," he tells me. "Those who aren't ready for change aren't ready for life." Next, our tour reaches Belgorod, a region bordering Ukraine and one of the few regions of Russia under regular attack.

ARTEOM CHISTIKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Arteom Chistikov, a recent university graduate from Belgorod, reminds us it is largely American rockets that have rained down on the city the past year...

CHISTIKOV: (Imitating explosions).

MAYNES: ...Just as he acknowledges the devastation Russia has meted out on Ukraine.

CHISTIKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "First they hit us, and then we hit them, or the other way around. But there's always a response," he tells me. "It's an endless cycle of revenge, and honestly, we're all tired of it."

CHISTIKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: The exhibit is also a chance to swing through Chechnya, the republic renowned for its own past separatist wars and human rights abuses under its current Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.

EDIV RIZVAN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Ediv Rizvan, an official in the republic's agricultural ministry, says Chechen support for the war effort is unwavering, as is their pride in the battlefield achievements of Kadyrov's elite Akhmat special forces in Ukraine.

RIZVAN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "People come from all over the country to train with Akhmat before heading off to Ukraine," he says. That includes former fighters from the Wagner Group.

RIZVAN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Rizvan told me most Wagner fighters joined Akhmat after Wagner was disbanded following a failed uprising by its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin against Russia's top brass last summer. Prigozhin died in a still-unexplained plane crash just two months after the rebellion. We end our tour elsewhere in Moscow, talking about another mysterious death and another form of Russian power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Last weekend police rounded up hundreds of mourners paying tribute to the late opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the circumstances of whose death last week in a remote Arctic prison remain unclear.

PAVEL INZHUTOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Twenty-five-year-old Pavel Inzhutov says with Navalny's death, his belief in a brighter future for Russia has died as well.

INZHUTOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "Who else can so clearly express the feelings of those of us who don't agree with Putin or the war," he says.

INZHUTOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: We've been talking in front of the Solovetsky Stone, a monument to victims of Soviet repression in a small snow-covered park across from the headquarters of the old KGB. There are the official stories told about Russia, and then there are the stories Russians tell about themselves. It was late, and police looked on blankly, waiting for us to leave, waiting so they could remove the flowers and tributes to Navalny as they have done every night since his death, only to see them reappear the next day.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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