From, Aug. 18, 2023, Condensed text:

Editors’ Note. – The Public Sociology Laboratory research project, initiated by a group of Russian opinion researchers and volunteers, has been conducting in-depth interviews with Russians about their attitudes toward the war with Ukraine since spring 2022. As experts conduct and analyze these interviews, they are noting changes in society and considering possible scenarios for its further transformation. Project cofounder Oleg Zhuravlyov tells how Russians have changed during the 18 months of the war; what is happening to supporters and opponents of the war; and which is more likely – consolidation around [Russian President Vladimir] Putin or antiwar protests.

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‘There is growing anxiety that the war will continue for a long time and that Russia may lose.

Question. – Why did you choose this research format – in-depth interviews? Why not quantitative sociological surveys?

Answer. – In-depth interviews are a method that we use in our laboratory’s research projects. When we saw last year’s survey data showing that 70% to 80% of Russian citizens supported the [Russian] special military operation [in Ukraine], we realized that this was not the whole story. Even assuming that these figures are not falsified, what do they mean? What is behind checking the “I support” box? In order to understand this, it is important to talk to the person [who checked that box]. This is why we began to conduct interviews. Recently, we published a second report, titled “Accepting the Inevitable” (based on interviews conducted in fall and winter 2022; the first report included interviews held from February through June 2022 – Ed.), as well as several articles. We are currently preparing a new survey.

Q. – How has Russians’ attitude toward the war in Ukraine been evolving during this year and a half? What important developments do your surveys show?

A. – The first wave of interviews was surprising in that very many, if not the majority of those who rhetorically supported the “special military operation” supported it not because they believed in its goals or because they agreed with its objectives. They explained their support as follows: “We are apolitical people; we do not understand anything about politics or about our government. We do not like the war, but the authorities must have some insider knowledge about global politics that we don’t. And we hope that they had grounds to start this war.”

This is interesting because we used to think – especially based on Western theories – that people support the ruling authorities because they share some sort of common ideology and common values – that the authorities are their representatives and that they represent the people because they identify with the people. Many Western journalists actually wrote that ordinary Russians and the Russian elite are united by an imperial consciousness. However, it turns out that the situation is the exact opposite. People who passively support the war (and both our quantitative and qualitative sociological surveys show that this support is mostly passive) support the authorities not because they identify with the latter, but because they actually do not. Interviewees say: “We really don’t like the authorities; we don’t understand anything about them. They do not even use the Internet. They are nothing like us. But maybe they have some secret knowledge about politics: Surely they didn’t start the war for nothing, right?”

Now, about what has changed. To be more precise, first, what has not changed. We conducted some follow-up interviews – in other words, we talked to the same people we spoke with in the spring. At the second stage of our studies, we were interested not in opponents of the war, but in either its supporters or the undecideds. At the time, we decided that everything was clear with opponents of the war – we might have been wrong, but that’s how it seemed to us then.

And here is what we saw: In an overwhelming majority of cases, people have not fundamentally changed their attitude toward the war. In other words, if they were supporters of the war, they remained its advocates; if they were undecided, they remained so.

This means that a certain attitude, an opinion on the war – it would not be quite correct to call it a “position” – is formed during the first month, maybe the first two months. Then it may change, but not radically. For example, a person was a moderate supporter of the war and then became an ardent one. Or vice versa, a person was a committed advocate of the war, but has become a passive supporter.

In other words, the extent and the emotional intensity of one’s attitude toward the war is changing, but supporters are not becoming opponents – this is important.

It is also important that we are now seeing people – and a very large number of them – who are starting to feel and think a lot about the fact that the war is dragging on. In other words, [at first] it seemed that this war would end soon, but now we see that it is becoming long-term. And this sense of a protracted war, which is becoming an integral part of daily life, is fueling anxiety that the war will increasingly spill over to Russian territory, that it will continue for a long time and that Russia may lose. There is also the fear of a new mobilization. This is not simply anxiety over the fact that the war is dragging on – various thoughts and emotions are arising from the protracted nature of the war.

For instance, support [for the war] may grow, since the war has been going on for too long and spilling over into Russian territory, and people are wishing that Russia would win [so the war] ends as soon as possible.

Or, conversely, support may weaken if people start wondering: If the war has been going on for so long, should it have been started in the first place?

Many of our first-time interviewees told us how their position was formed during the first months of the war. And we realized that over time, many people started to feel that this war was inevitable. These people, as we now know, condemned the war in the first several days and were saying exactly the same as opponents of the war were saying then and are saying now – namely, that the war against Ukraine is a crime, [and] that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a criminal. However, this moral condemnation did not result in a political position. Society is not politicized; it has no experience in converting anger into a political stance. It turns out that the war is bad [and] immoral, but [these people] cannot be against it, because they have remained in Russia and have to live here, while their antiwar friends have left for Georgia. At the same time, the war has now become a part of their daily lives.

So they argue that the war may be bad but [it was] inevitable. There can be various options here: Because “wars happen”: “We just got used to living without war, but in reality, it was simply a period of time without war, and wars rage on always and everywhere around world.” Or: “Russia and the West are constantly fighting with each other, and the war would have erupted sooner or later, in one way or another”; “the Donetsk Basin problem was at an impasse and evidently it must be solved by war.” In other words, a compromise of sorts began to emerge between the moral condemnation of the war and the inability to take an antiwar stance. And then what happens is this: Since [people believe] the war was inevitable, it is necessary to win. And it so happens that through this inevitability people are, to a certain extent, becoming advocates of the war. In other words, if it is inevitable, this means that we have a truth of our own in it.

After the second round of interviews, we realized that many people began to support the war not because the authorities, who know better, decided to wage it, but because they themselves came to believe that this war was inevitable. They begin to read extensively in order to substantiate this viewpoint, therefore essentially creating this inevitability.

I don’t want to accuse Russians of anything. In fact, I could not be further from that and I don’t want this to sound [as if I were]. However, people really believe in the inevitability of this war – emotionally, intellectually and on a deeply personal level.

Paradoxically, they are themselves creating the concept of the inevitability of the war. At the same time, this inevitability to them means is that they have no control, [and that] the war would have broken out whether they wanted it to or not. And people begin to forget that this war, which once seemed impossible, is now “inevitable.”

‘In Putin’s mind, domestic and external enemies are connected, since, in his opinion, revolutions are inspired by US influence.

Q. – Your Ukrainian colleague, sociologist Aleksandr Shulga, said that his organization’s surveys have shown that Russians have started to treat the war in Ukraine like [the] COVID‑[19 pandemic]: They cannot get away from it, but have to learn how to survive [see Vol. 75, No. 32, pp. 13‑16].

A. – This also in part reflects the reality of the powerlessness of society because it is depoliticized, and that [the country] is ruled by a dictatorship. And the main question about this inevitability and soft forms of support for the war is this: Will the neutral and passively prowar segment of society be inclined to retire into their shells even more or will it support the war more actively? Is this a departure from the [original] position, or a first step toward a more sincere and committed stance? After all, the Putin regime has always relied on the masses’ indifference to politics, on their apathy. However, the opponent has proven strong – both Ukraine, with its very good Army, and the West, which is supporting it. Now, it’s very difficult to win the war without the necessary public support.

Q. – Will Putin try to mobilize Russian society in earnest?

A. – This is a risky move because today you mobilize it, and tomorrow it overthrows you. Putin has never done so. This is also interesting, since Putin has rallied society but avoided mobilizing it. . . .

My point is that Putin himself has become politicized in response to protests [in the post-Soviet space – Trans.]. He has turned from an authoritarian manager into a political conflict manager, who is not simply addressing problems and ruling the civilian population in an authoritarian manner, but also confronting enemies [and] opponents. To him, politics has become not just a means of mediating interests, but also of fighting the enemy. And Putin’s domestic and external enemies are connected because, in his opinion, revolutions are inspired by US influence. At the same time, Putin has never mobilized his own supporters. In response to protests and revolutions, he has used propaganda, including the propaganda of “conservative” values, but has never led people to the streets. Yes, there was the “Crimean spring” in response, as it were, to Bolotnaya [Square protest rallies in Moscow in 2011-2012 – Trans.] and the pro-EU rallies [on Kiev’s Independence Square in 2013-2014 – Trans.], but all that was based on politicization without street mobilization.

Q. – What about all those public rallies, which public-sector employees were forced to attend? [Annual events at Moscow’s] Luzhniki [Stadium to mark the anniversaries of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea]; [shouts of] “Goida!1 and so on? Aren’t these attempts at street mobilization?

1[Reference to an old Russian war cry, which may translate as “Let’s go!” “Blood!” “Kill!” etc. – Trans.]

A. – All of this is a demonstration of loyalty, but a purely administrative one: There is no real political work with people to sincerely convince them of something. In fact, there was sincere mobilization against the pro-EU rallies in Ukraine itself, in the east of the country. This created a paradox, since Putin is not accustomed to it.

Putin has always been afraid of mobilizing his own audience while at the same time radicalizing and politicizing himself, his own entourage and his political regime in response to protests.

It turns out that we thought they were simply crooks and thieves, but they are fanatics, maniacs and psychopaths. Why? In response to [grassroots] revolutions, [the Russian elites] have also revolutionized, but they only revolutionized themselves, because it is too scary to revolutionize their supporters: After all, [the latter] could overthrow you.

So the question that connects public sentiment and the nature of the regime is this: Will people become more active supporters of the war, and will the regime be able to rely on active, rather than passive support? Will society become even more atomized [and] intimidated, or will more people rally around Putin or around the state? This is something that we do not know, and we will continue our surveys.

Q. – Which scenario do you think is more likely?

A. – We see preconditions for both.

‘People in Russia are tired of the war.

Q. – Contrary to expectations, the first wave of mobilization [see Vol. 74, No. 38, pp. 3‑6] did not compel people to protest against the regime, even though that’s when the war began to affect everyone. Why did that not happen? Hundreds of thousands had to wake up and make difficult decisions about whether to flee the country. However, some had to go to war to kill or be killed.

A. – Our interviews have shown that people are unhappy with the mobilization and its various aspects. However, there is no connection in their minds between three things: mobilization, the war and Putin. To us – i.e., to those who are more politicized and antiwar-minded – Putin, the war and mobilization are the same thing.

Meanwhile, for a lot of people in Russia, the war exists on one plane, Putin on another, and as for the mobilization, it is a complete disaster. . . .

As for those who fervently support the war, they do not consider it inevitable. On the contrary, they assert: “Putin went and made the decision, intervened in history [and] disrupted its course.” In other words, in their minds, the war was not inevitable – it was the decision of a “major politician,” of a “good man.” [To them,] Putin, who went and started the war, made a smart move. Otherwise, there would have been no war and that would have been bad.

Q. – What good is this war doing for people? What benefit are they seeing from it for themselves? What is the upside?

A. – They have various arguments, including the “restoration of Russian sovereignty”; the expectation that “Russia will free itself from Western diktat”; the “protection of people in the Donetsk Basin” and “the preemption of aggression.” In other words, they believe that if Russia had not gone on the offensive, it would have been attacked. Many people present such arguments, but those who actively support [the war] are more inclined to take a holistic view whereby Putin, the war and mobilization are interconnected.

However, there is another important factor: People in Russia are tired of the war. Their emotions make it clear that everyone is tired except perhaps for a handful of the most fervent supporters of the war.

This fatigue arises from the fact that people do not completely understand the rationale behind the war. They have various justifications, but they do not have a complete, clear understanding of [its] purpose, of why it was started.

Meanwhile, there is anxiety about the future [and] about [attack] drones flying into their homes. A person cannot constantly live in a state of anxiety – hence the fatigue.

Q. – Fatigue, justifications, apathy – all of this is there. However, do Russians have any human compassion for the Ukrainians who are being killed by the [Russian] authorities via the [Russian] Army?

A. – They absolutely do – most of them do. People who declare support for the war have plenty of compassion, saying they’re extremely sorry that this has happened. Again, this does not mean that they are automatically becoming opponents of the special military operation. There are people who, as I said, initially condemned the war but then, as it dragged on, started to believe that [it] must be won or things would get even worse. Generally, supporters of the war are not insensitive or stupid – they are often thinking, smart and highly sensitive people. And their many justifications of the war stem from the fact that it is difficult for them to live with that.

Q. – In other words, the Ukrainians should stop resisting so their suffering will end?

A. – Yes, exactly. This point of view is also quite widespread in the West, including in various segments of the “pacifist movement.”

Q. – It turns out that in this sense, Putin has acted absolutely correctly by cleaning up the media space with the help of repressive laws on fake reports about the Army, and by suppressing independent media outlets so that Russians would have less access to alternative [sources of] information and fewer opportunities to organize themselves against the war. What media outlets are active and passive supporters of the war reading and watching? Surely they are not reading Meduza or using VPNs?

A. – That’s a great delusion: They are reading all [those sources]. Supporters of the war are reading both the Ukrainian and Western press. They may not speak English, but they are using Google Translate. They are reading Meduza, watching Dozhd [Rain TV channel] – you name it.

And when we publish our reports, they grant us follow-up interviews, since we treat them decently and do not portray them as dimwits who only watch television, because that is not true. They read a lot of various press and media. . . .

Q. – So it turns out that Putin is no fool [and] is doing everything correctly in order to stay in power and preserve his regime, including by denying people the opportunity for self-organization.

A. – Some of the things he did were smart. Incidentally, he was not entirely wrong about the war. For example, Putin cracked down on the opposition and there was no public revolt, just as he had expected. The Russian economy has not just withstood [the impact of Western sanctions] – it’s even showing initial signs of growth. Furthermore, many countries of the Global South have not supported the Western coalition. However, he has failed in many respects. For instance, he thought that he would be able to scare the Ukrainian government to such an extent that it would crumble within days [and] the president would be replaced by [pro-Russian politician Viktor] Medvedchuk or someone similar. That did not happen. He was convinced that the West would not stop buying [natural] gas and oil from him, but he was wrong.

‘People in Russia do not think Ukraine is a nonstate or that the Ukrainian nation is not real.

Q. – Do you expect anything from Russian society ahead of the presidential election, which is slated for March [2024]? How aware is society of the preelection situation?

A. – I believe it is quite aware. Generally speaking, the preelection situation is potentially explosive, and as in many [other] societies, anything can happen. For instance, all of a sudden, a part of the elite, unhappy with the war, may consolidate and put forward [an alternative] candidate – what would Putin do? Then society would be set in motion. If that does not happen, a lot would depend on Putin’s [election] campaign, on how he organizes it and how people feel about it. Of course, a great deal would depend on the course of the war. If drones target polling stations, it would be one situation; if not, it would be another. . . .

Q. – Pollsters have been saying for a long time, since last summer, that Russian society is tired of the war. However, as we can see, in the absence of mechanisms for expressing discontent, it cannot exist in such a state for very long. What has to happen for [people’s] patience to snap?

A. – When you say “snap,” you probably mean mass protests. This requires certain opportunities, such as an intraelite power struggle, a coup or an abrupt shock – for instance, mass layoffs triggered by a shortage of components at manufacturing plants because of sanctions. So far, this is not happening. Or, for example, if infantry and tanks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces enter Russian territory or the Crimea. Then the elite will begin to realize that it is high time to stop all this, and people will also spring into action. On its own, fatigue may not convert into action. You see, it’s like that joke about how “this is horror, but not quite horrible horror.” It is difficult to measure fatigue: Have things already gone too far, or is it still possible to hang in there a little more?

During [Yevgeny] Prigozhin’s mutiny [see Vol. 75, No. 26, pp. 3‑9, and pp. 10‑17], we saw a surge of politicization in Rostov-on-Don: People started to take to the streets [and] talk about politics. At the same time, Russians are not big fans of armed mutinies: Nobody wants them; the atmosphere is disturbing enough as it is. If, on top of that, the state falls apart and a civil war breaks out, nobody would want that.

Q. – But in the public eye, [Putin’s] reputation has taken a hit.

A. – On the one hand, Putin was [seen as] weak in this situation, but on the other, he put down the mutiny, saving the state, as it were. So it seems to me that [his reputation] has not really suffered.

Q. – Do you see an imperialist mindset in the Russians that you are interviewing?

A. – You know, the Russian elites exhibit a kind of neoimperialist thinking – this was also the case back in the 1990s. After all, all these elites are Soviet people [and] their thinking is based on [the assumption] that all these territories once belonged to Moscow, and now they are not simply independent states – they may be hostile. However, this kind of thinking is not characteristic of average people in Russia, because ordinary people live in a different world – the world of a nation state. It is obvious to them that they are Russians but there are also Ukrainians, and this shows through very clearly in our interviews. People in Russia do not think Ukraine is a nonstate or that the Ukrainian nation is not real.

Ordinary people do not believe what Putin does – namely, that Ukraine is an artificial construct that must be repossessed.

Actually, they keep saying in their interviews: Ukrainians are suffering; we are bombing them; they are who they are and we are who we are. In other words, common sense in effect tells them that Ukrainians exist as a people, as an independent nation, and that Ukraine is an independent state. In other words, elites think imperially but ordinary people think in terms of a nation state. . . .

Q. – If [Russian] people empathize with Ukrainians, isn’t there a growing sense that it is not their war? After all, they are telling you: The elites started the war; we don’t care for them, but we don’t understand much about politics.

A. – This is also interesting because they have to wonder: Are [the elites] protecting us with this war or pursuing their own agenda? So far, people are answering both ways, depending on the situation. Incidentally, a great deal will also depend on how this question is answered.

Roughly speaking, it seems to me that Russians have not yet passed their verdict: Is all this in our interests, or in the interests of the elites?

In other words, they realize that the elites are waging this war, but so far, they do not quite understand in whose interests it is being waged. We have yet to find out how this responsibility is assessed [and] attributed: Who is to blame? What is the rationale behind the war? Is this war protecting us or putting us in harm’s way?

Q. – What could help people decide which answer to choose? Only an acute crisis?

A. – A lot of things – for example, whether the situation with [drone attacks] on Russian territory gets worse [or] what happens to the economy, because until now it has been doing quite well, but this can’t to go on forever. How will the Russian Army fare? Because if it retreats, that could create panic in society. What will happen within the elites? Will there be more mutinies and attempted coups? Will there be an intraelite struggle? How will the presidential election campaign go? What will happen in Ukraine [and] in the US? There are many different variables that will influence people’s mindset, which is very flexible, changeable and does not develop in a vacuum.