The conflicts within Russian society have not been resolved, only obscured
March 1, 2023
  • Denis Volkov

    Director of the Levada Center (Moscow)
Denis Volkov writes that the perception of the war in Ukraine as a conflict between Russia and the West has led to a consolidation within Russian society. Still, support for the leadership and army is not monolithic, while at the same time polarization, as well as pressure on dissenters, is intensifying.
The original text in Russian was published in Forbes and republished here with their permission.

A year after the start of the “special military operation,” Russian society remains consolidated. This is reflected by the high approval ratings of the main state institutions, federal politicians and the ruling party, by the consistently high level of support for the Russian military, by the broad rise of optimism and confidence, and by the decline in protest inclinations. Judging by how public sentiment evolved after Crimea, we know that such consolidation can persist for two or three years. However, a careful reading of the survey data reveals a more complex and troubling picture of public sentiment.

Consolidation with reservations

The ongoing conflict, which most respondents see principally as a conflict between Russia and the West, is working to rally the country around the regime. In the eyes of the majority, Russia is defending its “own people” – the Russian-speaking population of the Donbas – and borders and is opposing Ukrainian nationalists, NATO and “Westernizers.” Such a simplified, “friend versus foe” understanding of what is happening automatically forces one to take sides and makes the majority deaf to criticism of the leadership or military. Our respondents say: “now it would be unpatriotic not to support the president,” and “these are our boys, how can we not support them.” It is no coincidence that today people love to quote what the actor and TV host Sergei Bodrov said 20 years ago about the Chechen war: “In wartime, you can’t say anything bad about your own side. Never. Even if you’re wrong.”

However, the scale of the consolidation should not be exaggerated. The support for the authorities and the Russian military is not monolithic. In both cases, groups of strong or unconditional support (answers like “I fully support”) can be identified, together making up about 45% of the population. Mostly this is: older generations, who are more conservative and have long been prejudiced against the West; people dependent on the state for their livelihood (so-called budzhetniki), who see their well-being as tied to the state and regime; and people who live outside the big cities. Roughly another third of Russians today support the authorities “to an extent” – with various reservations.
In addition, the support for the authorities and their decisions is not active. On the contrary, for support to reach such high levels, the majority should have the opportunity to withdraw into private life, close themselves off from bad news and go about their daily matters."
Thanks to his frequent speeches and tough remarks, Dmitri Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Security Council, returned to the top 10 most popular politicians. Source: VK
According to our data, the share of those who collected money or uniforms to help those fighting in the “special operation” can be put at 25-28% of the population. And even in this case, most likely the authorities were simply able to redirect some existing activity of citizens – yesterday they helped the elderly and the poor, today it is mobilized men and volunteers.

Optimism about the economy

Another important condition for the high levels of support was the stabilization of the economy. In the spring of 2022, after the outbreak of hostilities and imposition of Western sanctions, there were many signs that a financial panic that had begun (it was clearly visible in large cities), with people massively withdrawing cash and foreign currency from banks. The second spike in demand for cash came in autumn amid the partial mobilization. Only decisive moves by the Central Bank stabilized the situation. Had the banking system collapsed then, people would have very different feelings today.

We recorded the first signs of adaptation to the new economic reality back in April-May 2022, first in focus groups and then in the consumer sentiment index, which began to rise in May-June. Consumer optimism has been supported by a gradual decline in prices over the past year after the sharp jump in early spring 2022, as well as an increase in pensions and payments to budzhetniki, the poor and “special operation” soldiers.

When considering that in 2022 the average per capita income per family member was about RUB 22,000 a month, it becomes clear why even one-off payments helped to improve public sentiment. What can we say about payments to “special operation” soldiers and their families, many of whom live outside big cities, where the money is a significant boost to the family budget. The continued rise in optimism about the economy could also be due to the fact that the worst fears of most people did not materialize last year.

Heroes of wartime

Which politicians Russians support also reflect public sentiment. Since February 2022, the approval and confidence ratings of Vladimir Putin, as well as those of the troika of Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, have risen and remained at high levels. Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, who is known for his tough remarks and loud polls on his Telegram channel, has seen his stock rise significantly. In 2022, he burst into the top 10 politicians with the highest confidence ratings and entrenched himself in fifth or sixth place. Similarly, thanks to his frequent speeches and tough remarks, Dmitri Medvedev returned to the top 10 most popular politicians – though without getting very high in the ranking – for the first time in a long time.

Belgorod Region Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov, who often makes appearances in news connected with shelling by the Ukrainian side, has firmly settled on the edge of the top 10. Meanwhile, Chechnya Head Ramzan Kadyrov, like the founder of Wagner PMC Yevgeny Prigozhin – whose comments are often quoted by the media and Telegram channels – has not yet received nationwide attention. People’s opinion of Kadyrov is rather positive, though in the eyes of Russians he remains first and foremost the leader of a so-called national republic. Kadyrov’s media activity and the participation of battalions from Chechnya in the conflict have worked more to improve attitudes toward Chechens in general than boost Kadyrov’s popularity. Sympathy for Prigozhin became visible in our surveys only at the very end of 2022. His popularity is driven by the general support of Russians toward the use of mercenaries: ‘let professionals do the fighting instead of ordinary citizens.’
The shifting political agenda also meant that opposition politicians saw their star falling."
Public support for Alexei Navalny, the most prominent opponent of Putin’s regime, currently serving a long sentence in a high-security prison, has been on the decline since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Source: Telegram
This is not only Alexei Navalny, interest in whom began to decline shortly after his arrest, but also, for example, the young Saratov communist Nikolai Bondarenko, who had for some time gained nationwide prominence for his sharp criticism of local and federal authorities. In addition, the former governor of Khabarovsk Region and the symbol of the 2020 mass protests in the Far East, Sergei Furgal, who recently was given a long prison sentence, has finally disappeared from the radar. For ordinary Russians, political protest does not look attractive today – it comes with big risks and, most importantly, it seems pointless.

Polarization increasing

Despite the recorded consolidation and falling popularity of opposition politicians, roughly 20-25% of Russians persistently do not support the country’s leadership and Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This is mostly residents of the biggest cities, the younger and Westernized part of Russian society. In addition, the most economically and socially disadvantaged segments of the population represent a special group of discontent citizens. Meanwhile, the antagonism between dissenters, on the one hand, and the authorities and the majority of the population, on the other, has risen significantly over the past year. Dissenters typically give the most pessimistic assessments of the current situation and most often say that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Whereas the bulk of the population demonstrates optimism and confidence, dissenters report increased pressure from the authorities, a growing sense of unfreedom and uncertainty about the future.

The reports about increased pressure on dissenters from the majority seem fair. It manifests itself, for example, in a fairly common attitude toward people who have gone abroad as traitors (although not everyone thinks so, even among supporters of the authorities), in a suspicious attitude toward critics of the leadership, in a shifting attitude toward the foreign agents law – against the backdrop of escalating tensions with the West, the number of people who see the point of the law in limiting the negative influence of the West has risen – and in a high level of support for the law on fakes about the Russian army.

The increasing pressure on dissenters from both the authorities and a significant part of Russian society, along with the general rise in their emotional discomfort and alienation, played a big part in the mass flight of urban, savvy, financially secure and mobile Russians. The authorities still cannot decide how they feel about people who left: to “calm down and embrace“ them so they come back and continue to work for the Russian economy, or to forever stigmatize them as traitors and make an example of them and seize their property in order to please the most conservative segments of the population and score extra political points.

Polarization is also reflected by people’s choices about where to get information. At the very beginning of the “special operation,” there was a surge of trust in official sources and rising distrust toward the internet and social networks. Our respondents told us: “Now people should only be looking at verified information.” However, such attitudes were mostly characteristic of the older generation and supporters of the regime. Young people and critically thinking citizens continued to use online sources. Moreover, last year the use of Telegram channels jumped from 6-7% of respondents at the beginning of the year to 18-20% at the end, with most of the growth coming in the spring – amid the blocking of foreign social networks and as Telegram as a platform was harnessed by both independent and official journalists and commentators. Still, YouTube remains the main source of alternative information and commentary (for the mass consumer, video is preferable to text), as the service continues to function without restrictions. In short, the internet and TV audiences have diverged even more over the last year.

The picture of public sentiment outlined above reveals a more complex situation than if one were to simply judge by the high ratings of the authorities and superficial indicators of support for the “special operation.” As public opinion has consolidated and people have rallied around the country’s leadership, polarization and pressure on dissenters, as well as younger and Westernized city dwellers, have intensified. That pressure comes from both the authorities and the majority. All this means that the conflicts within Russian society have not been resolved, only obscured. As society gets used to the new situation, these conflicts look set to make themselves felt with renewed vigor.
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