When Vladimir Putin took the decision to send his armies into Ukraine, he claimed to be acting on behalf of the Russian people. Defending them, he said, from the threat of “Nazism.”
But after two weeks of war — or the “special military operation,” as it’s called in Russia — how do Russians feel about what’s being done in their name?
According to Lev Dmitrievich Gudkov, director of the Moscow-based Levada Center, the last 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 polls even be trusted? We sat down with Gudkov to discuss that question, along with how the population is responding to the country’s sudden isolation and economic crisis, and what it all may mean for Vladimir Putin in the future.
Lev Dmitrievich, how does Russian society in general view what is going on in Ukraine?
Public opinion is divided. The less well-educated, older part of the population, those out in the provinces, the people whose sources of information are extremely limited, this part of the population basically repeats what comes through propaganda channels, that is, through the television channels. So two-thirds of the population approve of the war.
The other, smaller part of the population, just over a quarter of the population, is much younger. They are mostly in large 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 naturally have a negative attitude towards Putin’s policy there.
But overall, people are very afraid of the war and still support Putin’s approach because, from their point of view, Putin is protecting his people from the "Ukrainian Nazis", from "genocide", from what the television broadcasts.
Are Russians able to get alternative sources of information about what’s happening?
In recent days, censorship has sharply increased. As you know, a number of popular alternative sites and internet portals have been closed, especially in the regions. Therefore, there is an information vacuum. Even Facebook is turned off, and it may very well be that, generally speaking, the internet will be turned off. Then we won’t get anything other than the official version. This is all being done in order to neutralize growing awareness of Russian aggression in Ukraine and, accordingly, of the casualties among the civilian population and the realization among Russian military personnel that Putin's blitzkrieg has failed. This is becoming more or less clear, but the consequences are not very clear yet.
Given that kind of environment, can we really trust polls in Russia? Aren’t people scared to tell the truth?
Well, this is a very old question, “can public opinion polls be trusted in authoritarian regimes?” My point of view is: definitely yes. What we measure is how people behave in the public sphere, not what they personally think. And this is much more important than the fact that, relatively speaking, say Ivan Ivanovich [aka “Joe Bloggs”] can talk in the kitchen with his wife, he can scold Putin, he can speak out against the war. But the public opportunism of conformity and the expression of loyalty – these are the important facts. Not what he personally thinks.
So what we see is passive adaptation to a repressive state. This is a fact that must be understood. It's not about the fear or sincerity of the people who respond to our interviews, but whether they have other sources of information and understanding. Most of all, the ones who are fearful and afraid to talk are the people who are opposed to Putin.
Why is the government leaning so hard on World War II imagery and slogans – “defeating the Nazis,” and so on – to sell this war to the population?
The cult of victory in the war of 1945 is one of the most important points of Russian national pride and national identity. There’s not much else that hasn’t faded into the past. The successes of space and pride in [Soviet cosmonaut Yuri] Gagarin's flight are already in the distant past. The state of Russian science is deplorable. The collective trauma from the collapse of the USSR and the loss of the status of a great power is also extremely painful for the collective consciousness. But this feeling of moral capital from victory in World War II remains. And it is with this topic that public opinion is being manipulated.
Russia is currently on the brink of an economic catastrophe. Who do Russians blame for that?
Well, roughly 60% believe that it is the United States that 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 or more inhabitants, where people are more dependent on imports. But the bulk of the population, 60% or so, are residents of villages and small towns, and medium-sized towns. This situation has not reached them yet. These are poor, depressed provinces.
I think that in a few weeks or even months, the situation for the population as a whole will become more unambiguous and understandable. For the time being, of course, the majority blame the West, while the population of the megacities blames it on Putin's policy.
Putin famously got a 20-point approval rating jump from annexing Crimea in 2014. Will he get the same this time?
Putin's rating began to rise even before the war. In December, his approval rating was 65%, in January 69%, then in February 71%. But this is a very insignificant rise. And now the latest measurements show that it’s not growing further.
I think it will go down in the near future, when, on the one hand, the first economic consequences of the West's actual reaction to the war become clear, and on the other hand, when the picture of Russia's military losses becomes clear. For now, it's all being censored, or the officials are just lying about the troop losses. But when it becomes clear to the population, the situation will begin to change. Still, it would be a mistake to expect that this would be an immediate response.
You mentioned that youth are generally more critical. How are they responding?
Young people really, in comparison with other age groups, see all the recent events negatively. And in general, they are quite critical of Putin, especially those who are 25-35 years old.
But the social impact of this is insignificant, all the more so since repression has sharply increased. There’s not only this law that allows the authorities to put people in prison for a period of up to 15 years, but also there are everyday policing actions – the police go around to the apartments of those who have signed anti-war appeals or speak out against the war on the internet. There’s a whole so-called “cybercrime” department making a record of all these anti-war videos that are online and using them to open 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 stampede of people abroad, partly to avoid being drafted into the army – there is talk of general mobilization. Therefore, young people of military age, of course, are doing whatever they can to leave, but also all the opposition-minded intelligentsia are trying to escape before the iron curtain falls.
How does Putin’s repression compare to Soviet repression?
Look, in Soviet times, it was total control and total repression. Therefore, the level of repressiveness one was accustomed to was stable, high, and unconditional. Today, after all, a generation has come into life that did not know all this. Therefore, this new wave of enforcement of fines, arrests, the closing of information channels produces a real shock. But in terms of scale and intensity, of course, this cannot be compared with what it was in Soviet times.
Are you afraid to do your work 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 topics of our surveys or the organization of surveys. I will say, however, that we decided not to publish the latest polls [on Russian support for the war] so as not to legitimize this war. I think that, when the acute phase of this crisis is over, we will publish both the analysis and the data themselves.
Years ago you and Yuri Levada, the founder of the Levada Center, coined the idea of the “Soviet Man”, who lived with a double consciousness, adapting himself to totalitarian structures of life. Can we speak about a “Putin Man” today?
No, this is still a continuation of the same type of person created by totalitarian (Soviet) institutions. Despite the fact that the communist system itself collapsed, many totalitarian-type institutions remained: the powers of the political police, a vertical of power that is not controlled by society, a court system completely dependent on the presidential administration, and so on.
Young people are more unconditionally tolerant, more pro-Western oriented people. They would like a democratic system in Russia, but what do the existing institutions do to them? When a person, regardless of what beliefs he had in his youth, begins to enter adulthood, he begins to work, start a family, becomes a part of the environment around him, he willy-nilly begins to accept those rules of behavior that apply to the elders. This forces him to demonstrate ostentatious loyalty to the state even while maintaining both his thoughts and his distrust and his sense of endless violence from the state and its lies. As we say in Russian, "he who lives among wolves learns to howl like them."
Russia's Future: Discontent, Economic Paralysis, End of Putin's System | Lev Gudkov | GZERO Media youtu.be
You are often accused of being a pessimist. What do you expect in Russia's future?
That depends on what the timeframe is. In the next two years, there will definitely be a sharp deterioration in the economic situation, a sharp tightening 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 inner circle.
But the split, like all conspiracies, will be hidden. We can only judge the existence of tensions and conflicts, but not the conspiracies themselves. I think that this will lead to a strong increase in discontent, paralysis in the economy and, further, the beginning of the collapse of the system that Putin built.
But don’t assume that this will be a quick process. The inertia of this regime is quite large, and a lot depends on the position of Western countries and how rigidly and consistently they act [towards Russia.]
And will “Soviet Man” outlive that collapse of the system that Putin has built?
I think that for the next two generations at least he will survive. That is, these mechanisms of adaptation to power will survive – the hypocrisy, the fear, the anxiety, the imperial values and ideas, and so on. Because so far, it is precisely because of the castration of intellectual and cultural elites that no new ideas have arisen. This is the problem.
What is the thing that Western observers get most wrong about Russia?
Well, for a long time it seems to me that the concept of “democratic transition” dominated. It was clearly not so much a description of reality as a recommendation of what needs to be done, and thus wishful thinking was passed off as a real misunderstanding of how stable or inertial the existing structures of the Soviet type are.
Once again, I repeat: the Soviet system collapsed, but some of the institutions remained unreformed or unchanged: the power structures, the army, the political police, and so on. And the inertia of these structures was not taken into account by Western politicians. This seems to me to be a very big mistake.
This interview was translated from the Russian and edited for clarity.