As Vladimir Putin stood before a sea of tricolor flags and tens of thousands of applauding Russians in the Luzhniki stadium on Friday, it was clear that he wanted to portray his invasion of Ukraine as a people’s war.
Never mind the independent media reports that state employees and university students had been bussed in for the rally, as the government employed the same crude tactics to pack the stadium in order to simulate patriotic enthusiasm as it has done for years.
There was still some truth to the elaborate theater of Friday’s rally. Because inside Russia, both polls and anecdotal evidence indicate, a significant portion of the population has chosen to support the invasion of Ukraine, which must now be referred to by law as a “special operation”.
“I support it, practically everyone I know, my friends, all are for it,” said Yegor Gusyev, 35, who manages a vehicle parts business in the Moscow region. “I don’t know anyone who went to protest against it.”
What about the scenes of bombing in Mariupol and Kharkiv and the fact – once unthinkable – of Russia launching an all-out war on its neighbour?
“Of course it is sad – I don’t want people to die,” he said. “But there wasn’t any other choice [besides the invasion]…mistakes happen. But I also know the other side is using propaganda against us too. It is all propaganda.”
There have been efforts from abroad to encourage the Russian people to protest against the war. Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger last week released a nine-minute video in which he recalled his admiration for the Soviet weightlifter Yuri Vlasov and his father’s shame at fighting for the Nazi army at Leningrad. “This is not the Russian people’s war,” he said in an appeal to ordinary Russians.
But others in Russia say it is. Many supporters cite the eight-year-old war between Ukraine and Russian proxy forces in Donbas, using words such as genocide and comparisons to the second world war to justify the invasion.
As one former diplomat wrote in a WhatsApp message, he looks forward to Russia holding a “Nuremberg 2.0” in Ukraine after the war. “Aren’t you sad for the children killed in Donbas?” Elizaveta from Moscow shot back when asked about her views of her on the invasion. “Why don’t you write about them instead?”
Russian society is deeply polarized between supporters and opponents of the Kremlin. Those camps have carried this division over into support for and opposition to the war, experts said. Even simple choices such as whether to call the conflict a “war” or the state-sanctioned “military operation” carry political meaning.
“We are seeing that society is divided by a majority that broadly supports the war and a minority that is against it,” said Sergei Belanovsky, a sociologist. “These two groups live in different worlds, and cannot convince each other that their viewpoint is the right one.”
According to the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 71% of Russians “support Russia’s decision to hold a special military operation in Ukraine”. Valery Fyodorov, head of the polling centre, said that new data to be published by the center this week would show an increase in support for the “military operation”.
There has been skepticism about those results because they reinforce the Kremlin-backed image of a popular war. But Denis Volkov of the independent Levada Center also endorsed the data, saying that the results from state-run pollsters are “in my opinion entirely credible”. The Levada Centre, which is Russia’s main independent pollster, has not released a poll of public opinion on the war since the conflict began. Plans to publish results of an earlier poll were scrapped by the centre’s employees because of concerns that their results would “in some way promote the intensification of the conflict”. Volkov said the group is now conducting a new poll.
Some, however, have questioned the logic of polling public opinion in a country where information about the war is carefully curated by state television. “State propaganda works – it is extremely effective in what it does, presenting the events as a special military operation against the Ukrainian Nazis. A lot of key information is being withheld,” said Belanovsky.
Others have said that Russians are simply afraid to tell pollsters they are opposed to the war.
“Conducting surveys in authoritarian countries is tricky. Respondents in Russia believe surveys are conducted by the government. Especially during wartime, respondents, they will be less likely to feel open to talk,” said Grigory Yudin, a sociologist.
Yudin said that, according to his research, fewer Russians were willing to speak with pollsters since the beginning of the war, with only 25% of those approached now willing to answer questions on Ukraine, compared with 33% when the invasion started.
Yudin added: “Based on my own ideas, I believe a much smaller group is actively in favor of war, actively militarized. That group does exist and it is a worrisome group but it is not the majority.”
Aggressive efforts to generate support for the invasion have left opponents of the war aghast. When Putin appeared on Friday, a banner calling “For a world without Nazism” bore the letter Z, a tactical marking used on Russian tanks in Ukraine. Anti-war activists have also found the letter graffitied in white paint on their doorways in an effort to intimidate them.
“Personally, in my opinion, it’s fascism, something I never imagined would happen … I don’t have any other association than that,” said Daniil Beilinson of the OVD-Info group, which has monitored the arrest of nearly 15,000 protesters and other pressures faced by anti-war activists.
There has been little of the organic surge in patriotism that marked Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Until Friday, which marked the eighth anniversary of the annexation, the Kremlin had not held mass rallies in support of its war, and many Russians have started focusing on the growing economic crisis rather than the military conflict itself. “If we try to compare the mood of 2014 and now, then the support has remained but the euphoria has disappeared,” said Volkov. “There is no joy.”
But the unprecedented sanctions introduced by the west that could shrink the country’s GDP by as much as 20% have not turned the population against the Kremlin. “For now, sanctions actually have an opposite impact. Pointing to the sanctions, the authorities have been effective in convincing Russians that a ‘hostile’ west is acting against their interest,” explained Belanovsky.
While the Russian rouble has already sunk to record lows, experts have argued it will take months before ordinary Russians feel the full force of the sanctions. “But the mood could be totally different in two, three months if the economy does actually crumple as some economists have predicted. Then Russians might start asking questions to Putin,” the sociologist said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism