Putin, war, empire… What do Russians really think?

Whenever polls ask about the emotions generated by the “special operation” in Ukraine, the dominant feeling from the very beginning has been fear and anxiety. This is undoubtedly linked to a sense of personal threat. The indication of which never drops below 30%.

The restless, crooked line showing the support for Vladimir Putin, whose function graph over the past 23 years can be followed on the Levada Centre website, is an interesting barometer of the Russian sentiment.

This line starts at 80%, falls to around 60% over the next decade, begins to rise in 2013 and reaches an impressive peak of almost 90% during the months of the Crimea invasion in 2014. Then everyday life begins to bite the society, enthusiasm wanes, the support drops to 60% or even less. In January 2022, when a full-scale war with Ukraine is in the air and only those who can’t imagine attacking a neighbouring state (i.e. certainly not the historically experienced Russians) hope that it won’t break out, the support rises cheerfully to 82% in two months after the “special military operation” is launched. Since then is has remained at similar levels, having dipped only once, when a partial mobilisation was announced in September 2022. The latest measurement, from June this year, shows 81%.

This line of support provides – so it would seem – a sufficiently clear answer to the question whether what is happening in Ukraine is “Putin’s war” or “the Russians’ war” however.

Whose war is it?

Since the beginning of the full-scale war many people in the East and the West have been trying to convince us that this war was actually unleashed by one person, it is therefore necessary to remove this person and things will go back to normal. This was best expressed by the American President Joe Biden who, speaking in Warsaw one month after the invasion, added an exclamation to his prepared text: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!”

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The entire evil done by the Russians would be embodied in this one person, just as the evil done before by the Germans would fall on Hitler, while the evil of the Gulag on Stalin. This construct appealed to a conviction, deeply rooted in healthy minds that it was unthinkable to approve of such crimes, that “ordinary people” couldn’t be responsible for the actions of the elite, all the more if they were “frantic”. For along with blaming Putin for the evil of this war people were eager to talk about his being psychologically unstable, and described his actions with terms such as “paranoid” and consciously not specifying, if they were referring to the popular, specialist or diagnostic meaning of the word. The idea was clear: the Russian state became appropriated by a mad paranoiac who has to be removed so that Russia could return to the international family.

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Some commentators might have been promoting this construct in good faith, others undoubtedly did so in the hope that once the hostilities are over and the blood dries up, it will be possible to return to normal political and business relations with a country that will get rid of the “madman in power”. This approach resonated well in the minds of German, French or Austrian businessmen and politicians (well, in the case of the latter, probably less so, because they would gladly shake the hand of the “madman” himself, if only he solemnly promised that he would change).

The attitude of the Russian émigré elites was quite similar. In mid-2022, a discussion swept through the European media, during which the supporters of the thesis that this is a “Russian war” were indignantly accused of using collective responsibility and emphatically asked why Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky should be guilty of the atrocities committed in Bucha. The absurdity of such arguments didn’t seem to bother anyone.

Russians opposed to the Moscow regime were simply trying to defend themselves, which is natural. In a sense, however, they defended the good name of all those who supported the war. And they acted in the interests of those in the West who, with less and less hope, looked forward to a return to the “good old days” when gas was cheap and Mercedes cars sold well in Russia.

However, polls published by the Levada Centre, which in the meantime was included in the list of “foreign agents”, showed not only constant and high support for the president of the Russian Federation, but also for the war. The group of those who support the invasion strongly or rather support it is on average about ¾ of the respondents, the “not in support” group averages about 1/5.

In February 2022, just after the first shock, when the protests were as loud and violent as the repressions, and those who could, fled the country, the “special operation” was supported by 68%, while 23% were against. Exactly one year later, support peaked at 77%, with only 17% opposed. Currently, it is 73% to 19%. Other research centres show similar support for the war.

“Special operation” in Ukraine today is supported by 73% of Russians, and 17% are against it.

There is no doubt that, if you believe public the opinion polls, the Russians support both their president, who is waging the war, and the war itself. Well, if you believe…

Opinion polls in a country that applies widespread repression against its citizens and is systematically moving towards totalitarianism quite naturally are questionable. After all, the interviewer may be perceived by the respondent as a representative of the authorities – it was argued – and the authorities, of course, should say what the authorities want to hear. If the government is at war, it should be praised.

Zbigniew Herbert’s reflection on Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s long article about peace published in 1953 in Leopold Tyrmand’s “Diary” brings to mind: “You shall see how beautifully he writes about the war. When they tell him...” Would the Russians, this narrative seemed convincing, be braver and wiser than the great writer? A large number of refusals was indicated, numerous instances of interrupting surveys when questions about Ukraine appeared, and it was argued that, as a result, the views of the pro-government section were published as a picture of the views of the entire society.

Deceitful polls?

This dispute has reached such a level that the current director of the Levada Centre, Denis Volkov, decided in April this year to publish an article with the highly eloquent title “Are meaningful public opinion polls possible in today’s Russia?”.

He briefly dealt with the allegations of an incredibly high percentage of refusals or frequent interruption of surveys, writing that in 2022 there were 73% of refusals, which is slightly more than in the previous year, when an average of 69% of respondents refused and slightly less than in the previous year, when it was 75%. He also used the argument that in the US, 91% refusals are not considered a problem when conducting telephone surveys. Similar was the case with survey interruptions, which happened in a very small number of cases.

Volkov also pointed out that the measurement of long-term social trends was completely consistent with what was seen in the research after February 2022. And already at the end of the previous year it had been clearly noticed that 3/4 of the Russian society recognized the guilt of America and Ukraine for possibly unleashing a war, and only one-third sympathized with Kiev. Thus, there was no sharp change in the public mood caused by the regime’s increase in repression, because the views expressed at a time when the use of the word “war” was punishable by 15 years in prison were very similar to those expressed at a time when one could speak more freely.

At the end of 2021, ¾ of Russians blamed America and Ukraine for possibly unleashing a war.

Confronted with an argument used by those opposed to the reliability of polls, Volkov reacted with evident anger. The argument was that no polls show what Russians “really think”. “We have never carried out surveys with the help of lie detectors – he wrote – and we have always conveyed the views that the respondents wanted to reveal. We have therefore used information not on the inner life but on the public attitudes of the interviewed”.

Of course, there is no doubt that the Russian state has recently increased pressure on its citizens, Volkov continued, in order to prevent them from criticizing the actions of the authorities. And the pressure works. Which is visible in the polls...

The head of the Levada Center ended his bitter article with the statement that perhaps in some aspects opinion polls are not sufficiently accurate and can be misleading, but they are certainly more effective than speculations of journalists, and if their value were completely negated, we would be deprived of one of the few tools to learn about Russian society.

The rule of doublethink

However, not to make thing too easy, let’s reach for the views of another head of the Levada Center, Volkov’s predecessor, Lev Gudkov, who took over the management of the institution from the founder Yuri Levada himself. Gudkov, in 2021, at the end of his leadership of the company, gave an interview about how Russian society behaved in the 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and what was the Russian way of thinking.

Gudkov’s statements do not fully coincide with Volkov’s depreciation of the argument that Russians do not reveal what they “really” think. Gudkov says that “doublethink is an essential feature of Russian political culture, as is distance from power, orientation to private life, family, entertainment and consumption, but not to changing living conditions, and the lack of a sense of responsibility for the state of affairs in the country”.

In other words, a Russian who supports the war and Putin, who is leading it, may not believe that his support (or lack of it) has any significance for the development of events. And if it doesn’t matter, why not support it?

This can be clearly seen whenever the polls ask about the emotions generated by the “special operation” in Ukraine. The dominant feeling from the very beginning has been fear and anxiety. This is undoubtedly linked to a sense of personal threat. The indication of which never drops below 30%, and on the anniversary of the invasion, when support for the war effort was at 72%, it reached 35%.

Anger and shock are regularly mentioned by about 1/10 of interviewees.

43% of Russians are proud of Russia

Interestingly, there is only one feeling that definitely dominates all the others and probably also mixes with them, because in this question more than one answer could be chosen. This feeling is pride in Russia, which initially stood at 51%, but has fallen in recent months and was declared by 43% of Russians in June.

Made for empire

An explanation of this phenomenon can also be found in Gudkov’s interview from two years ago. And in many other studies on the way Russians think, but in this case Gudkov will be the most suitable, because he is the closest in time and extremely credible as a careful observer of this society in recent decades.

“Unlike in Europe”, says Gudkov, “Russian society was largely created by the state”. This was due to modernization, military and bureaucratic needs. The idea of an autonomous society is “essentially absent” from the Russian political culture. But there is the imperial idea, which is the basis for building self-awareness and pride, which, however, is not autonomous, but closely linked to being a subject of the empire. Thus, a Russian derives self-confidence from the fact that he belongs to an empire that counts in the world. Let us add en passant that this feeling applies not only to so-called ordinary people, but also to intellectual elites.

Consistent attempts to put Russia on a par with the United States and China as one of the three forces shaping the global future, which can be seen in the foreign journalism of Andrei Kortunov or Lev Timofeyev, bear all the signs of despair.
Aloof from power, focused on private life, family, entertainment and consumption? Is that what Russians are like? Photo: MAXIM SHIPENKOV/EPA/PAP
This increasingly difficult dream of being on an equal footing with the world’s major players is probably the explanation for the decline in the sense of pride in Russia expressed when assessing the operation against Ukraine. A drop of even 1/5, from 51% to 43%, shows that the lack of success in the fight against an enemy whom propaganda portrays as weaker and who was supposed to be defeated in three days reinforces the belief that the empire is in crisis.

Prigozhin’s operetta “coup” may also contribute to the further erosion of pride. As preliminary research has shown, it did not have a great impact on the social assessment of the position of Putin and people in power. It is very possible, however, that although they themselves did not suffer in public perception, the imperial idea itself could have suffered. It will be worth following this aspect.

Will they use nukes?

There is one area in which Russia undoubtedly ranks among the top three world powers, and who knows, maybe she occupies a prominent place in it. These are, of course, nuclear capabilities.

It is not without reason that Putin and his entourage have been using the nuclear argument from the very beginning of the full-scale war against Ukraine, which, on the one hand, is intended to deter the West, and on the other hand, to reinforce the popular belief that the empire is doing well.

There were no great successes on the first front which is reflected in Sergei Karaganov’s famous text from June this year, in which he called for a preemptive nuclear attack on Poland in order to “break the will” of the West. If Karaganov started bidding so high, it means that in the opinion of the Kremlin elite the previous threats did not have a great effect.

This seems to be the case in Russian society as well. Yes, they are proud of their country’s power, but because the possible use of this power would lead to the lives of Russians and their families being affected in the deepest, existential way, so they are against it. Two strong trends present in the mentality of this nation meet here: the imperial tendency and the trend of escaping into privacy. Opinion polls show that the latter is stronger.

In June this year, the Levada Center published a survey with questions about the possible use of nuclear weapons in the conflict in Ukraine. It was carried out even before Karaganov’s speech, but after many Russian commentators and propagandists voiced the view that the ultimate weapon would be necessary to break the resistance of the Ukrainians. An overwhelming majority, even more than 86% of those who support the president, believe that “nuclear weapons should not be used under any circumstances”. Only (or as much as, depending on the point of view) 10% believed that its use would be justified by the conditions at the front. At the same time, 60% of those polled believed that the authorities were not ready to use nuclear weapons, while 29% thought otherwise.

86% of Russians believe that nuclear weapons shouldn’t be used under any circumstances.

It appears form the above that almost all Russians are afraid of the consequences of using their empire’s nuclear arsenal, but a third of them recognize that their rulers are capable of it. There is an echo of the thesis about “Putin’s madness” here. Still, a solid majority considers it extremely unlikely.

The Russian mind is difficult to understand. Supporting a dictator in a war against a nation that is well known and close to ordinary Russians seems to escape rational thinking. Perceiving the source of one’s pride in serving a great empire, regardless of economic or social conditions also escapes a mind shaped by Western culture. Fortunately, there is the lowest, existential level, the level of fear for one’s own life and that of their nearest and dearest. Here the Russians seem to speak with one voice.

And here it would be highly desirable that the discussion about whether opinion polls in Russia have any sense end with the conclusion: yes, they do.

– Robert Bogdański

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: Residents of St Petersburg walk past an exhibition depicting the Russian Armed Forces. Pictured is the slogan: “Fatherland we defend”. Photo: ANATOLY MALTSEV/EPA/PAP
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