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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
11 March 2023: Going it alone, plus texts and tunes
In a workshop on the future of Russian studies hosted this Friday by George Washington University, one of the panelists — in fact, my friend, colleague and successor as director of the King’s Russia Institute, Gulnaz Sharafutdinova — talked about the feeling that this past year has been a “gut punch” for those of us who have spent our careers studying Russia. We should take that sense of visceral pain, Gulnaz said, as a reminder that the emotional distance we, as social scientists, like to think we have from our research is largely illusory.
Gulnaz is certainly right: If we recognize the role that our basic humanity plays in our analytical practice, it can help sharpen the tolls we use to ask and answer questions. And yet there are pitfalls, too. Much of the workshop focused on the increasing difficulties involved in studying Russia: we have less and less access to the field, more and more questions about the validity of the data we are able to collect, and that’s just the beginning. The danger, then, is that we allow our emotions — the things we do and do not want to see, or to believe — to fill in the gaps in what we can measure and observe, and thus to skew our analysis.
I’m going to have to spend some time thinking about how to get that right, but my rule of thumb for now is this: if the answer to a question makes me happy, I’m probably doing something wrong.
What I’m thinking about
It’s back: the zombie “debate” about the degree to which Russians really support their country’s war on Ukraine. To borrow a phrase from Paul Krugman, it’s a zombie not just because it refuses to die, but because, if you’re not careful, it will eat your brain.
The impetus for this week’s resurrection — making appearances on social media and in a number of academic discussions — was a piece in Re:Russia featuring research by Elena Koneva, Aleksandr Chilingarian and Kirill Rogov.1 The propose what they call a “two-level analysis”, which suggests that 60% of Russians — what they call a “declarative majority” — openly state their support for the war, while some 50-52% comprise a “majority of non-resistance”. The latter include those who refuse to answer questions about the war, and those who say they support the war in direct questions, but indicate less-than-militaristic sentiment in other questions. Open opposition to the war hovers around 10%. The upshot of their analysis, then, is that “only” about 35-40% of Russians harbor deeply held pro-war sentiment. (The math is more complicated than I care to go into here; read the full piece if you’re interested.)
I will leave to one side the question of whether there is a moral difference between genuine support and performed support. Analytically, however, I continue to believe that this is a distinction without a difference.
I’ve written before about the dynamics of public opinion in general, Russian public opinion in particular, and the relationship between public opinion and mobilization here, here and here, among other places. For a deeper dive, if you’re interested and have the better part of an hour to kill, check out the lecture I gave last week at the University of Wisconsin. The three points I keep coming back to throughout all of this are these:
We do not know and cannot know the inner hearts and minds of the Russian public — not because of the facts of authoritarianism, or because of any inherent Russian inscrutability — but because surveys can only ever measure expression, and expression is a function of information, attitudes, psychology, perception and socialization. Experimental research designs and sophisticated statistical methods can help isolate some of these factors, but they cannot isolate attitudes as such.
The reason it is methodologically impossible to isolate attitudes as such is because attitudes are themselves shaped by the same factors that shape expression. The causal relationships that shape attitudes and expression are intrinsically linked and circular.
Given those two things, as I’ve written before, we are better off understanding public opinion not as a thing, but as a process — and so we should pay more attention to the processes of public opinion formation, expression and behavior, than to the numbers themselves, because where the process goes, opinions, expression and behavior will follow.
For that reason, I found a new policy paper by Sasha de Vogel analyzing complaints submitted by Russian citizens to the Kremlin to be considerably more enlightening than the Koneva, Chilingarian and Rogov piece. Sasha has carefully deconstructed and reconstructed the data published by the Russian Presidential Administration on the topics of citizens’ complaints, under a long-standing system that received tens of thousands of submissions a month. If you’re concerned about the validity of the data in an authoritarian system, read Sasha’s paper; I’m not concerned, mostly because such complaint systems are a powerful tool of political legitimation and control, and so the Kremlin has every incentive to make the system work.
After the war begins, Sasha’s data show a precipitous drop-off in the number of complaints about the economy, a jump and then decline in complaints about social welfare, and a sharp rise in complaints about the military. Within the latter category, complaints about mobilization predominate, followed by complaints about the conduct of the war and the adequacy of the supplies and equipment given to soldiers.
Two observations emerge. First, these data comport with Russian Field survey results, which show that large (and perhaps predominant) numbers of Russians are willing to express negative opinions about the conduct of the military, even if they express positive opinions about the war itself. From an opinion-as-process perspective, this suggests that the mechanisms that create consensus and conformity remain heavily dependent on the consistency of state messaging. Thus, on the war itself and on the general state of affairs in the country, where the state line is unmistakable, public expression is consolidated. But where the state fails to project a consistent message (for lack of trying, or otherwise), expression is fragmented. (Not incidentally, this is one of the reasons why I’m skeptical about the Koneva et al piece: the responses they interpret as unenthusiastic may simply reflect this rhetorical inconsistency.)
Second, Sasha’s findings also help explain a couple of trendlines in Levada Center surveys, which have shown — paradoxically — that Russians express an increased sense of their own political agency. Citizens who use these complaint mechanisms get a response; indeed, they are guaranteed one by law, and the Kremlin reports on the responses given. This, together with the “direct line” public telethons Putin periodically holds, helps reinforce a peculiar sense of political inclusion and responsiveness. The franchise this creates, however, is not a collective one: it encourages individual action in search of an individual solution. That’s one of the reasons autocrats like these sorts of mechanisms.
None of this tells me anything about what Russians really feel or think, but, as I hope I’ve made clear, I’m not analytically interested in that question — because it’s not answerable. What this does tell me is a bit more about the process of public opinion in Russia, and about why that process has thus far supported Putin’s war effort. Consistency of state messaging encourages consistency of expression, while inconsistency allows fragmentation. That fragmentation, however, channels dissatisfaction into individualized action, which the state continues to accommodate and even promote, at the expense of collective action.
Looking ahead, then, the question isn’t what Russians tell pollsters, but whether those two elements of the process — the centrality and cohesiveness of state messaging, and the primacy of individual vs collective agency — remain in place. If state messaging somehow frays, if alternative sources of consensus emerge, or if people become frustrated and turn away from channels of individualized problem-solving, that’s when we’ll know something’s afoot.
What I’m reading
For another view of the process of public opinion in Russia, take a look at a long-read published this week by Kholod on the pushback anti-war Russians face from their compatriots. Drawing on the interactions people have in local chat groups with neighbors and school parents, one way to read the piece is as evidence of the degree of brainwashing created by that consistent state messaging I was talking about earlier. But that, to me, is not really what the story is about. Rather, what I took from it was the compulsion that so many Russians evidently feel to argue the state’s case, even when they themselves struggle to string together an internally coherent argument. The state, then, may not actually be succeeding in convincing citizens of a specific set of “facts”, but that doesn’t matter, so long as it convinces them that consensus is paramount.
Continuing the theme, Katya Bonch-Oslomovskaya had an excellent investigation in iStories late last week on the Main Radio Frequency Center, a government agency charged with identifying websites and other media organizations to be censored. Among a lot of other great detail, the piece delves into the backgrounds of the people — mostly young, mostly urban, mostly well educated and mostly very unwilling to be interviewed — who staff the center. The impression you get is of a system that gleefully censors, without gleefully admitting that’s what they’re doing. One wonders how long that will last.
Other recent pieces worth reading include:
Two economic pieces in iStories, including analysis by Boris Grozovskii of the declining patterns of retail consumption in Russia, and analysis by Sonia Savina of Russia’s shifting wartime labor markets. Both indicate an economy of deepening inefficiencies, declining productivity, and accumulating structural imbalances; and
A report in Current Time suggesting that an increasing number of public officials, civil servants and employees of state-owned companies are having their foreign travel passports confiscated, signaling, perhaps, a creeping closure of Russia’s borders.
What I’m listening to
To make up for the last week’s airport-inspired musical malaise — and atone for inflicting it on you — here’s the bebop that’s been getting me to and from work this week.
Full disclosure: In a previous era, Koneva ran the survey organization that fielded a number of the studies on which Graeme Robertson and I have based important parts of our research.