The emotions about the special operation did, however, have an immediate effect. At the very least 200,000
fled Putin’s Russia – a number nearly equal to the mobilization target announced by Defense Minister Shoigu. Male citizens voted with their feet. Demobilization beat out mobilization. It's like the old Soviet joke, when Brezhnev, having heard out an East German journalist with a proposal to open the borders between the GDR and the FRG, says with a sly smile: “Ah, you devil, you want us to be left alone!”
Putin won’t be left alone. His electorate is obedient enough to secure 80% in presidential elections: the country will vote in a new demographic and social dynamic – even older and more dependent on the state. But elections do nothing for the legitimacy of the regime. The Kremlin worries not about election numbers – only the officials who organize the elections are worried about them – but economic data. The outflow of young labor, brains and skills abroad is a serious test for the economy and many of its segments. If small and medium-sized businessmen who can’t get out of the mobilization are sent to the slaughterhouse, who will pay taxes and oversee, for example, the very parallel imports on which the wellbeing of the Russian consumer is highly dependent? Entire sectors of the economy are being laid bare, the tax base is being shrunk – how in this situation should the budget – important to buy the loyalty of the aggressively or passively obedient majority – be balanced?
Economic problems, which the mobilization only exacerbates, are also a reservoir of discontent. The combination of social, consumer and psychological problems is very bad for Putin – he went through this during the pension reform and pandemic. Each time death played an important role in the emotional construction of the events. The pension reform touched upon the period after retirement but before death when a person can lead a calm and at least relatively healthy life. Covid was also about death and at the same time a serious change in the style and quality of life. War and mobilization are all rolled into one: death, wounds, illness, changes in the level and quality of life, constant psychological stress across an entire nation.
There is another factor weighing on the mood of Russians: the threat of nuclear war, which has only grown following the annexation of the four Ukrainian regions. Of course, that has to do with death too. Though talk of a nuclear catastrophe has become a sort of new normal due to frequent use by politicians and propagandists, it logically shouldn’t serve to mobilize support and pride in the power of the country, but rather exacerbate the very feelings of anxiety and horror. Among the anxieties and horrors of Russians, fear of a world war
consistently ranked second in recent years. Before the special operation in February, the figure was 53%. In May, the Levada Center asked whether Russians worried
that Russia might use nuclear weapons. Half of the respondents said they did.
Does that mean that the fear of a nuclear war will overcome the fear of Putin? Will the panicked dodging of the mobilization, which seeks to use the male population as cannon fodder, undermine the moral foundations of the regime? The answer is definitely yes. Still, it doesn’t follow that the power vertical built over 23 years by the autocrat will collapse in an instant. The regime still has resources to survive and suppress. Among those resources is a strange, terrible pride of Russians for their country’s self-destructive power.