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The captain and his ship
Why public opinion still matters in Russia, and how it might be shifting
Vladimir Putin’s regime has a bad habit of telling people they don’t exist.
Whether he’s refusing to count the votes of people who oppose him or denying them the right even to think of themselves as Russian, the message that “you’re no more than a fly” has been the consistent subtext of Putin’s conversation with voices of dissent. It’s jarring, then, to see him use the same tack against those whose sons and husbands are dying in his senseless war.
It was bad enough that the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that the cruiser Moskva sank of its own free will. Worse in every possible respect was Moscow’s insistence that — until it admitted one fatality on April 23rd — none of the cruiser’s crew had been killed. That insistence defied logic and belief, and will almost certainly have sapped the already flagging morale of Russian sailors and soldiers. But it has also made the relatives of missing Moskva crew members fighting mad.
The father of one missing conscript, Egor Shkrebets, has taken to social media to berate the commanders who continue to deny the reality.
“My son is a conscript. His direct commanders from the Moskva told me that he isn’t listed as killed or wounded, but has been listed as missing. A conscript, who shouldn’t have taken part in combat, is listed as missing. Guys, how do you go missing in the open ocean?!!!” — Dmitry Shkrebets, on VKontakte
The independent investigative reporting site Agentstvo found another aggrieved parent, whose son, Mark Tarasov, evidently died on board the Moskva, and who also can’t get a straight answer from the military. And then the Belarusian site Vot Tak found several more. All of the families who lost their sons at sea share the same experience of silence from the state.
And the silence extends well beyond sinking of the Moskva. Another investigative reporting group, iStories, has been publishing reports on their Telegram channel of doctors being instructed not to inform the families of wounded soldiers about the nature and provenance of their injuries.
I said before that this kind of thing is jarring — after all, if Putin really believes in and intends to win this war, then treating military families with respect should be a priority. But it isn’t surprising. The families of sailors lost in the Kursk disaster were treated the same way. So were families of people killed during the botched raid on the Dubrovka Theater in 2002, and the Beslan school in 2004. Exactly why the Kremlin behaves this way is a question for another time, but the result is always the same: a constituency who learns not to trust the state.
There are signs that mistrust is beginning to impose costs on the Kremlin and its war effort. Mediazona has reported that the the military and the Rosgvardia paramilitary service have been facing increasing refusals to serve in Ukraine, with officers resorting to threats of prosecution — often, evidently, in vain. And this is the context in which we should read Putin’s decision to order the military not to storm the Azovstal’ steel plant in Mariupol. He needs to be seen to be preserving the lives of Russian servicemen.
Reactions to casualties aren’t Putin’s only public opinion problem. After a period of shock and uncertainty, Russians of all stripes appear to be regaining their footing and beginning to understand — or at least to believe that they understand — where the country’s new red lines are.
In the early days and weeks of the war, many Russians (and Russia-watchers) were pushed off balance not only by the war itself, but with the velocity with which the Kremlin ramped up repression, banning media outlets, arresting protesters and outlawing more or less any expression of dissent. All of that remains in place, and Russia is now a much more repressive place than it was before the war. But the velocity of repression has subsided, and that may not be a good thing for the Kremlin.
Risk is one of an autocrat’s most powerful allies. When a citizen knows that they will be punished for crossing a line, they are less likely to cross it. That much is obvious. But that sense of risk is actually sharpest — and the autocrat’s power at its peak — when the citizen retains a degree of uncertainty about where the red line is. Rapidly increasing repression keeps would-be dissidents on the back foot, forcing them to stay not simply on the right side of the red line, but, because they don’t know where the red line is or where it will be tomorrow, to stay several steps away from where they think that red line might be.
Conversely, when repression settles into a routine — as it is currently doing in Russia — citizens begin to gain confidence about the location of that red line, which allows them to walk right up to it without fear of consequence.
For the moment, the decreased pace of repression is not translating into more protest, but there are some signs that it is beginning to change the information environment. This softened sense of consequence helps account for the willingness of deceased soldiers’ family members to speak publicly, as described above. It also helps account for a remarkable report from Mariupol in Kommersant, which reports (not unproblematically, but still) on the scale of destruction the Russian military has caused, and on the fact that Russian-speaking Ukrainians were not exactly happy to see the invading forces:
“Liberated us?” Ilona raised her voice. “Who did you liberate us from? From our philharmonic? From our pensions? From our city? Well, thanks for that.”
From a quality newspaper that generally toes the party line, that’s a remarkable piece of journalism.
In the early days of the war, when many Russians still struggled to believe it was happening, the television and other channels of state propaganda mostly downplayed it. More recently, propaganda has become more pervasive and more coarse. It is increasingly hard for Russians to pretend that this war isn’t happening (though some still manage, as the sociologist Lyubov Borusyak recently wrote). As a result, reports like the one from Kommersant above or the investigations into the deaths of Russian soldiers are no longer devoid of context. When Russians could deny that there was a war, there were no opinions for such reports to shift. Now that awareness is higher, alternative messages can get more traction.
So, are Russian opinions about the war shifting? The answer to that question, alas, is that we don’t know.
Polls, as I’ve written before, are problematic in the best of times, and nigh on meaningless right now. Most readers will be aware of the Levada Center poll at the end of March, which showed some 81% support for the war. The day after that poll was published, I wrote a long Twitter thread explaining all of its problems:
In a nutshell, my argument was and remains that the Kremlin has been successful in creating a rally around the flag, boosting not only approval for the war, but Russians’ general sense of attachment to their country, similar to the one that occurred after the annexation of Crimea, but motivated by a rather less positive set of emotions. A separate Levada poll showing optimistic economic sentiment backs this up.
But I have big problems with assigning a number to the level of support, particularly when response rates are low and social pressures to give the “right” answer are high. Another poll, conducted in mid-April by Russian Field, shows that approval of the war among residents of Moscow is 58%. While some (including, I think, the authors) have read this as a rejection of Levada’s findings, it is, if anything, pretty close to a confirmation — a sizeable majority in support of the war in the city most likely to oppose it does not, to my mind, tell us that Putin’s rally is failing.
But we still don’t know what the actual number is. One attempt to get closer to that was made by Philipp Chapkovski and Max Schaub, who ran in an April 4th survey what social scientists call a “list experiment”, a technique designed to estimate what percentage of respondents hold an opinion but are afraid to admit it. Their analysis — which is enlightening, but still far from an exact science — suggests that some 15% of respondents may be “falsifying” their opinions (i.e., lying to pollsters) about the war.
If Chapkovski and Schaub are right, then that’s the number we should be thinking about. The 20-30% of Russians who openly oppose the war (if that high) are already on the right side of history. The 55-65% who genuinely support the war may be too hard to reach, not least because they are surrounded by people who, in their bulk, also support the war, so opposing the war would put them out of synch with their social circles.
But if there are indeed 15% or so of Russians who oppose the war but are afraid to say so because of social pressure, then those are the people whose opinions can conceivably be brought out into the open. The more they see the anger of parents of lost Moskva sailors, or reports like the one in Kommersant, the more likely they will be to make their opposition to the war overt. And the more they do that, the more the balance of social pressure may begin to shift against the war.