Oct 24, 2022 - Podcasts

Fight or flee: the view from Moscow

It's been about a month since Vladimir Putin’s announcements of mass military mobilization, and since then Putin says at least 220,000 men had been drafted into the Russian military. And as more men continue to disappear from Moscow, things look different from the capital.

  • Plus, how emojis are complicating remote work communications in significant ways.

Guests: Axios’ Eleanor Hawkins and The New York Times’ Valerie Hopkins.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi, Ben O'Brien and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

Go Deeper:


NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, October 24th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re covering today: how emojis are complicating remote work communication. But first, men are disappearing from Russia… to fight or to flee. The view from Moscow…is today’s One Big Thing.

NIALA: Over the weekend, more than a dozen Russian missiles targeted energy facilities in western Ukraine causing major blackouts. It's been about a month since Vladimir Putin’s announcements of mass military mobilization, and since then Putin says at least 220,000 men had been drafted into the Russian military.

And the New York Times’s Valerie Hopkins writes that from her vantage point in Moscow the city’s men are just…gone.

She joins us now from there. Hi Valerie!


NIALA: So Valerie, do we know exactly how many Russian men have been called up in this most recent mobilization?

VALERIE: Estimates vary widely. At the very beginning of the mobilization, the defense minister Sergei Shoigu announced that there would be 300,000. Many people expect that the number is much higher, up to twice that, and at least that number if not more have fled Russia since September 21st when it was announced. So, 200,000 men went to Kazakhstan alone. Not to mention other countries like Turkey, the Gulf, Georgia, Armenia, etcetera.

NIALA: What does that look like across Russia?

VALERIE: In terms of the mobilization, this has disproportionately affected poor minority regions, places that have a much lower than average income far flung regions. And also places that are heavily dominated by ethnic minorities. Whereas the absence of, let's say, more moneyed, well educated, wealthier people from Moscow and St. Petersburg and larger cities who have the financial means to leave Russia at the drop of a hat. So we can see that the departure of people who refuse to fight disproportionately affects bigger cities like Moscow in St. Petersburg.

NIALA: So Russian officials initially said they would only recruit men with military training. In reality, how is that happening?

VALERIE: Oh, in reality, you know, for sure. Some of the people who've been recruited had some training, but for many of these men, you know, I've talked to them and they say, oh yeah I did a year of military service. I don't even know how to fire a gun or take apart a Kalashnikova. You know, I spoke to one young man who fled to Turkey on Friday and he said, yeah I'm technically a sniper, I've never shot a weapon. So there are many, many people who are just getting called up without any experience and who are not getting very much training.

NIALA: How are the women and families who are left behind, what are they telling you about how it's affecting them?

VALERIE: I think a lot of them have begun to lean on one another very much. My friends tell me they'll get together with their girls and, you know, all of their husbands are gone. They drink wine and try to commiserate. But to be honest, many of these women that I've talked to who, like this woman in a barbershop I recently spoke to, you know, her husband left but many of the women are just making preparations now to close up their projects, their rent, their apartments, and also leave. So this is not, we haven't seen the end of this mass exodus from Russia.

NIALA: And what kind of impact is that having on the economy or businesses?

VALERIE: Wow. You know, I came back here for the first time in August and it seemed like the city was absolutely beautiful. People were partying, people were quite indifferent to the war. But now you can really start to see the economic consequences of both the sanctions and immigration. Storefronts are closed. There was a statistic that dinners in expensive restaurants, and by expensive that's a bill over $25, went down by 30% in Moscow in the three weeks after mobilization. Strip clubs have reported being pretty empty, losing 60% of their customers and not being able to find security guards either.

NIALA: Is there anything else you feel like people need to know about life in Moscow right now?

VALERIE: I think this is a really hard question as somebody who spent four months in Ukraine, and saw precisely what the Russian army is capable of and the war crimes that they committed in Ukraine. But in Russia, there is also this kind of tremendous curtain of darkness. I think that's coming down on many people here. Everybody basically says we don't have a future anymore. We've lost our ability to plan. Our planning horizon is now a week. You know, just when we thought to reorient our business because of sanctions and the war, now we have to completely reorient our business because most of our customers fled. You know, there are many, many different attitudes in Russia from complete indifference to the war or support to the war, to people who, when they see the types of attacks that are happening every day in Ukraine, who do feel unable to get out of bed, who are depressed, who have no idea what will become of their country.

NIALA: Valerie Hopkins is a New York Times Moscow Correspondent. Valerie, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

VALERIE: Thank you so much Niala.

NIALA: In a moment, the generational divide on emojis at work.


How emojis are complicating remote work communications in significant ways

NIALA: Welcome back, Axios Today, I'm Niala Boodhoo.

Emojis can have very different meanings depending on your generation, that's according to a recent Reddit thread that went viral. This became a heated topic of discussion in our own newsroom where there were vastly differing opinions on how to interpret everything from the thumbs up to the laugh cry emoji.

But there is something serious in all this. How our messages are intended versus how they're received in a remote workplace can make a huge difference when it comes to establishing comradery with colleagues and getting work done. Eleanor Hawkins is the author of the Axios Communicators Newsletter, and she looked into this. Hi, Eleanor.


NIALA: Eleanor, first, I think we need to establish some of the generational differences that stood out from that Reddit thread. Like the thumbs up can be seen as passive aggressive to Gen Z, which as a Gen Xer, I did not know that.

ELEANOR: Yes, that's one of the biggest things we learned. It's that Gen Z considers the thumbs up emoji to be passive aggressive or rude. It feels transactional to them and impersonal, one of the things that I equate it to as a millennial is it's this symbolic version of ‘K.’ Other emojis, like the crying face, the heart eyes, the monkey covering its eyes, are considered cringy by younger generations as well. And so that's, that's the issue with communicating in this digital space is that oftentimes tone and personality and intent is lost. And that's one of the reasons that emojis has led to more miscommunication in the workplace.

NIALA: Do we have data about how these differences actually do cause miscommunication?

ELEANOR: Yes. And it's something that workers think about a lot. A recent Loom study found that 91% of workers say their messages have been misunderstood or misinterpreted, and one in five have been reprimanded, demoted, or fired because of it. And so all of this miscommunication at work is leading to anxiety outside of work hours. And 62% say that it's affecting their overall mental health.

NIALA: In your piece, you actually consulted with some linguists about how emojis factor into our work communications. What is their professional take on all of this?

ELEANOR: The experts I spoke to said that because of the digital nature of the workplace, we're seeing a shift in influence. Communication norms used to trickle down from older to younger. But when it comes to digital communication, it's the opposite. Memes and emojis are trickling up, by the time they reach these older workers, the meanings have likely shifted and changed. And because there's this inherent playfulness associated with emojis, their meanings tend to change and evolve faster.

NIALA: Eleanor, we have so many different generations that listen to this podcast. I'm sure there's a segment that's listening thinking, ‘Thank you, I feel seen.’ But there's another segment that I think we have just created a lot of anxiety for. So if you were listening to this thinking, how do I try to keep these miscommunications from happening? What is your best advice?

ELEANOR: Always know your audience. Always consider who you're writing to and your relationship with them before hitting send. And as far as workplace communication goes, I've noticed that some companies are establishing their own emoji guidelines. But when in doubt, always reach out. Make sure there's no ulterior meanings or ulterior motives behind the messages that you're sending.

NIALA: So, in other words, just talk to people about it.

ELEANOR: Yeah, just ask.

NIALA: Eleanor Hawkins writes Axios’ Communicators Newsletter. Thanks, Eleanor.

ELEANOR: Thank you.

NIALA: One final headline before we go: a federal appeals court on Friday night temporarily halted President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program. It’s an administrative stay, so the court can consider an injunction filed by 6 Republican-led states to stop the debt relief plan from going forward. That means that the more than 22 million applications already received cannot be processed for now. But over the weekend education secretary, Miguel Cardona, said the plan was going full steam ahead – and he encouraged borrowers to keep applying. Meanwhile, courts rejected two other attempts to block the program last week.

That’s it for us today! And for those who are celebrating Happy Diwali. I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

Go deeper