Russia celebrates a highly patriotic Christmas with ice troops

On the central square of the Siberian city of Chita, a dozen Kalashnikov-wielding Russian soldiers sit immobile.

It is -33C when the wind chill factor is added. Despite wearing several layers of clothing, I can still feel my face getting cold.

People stop and pause as they pass the military, gazing at them. A few of them use selfie sticks.

The soldiers’ inaction is justified for a good reason. They are ice-based.

3,000 miles (4,830 kilometers) east of Moscow is Chita. The local government felt that militarized ice sculptures would be a suitable holiday adornment and a means to inspire a patriotic new year. The majority of individuals I speak with on the square are in favor.

Tatyana explains, “Since we’re at war, it’s appropriate to have these ice warriors here. They are current.

It’s a unique way to ring in the new year, Ludmila says. Santa Claus, bunny rabbits, and squirrels are the norm. However, it’s a reflection of the times.

Although she worries about friends who have been deployed to battle, Ludmila supports the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and she acknowledges her concern over the situation there.

“Friends of ours have been called up and deployed to fight there. Our concern is for them. We call to check on them. However, no matter what we may think of our government, our country is our country. Who will defend it if not us?

“From what should I defend it? from who? I query Ludmilla. After all, it was Russia who began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. The opposite is not true.

“Protect it from the Nazis. They’re all over the place, Ludmila says. “Russia is under attack from many sides, and this includes LGBT propaganda. They are attempting to impose this on us. We reject these strange concepts. We support Russian ideals. I find it challenging to put this into words. I simply sense it.

Such remarks from Russians were never made to me in public. They never mentioned being concerned about “Nazis” in Ukraine or the necessity of fighting for purported “Russian ideals.” This is among the largest changes I’ve seen around this place this year.

Kremlin propaganda has succeeded in persuading a large portion of Russians that their nation is currently engaged in some sort of existential conflict with the West after gaining complete control of the country’s media landscape. People frequently repeat the anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western language they hear on Russian TV stations in conversations here today, often verbatim.

You might assume that fending off the invasion of “Western ideals” wouldn’t be the residents of Chita’s top priority. The city of Chita is still not connected to Russia’s domestic gas network despite Siberia having vast gas reserves. Clouds of smoke billowing from coal-fired power plants and the countless wooden homes still heated by firewood are visible from the hills above the city.

Soldier-shaped ice sculpture in Siberia
The troops’ ice sculptures are displayed around Chita’s downtown.
Comfort and happiness seem to be in short supply in Chita this winter. However, there is a lot of patriotism. A Russian tricolor is being held by a stylized metal snowman outside the neighborhood concert facility. The letter “Z”—the emblem of the Kremlin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine—shares center stage on Lenin Square with the adorned fir tree. If you watch the news on Chita TV, you’ll see stories about local schoolchildren who wrote holiday greetings to Russian soldiers in Ukraine rather than to Santa Claus.

However, not everyone in Chita adheres to this specific definition of patriotism.

I run into Ivan Losev across the street. The 26-year-old proprietor of a sauna recently posted on social media about an odd dream he had in which he met Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Ivan remembers having a dream that he had been called up and taken to a training camp. “All of a sudden, Zelensky’s Ukrainian army launched an assault. They all got taken. Zelensky gestured to me as they were going to shoot us. I have watched your Instagram tales. Honor to Ukraine, he exclaimed. I answered, “Glory to the Heroes!”

Ivan was taken to court and fined 30,000 roubles (about £380) for “discrediting the Russian armed forces” for posting about his dream and other comments he’d made about the “special military operation” on social media.

Ivan explains to me that rules get more absurd the closer an empire is to disintegrating. “I believe that Putin’s Russia will fall as a result of this.

“Patriotism is loving your nation while calling for change through criticism. Patriotism is the desire to improve your city so that it can prosper. In order for people to desire to remain there and live happily. Russian patriotism, however, is focused on destroying Ukraine with bombs. Our leaders do not desire an improved nation. They merely want foreigners to have a worse quality of life.

Losev, Ivan
picture caption
Ivan Losev was penalized for blogging about a dream he had concerning Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine.
I come across another ice sculpture of a serviceman who has been left to watch over a bus station as I make my way back toward the city center. It’s dark now. The new year’s illuminations have been turned on, and they are bathing Lenin Square in a rainbow of colors. What a strange sight it is. And a little unsettling. The ice soldiers with their automatic weaponry change colors along with the fairy lights.

It can be an effort to promote a joyful feeling. But as this eventful year draws to a close, what precisely are Russians to celebrate?

Definitely not world peace.

I start conversing with Margarita on the square, and she adds, “I worry that Russia will suffer from what is occurring now.”

“I want there to be tranquility at the end of the day. War should not exist, in my opinion. We don’t need those. But whatever happens, happens.

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