‘Most of the Population is Characterized by Diffuse Fear, Which Saps any Possibility of Change for the Better’
June 26, 2024
  • Lev Gudkov
    Sociologist, Levada Center head of research
  • Yevgeny Senshin
In an interview, sociologist Lev Gudkov talks about fear as the usual state of Russian society, how this affects perceptions of the war in Ukraine and what might shift public sentiment.
The original interview in Russian was published in Republic. A shortened version is being republished here with their permission.
Describe the situation and reasons for fear in Russian society at the moment.

Russia is a country of frightened people, and perhaps [that is] forever. Fear is a reaction to uncertainty regarding situations, the unpredictability of the behavior of others or forces that can harm your well-being and peace of mind, deprive you of life, health, freedom, social status, self-esteem, love and other values and blessings.

The nature of this fear is shaped by the history of Russia itself, at least by the inertia of the spirit of the Soviet era, not to mention the even more distant past.

A total state could exist for a long time (more than 70 years here) only by making the population its hostage, a collective hostage, where everyone is bound by mutual responsibility.
This is a situation where everyone lives with a feeling of vague guilt, like being under police surveillance or on parole.
Such a state can dictate its terms to citizens and control all aspects of life.

During this time – the life span of four generations of Soviet people – a unique type of person, adapted to the repressive state, was formed. He learned to live with it, deceive the authorities, trust no one except those closest to him, pretend to be a true believer and obediently follow the instructions of his superiors.

It was (and is!) clear to every “normal,” i.e., “sane” person, what is acceptable to say in a given situation and how, with whom you can speak “like a person” and with whom it is better to keep quiet.

This behavior is not a rational calculation, but an unconscious, automatic coping skill. Meanwhile, the very source of the fear – the attitude toward the regime, toward bosses, toward ideology, propaganda, toward everything that covers the vague but very capacious concept of “politics” – is taboo and cannot be mentioned or reflected upon.
Such skills are reproduced daily. Internalized chronic mistrust and suspicion are maintained through relationships with employers, friends, relatives, doctors, journalists, politicians and others.

Fear is accumulated and institutionalized; it is unconsciously reproduced in everyday life.
Vladimir Putin at a concert marking the eighth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. Moscow, March 17, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
[Now] the entire country, the entire population, gradually and imperceptibly found itself hostage to Putin’s policies, hostages of the war in Ukraine and a hopeless confrontation with the West, which doom Russia to decline in the long term.

The intensity of certain types of fears may change over time due to some social factors – economic crises, terrorist attacks, the quarantine during the pandemic and other circumstances. We at the Levada Center have been monitoring the dynamics of fear or fears for 35 years, since the founding of the original VTsIOM, i.e., from 1989 to the present.

Let’s drill down on the issue of the war. What feelings, besides fear, does it evoke?

This war evokes a contradictory set of feelings, as stated by people surveyed.
Between 45% and 46% speak of pride, enthusiasm and patriotic euphoria regarding the special operation.

A slightly larger number of responses indicate negative feelings: anger, indignation, shame, depression and, chiefly, fear and anxiety. In total, negative feelings were reported by more than 70% [of those surveyed].

The numbers overlap, meaning people can simultaneously feel a sense of pride regarding the actions of Russian troops and fear and anxiety, including over the thought of defeat or the catastrophic outcome – nuclear war.
In the first months of hostilities, there was visible support for the special operation, reinforced by expectations that the war would end quickly, in the next 2-3 weeks.
A Russian mortar crew in Ukraine. March 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
When this did not happen, moods began to change, confusion and bewilderment arose and, of course, fear began to set in. It intensified toward the autumn of 2022, especially with the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, when Russian troops were driven back to the borders of the Donbas.

And the announcement of mobilization in September 2022 triggered a wave of fear and the flight of young Russians out of Russia.

The regime took into account that it had made a mistake in its propaganda. After this, “mobilization” was not mentioned in propaganda or on TV, and the regime constantly denied that it was necessary. [Officials] made statements that there will be no more mobilization, that the army will fight, recruiting only contract soldiers… and men liable for military service, not ordinary citizens.

People are believing this rhetoric more and more. They want to believe. Therefore, the fear has subsided a little, and the combination of censorship and aggressive propaganda reassures people: everything is going according to plan, the Russian army is winning victories and the declared objectives of the war – denazification of Ukraine, protecting the population of the Donbas from Ukrainian fascists, countering the West – will surely be achieved.

As a result, 75-79% support the war, while the share of opponents of the war is slowly decreasing. In May of this year, the figure was only 15%, versus 20-21% in August-September 2023.

Why is the share of opponents of the war decreasing?

The war has become protracted, and from the point of view of public opinion, no major events are happening there. Censorship, [combined with] blocking alternative information channels and unwanted information, has calmed people down somewhat.

Those who watch TV, which is basically two thirds of the population, are older and less educated, and accept the interpretations that TV offers them.

Young people, who mainly get information from social media, from YouTube or Telegram, support the war to a lesser extent, but this difference is quantitative, not qualitative: they still overwhelmingly support the special operation.

If we look at the responses by age, we see that in the group of the oldest people, 50-55 years and older, 83% support the war, while in the youngest group it is 73%. There is a difference, but it is not fundamental.
Among TV viewers, 87% approve of the special operation, while among users of, say, Telegram or YouTube, it is 67-73%.
At the same time, some fatigue from the war is clearly setting in: 66% believe that Russia is paying too high a price for the special operation, and half of those surveyed would like to end the war and begin peace negotiations (about 40% insist on continuing the war to the bitter end).

But what is important here is the trends: the share of those who believe that the war needs to be ended as soon as possible is decreasing somewhat, while, on the contrary, the number of people who would like to see the fighting continue is rising.

Increasingly, the war is seen not as a war with Ukraine, but as a war with the “collective West” that threatens the very existence of Russia.

And Russians are not afraid to confront the entire West? Would it not be better to start negotiating a peace?

When we ask what peace negotiations should actually be about, the majority reproduces Putin’s position: [they should be about] the terms whereby Ukraine will agree to let Russia keep the territory held by Russian troops, give up on joining the EU and NATO, demilitarize and change its leadership – so in fact we are talking about surrender. Russians see no other grounds for negotiations.

In fact, the vast majority of respondents blame the war on the US. Only 3-7% in different months believe that Russia is to blame for the war.

Are Russians afraid to speak honestly to sociologists about their attitude toward the special operation? Many observers, commentators, publicists and journalists doubt that in the current, difficult conditions it is possible to get honest responses on such a sensitive topic.

People respond [to sociologists’ questions] with the words that TV gives them. They reproduce TV propaganda because they do not have their own opinion or reflections on what is happening in Russian politics or in the combat zone.

The banal argument that calls into question the significance of sociological research boils down to [concerns over] people being afraid to respond to sociologists’ questions, lying, refusing to talk and saying something other than what they think.

It’s not a matter of fear. Mainly people who have an alternative point of view, who hold antiwar views, are afraid, and there are few of them.

The masses are in solidarity with the propaganda, sticking to a position that can be described as: “I have the same views as everyone else, I think like the majority of my compatriots.”
Opposition media have been squeezed out of the country, but their audience, with all due respect, is extremely limited: if we add it up, it is 15-18%, no more.
But even within this audience there is no single point of view, solidarity or orientation on [finding] a common moral and political position. On the contrary, this milieu is characterized by mutual hostility and intolerance of other people’s opinions.
Everyone is arguing with each other; everyone is fighting for authority, for power; they have little understanding of what is happening in the country and the level of civic consciousness, which is the foundation of support for the war, support for the authorities and so on.

In the West and within the Russian opposition, some are still waiting for antiwar sentiments to start prevailing in Russia, which would somehow force the regime’s hand and stop the war. You said that according to surveys, such sentiments are shared by 15% of Russians. Is there any way out of this situation?

At different periods since February 2022, the antiwar share of the population was as high as 30% and as low as the current 15%. This is a tangible decrease. This has happened as some of those previously alarmed by the prospects for the war have gradually come to the position of the majority, the position of the country’s leadership.
What needs to happen for people to evaluate what is happening differently? In my view, that is only possible if the regime faces a crisis of authority.

This could – hypothetically – be brought on only by a few events.

First of all, in my view, that could be a military defeat for Russia, which would destroy its aura of a great military power with the most powerful army. Accordingly, the question would arise in the mass consciousness as to why it was necessary to start the war. In other words, this would be a crisis of legitimacy for the regime. Only in this case could something change in the minds of Russians. But maybe not.

The second circumstance is if the war drags on for a long time. Sooner or later this would also lead to more doubts and unpleasant questions for the regime, which would not have an answer.
A crisis of authority, legitimacy, along with doubts about the policies being pursued [by the regime], must be very severe for the appropriate questions to be raised in the country.
Anti-war rally, Berlin, February 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
A long-term deterioration of the economic situation in the country could also be an important, though not decisive, factor in the erosion of the regime’s authority. This is not the case today.

Household income, according to official statistics, our data and that of researchers, is growing because there have been very big investments in the military-industrial complex – wages have jumped there. Not to mention the incredible pay for contract soldiers and funeral benefits, which also have some economic effect.

Per capita income, especially in the lower social classes, has gone up. According to our data, it rose more than 20%. According to official statistics, it was 14%. But there has been income growth – that’s a fact.

Yet along with income growth, there is also growing uncertainty about whether this prosperity will last.

The prospect of an economic crisis because of the policies pursued by the ruling regime is real, but it will not happen in the coming years.

I do not see any other factors.

The death of many soldiers in Ukraine is perceived as isolated incidents and tragedies of certain families, and has led neither to any generalization, nor, accordingly, to an awareness of the extent of the national catastrophe and troubles.

Of course, the very feeling that people are being killed, and a lot of them, with losses on both sides, causes anxiety, but it is not strong enough to change the structure of public opinion.

So, can we say that today there is no social group where discontent that someday could erupt in the form of protest smolders?

The problem is not how many people are antiwar. The problem is that these are individuals, an amorphous multitude, an unorganized, scattered mass. They do not have the means to influence public opinion or policy. They are not connected with each other in any way. They stand out for their feelings of disorientation, helplessness, indignation, despair, shame and so on. But each person is on his own. This is not an organized force.
Young people talking against the backdrop of a tank participating in Prigozhin's march on Moscow. June, 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
What do you think about the soldiers at the front? What if one day they get tired of fighting? A year ago, Yevgeny Prigozhin said
“no one except oligarchs needs this war” and marched on Moscow.

If the war drags on for a long time, and the crisis is broad and deep, then the return of embittered and disappointed “men with guns” can have the most unexpected and unpredictable consequences.

I do not mean PTSD. We are talking about something else: the political significance of an organized and armed mass accustomed to violence, of people accustomed to the death of those next to them, thirsting for justice, as they understand it, and demanding an answer to the question: what was all this for? Depending on who answers and how, and how satisfied they are with the answer, there are different scenarios.
Prigozhin’s rebellion, albeit in a weakened form, showed how easy it is to turn these masses against the authorities that [were said to have] betrayed them, against a corrupt state.
The regime is to some extent aware of this threat and is trying to ease possible tensions in advance by conducting purges of corrupt high-ranking functionaries in the army command and the Ministry of Defense, so as not to give even the slightest reason for accusations. For this purpose, it seems, Andrei Belousov was appointed.

In the meantime, what is going on with liberal, democratic, pro-Western, pro-European Russians? According to various estimates, about a million of them left the country in two years, while the rest are lying low. How many of them remain and what is their political potential?

Yes, such people still remain in Russia and number from three to six million people. That is not so insignificant. The issue, as Yuri Levada said, is that it’s not a narrow circle, but a thin layer. I am referring to the limited cultural and intellectual resources of even this “progressive,” educated community.
Essentially, the role of the liberal minority has been reduced to preserving itself.
To maintaining, amid repressive pressure, at least some minimal ideas about freedom, morality, human rights and human dignity. But just maintaining them, nothing more.

Let’s summarize then. How briefly can you describe the state of Russian society in terms of the problem of fear, anxiety and other negative feelings?

The fear that I tried to describe above is driven by the state, its institutions of coercion and violence, which cannot be talked about or even thought about, since [having] any thoughts of your own about them would be sedition.

This fear is, of course, inherited from Soviet times, but it persists today in many forms. It has changed little and leads to low civic-mindedness – the refusal to take responsibility, as well as paralysis of action.

The bulk of the Russian population is characterized by precisely this kind of diffuse fear, which saps any possibility of change for the better. Its consequences are sufferance, passive adaptation to the arbitrariness [proizvol] of the state, the ability to coexist with any regime and therefore a tendency toward a systematic decline in the country’s well-being, legal culture, morality, intellect, etc.

Another type of fear has specific reasons. Those who can recognize and express this fear have some potential to act rationally, readiness for social and political participation, some ability to turn it into public action and transform their fear into model behavior.

This potential of the minority can be considered, arguably, the basis for possible changes (under favorable conditions). That might happen when there is a political crisis, a crisis of the authority for the regime. If at that moment people are ready to act for the sake of changes for the better, then the process may take a different trajectory. But the chances are not so good.
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