Pedestrians walk past Yaroslav Smolev with his placard as if he doesn't even exist.

The 24-year-old with the long hair is standing in the slush on the famous Nevsky Prospekt in the center of St. Petersburg.

The news of Alexei Navalny's death is only one day old.

Smolev holds a sheet of paper in front of his chest.

In red letters, he has written: "They killed Navalny because we didn't care."

He quickly realizes just how apt this sentence is, how little the death of the imprisoned Kremlin critic moves most of his fellow people.

"The faces of most people who pass by are motionless," the young Russian later recounts in an agitated video call.

Two Russian tourists even asked him to step aside so that they could take "more beautiful photos" of Kazan Cathedral.

Smolev remains on the sidewalk with his sign for less than five minutes before three police officers come and take him away, as video footage shows.

They would go on to initiate legal proceedings against him.

The flimsy justification used is an alleged violation of coronavirus regulations, which no one else in Russia has paid much attention to for quite some time.

The death of Vladimir Putin's best-known political opponent in a prison camp hasn't triggered any new wave of protests in Russia.

At most, there are small, quiet actions held by a few thousand people, among them a conspicuously large number of women.

Only a few dare to carry signs like Smolev.

Most lay flowers at memorials to the victims of Stalinism, cry or kneel down.

But even that is risky in today's Russia.

Hundreds were taken away within a few days.

Vladimir Putin is fighting two wars, one externally against Ukraine and one internally against dissidents – and right now, he seems to have the upper hand on both fronts.

The first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, placed a fragile democracy in Putin's hands 24 years ago.

And Putin has turned it into an autocracy that strikes ever more brutally.

If it wasn't already a dictatorship before, Russia became one when it invaded Ukraine precisely two years ago.

Even the tiny niches that had remained for independent media and members of the opposition were abolished, and almost all opponents of the regime and the war were driven abroad or imprisoned.

This is the backdrop against which Putin's re-election is to take place on March 17. An election whose result has already been decided – and which the autocrat still wants to celebrate like a triumph of democracy.

Alexei Navalny's plan had been for millions of people to disrupt that staging by turning out en masse to the polling stations at 12 pm The liberal opposition in exile has also been calling for such an action.

It is the only form of protest that still seems reasonably safe.

But even before Navalny's death, it was already foreseeable that few Russians would take the risk.

Did Putin have his opponent murdered deliberately so as not to disrupt the election spectacle, or is Navalny's death more of an inconvenience for him?

Perhaps it wasn't enough for Putin that Navalny was suffering in a prison camp in the Arctic Circle, where he could only meddle in politics through messages delivered by lawyers.

Perhaps he had to die in order to erase the last hope for a different, free Russia.

The fact that Russia kept the Kremlin critic's body under lock and key for several days after his death points to the former.

Whatever the case may be, the regime has blood on its hands.

Navalny isn't the first Kremlin critic to die – many have, from journalist Anna Politkovskaya to opposition politician Boris Nemtsov.

The regime has been particularly hard on those it deems to be "traitors," like the former agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with polonium.

Most recently, a Russian army helicopter pilot who had defected to Ukraine was murdered in Spain, presumably by Russian henchmen.

Putin has no reason to fear an uprising in the country.

The regime has proven to be terribly stable.

Most people have simply surrendered to those in power – and that doesn't have to mean that they are doing badly.

Although the majority of Russians would probably have preferred that the war never started, most of them silently support it.

The mobilization in autumn 2022 drove hundreds of thousands out of the country, but many have since returned.

After eight months, the mini mutiny of mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin seems almost forgotten.

And the fact that Putin is now responsible for the death of his critic Navalny seems not to have created many waves, or even ripples.

The stability of the regime cannot be explained by repression alone.

Added to this is the resilience of this system, which has cleverly cushioned the sanctions.

Indeed, the economy is growing, and the standard of living enjoyed by most people has only been slightly affected by the war.

Hundreds of thousands of state employees in particular continue to live almost as before and see no need to question the autocrat.

Yaroslav Smolev, the man with the sign, has never known another Russia.

At 24 years old, he has been alive for the same amount of time that Putin has ruled.

And it's not just on Nevsky Prospect that Smolev is standing alone against the autocrat – that's also the case with his family.

Smolev says on his mobile phone that he called his grandmother to share his grief over Navalny's death.

But he says his grandmother, with whom he had always been able to talk about everything, reacted harshly.

She responded that she didn't know anything about this Navalny.

And that either way, she would still vote for Putin in March.

Smolev believes his grandmother is speaking out of fear.

She's 70 years old and lives in Khabarovsk in the far east of the country.

"Fear has been etched in my family's memory since Stalin's time," says Smolev.

And yet it hurts him that his grandmother's fear is stronger than her love for her own grandson.

After his Navalny protest, police threatened Smolev at the station.

He secretly recorded the interrogation on his mobile phone and is now playing back the recording.

"You don't want to give your fingerprints, do you?"

says a male voice.

"Then we'll grab you by the legs and hold you upside down. That way we get all the prints from your face to your heels."

A second voice threatens: "Then come to the cell now, the boys there like beauties like you."

Smolev also told his grandmother about it.

Her answer was curt: "Have you forgotten how you hid from the police in Khabarovsk? Too bad you didn't learn your lesson from that."

Smolev had protested against the attack on Ukraine in his old home town in 2022.

The truth, says the young man, is that his family's view of the ruler isn't much different from his own.

"But they never said anything against it, they just put up with everything. Out of fear."

Back then in Khabarovsk, he was given a fine, and now he's facing another one.

If he gets arrested again, he could also face jail time.

And yet he still doesn't want to stop standing up for freedom in his country.

"Navalny fought, so I will do the same," he says.

Around 1,700 kilometers away in Berlin, Ekaterina Schulman takes a seat in an old-fashioned café on the outskirts of the city.

"In autocracies, there is hardly any connection between what people want and what the state does," says the Russian political scientist, a star of the liberal intelligentsia.

The 45-year-old speaks quickly, with ready delivery and manages to inject an ironic wit into even the darkest of topics.

Like many Russian liberals, Schulman went abroad after the invasion of Ukraine.

She is considered a "foreign agent" in her home country and is thus subject to a de facto ban on practicing her profession.

However, around 68 percent of the more than 1.2 million subscribers to her YouTube channel still live in Russia.

It's important for Schulman to emphasize that most Russians are not enthusiastic about Putin's war or about Russia's aspirations to be a superpower.

Fewer than 15 percent offered their enthusiastic support for the war, the political scientist says.

Under no circumstances should the political opinion and world view of people in Russia be conceived in the way the Kremlin conveys it, she says.

"Prior to the war, people were not militarized, quite the opposite," says Schulman.

"Since the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, more Russians have taken a positive view of the European Union, the United States, the West and Ukraine than negative."

Vague Censorship Laws

But why do people accept that Putin is attacking the neighboring country, isolating Russia from the West and declaring it his arch-enemy?

"It's quite simple," says Schulman.

Putin claimed that Ukraine had to be de-Nazified, she says.

"The autocrat's word is the official Russian position. There is pressure to be loyal and there is punishment for those who publicly deviate from this narrative."

Putin has imposed wartime censorship.

According to the regime, anyone who criticizes the attack on the neighboring country is slandering the army and is subject to prosecution.

The censorship laws are so vaguely formulated that the security authorities can take action against just about anyone.

Just wearing blue and yellow sneakers, the colors of Ukraine, can be enough to land a person in hot water.

One Moscow man who did that got found the equivalent of 100 euros.

Meanwhile, a woman in Krasnodar was talking to her husband about the war in a restaurant.

A restaurant employee reported her to the police and she had to pay the equivalent of 400 euros in fines;

her husband went to jail for 15 days for "rioting."

People are snitching on others all over the place in Russia right now.

Compliant helpers have denounced tens of thousands of fellow citizens to the security authorities – also because of critical posts on the internet.

According to the civil rights organization OWD-Info, the regime has arrested around 20,000 people for criticizing the war since the beginning of the invasion.

Officials opened criminal proceedings against hundreds of people.

And all this has been deduced only from the information that is available publicly.

The number of unreported cases is likely to be much higher.

Dozens of opponents of the regime are put on trial every day.

Last week alone, civil rights activists listed 176 trials they classified as being political.

Only those who keep their mouths shut or parrot the Kremlin's propaganda narratives can lull themselves into a sense of security.

But not even the ruler himself believes in his own propaganda, says political scientist Schulman.

For Putin, she says, the grand narratives of the superior Russian civilization are merely a means to an end.

"For Putin, this is about retaining power, everything else is window dressing."

Most Russians learned how to survive in a repressive regime during the Soviet era: "You think what you want, say what people expect you to say and do whatever you have to do to survive."

Some people internalize the changing official narratives because they find it harder to lie and feel more comfortable.

And yet others suffered from feelings of guilt and despair.

Sales of tranquilizers and antidepressants have increased sharply in Russia.

Alcohol consumption, which Putin had successfully fought for years, is also becoming a problem again.

In Schulman's opinion, Navalny was deliberately murdered to spread terror, to demonstrate that resistance is impossible.

"But fear as a means of domination has its disadvantages/downsides," says the Putin opponent, "because it doesn't last forever and it does not make people love you."

Putin therefore has something even more important to offer in addition to the rod: the sausage.

It has become a kind of catchphrase in Russia.

A few years ago, experts summed up Russia's unwritten social contract as a "sausage for freedom."

The Russians don't get upset as long as they are doing reasonably well.

And although the Kremlin is having to pump more and more money into the arms industry in the third year of the war, the standard of living of most Russian people has not deteriorated.

Daniil Slyshchenko, who lives in the central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod and works in the IT sector, can tell you all about it.

Slyshchenko, 28, is a man to the Kremlin's taste.

He's conservative, religious, married, has two children and says things like: "Putin loves his country."

Slyshchenko correctly calls the war against Ukraine a "special operation" and, like the ruler, claims that it serves to protect the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.

The Kremlin is trying to keep as much of the brutality of the war from the public as possible.

Russian city dwellers often see heroic soldiers in uniform on billboards.

Only those who have to bury a family member or friend find out about the dead.

Those maimed by was hardly play a role in the media and the public.

The "special operation" is to be a success story.

In Nizhny Novgorod, Slyshchenko doesn't want to hear that his country has become a dictatorship.

"I live in a free country, I can talk to you," the young Russian says.

Anyone who gathers on the street unannounced simply has to reckon with the consequences, he says.

And Navalny was a troublemaker and a "puppet of the West" in Slyshchenko's eyes.

If you walk through his hometown with Slyshchenko, he talks about how life has improved, shows you a new playground, the beautiful promenade along the Volga River and the stadium that was built for the football World Cup.

Right next to it, cranes rise into the gray sky where a new ice rink is being built.

"Things are moving forward here in the city," Slyshchenko says with satisfaction.

He says he has indeed noticed that things have become more expensive, but he has come to terms with it.

A meal at the Russian successor to the US fast food chain McDonald's no longer costs 1,000 rubles, but 1,500, the equivalent of 15 euros, for the whole family.

They have just moved into a larger apartment and Slyshchenko has taken on a second job so that he and his family can continue to enjoy a good standard of living.

He needs around 200,000 rubles, about 2,000 euros, per month for that.

Apart from the fact that their favorite burger at the Russian McDonald's successor no longer tastes as good, Slyshchenko and his wife Valeriya believe that little has changed as a result of the war and sanctions.

They continue to buy products from Western companies conveniently online.

It can take up to three weeks for a pair of Zara jeans to arrive, but the selection hasn't diminished, reports Valeriya.

Only the spare parts for her white Mercedes ML, built in 2011, have now become expensive, admits Slyshchenko.

They had to be imported from abroad with surcharges and often cost more than twice as much as before.

"I don't want to switch to a Chinese car," says Slyshchenko.

China's car brands have largely taken over the market in Russia.

Are these people closing both eyes to the reality or allowing themselves to be blinded by the success stories of Russian propaganda?

The truth is more complicated.

After the invasion of Ukraine, many in the West consoled themselves with the idea that Russia's economy, which despite having more than 140 million inhabitants, generates less than the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria combined, would probably soon collapse.

"The totality of our sanctions and export controls is crushing the Russian economy," US President Joe Biden was certain.

Two years later, there can be no talk of a collapse.

According to official statistics, real wages in Russia rose by 7.6 percent last year, far outstripping inflation.

In an initial forecast, the statistics authority Rosstat estimated economic growth at 3.6 percent, which is also being fueled by massive government investment in arms production.

Doubts about the official statistics are justified in Russia, but the country's economic stability isn't a propaganda ploy.

Satellite data measuring air pollution above factories, search queries and advertisements on job portals lead to the conclusion that there is almost full employment in the country.

Russia is experiencing a boom.

The country is suffering from a shortage of skilled workers, with some employees receiving significantly higher wages than before.

And the Russian middle class is growing, despite the war.

How is such a thing even possible?

The ministries of industry, finance and economic development are central to economic success, but above all, its the Russian Central Bank, with its more than 40,000 employees, and its head Elvira Nabiullina.

Together, they have ensured that the country has survived the shock of the sanctions almost uncathed – and that its citizens still feel little of the war and trade restrictions.

Putin's economic policymakers have been preparing Russia for conflict with Europe and the United States for years now.

They reduced foreign debt and accumulated huge currency reserves to avoid becoming dependent on the international financial markets.

They installed their own credit card system and remedied weaknesses in the banking system.

When Putin actually launched a major war, the damage to the economy was minor.

"The economists have proven to be more capable and reliable than the generals on the battlefield," says Alexandra Prokopenko.

The economist knows what she's talking about.

She worked as a consultant at the central bank in Moscow until March 2022, when she left her post and the country.

Prokopenko sits, somewhat tired, in a meeting room at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin.

She now conducts research at two Berlin think tanks, the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center and the Center for East European and International Studies, and is a sought-after expert.

The Russian writes analyzes on the actual state of the Russian economy – and why Moscow has coped quite well with the sanctions so far.

According to Prokopenko, this is primarily thanks to her former boss.

Nabiullina, 60, has headed the Russia's central bank since 2013 and sees her task as preventing massive losses in the prosperity of Russian citizens.

One of the peculiarities of Putin's regime is that its decision-making centers are much less monolithic than they sometimes appear to be to the West.

Since he first took office as president in 2000, Putin has entrusted the management of the Russian economy to the experts.

He even shielded them from attempts by his secret service friends and oligarchs to influence them.

Russia's economic policy has therefore remained non-ideological and pragmatic in recent years.

"Putin trusts his economics professionals and doesn't interfere in the operational business," says Prokopenko.

And yet Russia's economy is facing long-term problems that cannot be solved so easily.

Prokopenko calls this "Putin's trilemma."

The president has not just two almost incompatible goals to reconcile, but three.

The population must be satisfied, but the losses caused by the war must also be felt as little as possible in the future.

At the same time, the military campaign is devouring billions of rubles.

And the president and his economists must prevent the flood of orders for defense companies from causing the Russian economy to overheat.

As long as the West doesn't poor Ukraine more comprehensively, that calculation will likely work.

However, the more weapons the West supplies, the greater the risk that Russia will become economically unstable.

According to an analysis by the Finnish central bank, 60 percent of industrial growth in the first nine months of last year was solely due to the expansion of defense production, which was also responsible for 40 percent of economic growth in the first half of 2023. The production of goods essential to the war effort is increasing sharply, but fewer and fewer household appliances, cars and machines are being produced.

Most normal Russians aren't even noticing.

Instead of buying Volkswagens built in Kaluga, they're now buying cars imported from China.

Instead of Coca-Cola, there are now "parallel imports" from Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkey.

This makes no difference to customers, but it does to the Russian economy.

The added value and thus the profits are generated abroad.

Most Russians also don't realize that the civilian economy is shrinking, partly because new restaurants are opening in many regions at the same time.

This is because disposable incomes have risen sharply and people are now spending their money in the country instead of going on summer vacation to Spain.

Or they buy real estate, which is why lending is booming so strongly that the central bank had to put the brakes on last year.

But even those who provide the sausage are now increasingly feeling the pinch.

Alexandra Prokopenko believes that few of her former colleagues at the central bank are in favor of the war against Ukraine.

She thinks they stayed at their jobs for other reasons.

According to Prokopenko, pressure from the security authorities plays a role, and the FSB secret service is also conducting preventative talks.

Many state employees are no longer allowed to travel abroad or have to obtain permission to do so.

Others see no future for themselves outside Putin's system. "Anyone who has worked for the Russian state will never find a job outside Russia again, even if they resign demonstratively," says Prokopenko.

Perhaps more people would make a different decision if the West offered them a hand, a way out.

"But no one is showing them a way out," says Prokopenko.

"There's only Putin, and he says: You stay with me."

With additional reporting by Alexander Chernyshev