Most Russians approve of the war one year after its start — an interview with the head of a Russian sociological center

“I was shocked by the degree of approval of the war. I expected a much sharper and more negative reaction from society to the declaration of war. Society turned out to be more apathetic, more submissive, and passive.” — Interview with sociologist, doctor in philosophy, and scientific director of the Levada Center, Lev Gudkov.

Zoriana Varenia: Many Russian experts believe that opinion polls in Russia are pointless now: people are afraid to tell the truth, so the polls give incorrect results and there is no point in conducting them. Nevertheless, the Levada Center conducts opinion polls. Why?

Lev Gudkov: People say this because they do not know. These are stereotypes that have become widespread but are not related to reality. People are not afraid to speak. At the Levada Center, we record conversations with respondents on a tablet, so I sometimes listen to them. There are very critical statements among them.

The belief that Russians are now afraid to speak the truth is either a prejudice or the demagoguery of Russian liberals who suffered defeat. In the current situation, denial of reality is the only way to maintain their own opinion and self-image: “I don’t want to hear this, don’t tell me anything unpleasant.” Any denial of the scale of support for Putin and the regime is accompanied by attempts — with difficulty to exaggerate the number of those who oppose the war. And it is tiny. Single pickets, single protests, followed by arrests – this is a complex of defeat.

I consider myself a liberal, but in this case, it is necessary to state their position as a sort of ostrich policy. Refusal to acknowledge reality is the worst form of intellectual cowardice. We need to see what is there and understand what to do next. They are closing themselves off and saying that people are afraid, and not responding to opinion polls. Nonsense. Although this is a prevailing and very persistent opinion both in the West and in the Russian environment.

We have tested our data many times, conducted all kinds of experiments, and I can say that the willingness to participate in interviews and answer questions is roughly the same as in other European countries. In France, it is even lower. In Russia, it is about the same as in Germany, although lower than in the Scandinavian countries.

Zoriana Varenia: How would you characterize the state of Russian society and Russians at the moment?

Lev Gudkov: The main characteristics are a mixture of apathy, opportunism, cynicism to a very large extent, and the hope that the war will end and life will continue as before. In principle, this can be called an amoral state of society. The inability to soberly evaluate oneself, to resist the repressive regime. I would say this is an adaptation to the regime. A very small part of society, about 10, maybe 12%, is really strongly anti-Putin and anti-war, and even then, it’s more in words than in action.

Zoriana Varenia: There were expectations that victims from the Russian side (and there are more than a hundred thousand of them) will reduce the percentage of support for the war. Why didn’t this happen?

Lev Gudkov: Firstly, no official information on the dead and wounded is provided. The Ministry of Defense has published the number of dead only two or three times. We understand that it is significantly underestimated. This topic is under total censorship. The information that comes through informal channels, primarily through relatives and acquaintances of the dead, is diffuse and private. They killed this one, they killed that one, but a complete picture representing the scale of the dead and losses does not emerge. To do this, it is necessary to either connect foreign sources of information — and here a very strong prejudice and distrust are at work — or possess some ability to resist propaganda. Therefore, the effect of the losses is not very high, people actually do not know how many have died.

See also: “You wanted it yourself.” What are the victims of violence by Russian military afraid of and what do they remain silent about?

Zoriana Varenia: At the end of last year, the Levada Center published a poll concerning the actions of the Russian military in Ukraine. What conclusions can be drawn from it? Why do more and more Russians support the war?

Lev Gudkov: This is a monthly survey that we have been conducting throughout the full-scale war since February 2022. It is necessary to track the dynamics of moods, changes, and other factors. But the picture practically does not change. The level of support for the war is 70-75%. This is a declarative agreement with the actions of the state authorities.

It is important to understand that full censorship has actually been introduced in the country, with over 20,000 websites being closed. Of course, alternative publications, internet portals, and YouTube channels can be found, but it requires some effort. Fines, arrests, and repression have blocked the possibility of obtaining independent information.

At the same time, despite the high level of approval of the war, there is no internal motivation to fight. More than 50% want the military action to stop and peace negotiations to begin. I am not talking about the reality of this, it is clear that Ukraine under current circumstances will not go for any negotiations until the captured territory is liberated.

However, despite the reluctance to fight, there is undoubtedly apathy and submission in the majority of conscripts. The conscription mainly targets “blue-collar workers”, i.e. people who are not very educated, mainly with technical specialties, engaged in physical labor. They are not very informed, and not very engaged in politics. Therefore, they obediently go to serve, succumbing to pressure.

Usually, such passive submission is characteristic of repressive regimes. More educated and younger people, for the most part, do not want war. Those who are against it have emigrated from the country. According to various estimates, at least half a million citizens — the most educated, active, and enterprising public have left. Propaganda has played an important role — very aggressive, absolutely false, and cynical. The baseness of the propagandists amazes me purely as a human being. The cliches they present are not subject to any verification and do not require additional arguments. All these arguments were in use back in the late 1930s under Stalin. Thus, an atmosphere is created that determines the submission, opportunism, and passivity of the population.

Zoriana Varenia: Does the offering of monetary payments, coffins, tax breaks, and land plots by some regions of Russia influence the opinions of Russians about the war?

Lev Gudkov: The opinions of Russians are influenced by the situation of slow income decline and rapid inflation, where even small increases or promises of large payments for coffins have importance for the social and economic lower classes, as well as for the depressed and poor peripheries.

In some cases, quite in alcoholized villages where men had been taken to war, women breathed a sigh of relief and hope that they would receive a payment. But this is a really depressed drinking environment, such cases are not frequent.

In other cases, for a very poor family (there are really many of them and their number is increasing ) the promise of incredible amounts of money, if the family income does not exceed 30,000 rubles, and they are promised 200,000 rubles, immediately changes the situation. People turn a blind eye to the fact that they could be killed and so on.

See also: Ukraine is not Vietnam: why Russians are willing to kill “their boys” endlessly

In addition, propaganda convinces them that this is a heroic death — defending their homeland. False propaganda coincides with the low value of human life in these social groups.

Zoriana Varenia: Can the political situation in Russia change under such a society as it is now?

Lev Gudkov: I am constantly accused of pessimism. All criticism is based on our data and the fact that Levada Center imposes a hopeless view of the situation. However, I do not see any radical changes in society itself. There is a feeling of impending defeat in the war spreading throughout society, including among propagandists. But there are no thoughts about it among the population, they defend themselves from any such information, especially politicized information that does not affect their daily lives.

For the masses, a defeat in the war will be a very strong blow that will undermine the legitimacy of the current regime, primarily — personally for Putin. Because his legitimacy was built on the fact that he restored Russia’s authority as a great power, the same one that the Soviet Union possessed. It doesn’t matter that this is not true in reality, what matters is that people want to believe it and do believe it — because they still consider themselves citizens and subjects of this superpower. A military defeat will undermine their belief.

We are in a situation of complete defeat and destruction of the opposition, the defeat of civil society. The Sakharov Center (a museum and cultural center in Moscow devoted to the protection of human rights in Russia) has been liquidated, the premises and archive have been taken away, and Sakharov’s apartment has been seized. The Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest human rights organization, has been also liquidated. A massive, brazen suppression of any protest, or any resistance is taking place.

Therefore, in the absence of opposition, the potential for an organization that could take responsibility and put forward some other political program, I do not see any radical changes. Most likely, after the defeat, some kind of turmoil will begin within the elites. A sharp struggle for power after Putin’s departure, but this does not mean that the prospect of democracy will open up.

Zoriana Varenia: Do you expect a similar knock on the door of the Levada Center, or is it enough for the authorities to declare you a foreign agent?

Lev Gudkov: Of course, we expect them, there is no doubt about it. It can happen at any moment. As soon as we start to show a decline in trust ratings towards Putin, they will devour and liquidate us, but for now, apparently, the authorities find it beneficial to say that even the oppositional Levada Center testifies to unanimous support for the war and Vladimir Putin.

Zoriana Varenia: How has the support for the war in society changed from 2014 to February 24, 2022 now?

Lev Gudkov: Here we need to talk about support for Putin. Putin’s rating, approval, and trust in him increase during military campaigns. Putin receives a very large resonance with his militaristic rhetoric and demagogy. He came to power on the wave of revenge sentiments of the Second Chechen War, and this served as the basis for his authority.

See also: Victory for Donbas: all about the European Court’s decision which will change the world’s opinion on Russian aggression

The second surge — the war with Georgia in 2008. The third — after the annexation of Crimea. Between 2008 and 2014, starting in 2009, there was a slow but very steady decline in approval for Putin. It was at this moment that Putin became boring, people got tired of him, and disappointment set in. By December 2013, the rating was at its lowest level, with about half of the population not wanting to see Putin in the next election campaign. However, the Maidan and the sharp activation of anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western rhetoric, and demagogy of the fight against fascism in Ukraine, restored trust in Putin and provided stable support. It declined by 2018 when an unsuccessful pension reform was carried out, causing universal outrage, but people somehow swallowed it.

The war did not cause an emotional surge of patriotic Russian nationalism,or imperial chauvinism, but it still raised the level of approval, support, and agreement with Putin and, accordingly, the acceptance of the war. People don’t really understand what fascism is in Ukraine, but it’s not required, what’s important are the stimuli that evoke unconditional reflexes. If it’s fascism, then we are right, then we have the right to fight fascism. These are also the remnants of the ideology of the struggle against fascism in World War II. The moral capital after World War II is preserved and reproduced through the education system and propaganda. And that’s why a significant part of society really expresses militancy, especially if these people do not have to go to war.

Zoriana Varenia: Putin’s successor: is there anyone who can be supported by society?

Lev Gudkov: There is no such person. The political field is completely burnt out. There are no alternative or opposition political figures, and they cannot appear in the public space under total censorship and election fraud. The situation now is completely different, even in the 2010s, the regime was not so harsh and repressive. Today we are talking about convictions, and killings, like Nemtsov or others, and just about persecutions, threats of property confiscation, and deprivation of citizenship.

Zoriana Varenia: How do you feel about the concept of “good Russians”?

Lev Gudkov: I have a negative attitude towards this idea. It leads to quarrels and disputes among people who have lost the opportunity for real work. It’s a migrant complex. Instead of consolidating some movement, developing compromises, a common platform, there is some petty fighting, fussing, it’s even indecent, in my opinion.

Zoriana Varenia: Why does Russian youth support the war?

Lev Gudkov: The question of youth is very difficult. Just a few years ago, five or seven, the youth was the most pro-Putin group of the population. Putin earned their authority with his boyish manner, and demonstration of confidence, success, strength, and independence. This was captivating, especially for the provincial part of the youth. The youth in the capital had a rather negative attitude towards Putin.

Economically, the situation of youth is the most favorable, if we take into account its age in the market situation. The youth demonstrates the ability to quickly switch, retrain, and master skills that older age cohorts are unable to acquire. In this sense, the youth is much more adapted, and highly valued in the labor market. There is a certain paradox of the Russian labor market. Unlike the more or less free Western labor market, where the peak of salaries falls on the pre-retirement period when people gain qualifications, experience, and career advancement, in Russia, the peak of salaries falls on 30-32 years. The youth is a minority, so it is more willingly to be bought and paid more.

As a result, this segment of society has a sense of satisfaction with life, a certain confidence, and optimism. And as a consequence, the apolitical stance of young people is at a much higher level than that of any other age group.

It cannot be said that young people are in favor of war — in fact, anti-war sentiment is stronger among them than in other age groups — but the degree of alienation from politics and unwillingness to participate in protest actions and public activities is also higher. This is such a paradox. A small number of dissidents have emigrated – these are people on average between 20 and 35 years old.

Zoriana Varenia: What does “homo putinus” mean? The term you use to describe Russians.

Lev Gudkov: I rarely use it. I speak more about the Soviet person, and it’s not even about homo sovieticus, but simply about the concept of the “Soviet person”. This model was proposed by Yuri Levada even before the collapse of the USSR. It describes about 40-50% of the population.

The “Putin’s person” or “person of the Putin era” is described as a continuation of the Soviet person who is hypocritical, corrupt, envious, anxious, accustomed to the arbitrariness of authorities, and has learned to live in a repressive state while at the same time despising and not respecting the authority, distancing himself from it. However, unlike the Soviet era or the time of perestroika (a political movement for reform within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) during the late 1980s), the Putin-era version of this person is much more cynical and cruel.

Zoriana Verania: What have you learned about the people you represent in the last year?

Lev Gudkov: I was shocked by the degree of approval of the war. Against the backdrop of fear of a major war, I expected a much sharper and negative reaction from society to the declaration of war. Society turned out to be more sluggish, more submissive, and passive.

Approval or support for this “operation” does not mean readiness to go to war themselves, there is no enthusiasm or aggression, but opportunism and submission are evident. And that is amazing to me. And secondly, the absolute shamelessness of our propaganda and politicians. It’s something fantastic. I see it, but I can’t understand it.

Zoriana Varenia: You are 76 years old. How do you feel when witness everything that is happening and study these processes as a person who consistently disagrees with the majority of Russians?

Lev Gudkov: Of course, there is a disappointment. We, Russian sociologists, are in a way the pathologists of the failed or dead democracy. It may have existed, but it died. The only thing left for us is to make a diagnosis and find out the reason why the patient died.

Originally posted by Zoriana Varenia (Ukrainian political scientist who cooperates with the Polish media) on Novaya Polsha. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: Foreign voices of Russian propaganda: who and how justifies Putin in the world


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