It’s been a year since Russia won the title of the most sanctioned country on earth, when international organizations, governments, and corporations set out to cripple Putin’s economy—and let the Russian consumer feel the consequences of invading Ukraine.

But as Russian tanks rolled toward Kyiv, it wasn’t the U.S. Treasury halving Russia’s war chest, or even the departure of Mastercard, Coca-Cola, and LVMH, that made Moscow realize that it wouldn’t be business as usual. It took Batman to land the first powerful blow.

“It happened on the 2nd of March,” recounts Sergei Bondarev, a screenwriter and film-market analyst. “The billboards were up, the pre-sales were fantastic, and then, mere hours before the premiere, Warner Bros. pulled The Batman from Russian cinemas.”

At the time, the war was still in its “Conquer Ukraine in two weeks” phase, and sanctions, while already in place, had little effect on everyday life in Moscow. Even companies that had declared the cessation of operations in Russia were still functioning. Credit cards worked, Coke was on the shelves of every store in the country, and high-end boutiques were stocked with the latest collections from Paris and Milan.

The Batman was the first in a downward spiral of closures, cancellations, and shortages that marked the start of a different war—one where Moscow fought to defend its comfortable life.

On its last day in Russia, McDonald’s, it seemed, saw as many customers as it had when the fast-food chain first opened its doors in the Soviet Union, in 1990. People were even stocking up on condiments, often to resell the trademark barbecue sauce on Avito—the Russian version of eBay. When Ikea announced it was leaving Russia, Muscovites flooded the Swedish furniture store to grab whatever they could. As rockets pounded Ukrainian cities and villagers were summarily executed, thousands in Moscow faced the moral dilemma of going either with the minimalist Askersund kitchen-cabinet doors or the more traditional Bodbyn. Overwhelmed by the situation, many chose both.

The Batman was the first in a downward spiral of closures, cancellations, and shortages that marked the start of a different war—one where Moscow fought to defend its comfortable life.

Before the war, Russia was an authoritarian dictatorship with a robust consumer economy supported by a civilized legal framework. There were authorized Mercedes-Benz dealerships, Apple resellers and service centers, companies that made luxury goods with Moscow offices that reported to their European HQs, and magazines that were either owned by their Western publishers, such as Condé Nast, or licensed by companies such as the Hearst Corporation.

Not lovin’ it: in Moscow, McDonald’s is out and Vkusno i Tochka is in.

The Kremlin wasn’t expecting sanctions against Russia to be severe, hoping instead for a scenario not unlike the one after Putin annexed Crimea—a few sanctioned banks, some prohibited exports, and lots of “grave concerns” from the U.N. Part of the idea of the “special military operation”—a quick victorious war meant to boost Putin’s ratings—was that the Russian people, especially those in Moscow, wouldn’t feel anything but a sense of imperial pride. Putin miscalculated, and while it’s one thing to jail thousands of liberal-minded Russians protesting a war, to have millions of apathetic Russians see their standards of living plummet is a different—and dangerous—story.

Even as state propaganda did everything to convince low-paid Russians that Coke Zero was actually poison, the Kremlin went into overdrive to restore a sense of normalcy for those who wanted glossy magazines, oat-milk lattes, and German cars.

It began with one of the biggest rebranding campaigns known to man. McDonald’s left, but soon a different fast-food chain appeared in its place. Run by many of the same people who handled McDonald’s Russian operation, Vkusno i Tochka, which translates as “Tasty, period,” promised the same quality, service, and price. The trademark Big Mac sandwich was now called the Big Hit and the Happy Meal became the Kids’ Combo. Coke was no more, but you could now have a refreshing sip of Dobriy Kola (Kind Cola) or Kind Orange—if Fanta was your favorite. Starbucks became Stars Coffee; it’s now run by the rapper Timati—a close friend of Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov.

State propaganda did everything to convince low-paid Russians that Coke Zero was actually poison.

The best example of on-the-fly rebranding came from Independent Media, the Russian Hearst licensee. Having lost the right to publish American magazines, it chose to stay on the market and renamed every publication it had:

Cosmopolitan became Voice.

Esquire became The Rules of Life.

Harper’s Bazaar becameThe Symbol.

Men’s Health became Men Today.

Popular Mechanics became TechInsider.

And Good Housekeeping became New Housekeeping.

With Condé Nast disappearing from the market, people at Independent Media said they have no competitors left. Some even noted that magazines will now “have more freedom in what they write about.” Nobody knows what that means in Putin’s Russia. (Full disclosure: I wrote a number of articles for the Russian Esquire.)

The most significant part of Moscow’s sanctions counter-offensive is the parallel-import decree. Signed into law by Putin last June, it legalizes the importation of goods manufactured by companies that left the Russian market and guarantees them protection from any claims. Anyone can now import a car, an iPhone, or a designer bag. Kazakhstan and Dubai have become key hubs for bringing sanctioned goods into Russia.

“People in Moscow still want an S-Class,” says a car importer who wished to remain anonymous. “Before the war, all you had to do was go to a dealership, but now you can’t even buy a European car with a Russian passport. We had to build an alternative supply chain to give Muscovites what they want.”

For someone who wants to roam wartime Moscow in a 2023 Mercedes, the process has become lengthier—and a lot more expensive. “First, you go to a dealership and request a specific model—it can be customized to your requirements,” the importer explains. “The dealership then contacts a person in the E.U.—let’s call him ‘Walter’—and relays the order along with a hefty sum. Money doesn’t smell, not for Walter, anyway, so he makes a call to a ‘friendly’ used-car dealer in the E.U.—we’ll call him ‘Peter’—and asks him to place an order at an official Mercedes dealership. Once the new car is ready, Peter buys it. From that moment on, the vehicle is considered used. Peter sells the ‘used car’—in plastic wrap and with 15 miles on it—to Walter, who innocuously resells it to another intermediary in Kazakhstan, Dubai, or Belarus. From there, the car makes its way to the dealership in Moscow.”

How much does it cost?

“Each of the middlemen gets a 10 to 15 percent cut of the car’s original price,” says the importer. “But that’s nothing compared to the biggest cut of them all—Putin’s.” Parallel import or not, Russia never waived import duties, and on vehicles less than three years old, the minimum tax is 50 percent—which goes up with every cubic centimeter of the car’s engine. As a result, a $100,000 car costs $200,000, with about $70,000 going to the war effort.

When the war started, and the U.S. offered to evacuate President Zelensky, he famously said, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” In Moscow, when you want a ride—Putin gets ammunition.

The same goes for luxury goods. “Let’s take a Prada dress,” says Alexander Perepelkin, editorial director of The Blueprint, Russia’s leading lifestyle publication. “The process to get it to a client in Moscow was simple: Prada’s buyers or official dealers placed an order, and in a couple of months the dress would be in a Moscow boutique. On a big scale, LVMH, Kering, and Prada don’t do business with Russia; they’ve gone as far as to enact strict export controls to ensure their merchandise won’t be re-exported to Russia through Kazakhstan or Dubai. But on a small scale, everything is available to those willing to pay the price. First, private buyers for wealthy Muscovites scour Europe for luxury goods and bring their loot back in a suitcase. Many of these buyers have since incorporated; they’ve opened boutiques in Moscow and advertise through Instagram.

So-called concierge services popped up across Moscow, where you place an order for a specific item and get it delivered. Obviously, some of the merchandise is fake. The luxury market contracted significantly, but if you really want that Prada dress, you’ll get it.

Do you know what else fits in a suitcase bound for Moscow? Avatar. “The first Western film to hit Russian theaters after sanctions was Bullet Train,” says Bondarev. “It was a pirated 4K screengrab from a U.S. streaming service with a questionable D.I.Y. voice-over made by anonymous voice actors. It managed to make a few million dollars—a fraction of what that film would’ve made had it been released officially, marketing campaign and all.”

So-called concierge services popped up across Moscow, where you place an order for a specific item and get it delivered.

Unlike Europe, Moscow doesn’t have the most modern cinemas merely to play low-quality pirated films. Big cinema chains still run licensed content—Russian, Turkish, Chinese, and some European films. But after the pain experienced by Moscow’s moviegoers when their tickets to The Batman became memorabilia, movie theaters—at least some of them—started a parallel import of their own.

“The work to hack D.C.P.’s digital-cinema packages—encrypted hard drive containing the film that are distributed to movie theaters began in the spring,” says Bondarev. “Russian hackers arrived in Kazakhstan, a country that had all the big Hollywood films with a voice-over in Russian. They worked tirelessly to jailbreak D.C.P.’s and succeeded in a matter of weeks. Soon, movie-theater owners in Moscow started getting cryptic texts, offering them D.C.P.’s of whatever was playing in theaters worldwide. Hacked D.C.P.’s went for $1K to $3K a pop.” At first, cinemas were reluctant. While you could now legally import a car, a designer bag, or a beverage, bootlegged D.C.P.’s fell under strict piracy laws, and anyone selling tickets to a movie they stole would be breaking the law. More importantly, Putin wouldn’t be getting his cut.

Hollywood isn’t the only place with skilled entertainment lawyers; Moscow has ones that are just as good. Movie trailers are not taxed and are immune from anti-piracy laws. A theater in Moscow just contacts a film producer and offers $150 for distribution rights to an insufferable 15-minute short, filmed with a cheap camera by a Moscow Film School dropout suffering from delusions of grandeur. That movie theater proceeds to give that short the run of a lifetime: sold-out tickets, multiple screens, morning to night, for weeks on end. There is just one catch: to see this masterpiece of cinematic art, a moviegoer has to sit through a whopping three hours and 12 minutes of coming attractions, which, coincidentally, is the running time of Avatar: The Way of Water.

In Moscow, Hollywood’s biggest hit was, for legal purposes, simply a trailer. Nobody knows the exact box-office numbers, but Bondarev says they’re in the tens of millions of dollars, with theaters doubling their profits as the distributors are now out of the picture.

One year into the war, Moscow’s wins on the battlefield are far from what Putin expected them to be: there’s talk of a second Ukrainian counter-offensive, and Kyiv’s U.A.V.’s are regularly penetrating Russian airspace, making a mockery of the country’s lauded air defenses. But if there’s one thing that works, it’s Moscow’s desire to continue the good: the luxury cars, pretty dresses, diet colas, and Avatar: The Way of Water find their way to Moscow, no matter what.

Andrew Ryvkin is a screenwriter, journalist, and Russian-affairs specialist