When Vladimir Putin made the decision to send his armies to Ukraine, he claimed to be acting on behalf of the Russian people. He said he was defending them and their Russian-speaking compatriots against the threat, however unlikely, of “Nazism”.
But after two weeks of war – or “the special military operation”, as it is called in Russia – how do Russians feel about what is being done in their name?
According to Lev Dmitrievich Gudkov, director of the Moscow-based Levada Center, the latest independent pollster in Russia, some 60% of Russians currently support the invasion, while only a quarter oppose it.
But given the increased censorship and tightly controlled Kremlin narrative, can the polls even be trusted? We sat down with Gudkov to discuss this issue, as well as how people are reacting to the country’s sudden isolation and economic crisis, and what all of this could mean for Vladimir Putin in the future.
Lev Dmitrievich, how does Russian society in general perceive what is happening in Ukraine?
Two-thirds of Russians we surveyed support the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine. Just over a quarter rate it negatively. But public opinion is divided. The least educated, the oldest part of the population, the part of the provinces, the part whose sources of information are extremely limited, this part of the population essentially repeats what passes through the propaganda channels, that is, say by the television channels.
The other, smaller part of the population, just over a quarter of the population, is much younger. They are mostly found in big cities where a completely different information environment and a different understanding have already developed. These people are extremely negative about what is happening in Ukraine and understandably have a negative attitude towards Putin’s policies there.
But on the whole, people are very afraid of war and still support Putin’s approach because, from their point of view, Putin protects his people from the Ukrainian Nazis, from the genocide, from what is broadcast on television.
Can the Russians get other sources of information about what is going on?
In recent days, censorship has increased sharply. As you know, a number of popular alternative sites and internet portals have been shut down, especially in the regions. So there is an information void. Even Facebook is disabled, and it may very well be that the Internet is generally disabled. Then we will get nothing but the official version. All this is done in order to neutralize the growing awareness of Russian aggression in Ukraine and the consequent casualties among the civilian population and the awareness among Russian military personnel that Putin’s blitzkrieg has failed . It becomes more or less clear, but the consequences are still not very clear.
In this kind of environment, can we really trust the polls in Russia? Aren’t people afraid to tell the truth?
Well, it’s a very old question, “Can opinion polls be trusted in authoritarian regimes?” My view is: definitely yes. What we measure is how people behave in the public sphere, not what they think personally. And this is much more important than the fact that, relatively speaking, let’s say Ivan Ivanovich [aka “Joe Bloggs”] can talk in the kitchen with his wife, he can scold Putin, he can denounce the war. But the public opportunism of conformism and the expression of loyalty are important facts. Not what he personally thinks.
So what we see is a passive adaptation to a repressive state. It is a fact that must be understood. It is not about the fear or the sincerity of the people who respond to our interviews, but about whether they have other sources of information and understanding. Above all, those who are afraid and afraid to speak out are those who oppose Putin.
Why does the government rely so heavily on WWII imagery and slogans – “defeat the Nazis” etc.? – to sell this war to the population?
The cult of victory in the 1945 war is one of the most important points of Russian national pride and national identity. There’s not much else that hasn’t faded in the past. Gagarin’s successes in space and pride in flight already belong to the distant past. The state of Russian science is deplorable. The collective trauma of the collapse of the USSR and the loss of great power status is also extremely painful for the collective consciousness. But this feeling of capital (morale) of victory in the Second World War remains. And it is from this subject that public opinion is manipulated.
Russia is currently on the brink of an economic disaster. Who do the Russians blame for this?
Well, about 60% think the US is to blame for the war between Russia and Ukraine, 14% blame Ukraine, and only 3% blame Russia.
But as for the economic crisis, so far the population has not realized all the consequences of a sharp deterioration in the situation… Only in the largest cities, cities with a million inhabitants, where people are more dependent on imports. But the bulk of the population, about 60%, is made up of inhabitants of villages and small towns, and medium-sized towns. This situation does not affect them yet. They are poor and depressed provinces.
I think that in a few weeks or even a few months, the situation for the whole population will become clearer and more understandable. And for now, of course, the majority is blaming the West, while the people of the megalopolises are blaming Putin’s policies.
Putin got a 20 approval rating after invading Crimea in 2014. Will he get the same this time around?
Putin’s rating began to rise even before the war. In December, his approval rating was 65%, in January 69%, then in February 71%. This is a very insignificant increase. And now, the latest measurements show that it is no longer increasing.
I think this will decrease in the near future, when, on the one hand, the first economic consequences of the real reaction of the West to the war become clear, and on the other hand, when the table of military losses of Russia will become clear. For now, everything is censored, or officials lie about troop losses. But when it becomes clear to the population, the situation will begin to change. Yet it would be a mistake to expect this to be an immediate response.
You mentioned that young people are generally more critical. How do they react?
Young people, in comparison with other age groups, view all recent events negatively. And in general, they are quite critical of Putin, especially those who are between 25 and 35 years old.
But the social impact is insignificant, especially since repression has greatly increased. There is not only this law which allows the authorities to imprison people for up to 15 years, but there are also daily police actions – the police go around the apartments of those who have signed anti-war appeals or speak out against war on the Internet. There’s a whole so-called “cybercrime” department that records all of these anti-war videos that are online and uses them to initiate investigations. Not to mention the number of detainees in recent days, the number of arrests is approaching 5,000.
Hence the sharp increase in migration, the rush abroad, partly to avoid being drafted into the army – we speak of general mobilization. Therefore, the young people of service age, of course, are doing everything they can to leave, but also the whole opposition intelligentsia is trying to escape before the iron curtain comes down.
How does Putin’s repression compare to Soviet repression?
Look, in Soviet times it was total control and total repression. Therefore, the level of repression we were accustomed to was stable, high and unconditional. Today, after all, a generation was born that did not know all this. From then on, this new wave of fines, arrests and the closing of information channels produced a real shock. But in terms of scale and intensity, of course, it cannot be compared to what it was in Soviet times.
Are you afraid to do your job now?
No, we are not afraid, but there are external restrictions associated with our status as a “foreign agent”. [Levada was designated a “foreign agent” under Russian laws in 2016] First of all, these are financial restrictions, not restrictions on the subjects of our surveys or on the organization of the surveys. I will say though that we have decided not to publish the latest polls [on Russian support for the war] so as not to legitimize this war. I believe that when the acute phase of this crisis is over, we will publish both the analysis and the data itself.
You are often accused of being pessimistic. What are you waiting for in Russia now?
It depends on the timeline for the future. In the next two years, there will certainly be a sharp deterioration in the economic situation, a brutal hardening of the repressive regime, of course. Most likely, we will be dealing with the failure of the military operation and the war in Ukraine, and there may be a split in Putin’s circle.
But the split, like all conspiracies, will be hidden. One can only judge the existence of tensions and conflicts, not the conspiracies themselves. I think this will lead to a sharp increase in discontent, the paralysis of the economy and, further, the beginning of the collapse of the system that Putin has built.
But don’t assume it will be a quick process. The inertia of this regime is quite large and depends a lot on the position of Western countries and the rigidity and consistency with which they act [towards Russia.]
What do Western observers get most wrong about Russia?
Well, for a long time it seems to me that the concept of “democratic transition” dominated. This was clearly less a description of reality than a recommendation of what to do, and wishful thinking was thus presented as a genuine misunderstanding of the stability or inertia of the existing structures of soviet type.
Once again, I repeat: the Soviet system collapsed, but some institutions remained unreformed or unchanged. These are first of all the structures of power, the army, the political police, etc. And the inertia of these structures has not been taken into account by Western politicians. This seems to me to be a very big mistake.