‘Most Are Convinced That We Did Not Start It, That We Are Rather Defending Ourselves Against The Collective West Than Attacking’
October 6, 2023
  • Valery Fedorov

    Head of VTsIOM

    (Russian Public Opinion Research Center)

Valery Fedorov, the head of Russia’s state polling agency, talks about what sociology can tell us about the difference between “warring Russia” and “metropolitan Russia,” how Russians envision the future and how people are dealing with anxiety.
The original interview in Russian was published by RBC; the interviewer’s name was not given in the original version.

How has Russian society changed in the year and a half since the beginning of the military operation in Ukraine?

I like the model of the so-called four Russias by Yevgenia Stulova from Minchenko Consulting, distinguishing between “warring Russia,” “metropolitan Russia,” “deep Russia” and “emigrant Russia.” For some, the military operation was a long-awaited event that allowed them to mobilize. For others, it was a shock, trauma, motivation to leave the country or go into “internal emigration.” For still others, it was an opportunity to make good money, sometimes by risking their own life and health. But no matter how much these groups differed, all of them, with the exception of those who left, united around Vladimir Putin. They hold on to him not only as a symbol, but also as an anchor.
In the extreme situation in which Russia finds itself today, Putin remains a protector and savior.
Anti-war protesters in Moscow. February 24, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Everyone understood that we are in the same boat, and if we scatter in different directions now, it will only get worse — you would not be able to pick up all the bones.

Maybe many are simply afraid to express their position?

Indeed, some are trying to close themselves off, distance themselves and talk less about sensitive topics with strangers. You can understand them, since the laws have become stricter – after all, it is wartime. But it is not the case that there have been any radical changes in communication with respondents.

If you see people trying to close themselves off and distance themselves, how much can you trust polls showing a high level of support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine?

Usually 16-18% of respondents speak out against the special military operation (SVO). These people said that they are against the SVO, even though sociologists are calling them out of nowhere, and unfortunately few believe the warnings that the survey is anonymous. Are these people who say they are against it sincere or not?


And those who say they are for it?

Perhaps. And how many of those who say they are for it might [actually] be against it?
The concept of [giving] the fig in your pocket – when a respondent says one thing and does another – has been discussed among professional sociologists for 20 years. This fig is always there!
A pro-war political rally in Moscow. February 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
But its frequency is not constant, but variable. It cannot be said that there is a group of people who always lie. In one situation, some people lie, in another others do. In the 90s, supporters of the Communist Party lied to us: when we asked who you would vote for, they named anyone except the KPRF. Party leaders told them that the FSB was trying to identify them through polls, so under no circumstances should they say that they are for the KPRF. Therefore, the Communist Party got low ratings in polls but won two out of three Duma elections...

Today, there is a dominant opinion in society that the SVO was a hard but necessary decision of the president. And his support after February 24, 2022, increased significantly: it was 63%, now it is 74%. This is a high level of support, and in and of itself, without any propaganda, it has a certain psychological effect on people. This is the mainstream that coalesced last spring and has remained. Of course, some people end up outside the mainstream. And these people need to make a choice according to the famous Hirschman model: voice, exit or loyalty. You can identify with the new paradigm, protest against it or leave — your family, your company, the country. Which is exactly what happened. Everyone has taken a position and is sticking to it. There are few defections from one camp to another.

At a meeting of the VTsIOM expert council on June 8, the President of the Center for Political Technologies Boris Makarenko said that after February 24 it became harder to recruit people for focus groups, especially men under 40 years old. It became harder to get a discussion going; cases of non-verbal behavior, when respondents use gestures instead of words, have become more frequent. “We need to understand whether what was characteristic of late Soviet times is not coming back. When people had a clear understanding that when you speak to the authorities, you cannot say what you think,” Makarenko said. What is your opinion on this matter?

Late Soviet practice was more complex. There was no counterposing a blockhead official trying to demand something out of ordinary people and exhorting them to some lofty goals versus a cunning citizen. Officials and ordinary citizens existed in a common paradigm: there are the realities of life – the meager Soviet consumer society – and there is an ideological superstructure – the rudiments of Soviet ideology: “we are for world peace,” “we are for building developed socialism,” etc. Both citizens and officials clearly separated one from the other: a simple ritual that we must observe versus complicated life running its natural course.

What’s happening now?
There is no communist ideology. There is Russian patriotism.
It is around this patriotism that we define ourselves: “we are for Russia against Ukraine and the West,” “we are for the army,” “we are for unity.” These imperatives are shared by the absolute majority.

Have there been more refusals to answer sociologists’ questions since February 24?

Some colleagues record [an increase in the number of refusals], others do not, and still others, on the contrary, record an increase in sincerity and readiness to cooperate. In February-March [2022], we did not feel that there were more refusals. On the contrary, we sensed more readiness to talk to us, primarily on the part of such an interesting group as men. Before this, for various reasons, men were less willing to talk to us, but then suddenly bam – they opened up!

Did the picture change after the mobilization? Social Research Foundation President Vladimir Zvonovsky, at the same meeting of the VTsIOM expert council, said that the number of refusals to participate in sociological surveys after the mobilization had gone up, while the level of cooperation “went down a notch.”

For VTsIOM it did not. The only exceptions were those who “ran away.” But, frankly, it’s hard to reach them by phone.

What moods are prevailing in society today? What is there more of: anxiety and apathy or optimism?

Anxiety is something that we see in our database and have seen for about five years now. Since mid-2018, the country has been in a difficult socio-psychological state. First, it was the pension reform, then the pandemic, now the SVO. All this is very hard [on people]. Deviant behavior is up, childbearing is down. People have to work harder to maintain control over their lives. It’s very exhausting. There are more risks and threats, and people feel it. Every day can bring surprises: a drone attack on the Kremlin, a strike on the Crimean Bridge, mobilization, Prigozhin’s rebellion...

At the same time, adaptation processes are taking place. “Metropolitan Russia” has withdrawn into itself: there is my life, and then there is something [going on] far away – there, on the battlefields. “Warring Russia,” on the contrary, is mobilized and following the principle of “everything for the front, everything for victory.” These people are not necessarily fighting; they might be family members of military personnel or volunteers. They might make up a relatively small part of society, but this part is very active and passionate. The mood in general is a motley mixture, where there is anxiety, combined with the desire to normalize life in different ways, the desire to win as quickly as possible and the desire to step back from big events and go into private life.

How many people in Russia, as you say, have withdrawn into themselves?

I think about 20 million – the so-called “metropolitan Russia.” It is people who benefited from the previous, satiated way of life, who were first frustrated by the pandemic because it hit them harder than the poorer strata. Now some of them have left, while most are, so to speak, petty bourgeois, the metropolitan middle class in Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg... They try to pretend that nothing has changed, they are not particularly interested in what is happening in the combat zone, unless it directly concerns their own safety.

How is non-metropolitan Russia responding to the threats?

There are border regions. Some people left, the rest are on guard and have incorporated the heightened risk into their daily routine. They have much higher motivation to see the SVO through successfully. And if we take the Trans-Urals (Zauralye), Siberia, the Far East, a big part of Central Russia, they have the same problems: prices, medicines, work, etc. There are, of course, people looking for new opportunities for themselves. Some are finding them.

How has Russians’ financial behavior changed – have they started spending more or saving for a rainy day?

At first, everyone was rushing to spend money due to the jump in inflation and the risk that foreign brands would leave, and many goods would simply not be available. But this impulse was short-lived. It was followed by an impulse to save: clouds are gathering, it will be tougher in the future, so we should not spend, but save. Around the end of last year and the beginning of this year, a third phase began: everyone more or less calmed down and began to spend again. Fortunately, loans are being issued at low rates.
We are now hitting records for loans issued! There has been an adaptation to the new level of risks.
This is the most important mechanism in the adaptation of our people to constantly changing circumstances. You do not make sudden moves, you do not go to protest, instead you try to understand what’s happening and how to behave. And after some time, you understand what to do and what not to do.

How do Russians see their future today?

There are several visions of the future, each of them specific to a particular group. The first vision: we will live like in the idealized West, where it is comfortable, prosperous and beautiful. And, of course, peaceful and calm. For the country as a whole, Moscow has de facto become this. This vision can be called “comfortable Russia.”

The second vision is that of a “gadget future.” High tech, flights to Mars, cyborgs, driverless cars and robot couriers. Borders are open, the world is more or less united. This vision is closer to engineering and tech specialists, as well as the globalized part of the youth.

The third vision is that of a “great Russia.” A country that can say no! She is feared and respected in the world for her strength and firmness. A country that won the SVO and does not stop there. It plays an important role in the world. This is the vision of the future for “warring Russia.”

Finally, there is the vision of a “just Russia” – a country where inequality has been overcome, where justice has gone from a slogan to the norm, where equal opportunities are provided for the children of not just officials and billionaires, but also ordinary people. This vision is closer to older people, including those approaching retirement, with moderate left-wing sympathies and nostalgia for the USSR.

Could these visions be combined into one? In theory, it is possible.
I would call that vision USSR 2.0. Or the Soviet Union without the communists, i.e. without the communist ideology.
We would be advanced technologically, we would have a society with low inequality, there would be a strong state, we would be authoritative in the world and we would live comfortably. I believe that creating a synthetic vision of the future is an important task for the country.

What vision of the future can the authorities offer Russians in the context of the upcoming presidential elections?

Security is now the key value, what is missing. In addition to the issue of security, there will, of course, be economic and social issues [in the election campaign]. Vladimir Putin is the guarantor of security not only according to the Constitution, but also in real life. He is a protector, but he is also a controller – so that our officials are working not for themselves, but for the state. He is also a person you can complain to, ask for something, and he will help. These have been his main roles for many years. And of course, they will be important to voters in 2024 as well.

You talk about the value of security, but the decision to launch the military operation was made by the president. Do people draw parallels between this?

In 2000, George W Bush came to power in the US with an agenda of “we are not going to focus on the outside world, we are going to deal with our internal problems.” That agenda lasted for nine months – until September 11. The next seven years of his presidency were spent under the opposite banner: “we are on the lookout for threats to America around the world and are preventing and eliminating them at any cost.” So, it’s not always about what a politician wants, but about what he has to do.

It’s the same with people. Today, public opinion is not very interested in the question of who started it and why it happened. Most are convinced that we did not start it, that we are rather defending ourselves against the collective West than attacking [anyone]. The most important question is when will this all end and what needs to be done to make it end faster and on our terms?
“When fellow sociologists note that we have approximately the same number of people – 60% – who want to march on Kyiv and to make peace as soon as possible, it only seems like a contradiction. Everyone wants peace, but on our terms.”
The Crimean Bridge was built after the annexation of Crimea to connect the peninsula with the Russian mainland. After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, it has been attacked several times.
Source: Wiki Commons
How do Russians see victory and defeat?

The terms that [Volodymyr] Zelensky is putting forward today (the withdrawal of Russian troops to the 1991 borders of Ukraine – RBC) are unacceptable for Russians.

We must acquire something and ensure our safety, not give it away and put up with a constant threat from Kyiv.

Does the status quo fit into the image of victory?

For some, it is already enough, especially since there is a good, understandable image for everyone – a “land bridge” to Crimea. Some even took advantage of it when the Crimean Bridge was attacked. But overall, the majority delegate the task of formulating peace terms to the president: you figure out what the terms should be, tell us when it’s time to make peace, we will support you. Russians have always valued Putin primarily for his foreign policy, which has been the core of his approval rating. This remains in effect today.

Have Vladimir Putin’s potential voters changed versus the 2018 presidential campaign?

In reality, people will begin to think about who they want to vote for no earlier than January. Now, after all, it’s wartime, a lot is in flux. People’s moods are influenced by the situation at the front, drone attacks, the pandemonium with the dollar [exchange rate]... And so on and so forth.

During a crisis, everything happens rather quickly and is hard to predict. Therefore, it seems irresponsible to me to predict what state our country will be in next March.

The inertia scenario is the following. The Ukrainian army will continue to bang its head against our “dragon’s teeth” without much success; we will continue to destroy Leopard [tanks] and shoot down F-16s if they appear. Western support for Ukraine is gradually weakening – at the level of rhetoric, it’s still thunder and lightning, but real military support is not growing. There are difficulties with the Russian economy, but there are goods, there is work, wages and pensions are growing. If the situation follows this inertia scenario, Putin will be not only the symbol and military leader of the country, but also the victor, thanks to whom the country held out against the West.

Was the Prigozhin phenomenon attributable to popular demand for a more open dialogue with society?

Our people always suspect that “everything is not as it seems.” We have been accustomed to this for 80 years. That’s why truth tellers always find demand. The phenomenon of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s popularity is that he took aim at this niche and really hit it. But demand for truth is not equal to demand for revolution! We do not want a revolution; we want stability and calm. And a truth teller who starts a rebellion in a war situation becomes a traitor. At the archetypal level, we need Ilya Muromets, not Svyatogor (the Russian epic folklore characters endowed with superhuman strength – RP). Ilya Muromets, who sat on a stove for 30 years, and then got up and went to crush everyone for the Russian land. Svyatogor is also powerful and strong, but he is not for the country, he is for himself. Prigozhin wanted to be Ilya Muromets but turned into Svyatogor. This drove the great disappointment in him.
Grassroots commemorations of Yevgeny Prigozhin, killed in an airplane crash in August, appeared in many places across Russia. In the photo: flowers on Varvarka Street, Moscow. Source: Wiki Commons
Did you do surveys after Prigozhin’s death? Has people’s attitude toward him changed?

It’s too early to say, but I can imagine that some of the negative connotations that were widespread after the rebellion should go away. As a matter of fact, in his statement [after Prigozhin’s death] Vladimir Putin focused on other things than at the end of June (in his address on June 24, the president called the actions of the Wagner PMC head a “betrayal” and “a stab in the back” – RBC).

It [the plane crash] was a high-profile event. As data from colleagues show, it was [considered] even slightly more important than news about the SVO for a couple of weeks. That happened for the first time in a long time. Indeed, a colorful, strong figure had exited the stage, and it did not happen many months or years after he had become the focus of national attention, but literally eight weeks later. Prigozhin had stayed in the spotlight, and some harbored hopes that he could still serve Russia. In addition, the general atmosphere of mystery [around him] played a role – who, how, did he really die or not? This also fueled attention. All this combined to bring him back in the spotlight, but posthumously.

How numerous is the so-called “war party” (supporters of the war – RP), the most prominent representatives of which were Prigozhin and Strelkov?

This group had existed before the SVO. But the outbreak of hostilities allowed it to raise its head, feel like it was on the right side of history and begin to push its narratives. At some point, the official line and their beliefs coincided. But these people demand more; they harshly criticize strategy, politics and combat effectiveness. That is an explosive mixture. Have they become much more numerous? Their numbers have increased, but not by much – they are about 10-15%.
Still, the majority of Russians are not calling for Kyiv or Odessa to be taken.
They do not enjoy fighting. If it had been up to them, they would not have started the military operation, but since things have already gone this way, we must win! And that’s why they are for Russia, for the army and for Putin. This position predominates today, just as it did a year ago.

Could the fact that the “war party” has lost its prominent representatives somehow affect its support or the degree of irritation that reigns within it?

Actually, it has not lost any leaders. [Igor] Strelkov was never a leader, he was more of a banner. Strelkov is completely incapable of being a politician. Prigozhin certainly had political possibilities, but he torched them pretty quickly.

And it is more appropriate to talk not about the “party of war,” but about “warring Russia.” In fact, it is a great force. It gathered and organized itself to achieve one goal – victory over the enemy. They have questions. Why are we, so great and powerful, not taking Kharkiv and Odessa? We saw a beautiful Armata [tank] at parades – why is it not at the front? Probably, there are internal enemies as well – who are they and why are we not fighting them?

Still, “warring Russia” supports Putin. The passion and activity of these people is directed at Ukraine.
“Therefore, I would say – yes, representatives of ‘warring Russia’ run a certain internal political risk, but that risk is manageable.”
Recently, the practice of denunciation has seen a revival in Russia. Why?

We have not recorded any revival of informing.

There is something different [going on here]. If you do not like something, for example, the behavior of some official, then you do not remain silent about it, but report it, write open letters and so on. What, we did not have that before the SVO? We did, and a lot of it!

But some behaviors that had previously not been the subject of outrage are now in focus. Remember the movie Matilda? It also caused great indignation, because our sovereign-emperor [Nicholas II] was presented in a not so favorable light. And there were a series of appeals to ban it, to not let it be shown. Then there was the comedy The Death of Stalin, where the events of 1953 were presented in a satirical manner. As a result, it was not given a “distribution certificate.” And I could go on with such examples.

Now, the boundaries of what is acceptable have shifted a little. And, obviously, there is far more attention paid to such appeals. But to say that there has been a spike in the number of them, that everyone is now watching each other – no, that is not correct.

What motivates those people?

Their sense of right and wrong. And then the conditions that frame it changed: there was peace, and then came the war. And whereas before people could ignore some things, consider them simply stupid or detestable, now everything is different. Now, this could affect your safety, and the safety of your children and friends. How could it be otherwise? Are you ready to put them in danger?

How is a person who says he does not support the military operation dangerous?

In our country, people are not punished for not supporting the SVO; they are punished for discrediting the army.

An anti-war position could be a reason for initiating a criminal case under the article about discrediting the Russian army or about fakes.

Let me remind you once again that a considerable number of our citizens say that they do not support the SVO. At the same time, no one believes in the anonymity of surveys. So, is everyone already in prison or exile? Of course not.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy