Vladimir Putin’s War Spreads Resignation and Despair Among Ordinary Russians
Pro-Putin pollsters maintain that most Russians support the “special military operation” against Ukraine. But artificial efforts to stir public enthusiasm can’t hide the disastrous effects the war is having on ordinary Russians.
The beginning of the military conflict in Ukraine came as a shock to Russian society. Even before people were able to recover, they were informed that they supported the war almost unanimously. The government-controlled Russian Public Opinion Research Center published a report on the fourth day of the war, according to which 68 percent of Russians “somewhat support the decision to conduct the special military operation,” with only 22 percent against. Similar results were published by another large sociological center — the Public Opinion Foundation — whose main contractor has consistently been Vladimir Putin’s own administration.
The poll results show that respondents don’t have a clear understanding of the goals of the Russian operation. A quarter assumed that the military is “protecting the Russian-speaking population of Donbass”; 20 percent think that its purpose is to not allow NATO bases on the territory of Ukraine; another 20 percent believe that the operation is carried out to demilitarize Ukraine; 7 percent think that Russia wants to “denazify” Ukraine and change its political orientation; 6 percent believe the aim is to change the country’s political regime from the current “unneighborly” one; and, finally, 4 percent think the idea is to split Ukraine into parts and establish Russian control in the country’s southeast.
Such comprehensive data about Russian citizens’ overwhelming support is demoralizing for opponents of the war. However, a vital correction must be made: the data does not reflect everyday experience. Indeed, some people support the invasion of Ukraine, but the number of two-thirds is quite astonishing. If they are so numerous, why don’t we see them anywhere?
Public opinion polls in Russia are usually tools used to manipulate public consciousness. Many sociologists suggest that the number of “socially approved answers” has grown in the past years — such is the case when people tell the interviewer not what they really think but what they assume is expected from them. This effect has probably increased significantly since the beginning of the war campaign.
Moreover, the Russian government is deliberately creating an atmosphere of fear. The Duma (parliament) has adopted a law that means harsh repercussions for spreading “fake news” about the Russian military’s actions. Even using the word “war” with regard to events in Ukraine is officially prohibited; it may be punished by a prison term of three to twenty years. Participants of antiwar rallies are arrested en masse. The police check pedestrians’ phones in Moscow and St Petersburg to find “slanderous” exchanges and traces of reading opposition Telegram channels. Schools carry out political information lessons, and parents are being “talked to” so that they don’t let their kids read “destructive” information sources. All of this obviously influences the degree of sincerity with which people speak their minds.
This isn’t just about the cunning of the respondents. Even according to government-loyalist sociologists, the number of people who refuse to answer the interviewers’ questions or can’t come up with an answer has grown. This might affect the quality of their sample. Moreover, opponents of the war are likely less inclined to answer than those who support it or have not yet made up their minds.
Finally, the pollsters’ questions also matter. They are drawn straight from the official rhetoric of the Russian government. People are not being asked about the war, or the army’s intervention in Ukraine, but merely about their attitudes toward the “special military operation.” This creates an ambiguous psychological situation, allowing people to swap the events unfolding in reality for a less traumatic, imaginary situation, even in their inner thinking. It seems like this is a mass sociopsychological occurrence.
Among the endless videos dedicated to the events in Ukraine, there is one in which a man from the suburbs of Kiev calls his relatives in the Russian city of Vologda. He tells them about his experience. “They’re bombing us; peaceful citizens and kids are dying,” he says. But his relatives from Russia, living a thousand kilometers from the war front, refuse to believe him. “There is no war. They’re only shooting the nationalists,” responds an elderly woman’s voice. The man gets angry. “How can you know that? I’m right here!” he screams. “We have a TV,” comes the response.
It’s no coincidence that the Russian government prohibits using the word “war.” It indicates a situation that cannot be perceived neutrally, unlike a “special military operation,” which is perceived as the continuation of complex government policy and doesn’t require the private citizen adopt a personal attitude. Government propaganda grants the people a sort of saving grace by allowing them not to accept reality.
In a country where collective memory is based upon the victory over fascism in a bloody but just defensive war, this is quite an effective mechanism. To accept that Russia has committed military aggression against the people historically and culturally closest to it is virtually impossible from a psychological standpoint. It sabotages Russians’ basic perceptions of justice and their core values. Many people do not have the strength to do it. So they are trying as hard as they can to avoid seeing reality, repeating the propaganda clichés: “There is no war.”
Such a psychological split explains the glaring contradiction between everyday experience and the sociologists’ results. Many people who think the war is morally and politically unacceptable can at the very same time talk about support for the “Russian government’s special operation,” not merely out of fear but the futile hope that the official version of events may somehow turn out to be miraculously true (at least in part), because that would rid them of the horrific prospect of moral failure and the dire necessity to speak out against the events.
The government is trying hard to use this moral dilemma, blackmailing the people through their feelings of fear. “A real Russian is not ashamed of being Russian — and if he’s ashamed, he’s not Russian and not with us,” the president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, announced.
But there is a vulnerable spot in this tenuous doublethink: it cannot be preserved for long. No draconian measures of information control can shelter the citizens from the monstrous reality. First of all, around one-third of Russians have relatives in Ukraine. No amount of censorship can prevent the millions of phone calls and messages between them.
My phone is full of the most desperate pain. “We’ve been sitting in the basement for four days now.”
“They’re bombing. The city is under a blockade. No one can enter or leave.”
“I spent five hours in line for bread today. They didn’t bring any.”
I can quote such messages in the hundreds. And there are millions like me in Russia. This witnessing of the catastrophe is way more persuasive than political debates. Even the most loyal Putin supporter will have a hard time explaining to themselves why an ordinary citizen should starve and freeze while bombs explode around them.
It’s perilous for us to discuss the number of losses sustained by the Russian military in Ukraine. It’s the most sensitive subject for the government, and they watch over such discussions carefully. The government has officially recognized that over five hundred service members have died during the operation. Even this number is monstrously large. Over ten years of war in Afghanistan, the USSR lost just over fourteen thousand soldiers and officers. Today, death enjoys a greater harvest. The veto on this information makes people seek out numbers announced by the Ukrainian side, which are quite likely exaggerated. On March 8, the Russian Ministry of Defense has admitted that there are some conscript soldiers in Ukraine — which means poorly trained eighteen-year-old boys. The words “cannon fodder” come up more often in messages and conversations. Women are afraid to let their sons go on compulsory military service — and on April 1, the new round of conscription will begin. Even in the official sociological polling, we see that middle-aged women are 15 to 20 percent less likely to approve of the “special operation” than men. And it’s precisely middle-aged women who had been considered Putin’s core loyalist electorate. But another category important for the government is also significantly influenced by the losses: military personnel.
A revealing blunder happened in a livestream of the Zvezda TV channel that belongs to the Ministry of Defense. An elderly serviceman, among the guests on a patriotic talk show, stood up and offered to hold a minute of silence for the Russian soldiers who died while carrying out their commanders’ orders. “Our guys are dying out there . . .” he began saying. But the talk show’s host blasted out from his seat and started screaming at the veteran with order bars on his chest: “No, no, no! I don’t want to hear any of that! Shut up! Don’t you understand? Stop. Our guys are crushing the fascist viper over there; it’s a triumph of Russian arms!” The urge of bureaucrats and propaganda-peddlers to sheepishly conceal events in Ukraine has already started pushing away the government’s most loyal and faithful audience — the military and the “patriots.”
Finally, a third factor undermines the doublethink of many Russians. As the government has blocked conventional opposition media channels, new-generation media have emerged in their place: photos of price tags in stores and layoff announcements. The unfolding economic catastrophe has become a collective antiwar agitation machine. On the events in Ukraine and Russia, one can only cite the official channels, like the military and the government’s PR services. But if you check out any regional media (100 percent dependent on local administrations), you will immediately know what’s going on. “The price for gravedigging in Yaroslavl is rapidly rising,” a local website announces. The anti-monopoly bureau suspects a cartel conspiracy and informs people that “preliminary analysis has shown: it’s expensive to die in Yaroslavl.” In Volgodonsk, female readers of the local newspaper are outraged by the twofold rise in baby food and diaper prices. Russian manufacturing was fully integrated into the global chains of value-added goods and turned out to be utterly unprepared for Western sanctions. Ten out of the fourteen largest auto manufacturers have already halted production; others are preparing to do so in the near future. At least 150,000 people will be out of their jobs; and that’s not counting the industries, logistics companies, and dealerships. McDonald’s became one of the dozens of large foreign companies that announced they were suspending operations in Russia. This fast-food chain alone accounts for sixty-four thousand jobs. Government experts estimate the scale of impending mass unemployment at 7 to 10 million people.
Even for the most vocal proponents of the Russian government, the connection between the war and the socioeconomic crash is quite apparent.
It’s hard to objectively describe the speed of changes in mass perception. Liberal oppositionist Alexei Navalny’s supporters have carried out an experiment through a series of four online polls. This research does not claim to be representative — the politicized internet audience is very different from a truly nationwide sample. But it does point to a rapid change in attitudes.
If, on February 25, only 29 percent of the poll’s participants called Russia an aggressor, just a week later, on March 3, the same answer was given by 53 percent of the respondents. The portion of those who consider Russia’s mission in Ukraine liberatory fell from 28 to 12 percent; 14 percent blamed Russia for the conflict on February 25, and 36 percent on March 3. Meanwhile, the amount of those condemning the West or “all sides” had decreased insignificantly, and the opinion that the blame lies with Ukraine was marginal. On the other hand, the number who thought that the economic consequences of current events would be catastrophic for Russia grew by half — from 40 to 60 percent of participants.
“Never before in the history of our sociological service have we seen such dynamics of popular opinion. In just a few days of this war, the Russians’ attitudes have pivoted drastically,” the poll’s organizers wrote. It has been pretty common for people to change their opinions over the past two weeks.
Mikhail Matveyev, a Russian Communist Party parliamentarian who voted in recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics, became one of the symbols of this painful awakening. “I voted for peace, not war. I voted so that Donbass wouldn’t be bombed anymore — not for bombs to fall on Kiev,” he tweeted on February 26. Some politicians followed suit. But today most of such transformations occur on a grassroots level. Those who had supported the “special operation” from the get-go change their opinions once mass layoffs start in their towns, or people they know get conscripted and are made to sign a contract that allows the military to send them to a hot spot.
Throughout the two weeks of war, antiwar protests have taken place in the streets almost every day. But the repressive police regime handled them with ease. By March 11, the police had arrested an unprecedented amount of rally participants — 13,913 people. In the circumstances of previously unseen fearmongering, police brutality, and the majority of independent media being blocked, no one has been able to gather a critical mass at a street protest that the government wouldn’t be able to suppress.
The liberal opposition leaders who emigrated keep making calls for daily protest rallies “on the main square of your city.” It’s easy to understand from an emotional standpoint: no day should be spent accepting the war. However, ice-cold reason tells us that, right now, the most important thing is not ethical posturing but careful work in mobilizing those strata that the liberal politicians have long ignored. Only Putin’s majority from before can change the power balance and end the war. This is where the Russian left currently sees its purpose: in work with these masses.
Out of all the sociological reports dedicated to the perception of the Russian “special operation” in Ukraine, only one allows us to see the connection between social inequality and attitudes toward the war. Despite the common perception in Russia (primarily stemming from the dominance of the liberal narrative in the opposition media) that it’s only the well-educated and well-heeled minority opposing Putin, while the poor majority remains loyal consumers of propaganda, polls show that it’s the poor who perceive the war most critically. “People with low incomes are more anxious about the military operation because they are expecting further worsening of their material conditions in this regard,” researchers observe. Among respondents with high incomes, 69 percent announced support for Putin’s decision and just 17 percent did not support it. Among respondents with low incomes, only 49 percent declared support and 31 percent were brave enough to say they didn’t. Undoubtedly, the actual level of discontent with the aggression is much higher and will proliferate.
The Left aims to demonstrate to the society, including its working-class and poor strata, that it’s not just the pro-Western liberals headed by middle-class opposition who are against the war. Such a distorted picture is only beneficial to the Kremlin, which tries to present the ongoing conflict as a civilizational collision between Russia with the (constantly adversarial) West and its fifth column. It’s essential to show that Russian workers have their own reasons to fight for peace that are independent of the West, and that this peace will not mean military defeat, new national humiliation, and the territorial carving up of Russia, but instead the return of our country to its true owner — the working majority. The Left must fight the collective blame complex thrust upon the people by some liberal critics of Putin. In the hands of pro-government propaganda, it becomes a very effective tool of uniting “around the national flag.”
The tragic truth is that the war that Putin started is not some random venture. All thirty years of post-Soviet history have led us to this catastrophe. Tremendous social inequality became the foundation for the dictatorship because, alongside its control over property, the poor majority lost its political voice. Shameful nationalist and xenophobic blather have been used throughout these years by most of the regimes that have come to power upon the ruins of the USSR. Pitting nations against each other, the oligarchs strengthened their power before finally leading us to war. Ultimately, within the very foundation of Russia’s current nationhood lies the military coup carried out by Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in 1993, with the full support of the Western governments. Back then, the government shot at parliament from tanks in the name of democracy and made the working class shut up for decades, forgetting its collective strength. Today we’re merely reaping the results of this society of inequality and exploitation.
The Russian working class will have to change their country entirely to stop this war. It’s a simple truth. And yet only the Russian left can utter it. There’s no one else.