Russian society and the war in Ukraine: between silence and doubts

After presenting the official Russian data on the support of Russian public opinion for the “special operation” (I), the author demonstrates why the official data tell us nothing in truth about Russian society (II). The study then presents those who, in Russia, oppose the war in Ukraine (III). Finally, the subject opens with a prospective reflection by presenting two possible trends for the future of Russia.

I. Official data

SINCE February 24, 2022, with Moscow’s renewed war against Ukraine, the international community has questioned Russian public opinion and sought to know what Russians think about the war waged in a neighboring country, and whether they really support their government in this nameless war. Official statistics published by public opinion research agencies in Russia answered these questions in the affirmative. More than that, it showed that as the Russian army advanced in Ukraine the support for this invasion from the Russian population increased.

Russian society and the war in Ukraine: between silence and doubts

For example, data from VTsIOM, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, seemed to show that after February 24, 2022 Russians trusted President Vladimir Putin even more than before. Thus the level of support rose from 67.2% on February 20, 2022 to 81.6% on March 3, 2022. Conversely, the level of distrust decreased (almost halved) from 27.9% to 15 % around March 3.

In the particularly severe censorship conditions concerning  the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine (the use of the word “war” in connection with this invasion being prohibited in Russia) , the investigators cannot ask direct and clear questions to the surveyed. However, questions on foreign policy can reveal the attitude of Russians to what is happening in Ukraine now. The VTsIOM poll on support for the Kremlin’s foreign policy confirms the results of surveys on the level of trust in the president: since the end of February 2022 support from Russians has been steadily increasing. If at the end of January 2022 “only” 52% of respondents approved of Russian foreign policy, by the end of March 2022 this share reached 64%.

Since VTsIOM is the state research center, controlled by the Kremlin, it is necessary to try to consult data from agencies not directly affiliated with the Russian government. But even data from centers for the study of public opinion which present themselves as independent, for example “Levada-centre”, record the same trend: if in January 2022 support for the government was at the level of 69%, towards the end of March 2022 it has increased to 82%  [ 1 ] . The polls of the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM  [ 2 ] ), the third agency in this field in Russia, show the same results.

Support for the war on the part of the Russian population seems undeniable according to data from centers for the study of public opinion in Russia . But how do the Russians understand the reasons and objectives of this “special military operation”? The popular answers are that it is important to ensure the security of Russia, to demilitarize Ukraine and to prevent the establishment of NATO military bases in Ukraine (71%), to protect the population of the republics ( not recognized by international law) of Donetsk and Lugansk (52%), to change the political direction and overthrow the nationalists in Ukraine (21%), and to abolish the Ukrainian state and attach Ukrainian territories to Russia ( 10%)  [ 3 ] .

Official statistics give us an image of the cohesion of the Russian population around President Vladimir Putin, which was further affirmed with the war that the Russian government unleashed in Ukraine .

Nevertheless, a deep analysis using alternative sources questions this image(rie) and leads us to ask ourselves what is really known about Russian society today.

II. Why do official data tell us nothing in truth about Russian society?

In reality, the polls conducted by public opinion institutes located in Russia cannot give us the real picture of contemporary Russian society for the following reasons:

1. Authoritarian regime established in Russia . According to Vladimir Gelman, Russia’s number one political scientist by academic reputation  [ 4 ], the regime established by V. Putin in Russia must be described as an electoral autocracy. This type of regime fully conforms to the classic pattern of an autocracy with the specificity that it regularly goes through electoral cycles that force it to confirm its legitimacy in society. As in all autocratic regimes, Russian power aims to control all public bodies capable of influencing the Russian population: political parties, the media, universities and opinion institutes. The administration of the Russian President managed to seize the two main Russian public opinion institutes – VTsIOM and FOM: their draft polls as well as the results of their surveys were studied and approved (or rejected) by the Kremlin .

A recent example illustrates well the discrepancies between VTsIOM polls and Russian public opinion. In April 2022 VTsIOM published the results of a survey on the attitude of Russians towards the European Community. VTsIOM data showed that in 2022 the attitude of Russians towards the European Union had deteriorated considerably: in comparison with 2021 when 54% perceived the EU positively, in 2022 this figure had fallen to 18% and the share of those who view it negatively reached 55%.

At the regional level, the St. Petersburg media “Fontanka” decided to verify the results of polls carried out by VTsIOM. The alternative poll by “Fontanka” showed the opposite result: 79% of those polled expressed a positive attitude towards Community Europe and only 16% negative.

“Fontanka” is among the top 10 most cited Internet media in Russia  [ 5 ] and has readers in several Russian cities  [ 6 ] .

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However, the polls of the “Levada” center, which presents itself as independent and not controlled by the Kremlin, confirm the data of VTsIOM and FOM on the support of the war by the Russian population. The following factors may explain it.

2. The State Propaganda Machine . For 20 years – from his first months in power – V. Putin has sought to establish control over the media and build a propaganda system that is capable of suppressing all dissent and indoctrinating the Russian people. In the absence of real counterweights to power, by acting on parliament, on the independence of the judicial system, on a variety of media with different editorial lines accessible to the general public, V. Putin has established a propaganda machine which operated through television, internet media and trolls. Within the administration of the President were created departments and appointed curators responsible for control over the media in Russia. This propaganda machine worked for years to convince Russians that Ukraine was “a Nazi state” and that the West was an “enemy of Russia that sought to destroy it by any means possible”. Respondents’ responses to this propaganda verbatim show how powerful propaganda can be under authoritarian regimes, even in the 21st century.

3. The phenomenon of “acceptable” responses under authoritarian regimes . Sociologists draw attention to the specificities of polls in non-democratic states and in particular to the phenomenon of so-called “socially acceptable” answers  [ 7 ] that respondents tend to give when they are confronted with pollsters. Polls in Russia are conducted either in the street or by telephone: these two means allow the possibility of identifying a person polled. This risk obviously forces respondents to be more cautious in their answers and sometimes even to give answers that will be more accepted in an authoritarian regime where open criticism of the government is severely suppressed.

4. The new Russian laws introducing military censorship . The fear that Russians felt in political debates before February 2022 was greatly reinforced with the new laws that the Russian government passed with the outbreak of war with Ukraine. Following numerous demonstrations against the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law on March 5, 2022 providing for up to fifteen years in prison for anyone publishing “false information” about the war in Ukraine and data “discrediting the forces Russian armies ». Since then, anyone who would dare to call a war “the special operation” in Ukraine, which would discuss the strikes on Ukrainian residential neighborhoods and the massacres of civilians in villages occupied by the Russian army (all these facts being denied by the Kremlin as provocations and lies) risks being tried and imprisoned in Russia. Even information sent by instant messaging can be considered by the Russian authorities as having a public impact (precedents have already taken place in March 2022 in Russia). It is therefore not surprising that Russians are afraid to express their position in polls and even in conversations with colleagues, sometimes even with friends and relatives. The practice of anonymous political reporting to the police has also returned to Russian society.

5. Massive abstention and the magnifying effect in official polls . The investigations initiated by the independent activists were able to reveal an important feature of the polls carried out in Russia. In March 2022, an attempt to poll by the company Russian Field showed a massive abstention of Russians from any conversation on the war with the investigators: among 31,000 people that the agency was able to reach by telephone, almost 29,000 hung up as soon as they heard a question about the “special operation” in Ukraine  [ 8 ]. This result showed that the data received during the other polls represented rather a magnifying effect on a part – not the majority – of Russian society which is not afraid to speak out because its opinion does not diverge from the position of the Russian government. While the opinion of the majority of the population remains unclear for researchers.

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Given all the difficulties of analyzing public opinion under authoritarian regimes, it may be interesting to observe reader reactions to Russian news in a Telegram thread. Similar reactions to likes and dislikes on Facebook can be an important marker for the analysis of Russian society for two reasons: A. Russian law at the moment does not persecute for likes and dislikes on Telegram yet, so readers have less fear of expressing them; B.the trolls that the Russian government uses massively are paid for comments (their remuneration is calculated according to the number of comments for the posts selected by their leaders), that is why the trolls do not use likes and dislikes on Telegram. The selection of news items personally mentioning V. Putin shows that the majority – 2/3 to 3/4 of readers – react to these posts with negative ”  likes  ” and thus contradict the data of official statistics in Russia.

Here are some examples :Click on the thumbnail to see the graph

These “microsociological” data can provide us with certain useful elements for an analysis of Russian society in the absence of the possibility of carrying out in-depth sociological research.

III. Those who oppose the war

If the opinion of the majority of the Russian population remains difficult to assess, the sociological portrait of the opponents open to the war with Ukraine and to the Putin regime in general appears clearer and more intelligible. There is currently no reliable figure that can tell us how many Russians do not accept the Russian invasion of Ukraine since February 24, 2022. The Russian petition “No to war” on the website Russian language received more than 1,250,000 signatures, which became a record among all Russian petitions. The sociological portrait of this group within Russian society can be formed from the following data:

1. Professional solidarity between highly qualified professions . At the end of February-beginning of March 2022 several open letters against the war were signed by hundreds of people and published on the internet. These are letters from doctors, artists, directors, journalists, university professors, political scientists, economists, IT specialists, entrepreneurs, university alumni and students (e.g. HSE) etc Each letter was signed by hundreds of people. This particular phenomenon of horizontal solidarity emerged in opposition to the vertical repression that descended from the Kremlin to the leaders of the media, corporations, theaters and universities.

Russia even experienced a veritable exodus of IT specialists in March 2022 (and this exodus continues today) . For example, the Yandex company lost several important top managers who went into exile with the start of the special operation in Ukraine and even had to open a subsidiary in Yerevan (Armenia) where almost 2,000 of its specialists fled in March ( in total nearly 5,000 Yandex employees have gone abroad, which makes 1/4 of their workforce).

2. The position of the Russian intelligentsia. At the beginning of May 2022, we see that an overwhelming majority of the Russian intelligentsia is radically opposed to the war that Putin started on February 24, 2022. This is particularly the case with the writer Boris Akunin, the director Andrei Zvyagintsev, from writer Ludmila Ulitskaya, actress Chulpan Khamatova, writer Dmitry Glukhovsky as well as Russian youth idols like singers Oxxymoron, Monetotchka, Face and Russia’s most popular blogger Yuri Dud. The Russian intelligentsia in exile created the Committee against the war and the self-help project ‘The Russian Ark’. Russian artists give concerts in EU countries to support Ukrainian refugees. Some representatives of the Russian intelligentsia took a risk not to leave Russia while continuing to publicly denounce the war.

3. The generational divide in Russian society . Several sources indicate that between young people aged 18-25 and those over 55 there is a gap in values ​​and considerable differences in their assessments of politics in Russia. Young Russians (Editor’s note: old enough to be soldiers) are massively opposed to this war, they go out into the streets, they are the ones who are most often arrested today by the police during demonstrations  [ 9 ]. Students tell professors at universities that the hardest thing for them today is talking to their own parents who are either indoctrinated by television or paralyzed by fear of repression, and therefore pressure their children to to hush up. Modern Russian youth is globalized, open to a dialogue with other cultures, they live like Western youth: they listen to the same music, watch the same series, love the same brands and speak the same language (lol, crush, chill etc. .). This is why she rejects the narrative imposed by Russian propaganda on the existential confrontation between Russia and the West.

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The Levada-center poll also reveals how young and old perceive Russia’s war in Ukraine. It shows that young Russians feel more disturbing emotions in relation to the war (shame, shock, depression, fear) and much less enthusiasm and pride for Russia.What emotions do you feel about the Russian “special operation” in Ukraine?Click on the thumbnail to enlarge the graphic

To sum up, it can be seen that the part of Russian society which openly opposes the war in Ukraine and the Putin regime is characterized on average by a higher intellectual and professional level and is younger than the camp “supporters” of the current regime: these characteristics can give us key elements on the evolutions of Russian society in the future.


And tomorrow ? Two possible trends for the future of Russia

Even if the situation on the eve of May 9, 2022 does not allow us to conduct a complete and exhaustive analysis of Russian society, it is possible thanks to certain factors to define the trends that may prevail in the short and long term.

First trend  : lack of resistance to Putin’s regime and support for the aggressive policy towards its neighbors and the West. This trend will be influential in the short term.

For the moment there are not enough indicators that allow us to envisage massive resistance either to the war in Ukraine or to Putin’s regime. A part of society indoctrinated by propaganda and supported by the oppressive state machine manages to silence another part that does not support the invasion. We must not underestimate the profound influence on Russian society, at least in the short term, of the propaganda put in place by the regime of V. Putin. The narrative with which she succeeded in indoctrinating the Russians is based on autarkic, illiberal, obscurantist ideas as well as on the cult of war and hatred of the West. This quasi-ideology will serve in the short term as a social contract of Russian society with the Putin regime, which will increasingly resemble akleptofascism completely consistent with the 14 building blocks of all fascist regimes:

1. The worship of tradition.
2. The rejection of modernism.
3. The cult of action for action’s sake.
4. The systematic rejection of analytical criticism.
5. Racism and xenophobia.
6. Individual or social frustration.
7. The obsession with conspiracy, potentially international.
8. The representation of the enemy as powerful and weak at the same time.
9. No struggle for life but rather a life dedicated to the struggle. Rejection of pacifism.
10. The ideology of popular elitism: every citizen belongs to the best people in the world.
11. Every citizen is invited to become a hero. The glorification of heroic death.
12. Machismo, homophobic obsession, misogyny.
13. Selective populism.
14. Newspeak: poor vocabulary and rudimentary syntax so as to limit the instruments of critical reason. (Umberto Eco, Recognize fascism , ed. Grasset, 2017).

Russia’s political elites (composed of three main groups – oligarchs, apparatchiks and siloviki, or representatives of state power structures) will instead rally around the president. Already today they consider that Russia must win this battle with the West and that society must be consolidated to overcome all the difficulties. It should be taken into account that this group is not homogeneous: a certain part of the oligarchs has already dissociated itself from V. Putin while the siloviki continue to obtain more power in the Russian state system. Which allows us to say that in the future the siloviki could accumulate maximum power in the Russian state and establish a completely totalitarian regime. In this sense, the probability of the appearance of a Siloviki junta in Russia is stronger in the short term than a popular revolt and democratic changes.

Second trend: the rise of forces opposed to the regime (which are at the origin of today’s opponents). This trend is more likely to become more influential in the long run.

Even though the chances of the siloviki taking power into their hands are quite high, their ability to maintain economic performance in the country is limited. Being very corrupt, the siloviki will be able to benefit from the oil revenues for a certain time, but they will not be able to propose a social and political development plan for Russia. Their patent incompetence in these domains could engender the discontent of the people who would then be even poorer than they are now (outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg). This is how the layer of society that has long been proposing democratic changes could appear on the Russian political scene and offer an alternative to a bankrupt regime.

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SAKHRI Mohamed

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