Will antidepressants save Putin's regime?
November 8, 2022
  • Andrey Kolesnikov

    Senior fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Andrei Kolesnikov writes that prolonged war with large-scale mobilization is unprecedented for both the post-Soviet period and late Soviet decades. Could the ongoing shock turn into dissatisfaction with the political regime itself?
The mobilization announced by Putin in late September has caused shock and anxiety across Russian society. The photograph shows women protesting against mobilization in Makhachkala, Dagestan. September 2022. Source: Facebook
In the first nine months of 2022, Russians’ spending on antidepressants increased 70% versus the same period in 2021, while sedative purchases were up 56%.

This data coincides with a registered sharp increase in anxiety, especially after the launch of the partial mobilization, which turned the life of every male in Russia into a lottery. For example, according to the Public Opinion Foundation, immediately after the mobilization was announced, the share of people experiencing anxiety jumped from 35% to 69%, while a month later – despite the formal end to the hunt for potential servicemen – anxiety levels remain at a very high 63% as of October 23.

Still, despite this permanently nervous state, which is confirmed by Levada Center data, as usual most of society is adapting to the latest shock, one that was just as unprecedented as that of February 24. After a slight dip as the mobilization got underway, Putin's approval ratings have inched up and stabilized. The pattern that we saw during the pandemic and to a lesser extent during the beginning of the pension reform resurfaced: following an initial shock, adaptation begins, and then sentiment levels out altogether and Putin’s approval ratings start to rise again. Only now this process of dip and rebound has taken much less time.

Russians, you might say, exhaled and in anticipation of new adventures and surprises from the authorities, plunged into practical solutions: some are dodging the draft and aren’t planning to come back, while others are running to the store to look for uniforms for their mobilized son, husband or even father.

Instead of protest – adaptation. Instead of indignation, displays of well-known submission: the road to Golgotha is seen as an involuntary civic duty. Fatalism and cynicism replace comprehension and understanding of what is happening. Just like in the hooligan, semi-underworld song from deep Soviet times:

They called me to the draft board,
They gave me a rusty machine gun,
One hundred grams of cold vodka
And a big piece of herring –
Now go fight Fritz!

What is new in public opinion

Nevertheless, anxiety persists – and that is something new for the sentiment of the majority on which Putin relies. Built up frustration, along with constant negative expectations (65% of Levada Center respondents in October believed that a general mobilization was possible) and the need to constantly adapt to new, absolutely extraordinary circumstances, is reflected in fatigue from the protracted war, which had been designed to be a triumphal procession. If not like the taking of Crimea, then at least like the Georgian campaign in 2008. The share of people in favor of peace talks jumped from 44% in August to 57% in October. And all because the broad masses hardly want to die for Putin, a prospect that grew more and more likely following September 21. People want to remain both patriots and alive.

A significant part of the population has a feeling, to use the term of the sociologist Lev Gudkov, of collectively being taken hostage. You fall into a trap, but you don’t fall alone. And like in escaping from freedom, as in joining the masses to support the dictator, the herd mentality is triggered – everyone is going to fight, and me too.

This is more painful than the formulation in effect until September: "everyone supports the war on TV, and me too."
"The shift from the couch to the trenches – moreover when 'all is quiet on the Western front' – will be difficult."
But at the same time, there remains a sense of belonging to the motherland and its "liberating" mission. Putin has changed tactics: at first, the “special operation” was done by professionals and only lukewarm support was demanded from the population; now, Putin is forcing many fellow citizens to directly share the responsibility for the war with him. And no one flinches at the word "war" anymore. In fact, it is now called a "people's war," meaning mass participation and essentially mass bloodshed. Death on the battlefield, in the completely non-Christian thought of Patriarch Kirill, washes away all sins. The battle is against Satan himself.

Cracks in the “us”?

Negative collective identity has reached its zenith. There is “us” and there is “Anti-Us.” There is Russia and there is "Anti-Russia," which wants to destroy us. Claims of an effort to destroy Russia are increasingly appearing in the speeches of the high leadership, from Putin to Kiriyenko, hence the necrophilic heroism, which has become a sort of soundtrack to the partial mobilization. The image of running "rats" has also emerged to refer to people who are dodging the mobilization by going abroad – without considering that it is a sinking ship that rats flee; however, our ship doesn’t surrender to the enemy and is just about to win an impressive victory, only a little more time is needed. And anyways, the victory would’ve been won long ago and our "brothers" would’ve been liberated had the collective West not entered the war.

These are very old narratives. They were used, for example, in the Winter War of 1939-40: Vyacheslav Molotov, justifying the invasion of Finland, said that Finland hadn’t made territorial concessions to the Soviet Union because it was under the influence of the anti-Soviet imperialist powers Great Britain and France, the real warmongers, and that it was in the interests of the friendly "Finnish people" to be liberated by Soviet troops from the yoke of bankrupt rulers. Surprisingly, this propaganda discourse worked and still works after more than 80 years.

Nevertheless, a prolonged war requiring a draft is unprecedented for the post-Soviet period. And not only post-Soviet history: the Afghan war – notwithstanding the risk of young men being drafted and dying, as well as the psychological scar left on a whole generation – didn’t show signs of totality. The building up of anxiety, lasting shock and horror, all against the backdrop of hopelessness (not everyone is ready to take advantage of the still partially open borders – the key word being still), could lead to dissatisfaction with the political regime itself in the future. It's hard to say to what extent the battle for Ukraine has exposed the hollowness of the Putin regime’s moral foundations, but the precedent of the long, senseless and aimless Afghan war shows how the moral foundations of even mighty, established empires can crumble. And how the seemingly unbreakable “us” can crack. Especially if that “us” is based on a negative identity and the idea of destruction.
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