Russians Who Did Not Love Putin Loved His War
September 14, 2023
  • Sergei Shelin 

    Journalist, independent analyst

Sergei Shelin writes that the third of Russians who accepted the invasion of Ukraine as their own war have long been illiberal critics of the Putin regime and previously expressed feelings of support for such figures as Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Yevgeny Prigozhin.

To predict the behavior of Russians, at least in the medium term, it is useful to understand not so much the feelings of the few opponents of the war with Ukraine, but rather the logic of a group of people who are not so accurately called loyalists. Are they all not opportunists who just go along with the authorities and dream only of not being bothered by them?

Is everyone celebrating?

Visitors to Russia this summer marveled at the visible and even exaggerated normality of life in its megacities. Throngs of upbeat Russian tourists on the streets of St Petersburg. Moscow restaurants bursting with customers. This created the impression that everyone was celebrating something.

“When you can’t go abroad like you used to, when you can’t buy a car, when prices are rising in the housing market, when the clothes that you are used to have disappeared, what do you do? You eat and drink well,” says Natalya Zubarevich, a professor at Moscow State University who specializes in economics and social geography. “The main feature of the adaptation of the Russian population to the changes in life is the desire not to notice the new realities, to live as before, to ‘chase’ the problems with food and drink.”

This picture is correct, but incomplete. Some Russians look at what is happening completely differently. Yevgeny Minchenko, a political strategist and consultant close to the government, named one section of a presentation on the wartime changes: “Three Russias – three agendas.”

Referring to the well-known stages of grief, he argues that “the Russia of the capital,” bristling with fun, is going through the “denial stage;” that “deep Russia,” where people are being recruited for good money into the army and into the military economy, is in the “bargaining stage;” and that “Russia at war,” suffering hardships and sacrifices, is experiencing depression and anger.

Moving from these somewhat speculative metaphors to firmer ground, note that only some Russians are trying to “ignore” the war and lead a normal life. At this point, they seem to be in the majority.
“However, a significant number of Russians support the attack on Ukraine not just out of the habit of bowing to the regime, but out of principle.”
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the late leader of the LDPR, served as a "lightning rod" for the Kremlin, absorbing the vote of the regime's illiberal opponents. Source: Wiki Commons
And they are found not only in “deep Russia.”

Not Putinists and not liberals

If we discard the outward supporters of the war who are obedient to the authorities and the few opponents of the war, what remains is the core of support for the war, which amounts to 30-35% and has barely decreased over time. Sociologist Yelena Koneva calls them “committed supporters of the war.”

The word “patriot” can be used in relation to them without quotation marks. They believe in the great-power myths. They help Putin put his words into action. It is this group of Russians who supply contract soldiers and volunteers to the army. They collect money and buy ammunition for the military. They read reports from the front lines every day on jingoistic Telegram channels.

“We must go through this test with dignity...Socks, underpants, camouflage, money for the needs of the guys, this is all OUR WAR!!!,” writes a female organizer of donations on a social network. And the funds come in.

When the Putin regime attacked Ukraine, these people felt that this was their war. Even though for many of them, Putin had never been a leader, or even respected.

A phenomenon that can be called illiberal opposition to the regime has existed in Russia since the country emerged. It never had adequate political representation. But it always found a way to express itself.

For example, through Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party. The LDPR was created back in Soviet times under the auspices of the KGB. In the 1993 elections to the Duma, with its demagoguery around violence, xenophobia and sovereignty, the party gained 23% of the vote and since then has served the authorities as a useful lightning rod, collecting votes from illiberal opponents of the government.

Zhirinovsky (1946-2022) was a hired puppet of the Russian authorities. But studies of the LDPR electorate conducted 10-12 years ago, before the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, showed that in terms of hostility to the Putin regime, LDPR voters were far ahead of those of any other illiberal party. Including those of the KPRF, supposedly the main “systemic opposition” force.

Before the Russia-Ukraine wars, LDPR supporters were the youngest among all “systemic parties” (66% under 45 years old) and the most male (68% are men) with quite similar levels of education, income and social status compared with the electorate of the ruling United Russia party. These people were not marginals at all. And not just from “deep Russia,” though the share of LDPR supporters in medium-sized cities is higher.

The idea that political parties were not needed, but rather leaders who directly go to the people was very popular with this group. The circle of people who think like this was much wider than just LDPR voters. In their eyes, the cynical and hypocritical Zhirinovsky looked like only a surrogate vozhd. They were looking for their real self.

Forgotten experience

This role was briefly played by the former governor of Khabarovsk Region, Sergei Furgal, who became a national figure after, apparently on Putin’s orders, he was arrested and removed from office in 2020.

Furgal, an unremarkable LDPR functionary and shady businessman, unexpectedly won the gubernatorial elections in 2018, riding a wave of hatred toward the candidate officially backed by Putin. But then Furgal made the mistake of behaving as a conscientious leader of the region, responsible to voters and at the same time independent from the regime. His removal caused widespread unrest that lasted several weeks. The democratic spirit of these protests evoked sympathy among many Russians.

Putin’s justice system accused Furgal of murders allegedly committed in the early 2000s, motivated by commercial interests. The trial, which ended with a sentence of 22 years in prison, was clearly unfair. But it is characteristic that Furgal’s backers refused on principle to discuss his past, though his previous involvement in criminalized business was well known.
A march in support of former Khabarovsk Governor Sergei Furgal, who was removed from office by the Kremlin and sentenced to 22 years in jail. The sign says "Open trial!" Khabarovsk, July 2022.
Source: Wiki Commons
Nevertheless, the Khabarovsk crisis gave hope for the humanization of Russia’s illiberal opposition. The disturbances in Khabarovsk were directed not only against Putin, but also against Zhirinovsky, who diligently helped the ruler deal with Furgal.

However, the invasion of Ukraine has erased this experience. The war turned out to be understandable and inspiring for the majority of those who had recently rallied against the regime. Today, official media praise Khabarovsk Region for supporting the “special military operation.” Meanwhile, the illiberals found another vozhd in this war.

Prigozhin found and lost

Unlike the loudmouth Zhirinovsky, Yevgeny Prigozhin looked, and apparently was, a man of action. It is still striking the enormous popularity that this absolutely criminal character gained, a vocal leader of mercenaries and prisoners recruited while behind bars, a man who had a trail of murders behind him, who put out videos of savage executions and played up his cruelty.

To say that these things were looked past would be wrong. The truth is much worse. Admirers of Prigozhin appreciated precisely the spirit of criminality and ruthless force that he emanated. This was in tune with the core beliefs of a fairly significant minority. The number of those who lacked moral immunity turned out deplorably high.

In a survey by the Levada Center in June, shortly before Prigozhin’s march on Moscow, 19% said they were ready to vote for him to be president. Another Levada poll put him as the fifth most trusted public figure after President Putin, Prime Minister Mishustin, Foreign Minister Lavrov and Defense Minister Shoigu. And on VTsIOM’s list of current leaders “of whom our country could be proud,” he came in fourth, beating out Putin’s top commander, Shoigu.

Even after the failure of the Prigozhin rebellion, when among those surveyed by the Levada Center there suddenly turned out to be quite a lot (39%) of people who “don’t like” Prigozhin, only 8% of them certified him as “a bandit, a criminal, a murderer, a former inmate, a sadist, fascist, war criminal, etc.,” while the rest condemned him mainly because he went against Putin and was too ambitious and powerful and talked too much.

In fact, for basically the same things – being a strong personality, a fearless leader and a person who openly speaks the truth – he was praised by those who continued to “like” him.

Prigozhin gave illiberal critics of the regime exactly what they had always craved – a combination of uninhibited strength, eloquence and contempt for the establishment.

A poll conducted a week after the failed rebellion showed that Prigozhin continued to be trusted by 22% of respondents, while a much larger number, 46%, considered “fair” his rhetorical attacks on the defense department, which he accused of incompetence, corruption and under-reporting of losses. Moreover, few of these people disapproved of the war: 65% of respondents versus 13% praised the involvement of Prigozhin’s mercenaries from Wagner PMC.

Prigozhin’s subsequent death was met with rather widespread manifestations of grief, which were not sanctioned from above and were decided to be tolerated. Incidentally, the authorities also arrested another popular jingoist, Igor Strelkov, one of the men behind the shooting-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014, and before his arrest a popular blogger and denouncer of Putin. As if on cue, the war propagandists and the so-called voenkory took it down a notch.
“Those in Russia who are both against the regime and for the war have been left without leaders and guides. The militaristic-ideological agenda is today monopolized by Putin.”
Formation lessons

Having neutralized, as it seems, the illiberal opposition minority, the regime is now trying to ideologize and militarize their conformist majority. But without going too far, so as not to scare the majority. Hence the wavering in Putin’s statements.

On September 1, the first day of school across Russia, Putin gave an ideological briefing to a group of schoolchildren, which, of course, was broadcast by state television. Putin told them that he “understood why we had won the Great Patriotic War” – “it is impossible to defeat such a people with such an attitude. We were absolutely invincible and still are.”

Eight days later, on Moscow Day, Putin changed his mobilizing rhetoric to a softer one: “Our capital is not retreating one step from the implementation of its large-scale development programs... We are moving forward, developing, implementing all our plans, nothing has been cut.” Let the public hope that they can live more or less as before.

But at the same time, since September, schools have introduced new versions of history textbooks for 10th and 11th grades that are lathered in a protective spirit and praise the war against Ukraine. This month, universities introduced a compulsory subject, “Fundamentals of Russian Statehood,” that explains what the “Russian worldview” is.

In a year’s time, kids in grades 5-9 will also receive new, ideologically charged history textbooks. Meanwhile, the course “Fundamentals of Security and Defense of the Motherland” will come to schools, which will include, among other things, drill training. It is expected that this course will be taught by veterans of the “special military operation:” a center has already been opened where they will be trained for this mission.

Mourning rituals in schools for soldiers are becoming commonplace. Here is a report dated the beginning of September: “At School 7 of Ivanteevka near Moscow, a solemn ceremony was held to open memorial plaques to fallen veterans of the Special Military Operation... The event was opened by the head of the city district: ‘we opened memorial plaques so that the younger generation understands that all this is not happening somewhere far away, but very close.’ The event was attended by relatives of the dead soldiers, high school students and teachers, the combat commander of one of the heroes and the rector of the St George the Great Martyr and Victory-Bearer Church...”

Parents have not been forgotten either. In certain regions, in a test mode, local officials are being taken to lectures on geopolitics. The Soviet practice of mandatory “political information” sessions is being revived.

Less harmless initiatives have also been observed. In Volgograd, for example, state employees are asked to contribute 10% of their salaries to a certain regional fund from which not only the “needs of the special military operation” are financed, but also the premium Lexus sedan that the local governor drives, the production of a bust of Joseph Stalin for the local museum and other urgent matters.

The creeping militarization of life for the conformist majority is happening alongside increasingly drastic suppression of any and all attempts to speak out on the part of the militaristic minority. Putin is not afraid of conformists at all, even if they are dissatisfied with the war at heart. But those who sincerely accept the war, as a rule, do not really accept Putin. He cannot do without them, however, and he uses them while living in constant fear of them.
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