Pretending things are normal: How Russians manage to not notice the war
April 27, 2023
  • Sergei Shelin 

    Journalist, independent analyst
Sergei Shelin writes about the current consensus at the bottom and top of Russian society: the majority tries to live their usual lives, while the regime encourages them to do so and attempts not to make the war total.
It is generally accepted that the majority of Russians support Putin in the war with Ukraine. Outwardly, they do. But in reality, “support,” like “opposition,” implies some kind of socially significant activity. Yet the rules by which ordinary Russians live are simply incompatible with social activity. What matters to the regime is not whether its subjects “support” it or not, but whether they obey it or not.

The obedient and indifferent

In fact, the level of obedience is high. Yet are there bellicose feelings behind that? Even some surveys taken by pro-government polling services show that this is not the case.

For example, VTsIOM regularly asks about which politicians inspire confidence. Respondents are asked to provide names on their own, without prompting.

On the eve of the invasion, in the still peaceful days of January 2022, 29% of respondents gave Putin’s name. Now, 14 months later, the figure has increased to 39%. The degree of general loyalty has risen. However, before the war, 17% reported trust in Defense Minister Shoigu – now it is only 11%. In the same period, Prime Minister Mishustin, the regime’s best known civilian figure, has risen to second place: on the eve of the war, 9% of respondents gave his name, while this spring it was already 17%.
The average Russian is clearly not eager to fight. He tries to keep his distance from the war and, if possible, not to think about it at all.
A soldier's funeral. Kotlas, Arkhangelsk Region, April 26, 2023. Source: VK
The reluctance of most ordinary Russians to talk about the war is striking. And the regime is not at all opposed to such sentiments.

“For the majority of Russians, it is seemingly becoming increasingly important not to experience what is happening at all,” says St Petersburg-based political scientist Grigory Golosov. “The political passivity of the majority represents the core social basis for the Putin regime’s existence. This type of regime is always based on passivity – it is not a mobilization regime.” Putin, Golosov believes, “has to pretend that the tragedy in Ukraine is a kind of situation amid which normal life is possible.”

In the little over a year that the war has been going on, the Russian ruler has only once violated this tacit bilateral agreement – when he announced the mobilization of 300,000 reservists on September 21, 2022.

The broad masses went into a panic. In just one week, the share of people noting the “prevalence of anxiety” among their family members, friends and colleagues rose from 35% to 69%. Most of the more than half a million who left Russia in 2022 and have not come back fled the country in the weeks following September 21.

Many men who remained in Russia hid from their places of permanent residence. Demand for goods and services plummeted. Even the number of passengers on suburban trains dropped 7% in October due to “a decline in the transport mobility of the male half of the population against the backdrop of the partial mobilization.”

Meanwhile, the authorities learned from this experiment. Despite the lack of success at the front, there have been no new waves of mobilization since then. Only militant radicals, like Igor Strelkov (Girkin), talk openly about the need for further mobilization: “There will be mobilization anyway. Simply because the battles will continue. There will be losses. People are still needed. The losses are great.”

Instead of forcibly conscripting new men, the regime is trying to get by with the more or less voluntary recruitment of 400,000 contract soldiers, lowering quotas for regional governors and stretching out recruitment until the end of 2023. However, the readiness of the country to satisfy these appetites is not at all obvious.

Putin does not have Stalin’s legions

The mobilizational potential of the current Russian regime is incomparable with the capabilities of the Stalinist regime, with which it is often compared.

In June 1941, before the German attack on the USSR, 5 million people served in the Red Army. In 2022, before the invasion of Ukraine, the regular strength of the Russian Armed Forces was 1 million with a population about three fourths the size of the Soviet population.

In the second half of 1941, another 14 million people were drafted, while by the summer of 2022, six months after the start of the war against Ukraine, Putin had added just 0.15 million to his army for 1.15 million men.

In September 2022, he mobilized 300,000 reservists (in addition to the standing army). About 50,000 more were provided by Yevgeny Prigozhin: 10,000 mercenaries from the Wagner private military company and 40,000 convicts recruited in prisons. In December 2022, Putin ordered an expansion of the standing army to 1.5 million men within four years. This includes contract soldiers, whose number, as far as one could understand from confusing official explanations, was to rise by 140,000 in 2023. March reports of 400,000 new contract soldiers suggest that the figure was revised along the way.

All these chaotic events indicate not only that the Putin regime is trying by all means to expand its army, but also that its capabilities are modest.
“Under Stalin, a private received only one twentieth of the then-median salary. Under Putin, both volunteers who sign a contract and mobilized men are paid six times the Russian median salary, along with various bonuses from the regions where they come from.”
The city of Moscow has been especially generous with this extra pay. In April, a center for recruiting contract soldiers was opened in the capital. To entice potential recruits, actors, singers and propagandists were brought in. But there are no lines out the door. The Moscow quota (27,000 contract soldiers) looks unrealistic, and the mayor’s office, according to SOTA journalists, “is convinced that if this plan fails, a second wave of mobilization will come.”

Yet the authorities are still trying to avoid that. It is the regime’s desire to take anyone but conscripts that explains the rise of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the commander of the Wagner mercenaries and recruited convicts. Stalin also drafted prisoners into his army (420,000 in 1941), though they made up less than 3% of mobilized men, while for Putin the share exceeded 10%. Now, further attempts are being made to recruit new soldiers from prisons to replace those who have been knocked out of service.

Sad optimists

Hiding behind the backs of these contingents, the average Russian hopes that his turn will not come. The regime managed to avoid a popular panic in April when a law on electronic draft notices was introduced. The failure of the September mobilization was not in vain.

Having appeared out of the blue and swiftly passed, the law centralizes control over men liable for military service, imposes sanctions against those who do not show up at military registration offices and prohibits them from leaving the country. Should there be a need to urgently call up a lot of men, it will be a powerful tool for the authorities. But the reaction of the “lower classes” to the initiative was calm. Most did not even notice. People’s level of anxiety (43%) did not increase at all during these weeks. This is attributable to the fact that the specific punitive measures arising from the new law are still “in store” and will not be deployed immediately, while Russians have already gotten used to more and more official bans, restrictions of rights and threats.

At the everyday level, most people see that the authorities give them the opportunity to stay on the sidelines of the war. And they take advantage of that opportunity. In March-April, Russia saw an uptick in consumer optimism, a resurgence in lending to households and a decrease in inflation expectations almost to what is considered normal. This was supported by the stabilization of the domestic market, an end to the drop in real incomes and very moderate inflation (only 2% since the beginning of 2023). Experts from Russia’s Central Bank no longer expect a decline in GDP in 2023.

The unexpected prosperity is largely due to money printing. Government spending is out of control, with the budget deficit for the first four months of 2023 several times higher than planned. If this continues, government finances will become unstable, and the masses will feel it. But in the short term, things look tolerable, and in today’s Russia people do not particularly look ahead.

The pre-war prosperity, meanwhile, is in the rearview mirror, and the restoration of everyday Soviet practices is underway, though there are also none of the things that are usually associated with wartime in Russia – no endemic deficits, no rationing system, no freezing of bank deposits. Russians are drinking and smoking more, the cost of antidepressants has risen 70%, but one can get used to despair.
Although the militarization of life is evident, there is no trace of a Stalinist, mobilization economy.
Soldiers' graves. Tver' Region. April 25. Source: VK
During World War II, military spending in the USSR reached half of GDP. Now, estimated spending on the war is about a third of the budget, or about 6% of GDP.

Yet to ignore the war, the average man must not only see stability around him in his everyday life, but also believe that there is no real risk for the people who are close to him to die at the front.

Risks not the same for everyone

A tally of Russian dead is being made by a joint project of the BBC Russian Service and Mediazona. As of mid-April, the names of 20,500 killed Russian soldiers had been established. Since the beginning of 2023, the list has been growing by about 700 people a week.

Investigators believe the real death toll is at least double that – taking into account the Donbas proxies (8,000-13,000 dead), it seems to easily exceed 50,000. This is far more than in any Soviet or Russian military endeavor since World War II, including the Afghan and both Chechen conflicts. However, two of those three did not end because the losses were too great. The only exception was the First Chechen War (1994-96), which coincided with a rare, relatively liberal period in Russian history.

Based on Rosstat data on the number of deaths in Russia in the first two months of 2023 (301,000) and the casualty estimates by the BBC/Mediazona (12,000 in the period), in January-February, losses in Ukraine amounted to 4% of all deaths or 8% of the deaths of men in Russia.

Is that enough to shake such an atomized and numb society as that of today’s Russia? The answer is probably no. Especially if you look at how the figures break down.

In the first weeks of the war, the main losses fell on the elite contingents – soldiers and officers of special forces units, paratroopers and marines. Their share in the number of established dead from the beginning of the invasion to this day is about 20%. Then, from April to mid-autumn 2022, most often it was motorized infantry and volunteers who were being killed. Later, it was prisoners and Wagner mercenaries. Their total share among the dead is already close to 30%. Since March, the number of confirmed deaths of prisoners has exceeded the losses of other combatant categories.

One thousand nine hundred mobilized men have been identified as killed. That is fewer casualties than prisoners, elite military, regular motorized infantry or volunteers, taken separately. It is quite possible, however, that the number of killed draftees is being understated to a higher degree. Yet even if the real death toll in this category is 5,000 (with another 17,500 wounded, at a ratio of 3.5:1 wounded to killed), then such losses out of the 300,000 mobilized last autumn would not be perceived as intolerable in today’s Russia.

It was worth discussing the regional breakdown too. Several autonomous ethnic regions have suffered disproportionate losses – for example, Buryatia (0.7% of the country’s population and 3.3% of the dead in the war), Tyva (0.2% and 1.2%, respectively) and Dagestan (2.2% and 2.5%, respectively). Typically, these were contract soldiers who signed up due to the lack of other opportunities for social advancement in their regions. Overall, the 23 autonomous ethnic regions (17.8% of the country’s population) have accounted for 22.1% of identified deaths.

But the picture is changing.
In the last six months, large industrial regions like Volgograd, Rostov, Samara and Kuban have seen the highest number of casualties.
Moscow, meanwhile, remains a striking exception. The capital, with 8.9% of the country’s population, has seen 0.6% of the total losses in the war – 120 dead versus a population of more than 13 million, or one casualty per 100,000 inhabitants. In St Petersburg, it is one death per every 30,000. Russia’s two biggest cities are hardly paying Putin’s blood tax. Thus, for Muscovites and Petersburgers who do not want to notice the war, it is not so hard.

It is harder for average people from other places to pretend that life is going on as before, though generally it is also possible. After all, people they know who have been sucked into the war, especially people drafted, are still few. The main burden of the blood tax does not fall on them.

The Putin regime encourages this apathy and this widespread game of pretending things are normal. In such an atmosphere, Russia is easy to rule. However, the mental instability of the ruler has not gone anywhere. He often acts contrary to his own interests and convenience. In addition, not everything depends on him. For example, successes of the Ukrainian army could push him to take some desperate steps, to attempt a real, large-scale mobilization. And then the average Russian, for the first time since the beginning of the war, will have to face it head-on.
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