Under military censorship and legislation that punishes citizens for directly speaking against the war, dreams have become a source of material for investigating public sentiment. In individual people’s dreams there is room for the anxieties, fears and hopes that are shared by many but that remain unexpressed. In this sense, dreams are not just a reservoir of fragmented elements of collective trauma, but also a way to channel and describe this trauma. Therefore, the dreams of Russian citizens amidst the Russian military aggression in Ukraine can shed light on the different ways they perceive the aggression, and they can illuminate the full range of psycho-emotional reactions that the invasion has caused.
At the beginning of March 2022, our team — a group of Russian sociologists — initiated a research project dedicated to studying dreams. As part of this project, we have managed to record over 1000 dreams that Russians had over the course of the last year. Even though it is still too early to talk about data analysis (the methodology requires adjustment, and the selection is of course not representative), the material we have gathered so far is of considerable interest.
One of the predictable characteristics of these dreams is the prevalence of the motifs of violence, death, and destruction. Many of those who are far away from the theater of war nevertheless dream about cities being bombed, explosions, soldiers marching down the streets, collapsing buildings, and parades of the risen dead. In these dreams, people encounter the fear of losing their loved ones in war. They experience despair, feelings of confusion and disorientation; they also experience their own vulnerability, alienation, and distrust of their surroundings. We can witness a society that seems deeply traumatized by the very fact of the war. As the dreams we recorded demonstrate, amidst the protracted military conflict, violence has become normalized and, at the same time, it has taken on phantasmagoric forms. Being the reverse side of the state cult of military might and military glory, dreams about war and the cruelty that comes along with it are becoming a part of our daily life. Thus, one of the respondents describes how in her dream she finds herself in a bomb shelter, a dirty and intricate labyrinth. Moving through the shelter-labyrinth, the dreamer tries to escape her enemies — and fails:
“I think I had this dream near the end of the first week of the war. I don’t remember very many details. But there was a bomb shelter (some kind of large underground room with an intricate structure, branches and dead ends, dirty and uncomfortable, with very poor lighting). At the same time, at some point, it turned out that this space had been invaded by enemies who were looking for me. The horror of this dream consisted of an impossible choice: to stay and try to hide from the enemies or to try and escape outside, where some other inexplicable nightmare was taking place. In the end I was captured while trying to escape. I remember the feeling of endless despair, which I think was what woke me up.”
Another dreamer finds herself in a village surrounded by a forest and she wakes up to explosions. She realizes that it’s the year 1941 and she knows what will happen in the near future. Her father tells her that everything will come to an end soon, but she knows for sure that the war will be prolonged and millions of people will die. This dream conveys the experience of inevitability and the despair that people experience when they assume that the war will be long-lasting and destructive:
“I dreamt being in some village surrounded by a forest. I wake up early in the morning to explosions. I walk out on the porch and see the bombings from the planes and clearly realize that it’s year 1941 I’m thrown back in time and know everything that will follow. My father comes up to me. I tell him, ‘we need to leave.’ He replies, ‘there’s nothing to worry about, everything will be over by the 2nd of July’ (for some reason he mentioned this particular date). If it’s not over by then, we’ll figure it out. I start crying, because I am overcome by an incomprehensible horror of knowing what the future holds, and I tell him, ‘the war will not end, it will last four years, and tens of millions will die.’ And he smiles looking back at me with compassion, as if I was a fool. Then I woke up.”
Another illustrative dream is about a nuclear explosion, a mushroom cloud that can be witnessed from different parts of the country. At some point, the disaster will inevitably come to each doorstep, no matter where the home is located. The dream ends before the dreamer can see the consequences of the explosion, but, of course, he is terrified at the prospect:
“Nuclear ‘mushroom.’ For some reason it could be seen even here, in the Urals. My friend and I were walking through our neighborhood on the outskirts of the city by the forest. I drew her attention to the fact that behind the sports complex building you could see a mushroom cloud. ‘Grandpa pushed the fucking button after all,’ I said to her. The dream ended here, and therefore I didn’t get to see nuclear ash, nuclear winter, or my own death.”
However, dreams not only express existential fear and the feeling of being lost in the face of imminent threat, but they also show how people attempt to prepare for possible terror, escape danger or cope with trauma. Moreover, talking publicly about one’s own dreams during the war can become a form of release, a source of hope, and a collective search for modes of resistance. Many Russians dream of justice and a world where a person won’t be judged by his nationality, native language, or political beliefs. Despite the documented disunity of Russians, the dreams we recorded reflect a desire for a society built on solidarity, compassion, and respect for human dignity. Some of the dreams unequivocally point to an inner desire for swift social and political changes. These are dreams that, according to the dreamers themselves, symbolize hope for a possibility of an organized protest in Russia. In one of them the fictional character Beetlejuice is leading a mass protest:
“I had a dream that Beetlejuice had become the leader of Russian protesters. He led us to attack saying, ‘Now we’re gonna show you who the so-called 70% really are.’”
Beetlejuice is perhaps the image of a new opposition leader or a politician heretofore unseen in the Russian political landscape. Perhaps this image points to the ability of popular culture to inspire people to bring about political change. One can assume that “70%” is a reference to the 2018 reelections, which Putin won by a supposed 77% of the vote. Thus, the dream challenges both the legitimacy of the elections and of the elected president.
Another dreamer finds himself at the very heart of the protest. The content of his dream speaks for itself:
“I dreamt that I was on Pushkin Square in Moscow. It didn’t look like the actual one, but I know for sure that the dream took place during some major protest during the 2010s, and I ended up there as if I time-traveled from the present. People gathered around in a fragmented and unorganized crowd, the security forces were grabbing those who stood out or were trying to run away. That’s why I was standing quietly behind a tree and watching (for some reason there were a lot of trees growing on Pushkin Square). The security forces were also all dressed in black, in enormous uniforms, and I thought, yeah, nowadays they definitely look less threatening — it’s surprising that in the 2010s we weren’t afraid to go out on the streets. A young man right beside me, who seemed to be a photographer, saw the fighting and started to run. I realized that he was going to get noticed and detained, so I started shouting something, trying to chase him down and make them stop. Then he turned and pointed to a crowd, which I hadn’t noticed up to that point. More people gathered, and they were moving forward together. By forward I don’t mean towards the security forces or the police vans, but in the opposite direction. I somehow knew that this direction was the right one and that we had to move to get somewhere else instead of just running away. It was the first time at a street protest I ever felt we had the power to change something right then and there, that something had already happened and nothing would ever be the same again, that there was hope.”
Another dream represents the spirit of protest that the dreamer aspires to share with her loved ones. The current authorities take on a role of common enemy; when one of the family members launches a pointe attack against the current government, it doesn’t turn into a family conflict as she feared. Instead, it becomes a form of unconditional solidarity:
“In my dream my family joins together to tell Putin to fuck off. I remember I was the first one to start, and I was afraid that they wouldn’t support me, that they would ostracize me for saying it. But then it turned out that we all wanted the same thing.”
The discursive context of the war in Ukraine (the ideological speech, official historical narratives and so on) also shows up in dreams. The Russian regime has used the war to support its own legitimacy: “the special military operation” is figured as a battle against the hegemony of the “collective West,” a battle they claim is being waged to protect Russian interests. The substantial presence of propaganda, censorship and repressions persecute Russians not just in waking hours, but in their dreams as well. It’s remarkable that the antagonist characters of these dreams become specific, personalized—and also generalized–images of the state apparatus.
A common plot is the struggle of oppositional forces — the escape from a policeman or from а special forces unit officer (OMON). But there are also dreams about straightforward emotional contact between the dreamer’s persona and their opponent:
“I was near my house in Moscow. I bumped into a cop and stroke up a conversation with him. One thing led to another and he ended up inviting me over to his place. I agreed probably because I was feeling adventurous. We talked with him and his mother, they gave me tea, I tried to comprehend what was going on in the minds of those who were pro-Z. I asked him, ‘why didn’t you go to the war?’ After hearing the word ‘war’ his right eye transformed into a camera, it moved to his forehead and scanned me with a red light. I immediately corrected myself — ‘to the special military operation,’ and the camera returned to its place and morphed back into his eye. We continued talking for a long time after that and I found out that his sister has died and that I looked just like her, that his family was very religious and had close ties with Kazakhstan. Nothing steampunk-like happened anymore, but this camera really scared me.”
The story described below is a dream a respondent had on September 22, 2022, the day after the partial mobilization in the country was announced. This dream vividly illustrates the phenomenon of military censorship and the work of the repressive apparatus represented by the image of Putin. The mere mention of the Ukrainian town of Balakliia, which is situated in the Izium district of the Kharkiv region, drives the president mad, and he demonstrates his aggression and cruelty:
“I am at a secret military base, dealing with some business. Putin comes in, for some reason he’s surprisingly small, but I address him very politely, as a boss. I ask him questions regarding some issues, and towards the end of the conversation I drop the word ‘Balakliia.’ His face slowly turns red, he balls his eyes out, takes a gun out of his pocket and shoots me in the stomach. As I’m dying, I capture him in the walkway between two trees and we both fall into the abyss. After that I can see the man who’s been shot being taken out of the hole. At the end, he no longer notices that he’s wounded.”
In the dreams Russians have there are frequent appearances by historical figures, certain political events, political figures from different epochs, and even contemporary experts and thought leaders. In addition to Putin, people often dream about Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Stalin, Hitler and the context of WWII, Ramzan Kadyrov, and Vladimir Solovyov. They also dream about contemporary opposition leaders — Ekaterina Schulmann, Alexey Navalny and also Volodymyr Zelensky and Oleksii Arestovych.
Social problems caused by the war, or amplified because of it, are also frequent motifs in the dreams, especially when the person having the dream sees a vision of their future. Economic crisis, restricted mobility, corrupt politicians, media stars and businessmen, the disintegration of society, alienation, and class inequality — all these things cause a feeling of deep disappointment. Russians dream of a country, where everyone has access to education, health care and decent jobs, where everyone is equal before the law, and where the political power is not centered in the hands of a small elite. Apart from worrying about private and public economic welfare, Russian citizens’ dreams often concern the loss of connection and mutual understanding with loved ones, the vanity of their efforts to establish communication and engage in activism, or the silence of everyone around them against the backdrop of a blatant injustice: “Because of small salaries and a lack of resources, a mass starvation has begun in Russia;” “the tv presenter tells about how great the situation is, meanwhile those Russians who are dying of starvation are the evil predators of the motherland;” “the moral of the drama was that no one needs grassroot fem-activism,” “I woke up feeling like crap with a feeling of acute injustice because of everything that has been going on in a country where my voice is silenced”— these excerpts from dreams we gathered speak volumes about the social and political problems related to the war that preoccupy Russians today.
Another frequent motif in Russian dreams is an almost obsessive image of a gaping abyss, which now and forevermore separates the citizens of Russia and Ukraine. The impossibility of friendship, acceptance, and understanding causes grave distress:
“In my dream I was traveling in an old electric train with wooden seats, and through the window I could see some bridges that were destroyed by the war. One was overgrown with a bright green thick moss, outside the train everyone was taking photos. But the memories of the war were still alive because not much time has passed since then. And I burst out crying. My fellow traveler asked me with a noticeable accent, ‘where are you from,’ and I couldn’t say ‘I’m from Moscow,’ because I was on Ukrainian territory. But in the end I did say it — one cannot change it anyway — that I am from Moscow. I was born there, it’s my city. And immediately an alienation zone appeared around me in my dream.”
Another common subject is the experience of Russian identity, which is now intertwined with feelings of shame, guilt and confusion. Stigmatization, self-censorship, rejection, stigma of an aggressor — all of this appears in some dreams along with anxiety, a need to belong to a community, and a desire to go back to the pre-war way of life. There is a recurring motif of the impossibility of finding a common language with citizens of other countries:
“In my dream I succeeded in moving to Estonia on my own, but I had nothing: no money, no belongings, no place to stay. It was dark outside, and I was walking on my own through the city, attempting not to speak Russian or speaking with an accent so I wouldn’t draw attention to myself. But soon I realized: if I was going to get a job, I would have to show my passport. I remembered I had a married acquaintance with a child. I found her apartment. She was very kind and let me stay for a couple of days. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find an apartment, or a job within two days. The dream was very detailed about their domestic life, but I don’t remember much. The woman went out somewhere, she was preparing for some course. Her husband was watching a movie. And I was wandering through a dark city where there were no lights, not knowing what to do next. I concluded that there was no propaganda in this country, it was all nonsense. The siren went off, crowds of people were marching somewhere, I was among them. There was a feeling of an overwhelming hopelessness.”
Some truly horrifying images occur in the dreams, images that represent both helplessness in the face of inhumane violence, as well as feelings of betrayal and distrust resulting from propaganda and disinformation:
“I had a dream that some semi-famous people like Porechenkov and Petrosyan stuffed three small children into a an apparatus that looked like a hollow wheel. They closed it then spun it around, and after one turn one dead child and two children who were still alive fell out of the wheel. A sort of Russian Roulette.”
The “Russian roulette” game — an extreme amusement with a lethal outcome, in which little children are now being forcibly involved — is an uncanny metaphor. In this case not only does it expresses fatalism and doom, but also the unprecedented cruelty of the players’ treatment of others. The fact that this cruel game is being led by a famous actor Mikhail Porechenkov and a tv-presenter and comedian Yevgeny Petrosyan, both of whom have supported Russian soldiers and the politics of the Kremlin, demonstrates that, according to the citizens, not only does the Russian elite have no regard for human life, but is also ready to sacrifice the most vulnerable and innocent— children and young people — for the sake of entertainment.
One final motif: the possibility of fixing an irreparable mistake, of influencing what’s happening, of making the world more kind and more just. For example, one of the dreams depicts the dreamer’s preoccupation with both the political situation and the possible deaths of people he knows, people who were a part of the pre-war world. He also retains hope for a kind word from strangers and famous people alike:
“Today I had a dream about a bunch of political reports. Putin’s head was on tv, but I want to point out two segments from the news program. Me and a guy from my school (who died in Ukraine several weeks ago as a Russian soldier) were already in Russia under sanctions—devastation, no future prospects — basically, everything that we are headed toward now had already happened in my dream. For some reason we took shovels and went outside to break up the ice in the backyard, to make it prettier and easier for people to walk on. Nikolay Sobolev drove past us in a car and filmed a video of us saying, ‘I hope that there are a lot of cool people like you in our country.’”
Breaking the up ice and cleaning the backyard is a kind of resistance toward everything that is going on, and attempt to crack it, to overcome it in a sequence of coordinated actions. The support from Nikolay Sobolev, a popular blogger, who has recently been added to the foreign agents list (he still remains in Russia to this day), signals a desire to gain approval from a person who shares the same values.
The need for politically like-minded people, their approval and fear of condemnation — both from the loved ones and from the Ukrainians — time after time manifest themselves in the dreams, followed by the images of negation or of correction of the established order. In this sense, the dreams that Russians have today not only reveal their anxieties and fears, but also resist — if only at the level of inner life — the dominant narratives and scenarios. Many Russians dream of peace, the end of civilian suffering, and the dismantling of the political regime. They dream of understanding and the possibility of uniting with each other on new terms. They dream too of a future where there is no animosity between ordinary citizens of Russia and Ukraine, no matter what.