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Half of Russians think ‘kindness’ is their key national trait, finds poll

Russian respondents to the survey also reported feeling ‘pride’ and ‘a sense of justice’ about the ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine

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Thomas Rowley Valeria Costa-Kostritsky
18 May 2022, 3.27pm
The letter "Z" has come to symbolise Russia's brutal military invasion of Ukraine
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Almost half of Russian respondents named “kindness” or being “kind-hearted” as Russia’s prevailing national traits in a new opinion survey on the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Participants in both Russia and Ukraine were asked identical questions about their emotional response to the war, the effect of sanctions and what message they would send to people on the opposing side.

The answers from Russia suggest the country’s “active military operations have not yet had a significant influence on Russians’ self-perception”, said Elena Koneva, a poll analyst and founder of ExtremeScan, a non-governmental research initiative that helped conduct the survey.

“I would make the assumption that we would have received a similar response to this question about national traits before the war,” she said, explaining kindness is an old stereotype in Russian culture.

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“There is an incredibly strong [psychological] defence mechanism at work here,” added Koneva, who pointed to the fact that 59% of Russian respondents said their opinion of “the Russian people” had not changed since the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

“It is incredibly hard for people to believe that Russian soldiers, ‘our boys’, are committing these terrible acts,” she said, referring to massacres, executions, rape and shelling of civilians by Russian military personnel. “This ‘rationalisation’ is going to continue for a long time.”

The survey found that 66% of respondents in Russia supported the war, and that 59% supported the Russian military forcing Ukrainian armed forces to capitulate. The data also suggested that the more well-off a respondent was, the more likely they were to support the war.

A previous survey in late March found that 32% of respondents in Russia wanted the “special military operation” to end “without any conditions”, 29% were ready for it to end on the basis of recognising Crimea as Russian territory or Ukraine’s refusal to join NATO. Thirty-two percent of respondents said that they had experienced anxiety or depression since the invasion.

How was the survey conducted?

The survey was conducted by independent Russian pollster Chronicle and Ukrainian polling company InfoSapiens in mid-April. You can find the full data (in Russian language) here.

In total, 1,613 Russians and 1,000 Ukrainians took part in a phone interview after being selected using randomly chosen mobile numbers registered across all regions of both countries (apart from Ukrainian territories occupied prior to 24 February).

Ukrainian respondents took, on average, five minutes to respond to questions, while Russian respondents took an average of 12 minutes.

The Chronicle initiative is run by a group of professional sociologists, and was organised by Russian opposition politician Alexey Minyailo.

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Many Russian respondents also reported positive feelings about the “special military operation” against Ukraine – Russia’s official term for the war. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they felt “pride” over the war, with 59% saying the same about “a sense of justice” and 51% “trust”. Less than 3% mentioned the threat of “Nazis” in Ukraine – one of the official reasons the Russian leadership has given for the invasion.

This data could suggest how Russia’s state propaganda works, according to Maxim Alyukov, a post-doctoral researcher at King’s College London, who is part of an initiative that has conducted qualitative studies of why Russians support the war.

Asked why he thinks a considerable number of Russian respondents see themselves as “kind” while the country is waging a war in Ukraine, Alyukov said: “Russian state media can clearly frame people’s perceptions of current political issues, but they fail to frame more fundamental things like self-identity.”

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Traits such as “strength” and “bravery”, which Russians might be expected to cite, given the Kremlin’s intense propaganda campaign over the war, are “among the least frequently mentioned” by Russian respondents, Alyukov said.

“If respondents are asked to support the war in an interview or among their peers, they would do it. Maybe they even support it when they think about it.

But when they’re asked to make a more substantive contribution – to participate in the war, bear more significant economic costs – judging by their self-perceptions, they wouldn’t be happy about it,” he said.

“We’re dealing here with people trying to justify the war after the fact, rather than this specific sector of support for the war being about conscious sympathy for imperialism,” Alyukov said. “There is a lot of confusion.”

Can we trust opinion surveys from Russia?

Researchers are sceptical about whether polling numbers from Russia should be treated as “absolute numbers”, and claim that rather they should be seen as reference points.

This is not only in connection with how opinion polls are conducted, including by pro-state pollsters, but also because of the pressure of state propaganda and repression in Russia. This means that people who respond to surveys can give answers that they think the pollster wants. The Russian regime, together with state propaganda, then uses these polling numbers regarding support for state actions as proof of its legitimacy. Independent surveys, however, can provide better quality information – not least of all because they ask better questions.

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Questions about “moral responsibility” for the invasion of Ukraine appear to have divided Russian respondents to the survey. Some 43% said Russian citizens as a whole bear responsibility for the war, compared to 48% who said they do not. A similar number of people said they share or do not share personal responsibility for the invasion (42% and 49% respectively).

Speaking to openDemocracy, Koneva was cautious about linking moral responsibility to anti-war sentiment.

“We’re inclined to think that if someone believes they are morally responsible for the war, then they should condemn it. But in reality, that’s not true.

“These are people who are reflecting more intensely on the current situation. ‘Moral responsibility’ is rather an indicator of how far people are engaged in social and political life. We shouldn’t confuse moral responsibility with conscience,” she said.

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Putin's Victory Day speech on 9 May linked Russia's invasion of Ukraine to the Second World War

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(c) Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

According to the polls, 22% of Russian respondents agreed with the statement that they “could not influence their own lives at all”, with another 14% ranking their ability to do so poorly.

Researchers regularly point to depoliticisation – or making people feel powerless – as a feature of authoritarian rule in Russia. Asking people questions about how people think about their own lives is, Alyukov said, a good indicator of how they think about their ability to change their own country. By contrast, Ukrainian respondents gave more positive appraisals of their ability to affect their own lives.

Indeed, the Ukrainian data suggests more clearly that Russia’s invasion of the country may have had a profound effect on Ukrainian society’s self-perception. While 52% of respondents ranked their ability to influence their own lives either as “definitely” or highly, Ukrainians also more frequently named “unity” and “solidarity” as defining features of their country (31%). Another 59% of respondents said that their view of the Ukrainian nation had “improved significantly” since the invasion.

Speaking to openDemocracy, Inna Volosevych, deputy director of Info Sapiens, the Ukrainian polling company, said she was “shocked” by Russian respondent data. Based on the results, she said, “one-third of Russians who believe that the war should be stopped are not ready to stop it themselves because they are afraid of personal responsibility”.

Volosevych stated that the Ukrainian and Russian surveys were conducted independently, but with similar methodology and questions – which makes a comparison of results possible. “Cooperation with Russian companies in Ukraine is against the law and it’s against our moral principles,” she said, but noted that “it is important to have clearer understanding of the moods and attitudes that prevail” in Russian society.

“Ukrainians didn’t perceive Russians as a ‘brotherly nation’, but didn’t perceive them as enemies either” until the invasion, Volosevych said, stating that few Ukrainians could have believed that Russian forces could have harmed civilians.

At the end of the survey, Russians and Ukrainians were asked what message they would send to ordinary people in the opposing country if the possibility arose.

Interestingly, respondents in both countries said they would write to their neighbours expressing confidence that their own country will win and asking them to stop the war, lay down arms and resist their own government. Ukrainians took what pollsters called a “defensive position”, asking Russians to leave their land and leave them alone.

Russians showed almost no aggression to Ukrainians in their messages, instead expressing sympathy, telling them to be patient and claiming Russia has their best interests at heart and will liberate Ukraine. “Hold on, be strong, victory will be ours,” one read.

Others suggested Ukrainians should leave their homes so as to protect themselves or not get in the way of the Russian army. “Leave Ukraine so you can come back to your flourishing country,” one message read.

18 May: this article was updated to include comments from Inna Volosevych, deputy director of Info Sapiens.

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