SOCIETY

Russian society trying to overlook the dawning of a new era

June 6, 2022
Mikhail Vinogradov
President of the Petersburg Politics Foundation.
Mikhail Vinogradov explains why public perceptions of the “special military operation” in Russia are more diverse and complicated than approval or disapproval – in fact, many still don’t have a firm view.
The inscription on the snow "NO TO WAR", Petrozavodsk, 5 March, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
On February 24, it seemed that the extraordinary events set in motion would shake Russian society out of its state of collective apathy. The term, which had gained popularity in recent years among sociologists, psychologists and columnists, means alienation from the social and political spheres and entails an ever-widening gap between the issues important for ordinary people and the current political agenda, as well as the belief that participation in collective action is unable to bring about desired results.

Clearly, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has put ordinary people under heavy stress. Despite the escalation in January-February, neither regime supporters nor opponents considered the possibility of war as in any way realistic. The effect of being thrown back 70 years, to the 1920-1940s, could not but be traumatic: though Russia has been involved in armed conflicts since the end of World War II, they have as a rule taken place rather far from the heart of the country and most often in Muslim regions (Afghanistan, Chechnya, Syria) where most Russians had never stepped foot and where they had no relatives, meaning that with some effort it was possible to overlook (“not notice”) these conflicts or quite easily forget about them.

Today, however, it is difficult to single out any general mass emotions. There was neither “outrage” at a long relatively peaceful historical period coming to an end, nor a massive patriotic upsurge that translated into spontaneous action in support of the regime and Russian army.

Signs of such a “disunited” public mood appeared already in late February-early March, when it became clear that most people were avoiding putting stickers on their cars in support of the war.
"It became clear that most people were avoiding putting stickers on their cars in support of the war"
During the Crimean events in 2014, such stickers in favor of annexation or with criticism of “anti-Russian Western leaders were not seen too often either, but today in large cities (not only in Moscow) you can go several weeks without seeing a single personal vehicle with a sticker in support of the war.

This does not mean that there is not a “core” of war-supporters in society. Their number can’t be realistically estimated, as people tend to avoid talking to sociologists (according to pollsters, 90-94% refuse to take part in surveys). Still, there are a number of substantive and emotional arguments that seem capable of swaying Russians to support the war, including conformity with the official interpretation of the war as “defending” the country from an “attack prepared by Ukraine and NATO,” the notion that it is the duty of a citizen to support his country during armed conflict, and skepticism about Ukrainian statehood as such, which gained traction in the 2000-2010s.

Nevertheless, sympathy for the army hasn’t translated into a willingness to volunteer for it: such cases have been isolated and are more often motivated by economic reasons, as the pay of a contract soldier is significant for residents of economically depressed regions, primarily rural areas and small towns. Meanwhile, mass rallies in support of the regime have been episodic and didn’t spur a major outburst of emotion, but rather they were intended to serve as a backdrop for speeches of high-ranking officials and differed little from the rallies in support of Vladimir Putin in the relatively peaceful 2012.

Regime critics didn’t have high hopes for what their own speeches could accomplish either. This was due to the emphatically harsh reaction by the regime’s security forces to the first anti-war demonstrations, together with another cycle of the Russian protest movement losing momentum. The outrage at and moral rejection of the “special military operation” was largely watered down by feelings of powerlessness to influence the situation.
"The outrage at and moral rejection of the 'special military operation' was largely watered down by feelings of powerlessness to influence the situation"
A considerable share of regime critics internally agreed with the official story about mass support for the war and showed little interest in contradictory trends that manifested themselves in sociological surveys. The latter showed for instance that young people had a skeptical view of the “special military operation” and that large cities were divided by the war – in Moscow 48% recently said they support it and 38% said they oppose it, according to a Russian Field poll.

Regime critics adapted to the “new normal,” mostly through active communication with like-minded people and more frequent visits to psychologists and psychotherapists to reduce neurosis, distress and panic attacks. Some of the discontented simply shifted their view from what was happening overall to local peripheral events, like discussions about who was more morally right – those who left Russia or those who remained.

The results of the war have been weakly digested, while attempts to compare the latest news with desired and expected results are rare. The official mass media has avoided formulating Russia’s goals in the war, so technically anything can be presented to society as a success and in line with the plan. Moreover, there are no maps with troop movements in the TV coverage of the conflict, which shades the viewer’s attention from an assessment of military successes and failures.
"There are no maps with troop movements in the TV coverage of the conflict, which shades the viewer’s attention from an assessment of military successes and failures"
Still, the inconclusive scorecard for the Russian side has not triggered much emotion among regime critics either.

The current events have allowed the regime to reverse the rating decline that took place over the last 3.5 years in the wake of the 2018 pension reform and then the pandemic.

Nevertheless, the support measured in polls today is not record-breaking. Below are the levels of trust for Vladimir Putin in the VTsIOM survey in which respondents were asked to (themselves) name politicians who they trust. (The data for 2022 is here.)
What seemed like an economic panic in late February-early March, when people were snapping up consumer goods, quickly gave way to attempts to return to the previous consumer behavior model. Despite a considerable rise in prices, supply disruptions for certain types of medicine and a crisis in the automotive market, ordinary people – unlike economists, who have made alarmist forecasts that stocks of key goods at warehouses will be depleted by autumn – have generally managed to convince themselves that the economy will stabilize relatively quickly.
"Оrdinary people – unlike economists, who have made alarmist forecasts that stocks of key goods at warehouses will be depleted by autumn – have generally managed to convince themselves that the economy will stabilize relatively quickly"
Igor Konashenkov, chief spokesman for the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, giving a briefing, 2015. Source: Wiki Commons
Interestingly, compared with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 social networks seem to suggest fewer domestic conflicts related to political disagreements within families and among friends. Users often write that when talking with relatively unfamiliar people, interlocutors more often avoid asking questions about what is going on, which seems to be due less to the fear of persecution than the desire to avoid putting others in uncomfortable and awkward positions.

Still, the lack of formats, platforms and ideas about the boundaries of the acceptable when discussing the current situation is also keeping people from formulating their own views. Sociologists often say that a person learns his thoughts from hearing himself speak, and an inability to elaborate on the situation, along with an unwillingness to recognize the scale of the tragedy, has kept many from passing judgement.

For a regime supporter getting his or her information from TV, the very scale of possible losses is not obvious. Data on Russian losses has been published only twice – in late February and early March (1,351 dead). Official communications and television do not contain information about civilian casualties on the Ukrainian side; on the contrary, it is emphasized that the Russian army is exclusively targeting military facilities and seeking to minimize harm to civilians. Tragedies like Bucha are spun by propaganda as fakes – the victims are actually alive or were killed instead by the Ukrainian army. In addition, skeptics believe that both sides are equally falsifying information (for example, Ukraine basically doesn’t provide estimates of its own military deaths either) and that the truth is to be found somewhere “in the middle” between the official data out of Moscow and Kyiv.

Many have yet to formulate their own view and have tended to avoid (regardless of their political orientation) drawing conclusions, perhaps in the hope that the active phase of the conflict will soon be wrapped up. This was the case during the Covid pandemic: as it receded, both the supporters of restrictions and vaccination and the opponents could convince themselves that their strategy was the only correct one, which “saved” them while everyone else went “crazy.”

Two fears are voiced most often. The first has to do with a potential military defeat, which could destabilize the country, deepen Russia’s economic decline and smear the reputation of the country and its citizens. The second fear has to do with a potential military victory as it could lock in the extreme and eclectic shifts that have rapidly taken place in recent months and contradicted the logic of the last 35-40 years, including the restoration of Lenin monuments and the withdrawal from the European education system (Bologna Process). These shifts also contrast with more moderate views among the population as a whole, as well as within the elite.
“Two fears are voiced most often. The first has to do with a potential military defeat, which could destabilize the country, deepen Russia’s economic decline and smear the reputation of the country and its citizens. The second fear has to do with a potential military victory"
Looking at the spectrum of views, we might distinguish four types. The first is “everything is going according to plan,” or agreement with the official propaganda that the goals of the “special operation,” whatever they may be, will soon be achieved. The second is “it all went wrong.” Adherents are surprised by the relatively modest results on the ground during the first three months, but they often tend to explain this away without questioning the common belief in the “invincibility” of the Russian army (instead pointing to poor planning, poor leadership, “betrayal,” excessive “pity” for the enemy slowing down the operation, etc.). The third type of view is “everything is lost” – what is going on will have catastrophic consequences for Russia, militarily, economically, politically and socially. The fourth is “everything will get better soon.” Adherents see the current situation as something of a hallucination, like the pandemic, with a return to “normal” forthcoming. It’s entirely possible that the same view can be held by both supporters and opponents of the war.

Quantifying these groups is of research interest, even if it can’t adequately be done. The presence of many undecided people, who have yet to work out what is going on for themselves or are ready to adjust their interpretations as events unfold, should be taken into account.
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