The last few weeks seem to have demonstrated, on the one hand, that an armed confrontation between Russia and NATO countries is out of the question and, on the other hand, that international sanctions alone will not be enough to force Moscow to stop the invasion of Ukraine. So who can stop Vladimir Putin in this war (or in his future wars)? The answer is single: the Russian people.
However, it is obvious that the Russian people will not be able to do this tomorrow morning. And no external force will be able to push them to oppose the Kremlin regime en masse in the immediate future. But, in the end, real changes in Russia will take place only when the society strongly demands freedom and a dignified life. That is why it is essential to study in detail how Russians are reacting to Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine.
Control of power over society
In his 22 years in power, Putin has succeeded in creating a resilient repressive system. The power vertical tightly controls political life and public expression throughout the country, so that for years a large majority of Russians have preferred to assert themselves “outside politics” in order not to risk losing their jobs, their physical integrity, their freedom or even their lives – and, at the same time, in order not to admit that, in the face of power, they feel powerless and weak.
This sense of fear and helplessness is compounded by incessantly hammered propaganda, which is being deployed in a media landscape that the government has finished cleaning up in recent weeks. This propaganda has convinced a large part of the population that the president has no choice but to launch a “special military operation” in Ukraine to save Russia from destruction.
Yet the invasion of Ukraine has not generated euphoria in Russia comparable to that seen in spring 2014 following the annexation of Crimea. Despite surveys that announce 70% popular support for the “special operation”-but which cannot be taken seriously given the Russian government’s total control over polls-there is a lack of enthusiasm about the war among the Russian population.
Supporting actions are mainly organized by administrations, and the people who take part in them are, most often, civil servants.
For example, in universities, administrations have staged videos of students expressing their support for Putin; in several public elementary school, teachers have arranged groups of children to form the letter Z (which has become the symbol of the invasion of Ukraine); in St. Petersburg, on the famous Nevsky Prospect, a police band played patriotic songs at the top of its lungs to disrupt anti-war demonstrators; in some cities, municipal bus drivers were forced to put a Z sign on their vehicles.
On March 18, 2022, the Kremlin organized a large concert in the Luzhniki Stadium on the eighth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea to show public support for the war in Ukraine.According to official data, nearly 200,000 people attended. Testimonies of participants later revealed that many of them were forced to come (under threat of being fired) and many were paid.
In reality, all these actions do not tell us anything about the public opinion in Russia. For the moment, we can only see the mosaic of different trends in Russian society.
Fear and denial
The first trend is fear and denial in Russian society. An example of the fear caused by the all-out repression unleashed by the government against all those who contest the war: in mid-March, an attempt to conduct a realistic survey on the population’s perception of the war had edifying results. Of the 31,000 people the agency was able to reach by phone, almost 29,000 hung up as soon as they realized they were going to be asked about the “special operation” in Ukraine (usually, the proportion of people refusing to answer telephone polls is three to five times lower).
Much of the denial is due to the success of the propaganda mentioned above. After the closure of the last few media outlets open to alternative views to the government’s, most Russians found themselves in an information bubble. The state-controlled media are broadcasting an extremely biased interpretation, hiding the real information about the Russian offensive on Ukrainian towns and villages, presenting Ukrainians as hostages of a Nazi clique and claiming that it is the Ukrainian army and volunteer battalions that are themselves firing missiles at residential buildings in their country and blaming the destruction on the Russians – who, for their part, are allegedly extremely careful to spare civilians.
Some Russians, especially those who have installed VPNs on their computers and smartphones, have access to sources of information inaccessible to their compatriots, know that the reality is different from the image presented on television. But even these people rarely have the courage to discuss it with their relatives, friends and colleagues.
Anonymous denunciations, widespread under the USSR, have become commonplace again. The fear of arrest has begun to destroy horizontal social ties and has atomized society, making collective resistance impossible.
The second trend is precisely the emergence of Soviet reflexes in the Russian population. The “homo sovieticus” was thought to have disappeared with the fall of the USSR, but it seems that its burial was premature.
In addition to the anonymous reports already mentioned, the ideas of nationalization of foreign companies that have decided to suspend their activities in Russia, the introduction of strict price controls by the state, or the expropriation of property owned by the “enemies of the people” who left the national territory after the beginning of the “special military operation” are often brandished by those who support the war in Ukraine.
More directly, direct references to the USSR are flourishing. Tanks on their way to Ukraine are flying Soviet flags. During the concert that the Kremlin organized on March 18, 2022 in Moscow to show popular support for the president, the main song was “Made in the Soviet Union” (which starts with “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova… That’s my country!” before adding a little later “Kazakhstan and the Caucasus, and the Baltic too!”).
Today’s deeply corrupt and kleptocratic Russian system, run by an elite that generally uses the embezzled money to afford a luxurious lifestyle, has little to do with any communist ideal. Nevertheless, the country’s current leaders, most of whom are old enough to have been trained and educated in the USSR, are happy to use typical Soviet propaganda.
Thus, in September 2021, on the Facebook page of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to justify the idea that Russia has never attacked another country (a fundamental element of the Kremlin’s propaganda) the partition of Poland by Germany and the USSR in 1939 was simply presented as a “liberating expedition” by the Red Army – a vision in line with the one propagated in the USSR and taken up on several occasions by Vladimir Putin, who did not hesitate to rehabilitate the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
Young against old
The third trend at work is the growing generation gap in Russia.
Many young Russians are opposed to this war. They are the ones who come out in the streets the most, they are the ones who are most often arrested by the police during demonstrations. Students confide on social networks and sometimes to their teachers that the hardest thing for them today is to talk to their own parents, who are either indoctrinated by television or paralyzed by fear of repression, and therefore pressure their children to keep them quiet.
Modern Russian youth is largely globalized and open to dialogue with other cultures. They live like Western youth: they listen to the same music, watch the same series, love the same brands and use the same formulas (lol, crush, chill, etc.). This trend may contribute to the evolution of Russian society in the future – but not in the immediate future.
What about the intelligentsia?
It is impossible to understand Russian society without mentioning the intelligentsia. The philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev said that writers and poets are the conscience of the nation and best represent the real Russia. Today, we can see that a large majority of the Russian intelligentsia is radically opposed to the war that Putin has unleashed.
These include writer Boris Akunin, director Andrei Zviaguintsev, writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya, actress Shulpan Khamatova, writer Dmitry Glukhovsky, as well as Russian youth idols such as singers Oxxxymiron, Monetochka, Face, Noize MC, and the country’s most popular blogger, Yuri Dud. Most of them have already left Russia.
All of them take up positive ideas intrinsic to Russian culture: the value of individual freedom sung by Alexander Pushkin, the absurdity of a harmony built on even a single tear of a child, as expressed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the rejection of violence that Leo Tolstoy placed at the heart of his philosophy.
The Russian people have always been slightly out of step with their intelligentsia. Nevertheless, they have always managed to reunite with it. It will still take time for the whole population to become aware of the tragedy that is currently taking place. How long? That is the uncertainty. What is certain is that only after a critical analysis of the Putin regime and the expurgation of the hatred it has infused into Russian society can real changes take place.
Published by The Conversation France