From RBC Daily, Sept. 30, 2023, https://www.rbc.ru/interview/politics/30/09/2023/6516d4959a7947607f4970c8. Condensed text:) Editors’ Note. – In this interview, All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (ARCSPO) director Valery Fyodorov explains to RBC how “fighting Russia” is different from “urban Russia,” what Russian people’s hopes are and how they are coping with anxiety.
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Question. – How has Russian society changed over the last 17 months, since the beginning of the military operation in Ukraine?
Answer. – I like the concept of “four Russias” introduced by Yevgenia Stulova, [executive director] at Minchenko Consulting [lobbying firm]. She says Russians can be divided into four categories: “fighting Russia,” “urban Russia,” “rural Russia” and “departed Russia.” To some people, the [special military] operation (SMO) was a long-awaited event that helped them mobilize. To others, it was a shock or a trauma that prompted them to leave the country or at least resign themselves to “psychological emigration.” To still others, it was a chance to make quite a bit of money by putting their lives and their health on the line. All these categories are very different but all of them – except for those who left – are united in their support of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. Putin is not just a symbol to them; he is the anchor that can save them from the storm, and they are clinging to him. Russia is in a very difficult situation right now, and people view Putin as their protector and savior. People realize that we are all in the same boat, and now is not the time to be divided. If we scatter, it will only make things worse, and we will all perish.
Q.– Is it possible that many people are simply afraid of speaking their minds?
A. – You’re right, some people have clammed up. They are keeping to themselves and trying not to discuss controversial issues with strangers. This is understandable, because there are tougher, wartime penalties now for various violations. But at the same time, I can’t say that we are observing a marked difference in the way our respondents communicate with us these days.
Q. – You’re saying that people clammed up and are keeping to themselves. Does this mean that the polls that show a high level of support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine may not reflect how people actually feel?
A. – Usually, 16% to 18% of the respondents say that they are against the special military operation. These are people who received a phone call from a random number. They have no idea who is really calling them and where they got their number. We explain to them that our polls are anonymous but, unfortunately, few people believe that. And in spite of all that, these people still say they are against the SMO. Do you think they are not being sincere?
Q. – Perhaps they are.
A. – And what about those who say they support the SMO?
Q. – Some of them may be sincere as well. But how many of them are then in fact against the SMO?
A. – Pollsters have been debating the issue of insincere responses for about two decades. People always lie. But the percentage of people lying is not always the same. It changes from poll to poll. It’s not like you have a certain number of people who always lie. One person may lie in a certain situation and tell you the truth the next time, while another person may do the opposite: first tell you the truth and then lie. For example, we had a problem with [support for] the Communist [Party] back in the 1990s, because people would never tell us the truth. We would ask them whom they were going to vote for, and they would give us all sorts of answers except the truth – that they were going to vote for the Communists. That’s because party bosses used to tell them that the FSB [Federal Security Service] was using the polls to try to identify Communist supporters, so they should never tell anybody that they support the Communist Party. That’s why the Communists always did very poorly in the polls, but then won two elections out of three.
Most Russians agree today that launching the SMO was a difficult choice, but the president did what he had to do. His approval rating went up significantly after Feb. 24, 2022 [i.e., the start of the war in Ukraine; see Vol. 74, No. 8, pp. 9‑13 – Trans.] – from 63% to 74%. That is a high number, and it has a psychological effect on the people, even without any propaganda. This mainstream mentality emerged last spring and continues to this day. Of course, some people don’t share this view. So, to borrow the model proposed by [German economist] Albert Hirschman, they have to choose between voice, exit and loyalty. In other words, you can either show solidarity and accept the new paradigm, you can protest, or you can leave – leave your family, your company, your country, etc. So, this is precisely what happened. People have made their choice, and they are sticking to it. We don’t see too many people switching sides.
Q. – Speaking at a meeting of the ARCSPO research council on June 8, Boris Makarenko, president of the Center for Political Technologies, complained that people have been reluctant to sign up for focus groups since Feb. 24. Men under 40 are particularly hard to recruit. It is harder now to have a meaningful conversation with respondents. Often, people prefer to use gestures instead of words. “We should examine this phenomenon to see if perhaps we are dealing again with the same situation we had during the late Soviet period. Back then, everybody knew that when you are dealing with the authorities, you never tell them what you really think,” Makarenko said. What is your opinion in thi regard?
A. – The situation during the late Soviet period was more complex. It didn’t have some goose-stepping official talking about some lofty ideas and expecting ordinary people to do something, versus a smart ordinary person who pretends to believe him. No, officials and ordinary people were in the same boat. They all knew that there was real life, meaning misery of a consumerist Soviet society with not too much to consume, and then there was abstract talk, whatever was left of the Soviet ideology, like, “We support world peace,” or “We support developed socialism,” and so on. Both ordinary people and officials knew the difference between the two: All of that abstract talk is just a simple ritual that we have to observe, and it has nothing to do with this complex real life that has its own rules.
Now, what does our situation today look like? There is no Communist ideology. What we have today is Russian patriotism. Everything is built around this patriotism. [People say,] “We are for Russia and against Ukraine and the West,” or, “We are for our military,” or, “We are for unity.” Most people in Russia share these ideas.
Q. – But isn’t it true that people are more reluctant to talk to pollsters since Feb. 24?
A. – Some pollsters confirm that. Others say that nothing has changed. Still others say that, on the contrary, people are more sincere and cooperative these days. We [at ARCSPO] did not see an increase in the number of negative responses in February or March . On the contrary, we saw that people were more open to talking than usual, especially men, which is a very interesting category. Prior to that, for a variety of reasons, men weren’t that eager to talk to us, and then bam, all of a sudden they all wanted to have a heart-to-heart conversation.
Q. – Did the situation change after mobilization? Speaking at the same meeting of the ARCSPO research council, Vladimir Zvonovsky, president of the Social Research Foundation, said that the number of people refusing to take part in polls increased after the mobilization campaign [see Vol. 74, No. 38, pp. 3‑6], and respondents became less cooperative.
A. – We at ARCSPO did not see that. Those who fled from Russia are the only exception. But, let’s face it, it’s hard to reach those people by phone anyway.
Q. – What is the prevalent sentiment in Russia today? Is it anxiety, apathy or optimism?
A. – Anxiety is the core sentiment, and it has been for about five years. Russia has been in a tough spot, socially and psychologically, since mid-2018. First, we had the pension reform [see Vol. 70, No. 24‑25, pp. 6‑8], then the pandemic and now the SMO. All these things take a heavy toll on people. We are seeing more instances of deviant behavior. The birth rate has dropped. People have to work harder to keep their lives under control. It’s exhausting. The current situation is fraught with more risks and threats, and people are aware of that. You don’t know what to expect; every day is full of surprises – drone attacks on the Kremlin [see Vol. 75, No. 18‑19, pp. 8‑11], an attack on the Crimean bridge, mobilization, Prigozhin’s mutiny [see Vol. 75, No. 26, pp. 3‑9, and pp. 10‑17], etc., etc.
At the same time, people are adapting. Those in “urban Russia” are turning inward: They have enough on their plate as it is, and they don’t really care about what happens on the battlefield many miles away. “Fighting Russia,” on the other hand, is mobilized. “Everything we’ve got is for our troops, for our victory” – this World War II slogan is really how they live. This is not to say that all these people are at the front line; some of them are families of those fighting; some are volunteering [to help with the war effort]. Perhaps they are a relatively small segment of society but it’s a very active, very zealous segment. Overall, the prevalent sentiment is a mixed bag. There is a little bit of everything: You have people who are anxious; you have people yearning to bring their lives back to normal in whatever way they can; you have people desperate to see Russia win as soon as possible; and you have people who wish to forget about the big things happening around them and focus on their private lives.
Q. – How many people in Russia, would you say, are in the category of people who are withdrawn and focused on their own lives?
A. – I’d say about 20 million. These are what we call “urban Russia.” These are the people who benefited the most from the earlier period of prosperity. At first, they were frustrated because of the pandemic, since it affected their lifestyle more than [those of] low-income households. Some of these people have left, but most of them are still here. These are, if you will, the petite bourgeoisie – middle-class people living in big cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg or Yekaterinburg. They pretend like nothing’s changed. They are not particularly interested in the latest news from the front unless it directly threatens their own safety.
Q. – What about the people who don’t live in big cities? How do they respond to such threats?
A. – If we take the provinces bordering Ukraine, some people have left, while others are on the alert. They have accepted higher risks as part of their daily lives. These people are much more eager to see the SMO result in a win for Russia. On the other hand, if we take some other parts of Russia, like the territories east of the Ural Mountains, Siberia and the Far Eastern provinces, as well as many provinces in Central Russia, people are mostly concerned about the same issues as always: rising prices, the cost of medicine, the lack of jobs, etc. And then, of course, there are people looking for new opportunities. And some of them do find those. . . .
Q. – What do Russians expect from the future?
A. – It depends on the person. People have several visions of the future, and each category of people has its own preferred version. The first version goes like this: Life in Russia will be similar to the idealistic notion of what life in the West supposedly looks like – comfortable, prosperous and nice. Plus, of course, peaceful and calm. Basically, this is how the rest of Russia sees Moscow. We can call this vision of the future “comfortable Russia.”
The second vision is “techno-smart future.” Advanced technology, manned missions to Mars, cyborgs, self-driving cars, delivery drones, etc. People can easily move across borders, and the world has become more or less homogeneous. This vision of the future is popular among tech specialists and youth with a globalist outlook.
The third vision is “Russia as a great power.” A nation that is not afraid of standing up to others. A nation that others fear and respect because it is powerful and strong. A nation that has won the SMO and isn’t going to stop there. A nation that plays an important role in the world. This vision of the future is popular among the people who make up “fighting Russia.”
Finally, there is the vision of Russia as the land of social justice – a country that has solved the problem of inequality: a country where social justice is more than just a slogan, where equal opportunity is for everyone and not just for the children of government officials and billionaires. This vision is popular among older people, those retired or about to retire, with moderate left-leaning views and those feeling nostalgic about the Soviet past.
Is it possible to combine all these visions into one? Hypothetically, it may be. I would call this combined vision “Soviet Union 2.0.” Or “Soviet but not communist,” meaning, without the communist ideology. This would be a technologically advanced Russia with low inequality and strong leadership – a Russia that enjoys respect from other countries and lives in comfort. I think it is important for Russia to formulate this kind of synthesized vision of the future.
Q. – What vision of the future can the Russian leadership offer people in the upcoming presidential election?
A. – Security. Security is the most valuable asset right now; it’s what people miss the most. Apart from security, economic and social motifs, of course, will also be present [in the campaign]. Vladimir Putin is the guarantor of security, and that’s not just his responsibility as president enshrined in the Constitution; it’s simply what he does. He keeps people protected, and he also exercises oversight – meaning that he makes sure government officials work for the good of the country, not just for their own benefit. He is also someone people know they can come to with their problems, and he will help them. These are his key functions, and he’s been doing all this for many years. So, of course, they will matter to voters in 2024 as well. . . .
Q. – How do people define victory and defeat [in this conflict]?
A. – The terms put forward by [Ukrainian President Vladimir] Zelensky (i.e., Russia withdrawing its troops back to the 1991 borders – Ed.) are unacceptable to the Russian people. [Victory means] that we must gain something and ensure our security, not give something up and accept that we will be living under constant threat from Kiev.
Q. – If Russia merely maintains the status quo, can that be presented as a victory?
A. – That might be enough for some people – especially since we have a land “bridge” to the Crimea [i.e., via occupied Ukrainian territory – Trans.] as a nice and clear symbol. Some people even got a chance to use it when the Crimean bridge was temporarily shut down following an attack. But for the most part, people will let the president decide what the terms of a peace deal should be: “It’s your call what the terms should be; just let us know when you think it’s time to make peace. We will support whatever decision you make.” Russians have always supported Putin because of his foreign policy. Foreign policy is the key factor propping up his approval ratings. And it still works.
Q. – What about Vladimir Putin’s electoral base? Do you think it has changed compared to the 2018 presidential campaign?
A. – People won’t really start thinking about whom they should vote for until January. After all, we are in a wartime situation. Things are very fluid. Many factors have an effect on people: the situation on the battlefield, drone attacks, exchange rate volatility, etc., etc.
When a country is in a crisis, events can develop fairly quickly and it’s hard to make predictions. So, I’d say it would be irresponsible for me to speculate about where the country might be in March 2024.
If the situation remains pretty much the same, the most likely scenario looks as follows: The Ukrainian military continues with its frontal assault on our “dragon’s teeth” [defense lines] without making much progress. We continue to destroy their Leopard tanks and shoot down their F‑16s – if and when they get them. The West’s support for Ukraine gradually peters out: Their rhetoric is still “fire and brimstone,” but there is not much happening when it comes to providing real military assistance. Russia’s economy has some problems, but overall [the economic situation] is not too bad: There is no shortage of basic goods, the job market is strong, wages and pensions are growing. So, if things stay the course, Putin will be perceived not only as a symbol of Russia and its military leader, but also as a hero who helped his country prevail in this fierce battle with the West.
Q. – How do you explain the [Yevgeny] Prigozhin phenomenon? Was he so popular because people like it when someone is straight with them?
A. – Russians always suspect that “things are not what they seem.” That’s what the last eight decades have taught people. So straight shooters will always be popular in Russia. The reason Yevgeny Prigozhin was so popular is because he knew what people wanted and he gave them precisely that. But while people may adore someone because he is straight with them, that doesn’t mean they will still adore him if he starts a revolution. . . .
Q. – Did you do any polls on Prigozhin after his death? Do you know if people view him differently now?
A. – It’s too early to tell at this point, but I would venture to suggest that perhaps some of the negative attitudes that were so strong immediately after the mutiny will wear off over time. In fact, even Vladimir Putin, when he spoke [about Prigozhin’s death], did not sound as harsh as he did in late June [i.e., during the mutiny – Trans.]. (In his address to the nation on June 24, the president described what the Wagner Group chief did as a “betrayal” and a “stab in the back.” – Ed.).
This event [i.e., the plane crash that killed Prigozhin; see Vol. 75, No. 34-35, pp. 3-7 – Trans.] got a lot of attention. We know from the data collected by some of our colleagues that for a couple of weeks, this story even slightly outranked SMO news. This was the first time in a long time that this happened. And indeed, a flashy, prominent person died. What’s more, this didn’t happen many months or even years after he was the center of everybody’s attention; it happened just eight weeks later. Prigozhin was still on everybody’s mind, and some people were hoping that he might still be able to serve his country. And in addition, the overall shroud of mystery played a role. People were wondering: How did it happen? Who did it? Is he really dead or is he hiding somewhere? All these speculations generated additional interest. Together, all of these factors put him back in the spotlight, only posthumously.
Q. – Prigozhin and [Igor] Strelkov were regarded as faces of the so-called war party. How large, in your opinion, is this group of people?
A. – This group existed even before the SMO. But when fighting started, these people came to the forefront. They felt they were on the right side of history and were able to push their narrative. For a time, the official line and their convictions went hand in hand. But these people wanted more; they harshly criticized everything: Russia’s strategy, Russian politics, the quality of the Russian Armed Forces, etc. And it’s an explosive mixture. Has this group grown? It has, but not too much. These people account for 10% to 15% [of the population]. Most people in Russia are not asking the military to take Kiev or Odessa. Fighting doesn’t make them happy. They would have preferred it if Russia hadn’t launched the military operation. But it is what it is, and so we have no choice but to win. That’s why these people support Russia, our military and Putin. This is the predominant mentality today, just like it was a year ago.
Q. – Now that the war party has lost its most prominent leaders, do you think it may lose some of its supporters? Or will it perhaps get even angrier as a result?
A. – Actually, it would be wrong to say that this group has lost its leaders. Strelkov has never been a leader. He was a figurehead at the most. Strelkov is absolutely unfit for politics. Prigozhin, on the other hand, did have some potential as a politician, but he quickly squandered it.
Also, a more appropriate term would be “fighting Russia,” not “war party.” And yes, it’s a powerful movement. It emerged and organized for one purpose only – to defeat the enemy. [Its members] do have some questions. For example, why can’t we take Kharkov or Odessa if we’re so mighty? We had a very nice new battle tank, the Armata, paraded on Red Square for years, but how come we don’t see it on the battlefield today? And, obviously, we have some domestic enemies in addition to external ones, so why don’t we name them? Why aren’t we fighting them?
Nevertheless, “fighting Russia” supports Putin. All of these people’s energy, all their zeal, is channeled into this fight against Ukraine. So, I would say that, on the one hand, members of “fighting Russia” may present a certain risk for political stability within Russia, but, on the other hand, I would say this risk is manageable.
Q. – The old Soviet practice of reporting on your colleagues or neighbors for “unpatriotic” behavior or views has returned. Why did this happen?
A. – We haven’t observed any resurgence of reporting practices. I think we’re actually seeing something else. Let’s say you don’t like what a certain local official is doing. So instead of staying quiet, you complain, you write open letters, etc. All this existed before the SMO, and on a large scale. . . .
Q. – But if someone says that they don’t support the military operation, why would you regard such a person as dangerous?
A. – In Russia we don’t punish people for not supporting the SMO. People get punished for discrediting the military.
Q. – But any antiwar activist may face criminal charges of discrediting the military or circulating fake reports.
A. – Like I said, many people in Russia openly say they don’t support the SMO, even though people don’t really believe that our polls are genuinely anonymous. Are all these people in prison or in exile? No, of course not.