What do ordinary Russians think about the invasion of Ukraine?
People don’t necessarily support Putin, but many I’ve spoken to are retreating into forms of denial
Most Russian people, whether they admit it or not, consume state-controlled media. That means all TV, all radio and now, almost all easily accessible internet sources for news stories. State media downplay Russia’s military action and justify it as entirely reactive, protective and justified. But we should be cautious about Russian state media’s supposed ‘hypodermic’ effects – injecting the right response into public opinion.
Instead, I characterise Russians’ response so far as a mixture of disbelief in the scale and destructiveness of the Russian actions and denial that Russia is the aggressor. The Russian state has shut down most easily accessible sources of alternative information. People with VPNs can still find things out, but these are a tiny minority. Many people are rightly afraid to even talk about the war, and this blackout heightens public sensitivity to the dribs and drabs of official information.
For many, the war, now in its 12th day, is still a “special anti-terrorist operation” against “neo-Nazis”. But it is clear to many that things are not going to plan, and this feeds into Russians’ coping mechanisms. These are best thought of as forms of ‘defensive consolidation’: a retreat into comforting truths which help individuals deal with cognitive dissonance. For example, rather than accept that ‘our’ Russian troops are indiscriminately using rockets against civilian targets in Ukraine, a person would write to me on Facebook (while it was still accessible): “It’s better that it’s over quickly; Ukrainians brought this upon themselves; it’s better that it happens there than here; it was inevitable that the West would provoke a large conflict.”
As an ethnographer of Russian society for over 20 years, here I present some observations and comments from people in Russia. I make no claims to generalisation, but stress that despite the difficulty in getting real information, and the unwillingness to interpret the war as aggression, Russians’ views are likely to change quickly and are in any case quite diverse.
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More than 20 years ago the sociologist Stanley Cohen wrote a book called States of Denial, about how people react to unpleasant events with avoidance rather than critical thinking. This insight is relevant to all types of societies and historical periods. Cohen also problematises what we mean by ‘knowledge’. Most Russian people, sooner or later, will ‘know’ on some level that Putin has invaded Ukraine and that Russian forces are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Ukrainians, and the massive destruction of Ukrainian cities (where, incidentally, a lot of Russian-speaking Ukrainians live). And yet they will actively ‘not know’.
Instead, Russians will on some level continue to make use of narratives about the Ukrainian leadership being to blame for conflict, about the West having provoked Russia, or even desperate stories about how Ukrainian resistance only makes the conflict worse. Cohen’s book is dated in some ways, but his conclusion that denial has no easy solution is still relevant. Historians of post-war Germany have long known of this problem: there, collective punishment did not lead to an enduring or deeply held sense of guilt, only a vague sense of responsibility. More powerful are competing claims of victimhood.
Even among people with more awareness or a more instinctive grasp of the murderous capacities of their own state, the Russian response is mainly defensive consolidation. This is not a ‘rally round the flag’ response, as it is not directly connected to expressions of patriotism, or nationalism, or enthusiasm for the military campaign or for the Russian government. The Russian government has failed in creating a coherent conservative ideology or meaningful reasons for loyalty to the regime. Indeed, in my research, I often talk about the Russian state’s opaqueness or incoherence in the eyes of everyday Russians. Instead, Russian people fall back on a variety of instinctive and ‘lay’ narratives – some of which coincide with elite talking points, but they also take on a life of their own.
Here, more than a few people use the phrase ‘truth is on our side’ as a kind of magical defensive incantation. Yet it is not said with any sense that the speaker celebrates this ‘truth’.
For example, a retired provincial engineer, now in his 60s, says: “There’s disinformation on both sides, but we have the greater truth. Yes, it’s war: we’ll find out later who burned whom; there’ll be losses, probably big losses for us, and for you, but you cannot stop inevitable historical processes. This is not about fascism, I will admit, it’s about overcoming a greater injustice – the division of fraternal peoples.”
This man’s son-in-law is in his mid-30s and is unemployed, scraping a living as an informal taxi driver. I’ve known him since the mid-1990s when he was a child. He responds to his father-in-law’s words:
Nothing will get through to [my father-in-law] now. You can’t use reason. I’ve tried. ‘Putinists’ shout about what the president has done for the country but don’t have anything concrete to back up their empty rhetoric. I don’t take a side. I have my own ‘truth’, but facts are facts: this will lead to complete collapse of the current reality in Russia. But they’ve taught us well – not with words, but with sticks and with ‘ration cards’ – so we’re prepared for this, unfortunately. We never lived well, even ten years ago. Even then people thought: ‘this can’t last’, so they are resigned to their fate. If you condemn us, we will accept this, but it will only mean he [Putin] lasts longer in his bunker.
There are clichés about Russians’ ability to accept suffering and isolation. There are powerful feelings of resentment about the West that also serve as a kind of communal – rather than political – glue within Russian society.
It’s important to say that generally, people’s narratives in Russia do not reference NATO expansion or the European Union specifically, but do vociferously reference ‘double standards’ (whether concerning regime change, foreign policy adventures, humanitarian intervention), and a kind of acknowledgement of Russia as a ‘subaltern empire’, in the words of researcher Viacheslav Morozov. He sees Russia as stuck in a historical bind: an empire, but subordinate to the West politically and economically. An empire that tries to argue for a multipolar world, but can only do so in the same language of oppression and neo-imperialism, both at home and abroad.
Solidarity with Ukrainians is thus interpreted as a zero-sum game in Russia: if you love them, you must hate us. Some commentators see this as self-pity and denial of military aggression. Certainly ‘ressentiment’ plays a role. What is dangerous about the current situation is that any actions from the West can easily amplify feelings of bitterness based on a deep seated feeling of exclusion. Exclusion from the ‘fruits’ of change since 1991 in Russia. Exclusion from politics domestically. Exclusion in geopolitical terms (however understood, and however distorted). Having said that, it is a matter of debate whether Russian chauvinism and neo-imperialist attitudes are more than skin deep.
One interlocutor, a kind of organic working-class intellectual from a town thousands of kilometres east of Moscow, talks semi-ironically about the myth of two Russias – the intelligentsia/elite and the ‘deep people’ (i.e. those having authentic, conservative traditional views):
Europe does not want to have anything in common with Russia except money. Never did. That’s why it can only 'speak to us' with the language of sanctions. They won't hurt Putin and his cronies. What's the point? ‘Social racism’ is the biggest problem in Russia (by its intelligentsia) and in European society. Europe was ready to speak only with the intelligentsia, which showed it could simulate Europeanised public opinion. It was such a facade … Europe refused to look for words and understanding of ALL of Russia … At the same time, Europe cynically accepted money from the oligarchs … the leader discovered a ready-made ressentiment of the ‘deep people’ in relation to everything European. And secondly, exactly the same ‘social racism’ was inside Russia – the middle class, intellectuals, elites.
Right now it looks like all Russians will be enormously affected by sanctions. The point is that collective punishment binds Russians in defensive consolidation. It also reifies myths of exclusion and betrayal.
Lack of symbolic support
So far I would not say this translates into sustained political ‘loyalty’ to the regime – if anything, it is the opposite. A major problem in understanding Russia is the overreliance on opinion polling in isolation from grounded methods like ethnography. What is interesting is the lack of symbolic support for Russian troops and the regime. Other ways of dealing with cognitive dissonance, such as ‘internal emigration’ and attending to one’s most pressing local concerns, are more typical.
The war is creating both centrifugal and centripetal social pressures – those pulling the regime apart, but also consolidating the status quo because of the perception of external enemies. The question now is: which has more energy?
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