Kyiv, Ukraine, February 25, 2022: Subway station serves as a shelter for thousands of people during a rocket and bomb attack. Image credit: Drop of Light / Shutterstock
What do ordinary Russians think about the current events in Ukraine? To find out more about what Russian public opinion polls reveal about support for the “military operation,” and the possible effects of Western sanctions, I interviewed Maria Matskevich, a sociologist and researcher based in Saint Petersburg, Russia. She warned me that recent polls showing overwhelming support for Putin are potentially misleading—but also why Western economic sanctions may well backfire.
Anastasia Shteinert [AS]: In the West, some hope that sanctions might turn Russians against Putin. Do you agree with this opinion?
Maria Matskevich [MM]: Those who believe that sanctions will lead to protests in Moscow don’t understand Russia at all. First of all, these sanctions are obviously aimed not only at Putin, but at the whole country, including regular citizens. In fact, all the sanctions just reinforce in people the opinion that other countries are Russia’s enemies. Anyway, most people in Russia aren’t ready to protest. There are currently more than 15,000 people detained for anti-war actions. People are at real risk with new laws leading to imprisonment for several years. This is a serious reason for not protesting, let alone being and feeling like an apparent and ever-shrinking minority. People protested in the beginning, but now they have almost stopped. According to Albert O. Hirschman, when citizens disagree with their government, they can choose one of three strategies: exit, voice, or loyalty. Voice—in other words, protest—isn’t an option in Russia today, whilst exit is. That is why many of those who disagree choose to exit. They simply leave the country.
AS: Do you think there is any potential for mass protest in Russia?
MM: Why do people have such an obsession with protests? Earlier there was an illusion: if one million people protested in Moscow, something would change. If something like this were to happen in Rome or Washington, one might expect the government would listen to the protesters. However, in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Movement, officials cracked down. Why would anyone expect the Putin regime to listen to protesters?
AS: Do you, as a social scientist, feel any pressure now in Russia?
MM: People who give interviews and speak about a catastrophe in Russia project something into the future, and do not describe what is happening right now. The situation is very different in different cities and even different institutions. In Saint Petersburg and Moscow, you have more freedom than, for example, in Kazan. It was like that before, so the situation didn’t change much. University teachers feel more pressure—some of them were forced to leave after making public statements against Russia’s military actions. However, there are still many Russians posting on Facebook and making anti-government comments. There is no uniformity, and we receive no direct orders telling us how to behave (though that was common in the Soviet Union).
AS: Several universities are now under pressure—Moscow School of Social and Economic Studies and Smolny College in Saint Petersburg, for example.
MM: The pressures started much earlier. However, now we have more concerns. Three professors were recently labeled as foreign agents—Ekaterina Shulman, Dmitry Dubrovsky, and Victor Vakhshtain. Still, it happened after they left Russia. In the Soviet Union, all the scientists were obliged to start their papers by citing the latest Congress of the Communist Party. It’s not the case here—at least not yet.
I see that students and professors have fewer options to interact with the international academic community. It’s not the Kremlin that prohibits it—it’s the initiative of other countries. Russia may soon be excluded from the Bologna Process. It’s already impossible to take language tests TOEFL or IELTS in Russia.
AS: Do you think the international academic community might reconsider excluding Russian scholars in the future? Is there a chance that this “cancel culture” wave recedes?
MM: I doubt it will end quickly. It will depend on the situation. But this latest kind of cancel culture is slightly different, because it’s just about Russia and the West. Cancel culture in the West has usually been aimed at persons and groups inside Western society. It was one way to find common ground—a way to, let’s say, find evil to resist. Now there is an external group of people who are seen as deserving cancellation—the Russians. It’s especially relevant against the background of the accumulated indignation, stress, and division created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
AS: Russian political scientist Ekaterina Shulman, whom you mentioned earlier, claims that Russia will become “wilder” because of the war and its consequences. Do you agree with this statement?
MM: I don’t like the word “wilder.” I am guessing that Shulman has in mind the instability of the 1990s. The past twenty years have generally seen an easing of tensions, an effect particularly visible in everyday communications. It was becoming safer to trust people you didn’t quite know. Rudeness is no longer the norm in modern Russia. But older people remember other, less safe, more hostile times. In the 1990s, the future was unpredictable. It was a stressful time, with a sense of “existential insecurity,” so to speak.
Still, it’s possible the Russian public will become not wilder, but more hardened and embittered. Two decades of a slow shift in human values, ways of behavior, and personal interactions may be reversed.
AS: According to several polls, around 70 percent of Russians support a “special military operation”—or simply war—in Ukraine. Are these polls accurate and can we trust the results?
MM: There are polls by FOM [the state-owned Public Opinion Foundation], VCIOM [the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center], Levada [a non-governmental organization], and others. They are not fake. There are also other independent companies that conduct their own polls, and they all show more or less the same results—around 60 to 70 to 80 percent support. We can argue about the margin of error, but we can definitely say that more than a half of Russians support the so-called “special military operation.”
AS: Surely some respondents might have been afraid to say what they really think.
MM: Experts explored this effect using different methods. First, they compared phone polls to street polls—the second ones are completely anonymous. Then they used a “list method,” when people are given a list of statements they should agree or disagree with. One group had a list that included three statements and another group had four statements: the same three plus “I support the actions of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine.” The difference in the average number of positive answers between the first and the second groups shows how many respondents supported the statement on actions in Ukraine. The margin produced with this method was not 100 percent precise, for it was an online experiment, but the data is very useful. There is also a method where sociologists use non-straightforward questions to reveal the attitude to actual events. So, all of the methods show that 10–15 percent of respondents will falsify their preferences—that is, choosing a “more acceptable” option that doesn’t match their actual beliefs.
AS: So, we can be confident that more than a half of Russians support the actions in Ukraine, right?
MM: Yes. I would say that the level of public support level is most likely below 70 percent but definitely above 50 percent.
AS: Do you think this percentage will fall or grow, in the near future?
MM: At the moment, we have a “rally around the flag” effect, as a clear majority of the public backs the national leader during difficult times. This effect is likely to grow due to the Western sanctions. In the first weeks of the “operation,” people were told that Ukraine harbored an external enemy and many people doubted it. Now Russians feel that they are being “suffocated” and, of course, they don’t like it. Even if you aren’t involved in political life, you can see jumping prices for food, medicines, and other necessities, and you expect shortages. Many people form a negative attitude towards Western countries, while Putin’s approval rate is still growing.
AS: Do all people understand what they actually support?
MM: Some people answering the questions don’t intend for a bloody war. Many of them don’t know what is happening at all or believe the TV and think that it’s a peacekeeping operation or protection of the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine. It’s getting more intense, because people watch TV more during emergencies to receive “official information”—we had it at the beginning of the pandemic as well. So, people watching TV are convinced that they are on the right side of history. Many people say: “I support it, because Russia’s actions will prevent a war.” This is not a joke. It’s important to stress that many people who support Putin don’t want a war in Ukraine—they want to protect those who, in their opinion, suffer in Ukraine and need protection.
AS: What about the minority of Russians who oppose Putin’s conduct in Ukraine?
MM: Those who are against it are predominantly young people living in big cities. It’s not so much the level of education that is important here, but the inclusion within the global cultural system. But this doesn’t mean that most young people are against and most older people support this “military operation,” of course.
We should remember that people are afraid of being a minority. This effect is called the “spiral of silence.” The term itself was coined by German scholar Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in the 1960s. The basic idea is that the more people believe everyone else supports a particular opinion, the less likely they will be to express a different opinion. They want to be surrounded by like-minded people, because it’s more comfortable.
Maria Matskevich is a sociologist and researcher based in Saint Petersburg, Russia and specializing in memory studies, politics of memory, electoral surveys, public attitudes, and opinion polls.
Anastasia Shteinert is a political reporter and MA Candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research.
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