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Disloyalty is punishable: Russians hide their true feelings about the war

Declared support for the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine among Russian citizens remains high. Despite this, new polls that look at more than just “yes or no” have revealed a complex reality in which citizens try to reach accommodation with the authoritarian state.

June 17, 2022 - Maria Domańska - Articles and Commentary

Moscow - March 18, 2022. People in t-shirts featuring a "Z" and the slogan "Army of Putin" during the Crimean Spring concert in Luzhniki Stadium to mark the 8th anniversary of the reunification of Crimea with Russia. Photo: NickolayV / Shutterstock

Russians usually declare strong support for the “special military operation”, that is, the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine. However, these declarations conceal real attitudes and are closely connected with the inability to resist the aggressive and oppressive state. The enthusiasm surrounding the seizure of Crimea and parts of Donbas in 2014 is no longer there. It seems that passive consumption of propaganda, fatalism, frustration and fear of repression now dominate the public mood.

The democratic opposition, parts of the artistic community, and the liberal intelligentsia all speak about the government’s total discrediting of the country and the need to “reinvent Russia”. However, we still know little about what Russian society at large really thinks about the invasion of Ukraine.

War censorship was introduced in early March, with a law punishing “fake news” about the Russian military now potentially sentencing people to up to 15 years in prison. This has only exacerbated recurring problems for sociologists who want to study public sentiment in Russia’s increasingly repressive system. Calling the war a war has become illegal, as well as exposing war crimes committed by Russian soldiers – the so-called “liberators of Ukraine from Nazism”. State propaganda labels reports on massacres of civilians or marauding as “anti-Russian provocations”. Censorship is also applied to the number of victims on the Russian side (the country’s defence ministry simply conceals these figures).

Russians thus consume a completely distorted media narrative and know that disloyalty is punishable. According to the human rights organisation Agora, at least 53 criminal cases so far have been opened for “disseminating fake news”. Penalties are also being issued for “discrediting” the Russian military, a new administrative offence that carries a fine. To date, the courts have considered more than 2,000 such cases.

Under these conditions, representative surveys based on quantitative methods are no longer helpful. They do not adequately reflect people’s real sentiments. Rather, their results simply show what people are willing to say in public on topics officially considered crucial for national security.

In mid-December 2021, a poll by the state-run VTsIOM centre revealed that only nine per cent of respondents considered Ukraine a hostile state. It can be assumed that support for the invasion would then be at a similar level. This is indirectly evidenced by a survey from last year by the independent Levada Centre, which found that Russians were afraid of war and did not want it. However, the current declared support for the “special military operation” in Ukraine fluctuates between 70 and 80 per cent in various polls (by both independent and state-run centres).

In a Levada Centre poll from late May, 77 per cent of respondents supported the Russian army’s actions (17 per cent were opposed). In March, support for the military was at 81 per cent. Between March and May, the proportion of “strong supporters” fell from 53 to 47 per cent. At the same time, the share of “strong opponents” increased from six to nine per cent. As the director of the Levada Centre, Denis Volkov, points out, respondents who “rather support” the Russian army’s actions are twice as likely to personally feel fear or even terror when compared to “strong supporters”. The sense of pride for the military is also significantly weaker among the first group.

This dynamic may indicate growing doubts among the population regarding the sense, course or effectiveness of the invasion. Despite this, 73 per cent believe in Russia’s victory and only seven per cent blame their country for the conflict’s casualties and destruction. Awareness of Russia’s failures is slowly seeping into the country’s information flow through cracks in the propaganda firewall. The same propagandists who not long ago thundered about the “denazification of all Ukraine” today repeatedly heap praise on the minor successes of the Russian army in Donbas. Some even try to scare the West off with threats of nuclear war. Vladimir Putin gave a lacklustre speech on May 9th, the most important day on the Russian calendar. Faced with the hard reality of war, even he failed to wring any clear successes out of the Russian military campaign.

However, it is too early to forecast long-term trends based on the polls conducted to date. This is especially true since declared support for the president remains at a stable, high level (83 per cent in May, unchanged compared to March).

No signs of mass enthusiasm

The cited numbers seem to indicate a return to the imperial euphoria of 2014. In reality, however, Russians are now far removed from their past enthusiasm. Understanding the logic of the declared support requires qualitative research, such as in-depth interviews by independent sociologists (e.g., from the Levada Centre or the Public Sociology Laboratory). These aim to analyse the argumentation and mechanisms of thinking characteristic of the respondents, primarily the supporters of the authorities. Unlike quantitative research, they are not representative of society as a whole. During the interviews, the researchers focus not on “plebiscite” questions (whether the person is “for” or “against”) but on the motivations, inconsistencies and reasoning of the respondents.

As these interviews have shown, uncritical supporters of the war are relatively few. According to Alexei Levinson, a sociologist at the Levada Centre, they may make up about 20 per cent of the population. This group is faced with a similarly large number of opponents. The rest of the population inhabit the so-called “swamp” or boloto, which is made up of people without established views who adapt to the current circumstances. Notably, the responses of the same people can differ depending on the context of a conversation.

Scenes of patriotic gatherings, which often go viral on the internet, are usually staged by the authorities. People dependent on the state, such as local officials or public sector employees, are forced to participate in such events. These fascistic rallies backing the invasion have even involved children lining up in the shape of the letter “Z”. Students have also chanted slogans of support. Russian bloggers’ analysis of the March 18th broadcast from Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium (an event where Putin spoke to the audience) debunked both the official figure of 200,000 participants and their alleged enthusiasm. Many people quickly left the venue – probably soon after they had been ticked off on the attendance lists. Parents often react harshly to the indoctrination of their children and the government using them for political purposes. This is especially true in large cities. Many school directors and teachers are also not zealous in implementing top-down instructions on “patriotic education”.

This lukewarm attitude towards the war is also exemplified by the low support for mass conscription, as well as the growing number of soldiers and Rosgvardia officers (an internal paramilitary-police formation used to pacify the occupied territories of Ukraine) who refuse to go to war. Human rights activists estimate that their number reaches into the thousands. Since Russia is not formally at war with Ukraine, the government has limited tools to pressure the disobedient. A March announcement by the military authorities in St. Petersburg was also telling. After the publication of cases of poorly trained conscripts being sent to war, the authorities admitted that due to “psychological warfare on the part of Russia’s enemies”, both a fear of military service and anti-state sentiment had risen in the country. Since February 24th, at least 13 attempts to set military commissions on fire have been reported in Russia. In April’s all-Russian poll by the independent group Russian Field, 56 per cent of men said that they would not participate in the “special military operation”. It was mostly pensioners and people with high incomes who declared that they are willing to fight. In other words, most of those who supposedly want to fight would not be sent to the front anyway because of their age or the possibility of buying themselves out of service.

It is difficult to discern what proportion of Russians express an anti-Ukrainian stance consciously and autonomously and what part declares it out of fear or indifference. For many respondents the interviewer ultimately represents the state. Although the Levada Centre notes a high level of declared pride in the army and president (about half of the respondents), negative emotions are not much lower. For example, around 40 per cent of Russians feel shame, agitation, anger or depression due to the current situation. This is more evidence of polarisation rather than the unity of society.

The anti-war groups often include the youngest people (18 to 29-year-olds). The percentage of those who oppose the war among this group reaches as high as 50 per cent in some surveys. Other anti-war groups include residents of big cities, people who access information mainly on the internet (including via social media) and the poorest. This final group seem to be aware that they will be the first victims of the Kremlin’s geopolitical sabre-rattling. According to one Russian Field poll from March, the level of support for the war is also slightly lower among women and people who travel abroad.

Behind the flat numbers of the polls, then, lies a diverse mix of emotions and motives that lead people to declare support for Putin’s aggression.

Language creates the world

State propaganda in Russia has almost monopolised the language of describing reality. It is now striving to capture people’s imagination. Competing narratives have been outlawed and pollsters are forbidden to ask about attitudes toward the “war”. Of course, the phrase “special military operation” distorts the population’s perception of the invasion and thus its attitudes toward it. This leads to significant bias in the results of surveys. From the first day of the aggression, the government has sought to entirely block information and rally the society “around the flag”. They launched a massive propaganda campaign demonising Ukraine and the West in an Orwellian spirit. This campaign is carried out on television, in schools and universities, and on the streets. Slogans and symbols of war are pasted on billboards and public transport (the letters “Z” or “V” are rarely seen on private cars). This is all aimed to convince the public that the majority supports the president and his policies and that criticism of one’s own country is tantamount to treason.

The goal of the Kremlin is not so much to convince the audience that one “canonical” version of events exists regarding the war. Instead, they hope to “zombify” people and make them incapable of critical thinking. They want to confuse them and ultimately encourage semantic chaos. “Zombies” are supposed to accept any narrative uncritically regardless of the circumstances. What ideas does the state narrative promote? The belief that Russia is not killing civilians or destroying cities in Ukraine is a prime example of this outlook. Russia is also supposedly carrying out pinpoint strikes on military facilities “with surgical precision”. Ukrainian civilians are presented as the victims of the criminal actions of Ukraine’s army and militant Nazi groups, who use them as human shields. Russia has never attacked anyone first. Russia has always defended itself. A new Nazism is supposedly taking hold in the West – and its name is “Russophobia”. The very existence of the Russian nation is being threatened. As TV propagandists repeat “If we had not struck [Ukraine], we would have been struck by them, it was a matter of days.” The unpreparedness of the USSR for Nazi aggression in 1941 is deliberately invoked in this context. The public accepts these statements as true for several reasons.

First, long before the invasion, Russians had largely become indifferent to the Ukrainian theme, which had been present in the media since 2013. Due to this “Ukraine fatigue”, they accepted the first ready-made narrative offered to them by TV and state officials. Second, the Russian government is instrumentally playing up two basic needs of the public: a sense of exceptionalism (“we are better than the rest”, “truth is on our side”) and the need for an enemy as a negative reference point for self-identification. Third, the state’s spurious narrative is ubiquitous. It simply overwhelms the audience with rhetorical figures and hyperbole related to the supposed “evil” that the Russian military is allegedly fighting.

Fourth, all significant independent media outlets have ceased to operate at least temporarily in the country. They have either been subject to repression or have been directly outlawed and blocked in Russia. The most important sources of independent information are now YouTube and Telegram channels. Journalists continue to work but reliable information sources are scattered and thus more difficult to follow. Many sites can now only be accessed via VPNs.

Fifth, most Russians do not search for independent information because they are either not ready to accept the hard truth about the war or admit that they have always known it. This would require an uncomfortable discussion on collective guilt and responsibility for the state’s wrongdoings. There is also an intense fear of discrediting the state, which remains the only permanent reference point for collective identity in Russia.

What is most shocking is that Russians often reject the accounts of friends and relatives from Ukraine. First-hand accounts lose out to television (the primary source of information for two-thirds of survey respondents). As a result, many families experience deep divisions. This is especially true between generations as polarisation by age remains the strongest divide. As the sociologist Grigory Yudin said in an interview with the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in May, a person who aggressively rejects and denies facts ultimately knows and understands everything but tries at all costs to save their “fragile inner world”.

Another leading Russian sociologist, Alexei Levinson of the Levada Centre, stated in an interview with the same newspaper in March that “people want to be deceived.” Against the backdrop of social atomisation and mass “depoliticisation”, people are turning to their private world and support from a select group that rarely goes beyond their closest family and friends. Despite this, specialists report that the number of people seeking psychological help has increased significantly in recent months.

Although Russians do not have a coherent idea of the conflict’s goals, their interpretations usually reflect the inconsistent messages pushed on television. Most respondents say the operation’s goals involve one or more of defending Russia’s borders, protecting the population of the breakaway Donbas republics, and preventing Ukraine’s membership in NATO. There is also a peculiar “sunk cost effect” and this is particularly tangible in statements made by family members of fallen soldiers. They may say that “you have to go to the end, to the victory; after all, our sons did not die in vain.”

“We cannot do anything”

Other reasons for this high declared support for the government include the fear of repression, organised hate campaigns on the internet, physical violence and social ostracism (especially in smaller communities). At the same time, people desperately lack a sense of agency and any faith in the power of public protest. Public fear is evidenced by the increasing proportion of refusals to participate in surveys and especially phone surveys. This trend has been reported by groups such as the Russian Field team. Interestingly, the Levada Centre has revealed no significant changes of this kind in their face-to-face interviews. As indicated by Russian Field polls, the share of refusals reached 95 per cent in March. This was significantly higher compared to February. In one of the March polls, one-fifth of the respondents who agreed to give answers said they were afraid to participate. Around 68 per cent of them were not satisfied with the situation in the country and a clear majority also felt negative emotions in connection with the “special military operation”. It can be assumed that such sentiment is more prevalent among those who shun participation, while government supporters are much more willing to speak out. In conversations with sociologists, people said: “these are probably dangerous questions, it’s better not to answer them, I don’t want to tackle political issues”; “nothing depends on us anyway”; “oh dear, I’ll say something wrong and you’ll put me in prison.” There were also threats: “your questions are illegal, if I call the FSB [Federal Security Service] now, you will not go home tonight.”

This last example is crucial as the number of denunciations for “patriotic” reasons has increased to a noticeable degree since the war. The authorities directly urge people to snitch on each other and even send out text messages with appeals to inform the government about suspicious activity or inappropriate statements. According to independent media outlets, some Moscow residents have found letters in their mailboxes encouraging them to denounce “politically disloyal” neighbours. The “disloyal” are characterised as those who “express hatred towards Russia and Putin”, or who finance Navalny’s activity. It can be argued that the imprisoned opposition leader plays a scapegoat role in Putin’s neo-totalitarian system similar to 1984’s Emmanuel Goldstein.

A significant part of society is frustrated by the country’s dire socio-economic situation, corruption and lawlessness. Paradoxically, joining the aggressor (the state power) is, as sociologists explain, a way of self-defence when it feels like you have become a victim of circumstances. Support for war propaganda can be an outlet for frustration regarding personal failures or the seeming collective failure of the Russian nation in a highly competitive world. People formed by a political culture centred on state violence passively accept the principle that might makes right, both in foreign and domestic policy.

The last decade has shown that nothing can stop the repressive policies of the Kremlin. Street demonstrations, independent media, political opposition and civil society organisations have ultimately done very little to challenge the government. Over the past two years, virtually all the independent networks that could become a driving force for anti-war protest today have been dismantled. Many regime opponents have also found themselves in forced exile. The belief that “he who remains silent will survive” is viewed as a crucial fact of life and especially in the provinces. As a result, we are not witnessing any “Donbas enthusiasm” in Russia but rather conformism and mimicry. Russians know that it is best to be invisible to their government, to join the majority and keep a low profile. This approach is accompanied by the hope that the “problem” will soon be solved. However, many also believe that the effects of confrontation with the West will persist long after the end of the war. Paradoxically, these divergent beliefs lead to people choosing to adapt rather than resist.

How to rationalise war?

Starting in late February, the Public Sociology Laboratory team conducted in-depth interviews in Russia. These took place online and offline, with face-to-face meetings mostly organised in Moscow and St. Petersburg. While it would be inappropriate to draw far-reaching conclusions based on this one investigation, it is possible to sketch out several types of “alliances” that Russian citizens are ready to make with the government.

1. Alliance by default – This relationship involves unreflective consumers of state propaganda, who generally do not use other sources of information and repeat clichés promoted by state television. However, the more time passes since late February, the more these people are ready to question the picture of the world offered to them.

2. Imperial alliance – Conscious supporters of the “imperial project” support Russia challenging the West and regaining its dominance in the so-called post-Soviet area. They formed their beliefs long before the war. They know what is going on in Ukraine but they believe that casualties in the war are inevitable. They support Putin’s foreign policy, even if they criticise the domestic state of affairs. They are also the least susceptible to persuasion.

3. Alliance against a common enemy – This group would prefer that there was no war, but since it has already started, they justify it by saying Russia needs to oppose NATO. Interestingly, such people do not necessarily trust the Kremlin’s propaganda and they may turn to alternative sources of information. They are also aware of the severe socio-economic consequences of the war.

4. Tactical alliance – This is characteristic of people personally linked with Donbas. They side with the Kremlin, even if they are generally critical of the Russian government. Their overriding goal remains ending the conflict that has been going on since 2014.

5. “Alliance despite everything” – These are proponents of the “my country, right or wrong” approach. They may be critical of both the goals and methods of the war but they cannot bring themselves to turn against their homeland.

Time will tell whether the truth about the human and material costs of the war, which is slowly seeping into public consciousness, will lead to a resurgence of anti-regime criticism. This had been growing among the public in the pre-invasion years. Even if this happens, it will not lead to an upsurge in active protest in the foreseeable future. It is not public attitudes but Russia’s indisputable defeat on the battlefield that will change the course of this war.

Maria Domańska PhD is a senior fellow at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW). She specialises in Russian domestic politics.

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