Has Russia Found Its True Self
Or Is There a New Transformation Ahead
March 13, 2024
  • Alexei Levinson
    Director of the Socio-Cultural Research Department at the Levada Center
Based on data, Levada Center sociologist Alexei Levinson looks for an answer to the question of why the Russian people have so readily accepted a future promising conflict and confrontation.
The original text in Russian was published on the Levada Center website and is being republished here with small changes and the author’s permission.
Protests against war in Ukraine. Moscow, February 24, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Judging by reports from various sources, including opinion polls (among others by the Levada Center) and Rosstat data, it seems that many Russians are benefitting from the war that has been going on for two years.

Sure, prices and tariffs are rising, but so are wages and various benefits that were not there before. All economists note the unexpected stability of the Russian economy, unfazed by all the challenges of the new reality.

The state of society corresponds to the state of the economy. The majority positively perceive developments in the last two years (not with sympathy, but they are not seen to have hurt either). Three quarters of Russians have in one way or another expressed and continue to express support for the actions of the Russian military in Ukraine. The main feeling they experience in connection with the special military operation is “pride in Russia.”

The outlook of two thirds of the population is consistently “even, calm,” while for about another 15% it is just “wonderful;” only a fifth complains. The departure of some to the front and others abroad created, of course, a labor shortage, but that has translated into an increase in wages for the majority who remained.

Throughout the entire post-Soviet period, we recorded the dejection of citizens over the fact that industrial enterprises (usually related to the military-industrial complex) in their cities were closed. Now, this industry is coming back, workers are in demand, their pay, as mentioned, is rising. The author had the opportunity to talk with the chief engineer of a large enterprise where military equipment was produced. According to him, it had eked out a miserable existence, but by the time of the conversation, “orders were in, people started earning money...” Meanwhile, payments to soldiers and families of the wounded and killed have been so lavish that we have seen a noticeable improvement in the financial situation among the poorest segments of the population.

It’s not easy to be with your country

What remains of the Russian intelligentsia, historically concerned with the welfare of the common people, especially the poor, should be pleased with the above.
But the intelligentsia are tormented by the cost of these changes for the better, as well as what has happened to the moral image of the country in their own eyes and in those of the world, which Russia, it seemed, had been striving to be part of.
This is not the first time this has happened. The segment of the Russian intelligentsia that at one time, one way or another, recognized the “historical correctness” of the Bolsheviks – who declared that they were acting in the interests of the people, and first of all the poor – had to hold their nose as many things were done that they considered unthinkable. Nevertheless, internal (and even public) recognition of the new government did not at all guarantee that they would recognized by it. In Stalin’s USSR, the fate of those who had recognized Bolshevik power was not much better than that of those who had not.

It turned out to be no easier to be with one’s country than not to be.

Even today, one cannot help but understand the difficult experiences of people who have discovered that almost “the whole country” feels exactly the opposite to what their conscience and reason tell them. These experiences lead some to the conclusion that they must part with their country. Some express hope that over time Russians will change their views on the policies being carried out today.

Often these people quite loudly express their distrust of the data from surveys conducted in wartime conditions, and of surveys in general.

We see no reason to doubt the results of the Levada Center’s research. But we understand the bitterness of all those who are perplexed by them. This piece is partly an attempt to provide an answer.
Vladimir Putin with foreign students at the World Youth Festival. Sochi, March 2024. Source: VK
Is there unity in society?

At the end of November 2023, Levada Center asked: “what feelings do Russia’s actions in Ukraine make you feel?”

Forty-five percent chose pride in Russia, 32% “anxiety, fear and horror,” 10% “anger and indignation,” and another 10% “shock” or “no special feelings.” Each of the other reactions scored significantly less than 10%.
Most people believe that Russia is headed in the right direction, approve of how Putin is running the country as president and support the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine.

People who disapprove of the course the country is charting are in the minority, while those who approve of it make up an overwhelming majority. If the former want to express their views in an everyday setting, they could encounter four or five people who do not agree with them. It is possible that they will not find a single ally.

According to survey data, some people from this minority prefer to avoid arguments, to remain silent. It is a common belief that those with “dangerous” views refuse to participate in surveys or give insincere responses.

There is no doubt that such people are out there. But a key feature of the political situation in the country is that the overwhelming majority, combined with the state, constitute a force capable of suppressing these people and making them afraid and silent. However, we must remember another feature: 10-20% do not have this fear or overcome it.

Of the 76% of Russians who answered in the affirmative to the question of whether they personally support the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine, 45 percentage chose “definitely yes” and 31 percentage “likely yes.” Moreover, among skilled workers the ratio evened out (36 percentage/32 percentage), while in smaller groups of students and housewives the second response predominates.

Even more revealing is the opinion that emerged in focus groups with special operation supporters that “society is split” on the issue of the special operation. When people talk about a split, they do not think of it as a percentage – the word “split” seems to suggest that society is divided into segments comparable in strength or significance to one another.

For peace negotiations on Russia’s terms

Note that those who mention “personal support” for the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine, judging by numerous indications, do not mean specific actions of the infantry, artillery, etc., but general, “moral” support.At the same time, the support is for the army itself, not for the military actions.

This is confirmed by responses to the question, “do you think at this time hostilities should be continued or peace negotiations started?” asked immediately after the question about “support for the actions of the army. “Fifty-three percent (among whom the majority are obviously supporters of “the army’s actions”) chose “negotiations.”
And if an option is offered in which Putin stops the conflict, the share of those who choose an immediate cessation of hostilities rises to 70%.
Vladimir Putin on the runway of the Kazan aviation plant, about to fly a supersonic strategic bomber. February 22, 2024. Source: Wiki Commons
These seemingly “dovish” attitudes are based on the conviction that peace or a truce is desirable and necessary – but on Russia’s terms, i.e., on the condition that the territories incorporated into Russia remain as such (see Russia.Post about it here). A third of Russians support their return to Ukraine as a condition for peace.

At the time of this writing, Kyiv rejects this possibility, meaning respondents showed a kind of “abstract dovishness” and safe freethinking, since President Putin also repeatedly stated that Moscow is supposedly ready for negotiations.

Overall, the balance of views in Russian society is quite favorable for the policies that the country’s leadership has recently chosen.

Views on the causes of the conflict

When asked about the reasons, focus group participants quite often say that, of course, there are reasons, we just do not know them. Some who give this response are quite satisfied with it. Some are not, adding: everything will become clear later...
There are people who do not look for specific reasons, explaining that, “everything was leading up to this.”

The president, in his public speeches at the very early stages of the special operation, alternatively put forward various reasons related to various aspects of Russia-Ukraine relations, as well as to actions by Kyiv. As a result, society did not have a common understanding of what was going on – such a situation cannot be considered optimal if the goal is to mobilize the country.

Later, the president and the propaganda apparatus put forward a different explanation: in fact, Russia is at war with the West, with NATO, headed by the US. This immediately dissolved the above mentioned dissonance in opinions. The Russian public readily believed this explanation.

Explaining the war as a confrontation with the West has several advantages that are important for the authorities.

First, it places the current situation into an already well-developed narrative about the almost-eternal confrontation between Russia and the West that began long ago.

Second, it allows Russians not to think that their country has entered an armed conflict with a “brotherly nation,” since they are actually at war with evil in the face of the West/NATO/the US. Ukraine, from this standpoint, looks like a secondary, passive participant, a victim, the responsibility for whose suffering lies with the West.

Third, such an explanation of the situation voids the question about the reasons for military action in the first place – they are not particular or specific, but general and historical. The confrontation with the West began in time immemorial and took different forms – today it is like this.

This version of events creates, if necessary, opportunities for the Russian authorities to stop or pause the special operation, even if the results are less than impressive. The confrontation with the West is for centuries. A final victory is not to be expected. In every episode, including the current one, the most important thing is not to let them defeat us. And if that goal is achieved, then it is a kind of victory.

A new stage in Russians’ attitude toward the special operation

About a year into the conflict, a view started to gain traction that eliminated the need to find reasons for why it started: if you start something, you should finish it.

This represents a shift in the perception of the special operation: it is suitable for those who believed some of the reasons put forward by the government, be they “particular” or more general (related to the confrontation with the West), but also for those – and there were also quite a few – who doubted or did not believe the official explanations.
The slogan of if you start something, you should finish it is also suitable for those who are not willing to accept the interpretations of patriotism offered by official propaganda.
It offers a way for those who consider the very decision to launch the special military operation a political mistake or morally dubious to support the Russian army and its commander-in-chief. Because of a rule of thumb that is more general than all the given particular political reasons: if you start something, you should finish it. This is an immutable maxim to which the question “why?” is not supposed to be addressed. It cannot be questioned or violated.

Yet sometimes this formula is revealed and elaborated:

For some, “finishing it” means agreeing on something with Ukraine or the West and stopping the fighting. Of course, provided that this is not considered a defeat for Russia. Russia cannot afford to lose, “or else everything here will fall apart,” say focus group participants.

For others, “finishing it” means winning: it is not possible for Russia to lose. At the same time, they are not ready to clarify what exactly victory for Russia means.

Who benefits from the special operation

The economic system of post-Soviet Russia has often been criticized by authoritative experts. But, to the surprise of many of them, it has passed the stress test of sanctions and “transitioned to a war footing.” Previous detractors now never tire of praising its ability to survive and adapt to increasingly complex conditions (read more about this in Russia.Post).

To this we can add that the decision to allow parallel imports, as well as similar previously prohibited economic activities, led to a significant expansion of the gray economy – where informality rules and, in a certain sense, there is more freedom. Experience operating in the shadow economy has proven useful.

Before the start of the special operation, critics of the political system said that the only goal left was maintaining the status quo. It has clearly changed over the past two years and now operates very differently than it did two years ago. Freed from the burdens of legality, it, like the economy, acquired a certain flexibility.
Moreover, Russia now has a political goal for the future. And it is no small one: to change the world order, to restore the world delineated by Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill into ours and yours.
Putin delivers the Munich Security Conference speech in which he condemned the US for its "excessive use of force in international relations." February 2007. Source: Wiki Commons
Or at least to partially win back what was “lost” by Gorbachev.

Why have the Russian people so readily accepted this vision and why, to the surprise of many, are they calmly sticking with it? Does this mean that peaceful life in its previous forms has gone out the window? In the conditions of even symbolic mobilization has it nevertheless been found again?

Our observations indicate that the resocialization of Russian society during the reforms and transformations of the early 1990s caused significant friction. Former Soviet people faced new rules about property and money and a new work culture.

Relations with authorities, administration and management, and with the service sector became much more formalized. Large segments of the population now live virtually, on gadgets and computers, with real-world relationships mediated through conversations and correspondence across various communication channels, a trend that has brought with it a huge number of new formal rules and new norms of behavior.

Mastering new norms is not easy for a society at all, and in ours you could say there is a normative/values crisis. Thus, the extraordinary situation brought on by the special operation could be seen as a means of letting off steam.

Looking to the future

For those who are contemplating the fate of Russian society and their own, the conclusion may be this: in the current situation of military conflict, Russia has found itself. Let me be clear: not Russia in general as a phenomenon of world history, but Russia, as it had become over the course of two decades of the Putin period, came to this state naturally and logically. It was gradually made into this, and now it is finished. And it will continue to be like this. Perhaps for a long time – Russia is only just beginning to discover this niche. It is beginning to come around to it, to the new Russia, where a fundamentalist totalitarian society is being formed.

Perhaps the country’s current state is a reaction to the previous 20 years, their paroxysm, a logical conclusion. Perhaps this state is temporary; it is rapidly burning through the current economic, ideological and other social resources and will soon face depletion and anomie. This will mean readiness to accept new social forms and contours.

The common view is that Russia, the Russians, are not able to right the ship or reach a state that in the West would be called normal, befitting a modern society. It is pointed out that all previous attempts at such transformations in Russia led to counterrevolutions more powerful and lasting than the attempts themselves.

These considerations should be taken into account, yet not to give up on new attempts, but rather to reflect on this sad experience, understand the nature of these retrograde reactions and do things differently so as to prevent them in the future.
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