At first glance, Russia is weathering the storm unleashed by the Kremlin’s attack on Ukraine. Over a year into the war, the Russian economy has slowed down, but not collapsed (–2.1% in 2022). According to surveys, including from institutions independent of the government, the majority of the population still support the ‘special military operation’. However, the cracks in Russian society are widening, bringing to light some surprising points of agreement: regardless of what they think about the war, Russians increasingly distrust ‘elites’. And this distrust, which pre-dates February 2022, is growing.
With a climate of fear taking hold in Russia, establishing what people really think is hard, but delving into the commentaries that accompany independent polling institutes’ findings can be illuminating. One such insight is that response rates have collapsed. According to Russian Field, which conducts marketing studies and opinion polls, only 5.9-9.3% of respondents now answer every question about the ‘operation’ in surveys, three to four times fewer than before the conflict. In a survey this February, Russian Field asked respondents if they favoured measures that would intensify the offensive or ones which might lead to peace. Only 27% said they supported escalation, compared to 34% who backed seeking peace.
Three social groups are worth special attention. The ‘war party’, representing 25-37% of respondents, approves of the persecution of dissenters, is willing to contemplate sacrificing social policy for the sake of military objectives, and condemns deserters. It’s particularly well represented among the elderly and higher-income groups. At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘peace party’ (10-36% of respondents) consists mainly of young people and society’s poorest. Those between these two poles either claim they can’t decide, or give contradictory replies. Though they are often opposed to military escalation, this group still defers to the official government line.
The war party has vocal spokespeople on social media – a group who have been called ‘turbo-patriots’. For now, their freedom of expression is unrestricted, but it is causing concern among leaders. ‘It’s not a liberal Maidan [overthrow of power, a reference to events in Ukraine in 2014] that we should fear: the liberals have all fled … Today, the only danger to our state is a turbo-patriotic Maidan with a hint of leftism and, at the same time, debates about corruption,’ said Oleg Matveychev, a deputy in the Duma from the ruling United Russia party, in February (1).
From the start of the invasion, so-called ‘war correspondents’ (voyenkory) – far-right activists with some military or paramilitary experience – have provided coverage of operations online. The best known is Igor Strelkov, a former FSB officer with monarchist tendencies. In 2014, leading a detachment of Russian volunteers, he took the city of Slavyansk in the Donbass. Russia then gave the separatists military support, but the Kremlin became worried about unpredictable zealots like Strelkov and he had to leave Donbass (2).
Now, he complains about the Kremlin’s lack of firmness in response to the Ukrainians on his Telegram channel, where he has nearly a million followers. When Russia suffered military setbacks in autumn 2022, he and other radical nationalists denounced the failures of Putin’s regime: poor organisation of food supplies, a weak arms industry, incompetence and corruption among the generals, and the mediocrity of a ruling elite who live in luxury while the homeland is in danger.
‘Great Upheaval now inevitable’
These commentators insinuate that some in Putin’s inner circle secretly want reconciliation with the West, even if this means capitulation. ‘If they sabotage Russia in this war, we probably won’t be able to touch their beloved Western partners, but we’ll do everything in our power to reach them,’ Strelkov wrote on 3 February. He doubts the current government can win the war. ‘The Great Upheaval is now inevitable,’ according to Strelkov ally Maxim Kalashnikov, an admirer of Stalin’s power politics. ‘They’re well aware of it at the highest level, and they’re worried about it. Our goal is to transform the Upheaval into a national and patriotic victory’ (3).
The anger of these patriots who exist outside the system has spread to loyalist hawks, a further cause for acute concern in the Kremlin. Striking a tone of apparently competing with regular army generals, Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the Wagner Group, a private militia deployed in Ukraine, now broadcasts online his thoughts on social inequality, corruption and incompetence within the military hierarchy. However, his public activism has angered the presidential administration, which has refused him access to prisons, where he had recruited volunteers among the inmates. Russia’s new chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, has cut back Wagner’s ammunition supply. In response, Prigozhin, a former Putin ultraloyalist, has made his fighters record Strelkov-style videos accusing the top brass and civil servants of treason. In one, a fighter says, standing in front of dead comrades: ‘Stop messing around and let us fight. Let us defend our homeland’ (4). Prigozhin went still further on 9 May (the day Russia celebrates victory over the Nazis), speaking of a ‘happy grandfather’ who thinks all is well. ‘But what will [we] do if it turns out that this grandfather is a complete dickhead?’ he asked, in a transparent allusion to Putin (5).
Loyalty among ‘the neutrals’
Soldiers and officers in the trenches are angry too. The mobilisation announced in late September 2022 enlisted between 320,000 (the official figure) and 500,000 soldiers (independent estimates). Measures adopted by the Duma in April 2023 – electronic conscription, a travel ban for conscripts, the freezing of exiles’ assets – are expected to further increase their numbers. The mobilisation primarily targeted the poorest regions, especially small towns and villages in desolate provinces, which are Putin’s traditional electoral base. The authorities initially called upon reserve officers and men with military specialisms: these were mainly middle-aged men from regions far from Moscow, on low or middling incomes. This demographic profile perfectly matches the ‘neutrals’: those who support the war not out of militaristic conviction but a sense of loyalty. Yet, it’s on their shoulders that the burden of combat has fallen.
To counter revolt, the state is sparing no expense. Average military pay has been increased to 200,000 roubles a month (about $2,500), ten times what someone can expect to make in a small town in a deindustrialised region. In April Putin announced a new special fund for bereaved families and war veterans. However, Kalashnikov argued in a video on his YouTube channel ROY on 5 February that victory is the only way to ensure the regime’s survival: ‘A completely new reality is emerging. Men will return from the front, weapons in hand. They will be like the German and Italian veterans of the first world war: they will return as extremists, with a strong sense of justice denied. And they won’t listen to United Russia’s obscenities.’
It’s not a liberal Maidan that we should fear: the liberals have all fled … Today, the only danger to our state is a turbo-patriotic Maidan
For now, soldiers are expressing their ‘extremism’ in a different way. Spontaneous riots, albeit sporadic, have erupted as mobilised men protest at their lack of equipment and training, deserting their units, fighting with their officers and stopping transport trains. The authorities managed to stifle the first wave of discontent: soldiers were locked in cellars, beaten and intimidated. Several rebels received heavy sentences to set an example. In January mobilised men were transferred in large numbers from rear units to the front, and losses increased significantly. Whereas in 2022 journalists managed to establish the names of 200 to 250 Russian soldiers killed each week (true losses may be much higher), in March 2023 the weekly lists contained over 800 names (6).
The media have reported cases of desertion, which are probably more frequent in reality. Soldiers have escaped from hospitals, jumped from trains taking them to the front, travelled dozens of kilometres, and disappeared behind their own lines. Conscripts’ families have set up online discussion groups to help deserters plan their route, find accommodation and evade military patrols. In February and early March, 18 videos were posted online showing entire military units refusing combat missions and requesting to return to the rear.
On the home front, anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova has identified at least 85 places in 65 cities where people have left flowers and toys, a wordless expression of solidarity with Ukraine and of opposition to the war. Despite this voluntary discretion, several people have been arrested near these flower memorials and subsequently convicted of ‘discrediting the Russian army’. But several thousand Russians have knowingly taken this risk, including many who had never before taken part in opposition rallies, researchers say. Memorials have appeared in cities that have never been centres of anti-government protest, such as Orenburg, Nizhny Tagil, Omsk and Gorno-Altaysk.
‘The state is killing people’
Only a quarter of these flower memorials have appeared in places associated with Ukraine, such as streets with Ukrainian names. In over half of the 85 instances studied by anthropologists, the commemorations happened in places associated with victims of state crimes or wrongdoing: monuments to the victims of Stalinist terror and man-made disasters such as Chernobyl, or places where opposition figures had died.
‘The message is unambiguous,’ says Arkhipova. ‘The state has already killed people, it’s killing people today, and it will continue to do so.’ In the cities of Shakhty and Saratov, people chose monuments to the victims of fascism as commemoration sites. The parallel between fascist occupiers and those who killed civilians in Dnipro is a direct challenge to the Kremlin’s official narrative.
There was another wave of flower protests on the first anniversary of the war. Despite harsher police repression, at least 82 spontaneous memorial sites appeared in 59 cities (7). For opponents of the war, placing flowers on monuments to victims of the state has become a lasting form of collective action.
So although it may appear that the war is making Russians rally around the flag, that interpretation needs to be qualified. Across society and in all ideological camps, the same process is at work: ‘us’ and ‘them’ are taking on new meanings. While the former encompasses various interpretations (‘ordinary people,’ ‘true patriots,’ ‘victims of the state’), the latter is less ambiguous: it means the authorities, no longer just the external enemy. If the Kremlin fails to turn things around on the battlefield, the front line could shift to the rear. And in the eyes of people across the spectrum of opinion, from nationalists to pacifists, those in power who have brought the country to the brink of catastrophe will appear to be the only culprits. The battle for Ukraine will then become a battle for a new Russia.
https://mondediplo.com/2023/06/03russia Do Russians really support the war?, by Alexeï Sakhine & Lisa Smirnova (Le Monde diplomatique