‘There is a Desire Prevailing:

Let it All End Soon and Not Bother Us’

Interview with Denis Volkov
May 13, 2023
  • Denis Volkov
    Director of the Levada Center (Moscow)
  • Maria Litvinova

Levada Center Director Denis Volkov points out that the majority of Russians are concerned about an expected Ukrainian counter-offensive and are in favor of moving to peace talks – though without concessions to Ukraine – and talks aboutwhat the Kremlin is doing to maintain stability across society.

The original text in Russian was published in Republic. A shortened version is republished here with their permission.

The latest research by Levada (here and here) showed that in April, Russians’ support for Russian forces in Ukraine ticked up, while at the same time the share of respondents advocating a transition to peace negotiations also rose. Can this be explained by increasing polarization?

I do not think that’s it. On the one hand, there is an ongoing conflict in which the majority support the Russian side in one way or another. But at the same time, fatigue is gradually accumulating: we support our guys, but better if this ended as soon as possible. Moreover, I would call attention to the terms they want for the peace negotiations – only a fifth say it is necessary to make some concessions to Ukraine. In other words: yes, it should end, but there is no need to make concessions either. Here is the unspoken, unrationalized feeling of fatigue.

They have been talking about rising war fatigue in Russia since last year, so what is new about that?

It still continues to build up, albeit slowly. People are dying and there is no end in sight. The biggest number of people forpeace talks came last year during the announcement of the mobilization. But as the mobilization went away, the fear died down, and the number for negotiations declined. Overall, that position prevails: according to our data, it has not fallenbelow half.

There is a desire prevailing: let it all end soon and not bother us. A significant part [of the public] continues to followwhat is happening in Ukraine, but people who support the Russian side are watching the situation most closely. And those who are not for become shut in their own bubble. People have explained that watching the progress of a war is a traumatic experience, especially when nothing can be done about it. As our respondents say, their capacity for worry has been exhausted. They, of course, continue to follow events, but are already less emotionally involved.

In April, there was a frightening situation with the law on electronic draft notices. How did it affect the state of society?

It did not seem to have any effect. In autumn, the sentiment indicator plummeted – in 30 years of observation, there hadnever been such a sharp decline. But then that fear went away. Apparently, the most restless people left, and a significant part reasoned that this could be a threat, but not right now. Though if we look at emotions, then Russians who carefully followed what was happening reacted rather negatively to this electronic register.

Are the commentators and analysts right who believe that, in light of that sharp reaction in autumn, the Kremlin still will not dare to launch a new mass mobilization?

I would put it more carefully. I think that the Kremlin saw that and is trying to avoid a second wave of mass mobilization, which has scared everyone.

Now, we are seeing huge efforts across the country to recruit people by offering them money, to get them to sign a contract to serve, advertising it on posters and commercials.
Life goes on in big cities (St Petersburg, May 2023). Source: VK
But I would not rule out that a new wave of mass mobilization is possible – if the Kremlin sees fit, it will announce one. Itwaited until the last to announce the first, until after the September elections. Now, this is also a significant criterion, since we are slowly entering the campaign season – not so much this autumn, but for the presidential election in 2024.

Why does all this anxiety and fatigue not affect Russians’ attitude toward the war and the actions of the authorities?

They do not have much influence, primarily because the majority are allowed – and this is the key condition – to live their private lives. The war has had a very indirect effect on everyday life. If you look at Moscow and other major cities: everything works, life goes on, restaurants are open, plays are staged in theaters.
What matters is precisely the opportunity not to participate in what is happening, to live as they used to live, and to adapt to the deteriorating economic situation.
How was the war in Syria treated: “Where is this Syria and where are we? Do not bother us and do what you want.” With Ukraine, that is not entirely the case, but the model is something like: “It’s bad, people are dying, but what can we do? And thank God that it is not happening here.”

I mean ordinary Russians, because the active part of society continues to be persecuted and pressured.

Z-propagandists still continue to insist that the authorities should declare martial law and call a general mobilization, and all the people should rise up and participate in the war. Why is the Kremlin producing such conflicting messages?

Propagandists primarily work on the older generation. And we see that older people, especially men, think in thecategories that propagandists tell them. It is among the older generations and TV viewers that the idea resonates that Russia is fighting fascism and Nazism. But the majority in Russian society do not repeat these phrases. Rather they say that “my country may be wrong, but I support it because I support our guys.” But that propaganda will capture some, and some will be able to be mobilized for contract service [in the army].

Is that why mostly middle-aged men voluntarily go to fight as contract soldiers?

There is no single criterion here, but judging by the way the latest propaganda campaigns are built – first and foremost they are about money, the opportunity to escape from poverty, from a hopeless state. Firstly, it is people who have not found themselves in civilian life, who have no opportunities. But there must still be a certain ideological filling. Yes, you are going to fight to solve your material problems, but you need to justify this to yourself, and determine who is bad and who is good, and I think that propaganda actually fulfills these tasks.

Your research has shown that respondents are most concerned about the death of civilians, “the special operationitself,” the dragging on of the conflict and the death of Russian soldiers. It turns out that the imperial ideas thatRussians are accused of harboring are not interesting for them?

From the very beginning, people have said that war is bad, even those who support Russia’s actions in Ukraine. I hear such comments: “I would like to do without it, but what else could we have done?” For the majority, Russia is a victim in this conflict – they say: “We are not to blame, we are defending ourselves.”

But not so much from Ukraine – people in Russia believe that there is a war with the West, which it unleashed against them. The supply of Western weapons to Ukraine only reinforces this perception.
People understand that anyway the regime will do what it needs to do. A very large number of people have this in the back of their minds: “Whatever we say here, whatever we want, it doesn’t matter – what’s important is that Putin and the regime will decide for us anyway and they won’t ask us.”

That is not unconditional support. There is a core group, which is the older generation, older male supporters of the regime. These “hawks” are somewhere around 20-25% of all supporters [of Russia’s actions in Ukraine], somewhere around 45% do not ask many questions. And another 30% – they have their doubts, say that everything is bad, but since the authorities started it, let them finish it, nothing depends on us.

Returning to the growing anxiety and fatigue – how undesirable and dangerous are they for the Kremlin?

We should not assume – and the regime, I think, does not assume – that they will continue to build up forever. But here, I think, the regime is counting on the fact that the government will change in the West and support for Ukraine will end. And our own people will suffer for the time being, but they cannot really do anything about it.
But the authorities have an understanding that it is not advisable to anger and disturb people too much.”
The Kremlin is making a lot of efforts to keep the mood in society stable, because it understands very well that this conflict is a great stress for society, both economically and emotionally, and that more and more people are being drawn into it, and there are victims.

What can break this state of stable fatigue in Russian society?

We see that two thirds of Russians are concerned about a [Ukrainian] counteroffensive, another three quarters about the supply of Western weapons. But so far, all this has not seriously affected the broad mood. As for consumer confidence, the growth of anxiety about this came to a halt in our latest survey, though it did not drop either. At the beginning of last year, there was great enthusiasm in society related to consolidation around the regime, the flag, and it continues to have an effect. At the end of the year, economic factors began to take effect, as payments were made to mobilized men and their families.

Fewer people say the economic situation within their families is getting worse. And this seems to me to be one of the main drivers of moderately positive sentiment, which the Ukraine events have little effect on.

At the same time, there is a strong desire for peace talks. I repeat, not concessions to Ukraine, but a desire that all this would just end, people would stop dying, the authorities would stop calling up fellow citizens, relatives and friends. And this fatigue, I repeat, continues to build.

In February, you said that Russian society could have enough endurance for months or even a couple of years. Do you feel the same way now?

So far there have been no big changes. They can occur, as I have already said, due to the economic situation, the situation at the front, a second wave of mobilization. For now, the baseline scenario is still valid.

But besides the war itself, the deaths of soldiers, the deaths of civilians in Russia, more and more war-related horror is happening in Russia itself. Wagner prisoners who were freed from prison to fight in Ukraine are killingpeople on roads at night. Svetlana Petriychuk and Yevgeniya Berkovich, a playwright and director, have beenimprisoned for a play that had been running for three years in theaters. Why does this news not change people’s attitude toward the regime?

As for the play, consider that these repressions are committed against the active part of society, those who protest. Here, it seems, the government simply seeks to shut up any dissenters. Severe pressure on journalists, on the creative milieu does not concern ordinary Russians – they are not interested. Many do not know about it and do not want to know.

Thus, I would separate the well-being of active, dissenting, opposition-minded people from ordinary people.

As for acts of cruelty committed by people who have come back from the war, so far these are isolated cases, and overallthere was plenty of cruelty in Russia without them.

Looking forward, the increase in the level of violence and crime will affect public sentiment, but most people have simply not yet come back. Journalists are beginning to sound the alarm, but ordinary people have not yet felt this.

The Kremlin seems to be trying to connect in the public’s mind the liberal, dissenting milieu with terrorists. We see this in the new criminal cases against Navalny, who is being blamed for the murder of Z-propagandist Vladlen Tatarsky. Will the Kremlin be able to make the public believe that connection?

So far, society does not really believe it. Last year, we asked the question who the foreign agents and national traitors that Putin references are, and in the first place it was the oligarchs, Biden and well-known people who had fled. Soon, we will publish the results of a survey about Tatarsky, and there 1% or 2% connect his murder with the opposition.

A few years ago, we asked about the explosions at Domodedovo Airport, and this time in the survey about Tatarsky we simply repeated the questions with a slight modification: did you hear who was behind it? And Russians mostly answered that the Ukrainian special services did it, and people have not picked up the version that the Russian opposition wasinvolved. Society as a whole is rather passive, which is both good and bad at the same time. On the one hand, there is no great desire to participate in politics, because there is no faith that anything can be done. On the other hand, they also do not particularly believe in all these conspiracies and traitors, though the topic is constantly being discussed.
There is much more anger and resentment among Russians toward the West and their own government, channeled toward regional officials, so far not the central [government].
There is a lot of anger toward the oligarchs. If we take the latest events, then it is also toward Russian stars who have gone abroad.People say: They left, they left us, they are relaxing there in the West, and we are all suffering here.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Wagner Group, has lately begun to appear in open surveys as one of the "most trusted politicians.” Source: Telegram
This is where resentment builds. Nothing else triggers a strong reaction. The fact that politicians have left and stay therealso causes a lot of negative emotions.

Is there more trust toward and respect for politicians who, like Navalny, are in prison and have remained in Russia?

I would say that potentially they have more respect. The problem is that Navalny is in prison and is not heard from. For most he has disappeared, simply vanished. But, of course, everyone knows that the man stayed here. Potentially, the words of politicians who remain will mean more.

Does criticism of Putin and the government from his own supporters – like Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin – excite society?

At the end of last year and at the beginning of this year, Prigozhin began to appear in open surveys about trusted politicians. Somewhere at the bottom, so far not in the top 10 or even 20, but he began to show up. First of all, patriotic hawks began to recognize him, as well as people who support the attack, the fighting. So far, it is only a very limited number of people, and everything will depend on what happens next. All the same, getting on the TV screen remains very important.

TV works in a targeted way, and to get across some thought or person to the maximum number of people, it remains the most effective. It continues to be the main source of information for the older generation, which is more interested in politics than the younger ones. As they age, the young will probably become more interested in politics and use the channels they have, but right now it is not the case.
TV continues to be the main source of information for the older generation, which is more interested in politics than the younger ones. Source: VK
How difficult is it to interpret results amid the war and war-related repressions?

It seems to me that all our data-based assessments were correct, and now remain correct. Since accessibility has not gotten worse and remains stable, from this technical point of view, we are able to continue to observe. As long as it is possible to conduct surveys, we do.

It is a mistake to believe that surveys do not show what is really happening. The conclusions that were made on the basis of our polls turned out to be more balanced and said more than the predictions of experts who questioned them.

For example, someone said that Russians do not really support the Russian side in Ukraine and that people will take to the streets. But that didn’t happen. Once again, our surveys have stood the test of time.

The same thing happened in 2014, when many argued that Russians did not support the incorporation of Crimea. A year passed, and everyone more or less accepted what the polls showed. With all the limitations of this method, it remains one of the few that helps to understand public sentiment.
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