Society
‘Now it reaches the whole country’
October 6, 2022
  • Vyacheslav Dvornikov
    Interviewer
    Journalist
  • Alexei Levinson
    Interviewee
    Head of sociocultural research at the Levada Center

Before the mobilization announcement, most Russians lived as if nothing special was going on in Ukraine. Alexei Levinson, the head of sociocultural research at the Levada Center, speaks about whether mobilization will weigh on Russians’ support for the war and what it will mean to include society in the war effort.

The original text in Russian was published by The Bell. A slightly shortened version is republished here with their permission.
Men at a recruiting station in Yalta, Republic of Crimea, September 23, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
In your last interview, you said: “If there is mobilization, then it’ll be on TV. And with people – only when they watch TV.” Now mobilization is real. How might it change Russians’ attitude toward the war? Will it change the level of support for it?

It takes about a week for public opinion to work out a position toward events. Until it’s been worked out, people are hesitant to answer or simply avoid answering questions from sociologists.

At the end of the month, we will launch another nationwide survey (it has been published since this writing – RP). By that time, some opinion about the mobilization will certainly have already been developed acrosssociety. If no events happen before then that dramatically affect public opinion – for example, something changing the overall situation on the battlefield – we will learn how the mobilization has affected attitudes toward the special military operation (SVO).

The key thing [which can already be forecast] is the division that is sure to occur within society. Surely there will be a significant number of Russians who support the idea of mobilizing. Among them will be many people who themselves aren’t subject to the mobilization and/or don’t have relatives who might be mobilized.

We are already familiar with such militant opinions. These people will support the mobilization as a stepthat demonstrates the strength of the country and the government, with which they identify themselves. The mobilization will activate the supporters of a military solution [to the conflict in Ukraine].
Meanwhile, the share of people with a negative attitude toward the SVO is likely to grow, and they will react negatively to the mobilization plans. Firstly, it’s people who themselves are subject to the mobilization, as well as their friends and relatives. There will also be people who don’t support the idea of mobilizing out of ideological considerations and believe that it’s necessary to act differently [with regard to Ukraine], thatpeace negotiations are needed, etc. True, among those who supported (in August) negotiations, some proceeded from the simple logic that “it’s better not to kill each other” – without considering that the Ukrainian side wouldn’t accept any truce until troops were completely withdrawn. And some in fact supported the position expressed by Putin, which entails the Ukrainian side recognizing the current state of affairs, consenting to it.

It should be understood that Russian society isn’t exactly divided – for the most part it supported and continues to support the policy of the authorities, including with regard to the SVO. But some parts of this block of support are gradually chipping off. This process is likely to continue.

How did the recent counteroffensive of the Ukrainian Army in Kharkiv Region affect support for the war?

Unfortunately, there isn’t any data on that yet.

Can we expect that the mobilization will spur mass protests among, for example, those against the war or those affected by the mobilization?

I don’t think we’ll see many cases of arson of enlistment offices or other active forms of resistance – and they won’t be able to stop the mobilization campaign. I think that the protests will spread throughout the country, but they’ll be localized. I don’t yet expect a single mass demonstration or strike, some coordinated process.

Will dodging the draft be a socially acceptable act? In the provinces, opinions like “if you didn’t serve, you’re not a man” are probably quite widespread.

I think that overall everyone who wanted to serve has already signed up as a volunteer or contract soldier. I think reactions to receiving a draft notice will follow what is called a normal distribution: we’ll see a minority who report that they’re happy to serve Russia, ready to fulfill their military duty, etc. There will be another minority that will do their best to dodge the draft. 
“And there will be a majority that, like always, is characterized by passivity: 'if they come for you, what are you going to do, you have to go'."
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin and the founder of Wagner — the mercenary group heavily involved in Ukraine. Source: VK
Will propaganda try to justify the need to mobilize?

Yes, without a doubt. It was already started to hype up the topic of mobilization. The set of directives on which the propaganda will be based has yet to be detailed by the people who will roll out the propaganda campaign. I think that in a very short time the propaganda mass media will receive direct directives: should the intonation be positive – for example, with an emphasis on duty, on civic self-sacrifice, meaning a heroicaccent – or negative, more prosaic – about hatred of the enemy.

You have said that propaganda plays a minor role in matters of life and death, as it only verbally formalizes attitudes across society. Will propaganda play a major role in the mobilization?

It depends on the extent to which it will be possible to show that it’s not a matter of life and death, but rather a technical issue: “now very big new territories are joining Russia, you need to serve there,” for example.That is, you just have to do your service somewhere different. Only people like Mr Prigozhin risk speaking openly about the need to go to the battlefield and how easily you can lose your life there (on September 14, the YouTube channel Popular Politics published a video in which a person who looks like businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin is recruiting prisoners to go to fight in Ukraine for PMC Wagner - The Bell). Far from everyone says such things out loud, and mass propaganda is unlikely to take such a radical message.

Another quote from your interview: “In this sense, this special operation is different from, say, the Afghan and Chechen wars, where ‘our guys, our boys’ were dying. Now nobody is saying that. Because of this, the authorities haven’t dared to launch a general mobilization.” Did the authorities decide to mobilize because they aren’t afraid of protests?

I think that the authorities, weighing on the same scale the danger of protests and the danger posed by the fact that the Ukrainian army could now win one victory after another, considered the second (from the standpoint of support for the government) more serious. But immediately after the mobilization was announced, they began to reassure the public, saying that it wouldn’t affect everyone but only 1% of potential reservists (Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the "partial mobilization" would affect "300,000 reservists" out of a total “mobilization pool” of 25,000,000 people – The Bell), that they weren’t mobilizing "everyone” but only certain categories. In particular, those who have served relatively recently.

People who already served most likely inwardly consider themselves liable for military service. Military service changes them: if you’re a man, if you served, if you took the oath, [then you must go with themobilization]. These things matter to a lot of people. The question of where they’ll be sent and why could be secondary to these inward feelings of obligation. These same people don’t ask questions about the legitimacy of orders before carrying them out. Meanwhile, people who are held down by something [in peacetime] – children, business, work – are a minority among them, and they will look for ways to pay off, hide or ultimately somehow start protesting.

In practice, a lot will depend on the actions of enlistment offices, the National Guard and whoever else that will be involved in the process: if there are any excesses, raids – that’ll be one thing. These institutions will work as they’re told to work, taking into account their (in)efficiency, the shortcomings of the bureaucracy and so on. But if things go by and large, more or less quietly, that'll be different.
The mobilization, in my view, has an important target, and it’s not located inside Russia. First of all, itshould frighten Ukraine. It’s also a message from Russia to the West: now, in a very short time, four regions of Ukraine will become part of the Russian Federation. An attack on them is an attack on the Russian Federation, and all the conditions and restraining factors that existed before cease to operate. Firstly, thatconcerns a nuclear strike, the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Is there a clear message for the domestic audience? Is it realistic to expect that after the referendums in the so-called DNR and LNR, as well as in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, Russians will regard them as part of their country?

I think that these actions [to incorporate the regions] will be supported, though not because all Russians, for example, have always thought that Kherson Region should be part of Russia. (Of course, there are some who share the opinion that all of Ukraine was torn away from Russia in 1991 and is broadly part of Russia. Therefore, any part of Ukraine – be it Kherson or Odessa – is the land of either Russia or the Soviet Union. For them all actions to incorporate these lands are legal a priori.)
Will propaganda try to justify the need to mobilize?

Yes, without a doubt. It was already started to hype up the topic of mobilization. The set of directives on which the propaganda will be based has yet to be detailed by the people who will roll out the propaganda campaign. I think that in a very short time the propaganda mass media will receive direct directives: should the intonation be positive – for example, with an emphasis on duty, on civic self-sacrifice, meaning a heroicaccent – or negative, more prosaic – about hatred of the enemy.

You have said that propaganda plays a minor role in matters of life and death, as it only verbally formalizes attitudes across society. Will propaganda play a major role in the mobilization?

It depends on the extent to which it will be possible to show that it’s not a matter of life and death, but rather a technical issue: “now very big new territories are joining Russia, you need to serve there,” for example.That is, you just have to do your service somewhere different. Only people like Mr Prigozhin risk speaking openly about the need to go to the battlefield and how easily you can lose your life there (on September 14, the YouTube channel Popular Politics published a video in which a person who looks like businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin is recruiting prisoners to go to fight in Ukraine for PMC Wagner - The Bell). Far from everyone says such things out loud, and mass propaganda is unlikely to take such a radical message.

Another quote from your interview: “In this sense, this special operation is different from, say, the Afghan and Chechen wars, where ‘our guys, our boys’ were dying. Now nobody is saying that. Because of this, the authorities haven’t dared to launch a general mobilization.” Did the authorities decide to mobilize because they aren’t afraid of protests?

I think that the authorities, weighing on the same scale the danger of protests and the danger posed by the fact that the Ukrainian army could now win one victory after another, considered the second (from the standpoint of support for the government) more serious. But immediately after the mobilization was announced, they began to reassure the public, saying that it wouldn’t affect everyone but only 1% of potential reservists (Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the "partial mobilization" would affect "300,000 reservists" out of a total “mobilization pool” of 25,000,000 people – The Bell), that they weren’t mobilizing "everyone” but only certain categories. In particular, those who have served relatively recently.

People who already served most likely inwardly consider themselves liable for military service. Military service changes them: if you’re a man, if you served, if you took the oath, [then you must go with themobilization]. These things matter to a lot of people. The question of where they’ll be sent and why could be secondary to these inward feelings of obligation. These same people don’t ask questions about the legitimacy of orders before carrying them out. Meanwhile, people who are held down by something [in peacetime] – children, business, work – are a minority among them, and they will look for ways to pay off, hide or ultimately somehow start protesting.

In practice, a lot will depend on the actions of enlistment offices, the National Guard and whoever else that will be involved in the process: if there are any excesses, raids – that’ll be one thing. These institutions will work as they’re told to work, taking into account their (in)efficiency, the shortcomings of the bureaucracy and so on. But if things go by and large, more or less quietly, that'll be different.
The mobilization, in my view, has an important target, and it’s not located inside Russia. First of all, itshould frighten Ukraine. It’s also a message from Russia to the West: now, in a very short time, four regions of Ukraine will become part of the Russian Federation. An attack on them is an attack on the Russian Federation, and all the conditions and restraining factors that existed before cease to operate. Firstly, thatconcerns a nuclear strike, the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Is there a clear message for the domestic audience? Is it realistic to expect that after the referendums in the so-called DNR and LNR, as well as in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, Russians will regard them as part of their country?

I think that these actions [to incorporate the regions] will be supported, though not because all Russians, for example, have always thought that Kherson Region should be part of Russia. (Of course, there are some who share the opinion that all of Ukraine was torn away from Russia in 1991 and is broadly part of Russia. Therefore, any part of Ukraine – be it Kherson or Odessa – is the land of either Russia or the Soviet Union. For them all actions to incorporate these lands are legal a priori.)
But most people don’t think about political issues at all – they are a priori loyal to any decision made by the Russian authorities or specifically Putin."
These people delegate to him, to the authorities overall, all the authority to make any decision, including ones concerning their own lives. And then there are people who treat it [what is going on in Ukraine] as a sporting event: “We’ll cut away these regions now, and they won’t be able to do anything about it.” And it doesn’t occur to them that this is a matter of life and death for tens, hundreds of thousands of people.

Of course, there are completely different people, real citizens, who believe that this is all a violation of international law, of the rights of the people who live in these territories. They’ll express mistrust ahead ofthe referendums. They’ll certainly be a minority in Russia. Whether their voice will be heard in Ukraine, in Europe – I don’t know. It seems to many in those places that everyone in Russia is tarred with the same brush. Though that isn’t so.

How will the public react to the death of non-contract soldiers?

I think it's a little early to talk about. The people who will be mobilized right now won’t immediately be sentin echelons to Ukraine – they’ll go to training camps, etc. All this will drag out, everything will sink into some kind of routine, into confusion, for sure. It will take a month or two or three before these people are on the battlefield – during that time a lot could happen.

Do you think that the mobilization is revising the social contract of “stay out of politics and we won’t touch you?”

I don't really like the term "social contract" [as applied to Russia]. Our government doesn’t negotiate with society, but rather simply announces its next decision to them. It isn’t a contractual relationship.
Still, either way, the demand to sit and keep quiet is alive and well, and in fact is becoming more stringent. Now the conversation will be different for society: we are all [as a society] involved in this military situation. This isn’t some kind of expeditionary corps fighting somewhere over there, but in fact this now affects the whole country. A heroic modality is gaining steam: “We’re a fighting country, a fighting nation. We’ll fight, it’s not our first time,”etc. The rhetoric is familiar.

Literally until the mobilization was declared, we had repeatedly said that Russia was living as if nothing was happening. Putin also behaved like that, for which he was reproached: a war is going on, but here [at Moscow City Day] we have holidays, fireworks. Well, now the holiday is over – the times have changed.

How will this change society?

Acts of heroism, self-sacrifice, sympathy, some good feelings of people – when the war is on the battlefield, and in the rear – shouldn’t be expected. Nobody really needs them, there’s no need to feel sorry for anyone, there’s no one to sympathize with.

On the contrary, activated will be the feeling of fear, the feeling of aggression toward strangers, against those who inside the country don’t share the values and objectives of the authorities. I think a rather dark period lies ahead.
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