Where are the “good Russians”? The complexities of gauging Russians’ stance on the war
In spite of criticism related to the inaction of Russian society, it is important to remember the long-term societal trauma that has encouraged such silence.
April 13, 2023 - Joshua Kroeker - Articles and Commentary
In the first weeks of Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine, the slogan “Peace to Ukraine, Freedom to Russia” was omnipresent on both sides of the front line. Many Ukrainians believed and spoke to the fact that this was Putin’s war, and not that of Russia. This rhetoric was echoed by many western leaders. In March and April of 2022, widespread protests against the war were attended by thousands chanting “no to war” in Russia. This anti-war rhetoric was found online also and was shared by many of Russia’s cultural elites, such as Valery Meladze and Alla Pugacheva. Yet after the first few waves of demonstrations, perceptible dissent within Russia all but ceased to exist.
Over a year into Russia’s war in Ukraine, the question of everyday Russians’ stance regarding the horrifying events in Ukraine needs to be given greater attention. Polls often claim that most Russians support President Putin and the war in Ukraine, whilst at the same time the silence from Russia’s anti-war, anti-Putin milieu is deafening. Russians have been vilified for their lack of empathy towards Ukraine, for their refusal to take to the streets and topple Putin’s government, and for their oftentimes overt support for Russian war crimes on social media outlets such as Telegram and Instagram. For Ukrainians waging a war of defence and fighting to stay warm and fed, the difference between “good Russians” that are against the war but do not speak out and “bad Russians” that cheer on Wagner and the Russian army may seem overly academic, or even irrelevant. Nonetheless, examining historical and societal trends within Russia that have led, and continue to lead, to the current circumstances may help both the researcher and the common reader to understand that not all is green on the Russian side of the fence.
The goal of this article – and it must be stated – is not to absolve Russia of its burden of guilt or to imply that the invasion of Ukraine was anything but unprovoked. Rather, this article will
make the argument that both Russia’s historical trajectory and recent societal trends make it oftentimes difficult, if not dangerous for Russians to speak out against the government and in support of Ukraine. As Ukrainians fight for their lives in the trenches and their cities are bombed almost daily, they are the untenable victims of Russia’s invasion. Victimhood, however, is not necessarily a zero-sum game, and whilst many Ukrainians face the perils of a life-or-death war, Russians are faced with an oppressive authoritarian regime.
Authoritarian developments in post-Soviet Russia
Over the last two decades, Putin’s regime has been systematically restricting the rights of Russians. This is especially true regarding the opposition, minority groups and organisations within the country. From the first years of Putin’s presidency, any real political opposition and most independent media outlets were destroyed or severely restricted, as the government declared war against the oligarch class, effectively ended the multi-party system, and established a thorough power vertical upon which the presidential administration continues to sit. The introduction of the draconian “foreign agent” law a decade later that has stifled the work of NGOs, as well as other legislation controlling speech in print and online, unprecedented control over the internet, and the intermittent arrest and even deaths of those critical of the regime or in the opposition, have all allowed the government to successfully bring much of society under its heavy control – or at a minimum in line with many of its policies. Throughout the years, Russia has consistently been downgraded in international democracy indexes, with the “not free” country suffering extremely weak ratings in both political and civil liberties. Now a full-fledged authoritarian regime with oppressive, proto-totalitarian characteristics is beginning to appear in the country, and the newest wartime laws of repression seem to be the logical conclusion of the government’s efforts to take full control.
When looking at Russia as a whole, it is often natural to criticise the lack of opposition to the government. Russia, however, is not a beehive that works in absolute harmony to provide for the queen. Rather, when considering the individual destinies of millions of Russians, the situation becomes much more complex. Though many Russians do indeed support the government’s actions and the country’s “strong man” leadership, many others oppose it wholeheartedly but are unable to act, lest they face legal consequences or even persecution. For example, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Russian universities quickly moved to expel students found protesting against the war. This effectively stole the future from those willing to take the risk. The government also wrapped its war narrative in an impenetrable legal layer – referring to the “special operation” as a war became punishable, protesting became a criminal offense, and “discrediting” (a purposely broad term) the army could lead to five years imprisonment. Effectively, the government transformed dissent from the uncomfortable, but manageable, to a crime with life-changing, even life-and-death dimensions.
Acting against the government, or in opposition to any of the many narratives it propagates, has become exceedingly dangerous. Many Russians fear for their futures and their lives. After over a decade of living relatively comfortably and benefitting from Russia’s hydrocarbon profits, but also with many attending widespread protests in 2011-13 and again in 2017-18, the reality in which they live has become significantly more perilous. What is “right” and what is “wrong” under the current circumstances is a philosophical question that cannot be answered here, if at all. However, when considering the lack of opposition since February 2022 (and also 2014), it is necessary to also reflect on the context in which Russians live, work and act. Overall, it is clear that they live in a repressive, autocratic war-time system that is by no means unprecedented for Russia.
Memories of Soviet-era repression
In a recent interview with the foreign Russian-language media group Meduza, the famous yet highly controversial neo-Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek said that “the Russians are not the enemy. Russia is a deeply traumatised, divided nation…” While for Ukraine the Russian leadership and armed forces cannot be viewed as anything but the enemy, Žižek’s statements on the trauma imbedded in the core of the Russian nation carry some weight. What Žižek is referring to here is the concept of collective trauma, which plays a significant role in Russia’s collective memory. By definition, collective memory is the use of real or imagined histories that constitute the identity of a society. In other words, the long-term reality that Russians faced living under the Soviet regime has had tangible effects on how many of them see and operate in the world today.
It may be axiomatic, but it is nevertheless significant to point out that the majority of Russians today were born in the Soviet Union, and many of them, especially the older generations, lived under the Soviet regime for a significant amount of time. Though many of today’s Russians did not experience first hand the terrors of the Stalin era, the decades that followed the death of the infamous leader can still be considered to have been led by an oppressive, totalitarian regime that did not permit dissent from the proverbial party line. These experiences, also known as collective trauma, have been carried into modern Russia, as has, unlike in Ukraine, the Soviet Union’s infrastructure of oppression. Russia also continues to be influenced by a strict security state apparatus backed by more than a century of experience, a ruthless anti-western worldview, its enormous mineral wealth, the constant curbing of democratic rights, and a vast military-industrial complex. The regime-critical journalist and author Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered in Moscow in 2006, wrote to this effect that “unfortunately, in the heart of most Russians is an urge not to stand out, and it is particularly in evidence today. We do not want to attract the evil eye of repressive institutions. We want to stay in the shadows. … keeping to the shadows lies much deeper in the heart of every Russian. After all that has happened here in the twentieth century alone, it is perhaps hardly surprising.” The experiences – and memories of those experiences – of Russians over the last century have resulted in an active passivity designed to avoid the dangers of facing up to the regime.
For many Russians, collective memory and trauma are not everything. Younger generations tend to be more willing to oppose aspects of the regime and its policies. It also does not imply that Russians accept what is happening in the world around them. Collective memory and trauma can act as a constraint for agency and prevent viable actions against the regime, as the memory of Soviet repressions, the lack of law and order, and even the turbulent 1990s cause fear in the hearts and minds of Russians. Waves of protest have nevertheless occurred over the past decade, and silent protest, non-conformity, and leaving the country to resist the regime should all be considered as legitimate acts of personal rebellion, even if they are not “newsworthy”. As Russian society is being subject to an ever more oppressive regime, the memories of Soviet-era oppression – and Soviet-era forms of resistance – are playing a larger role in how Russians act and think. Oppression in the Soviet Union was widespread, whereas protest often meant opposing the regime from within one’s home, and not out on the streets. For now, we must understand that Russians’ shared traumatic history is a crucial factor that restrains opposition both at the individual and societal level.
Methodological difficulties in Russian opinion polls
Finally, for years, western analysts, experts and journalists have taken Russian polls at face value, believing that the internationally-respected and often-cited Levada Center is an accurate treasure trove of data on Russian opinions. And for many years, this may have been the case. However, under the current wartime conditions in Russia, all data published by the Levada Center and other polling institutions should be viewed with considerable scepticism. Since the Russian invasion in 2022, Levada has on multiple occasions published data on the percentages of the Russian population that support Putin and support the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine. This information also revealed the age and gender differences amongst those polled. Over the year, the numbers have remained mostly static, with 68 to 78 per cent of those asked supporting the war. There are, however, a number of methodological issues to be considered when analysing these numbers.
Centrally, as identified above, Russia is not a free state and laws are being created and used against individuals who oppose the war and the government’s actions in Ukraine. Though impossible to quantify, one must understand that when being telephoned by a stranger to conduct a poll, the person being asked is unlikely to provide an answer that could have legal repercussions. It is also worth remembering the societal pressure involved in providing an answer that conforms to the state’s narrative. At the same time, however, a noticeable percentage of Russian citizens have been radicalised in favour of the regime, meaning that they may be more inclined to partake in a given poll or provide a radical answer. This means that an interviewee may have an alternate agenda when partaking, such as avoiding certain questions to protect themselves or providing performative answers to uphold a certain standing within the new status quo.
A secondary, but by no means lesser, issue with wartime polling in Russia is that the questions are taken on the basis of what people think they believe. Levada’s numbers show, for example, that a much higher percentage, namely 78 per cent of elderly Russians (55 and older) support the actions of the Russian military in Ukraine, whereas the percentages of those in the age groups of 18-24 and 25-39 are significantly lower at 62 to 69 per cent, respectively. These percentages do not take into account, however, the fact that older generations of Russians are much more susceptible to state propaganda than younger Russians, who generally make more of an effort to obtain information from international and independent news sources. As a result, though the majority may in fact support the regime and the war in Ukraine, many respondents do not have the knowledge or capability to obtain alternative sources of information. It seems therefore that their opinions are often shaped without their active knowledge.
Though opinion polls can provide us with general trends regarding opinions in Russia, they should not be read as absolute truths. It is the difficult task of the analyst or expert to be aware of these flaws, especially when making broad claims on the stance or opinions of the general Russian population. In the end, and despite these issues, it remains likely that at least 50 per cent of the population does indeed support the war, and this fact should also not be disregarded.
It is difficult to say with certainty what percentages of the Russian population support Putin’s war or oppose it. Russian society is currently undergoing a totalitarian transition that risks polarising the entire nation. With ideas of national greatness and power encouraged by a large propaganda machine on one side, and fears and memories of oppression and terror on the other, Russia is far more divided than the lack of widespread opposition seems to imply. When considering the stance or opinions of everyday Russian citizens, it would be wrong to not take into account to what extent history, societal developments, ideology and social pressure affect them and their actions. Both the memories and current application of widespread repression encourage mass conformity, whilst the subsequent lack of organised opposition results in an unclear response. Protest and dissent must therefore not only be considered in terms of demonstrations or marches, but also sabotage, silent resistance (non-conformity), or leaving the country. The current public discourse on Russians’ pro or anti-war stance remains very one sided. Rather than vilifying all Russians, it would be more useful to consider how we may assist and educate those opposing the regime and its destructive war in Ukraine. Only then will “Peace to Ukraine, Freedom to Russia” become a viable possibility.
Joshua Kroeker is a historian and political scientist, holding degrees from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Heidelberg University in Germany and St Petersburg State University, Russia. He is currently undertaking his doctoral study at Heidelberg University. He specialises in modern Russian and Ukrainian history and politics. @jrkroeker on Twitter.
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