Shaken at first, many Russians are now gathering behind Putin’s invasion

Moscow police detain an anti-war protester in Moscow on February 25, 2022. Protests have largely dried up in recent weeks. (Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times)

The flow of anti-war letters to a legislator in Skt. Petersburg, Russia, has dried up. Some Russians who had criticized the Kremlin have become cheerleaders for the war. Those who are publicly against it have found the word “traitor” written on their apartment door.

Five weeks after President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, there are signs that the initial shock to the Russian public has given way to a mixture of support for their troops and anger towards the West. On television, entertainment shows have been replaced by extra portions of propaganda, resulting in a flurry of lies around the “Nazis” running Ukraine and US-funded Ukrainian bioweapons laboratories.

Opinion polls and interviews show that many Russians now accept Putin’s claim that their country is under siege from the West and had no choice but to attack. Opponents of the war are leaving the country or silent.

Sign up for The Morning Newsletter from the New York Times

“We are in a time machine that is rushing into the glorious past,” said Solomon Ginzburg, an opposition politician in the western Russian region of Kaliningrad. He portrayed it as a political and economic decline into Soviet times. “I would call it a devolution or an involution.”

Public support for the war lacks the patriotic wave that welcomed the annexation of Crimea in 2014. But polls released this week by Russia’s most respected independent pollster, Levada, showed Putin’s approval rating hit 83%, up from 69% in January. . 81 percent said they supported the war, describing the need to protect Russian speakers as its primary justification.

Analysts warned that as the economic pain caused by sanctions deepens in the coming months, public sentiment may change again. Some also argued that wartime polls have limited significance, with many Russians afraid to express dissent or even their true opinion to a stranger at a time when new censorship laws punish any deviation from the Kremlin narrative by as much as 15 years in prison.

But even in terms of that effect, Denis Volkov, Levada’s director, said his group’s investigations showed that many Russians had assumed the belief that a besieged Russia needed to rally around its leader.

Particularly effective in that regard, he said, was the constant drumming of Western sanctions, with airspace closures, visa restrictions and departures from popular companies like McDonald’s and Ikea feeding the Kremlin line that the West is waging an economic war against the Russian people.

“The confrontation with the West has consolidated people,” Volkov said.

As a result, those still opposed to the war have retreated to a parallel reality with YouTube streams and Facebook posts increasingly removed from the wider Russian public. Facebook and Instagram are now inaccessible inside Russia without special software, and Russia’s most prominent independent business has all been forced to shut down.

In the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, near the border with Ukraine, a local activist, Sergei Shalygin, said two friends who had previously joined him in pro-democracy campaigns had been driven into the pro-war camp. They have taken to forwarding him Russian propaganda posts on the messaging app Telegram, which claims to show atrocities committed by Ukrainian “fascists”.

“There is a dividing line being drawn, as in the civil war,” he said, referring to the aftermath of the Russian revolution a century ago. “It was a brother’s war against a brother, and now something similar is happening – a war without blood this time, but a moral one, a very serious one.”

Shalygin and other observers elsewhere in Russia pointed out in interviews that most supporters of the war did not appear to be particularly enthusiastic. Back in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea in a quick and bloodless campaign, he recalled, every other car seemed to carry the orange-and-black St. George ribbon, a symbol of support for Putin’s aggressive foreign policy.

Now, while the government has tried to popularize the letter “Z” as an endorsement of the war, Shalygin said it is rare to see a car carry it; the symbol appears mainly on public transport and state-sponsored billboards. “Z” first appeared painted on Russian military vehicles participating in the Ukraine invasion.

“Enthusiasm – I can not see it,” said Sergei Belanovsky, a prominent Russian sociologist. “What I prefer to see is apathy.”

While the Levada poll found that 81% of Russians supported the war, it also found that 35% of Russians said they “practically did not pay attention” to it – indicating that a significant number reflexively supported the war without having the great interest in it. The Kremlin seems eager to keep it that way and continues to insist that the conflict should be called a “special military operation” rather than a “war” or an “invasion.”

But for those who watch television, propaganda has been inevitable, with additional news broadcasts and high-octane talk shows replacing entertainment programs on state-controlled channels.

On Friday, the program plan for the Kremlin-controlled Channel 1 listed 15 hours of news-related content, compared to five hours on the Friday before the invasion. Last month, the channel launched a new program called “Antifake”, dedicated to exposing Western “disinformation”, with a host best known for a show about funny animal videos.

In a telephone interview from the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, Stanislav Brykov, a 34-year-old small business owner, said that although war was a bad thing, it had been imposed on Russia by the United States. As a result, he said, the Russians had no choice but to unite around their armed forces.

“It would be a shame for the soldiers who protect our interests to lose their lives for nothing,” Brykov said.

He spoke to a friend named Mikhail, 35, on the phone. Mikhail had previously criticized the government, but now, he said, it was time to put disagreements aside.

“While people wrinkle their noses at us everywhere outside our borders, at least during this period, we need to stick together,” Mikhail said.

Opponents of the war are becoming targets of pervasive propaganda that portrays them as the enemy within. Putin set the tone in a speech on March 16, referring to pro-Western Russians as “outcasts and traitors” to be purged from society.

In the past two weeks, a dozen activists, journalists and opposition figures in Russia have returned home to find the letter “Z” or the words “traitor” or “collaborator” on their doors.

Aleksei Venediktov, the former editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow, the liberal radio station that was forced to shut down in early March, said he found a severed pig’s head outside his door last week and a sticker showing stood “Jewish pig.” On Wednesday, Lucy Stein, a member of the protest group Pussy Riot, who sits on a Moscow city council, found a picture of herself taped to her apartment door with a message printed on it: “Do not sell your home country.”

She said she suspected a secret police unit was behind the attack, although Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said on Thursday that such incidents were “hooliganism”.

Anti-war protests, which led to more than 15,000 arrests across the country in the first weeks of the war, have largely ceased. According to some estimates, hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled in outrage over the war and fear of conscription and closed borders; an industry association said at least 50,000 technology workers had left the country alone.

In Skt. Petersburg, which had been the site of some of the biggest protests, said Boris Vishnevsky, a local opposition lawmaker, that he had received about 100 letters asking him to “do everything” to stop the war in its first two weeks, and only one that supports it. But after Putin signed legislation that effectively criminalizes disagreements over the war, that stream of letters dried up.

“These laws have been effective because they threaten people with prison sentences,” he said. “If not for this, then the change in public opinion would be pretty clear, and it would not benefit the government.”

In a telephone interview, a Moscow political analyst, 45, described visits to police stations across the city in the past month following the repeated arrests of her teenage children during protests. Now the teenager is receiving threats on social media, leading her to conclude that the authorities had passed on her child’s name to people who bully activists online.

But she also found that the police officers she dealt with did not seem very aggressive or enthusiastic about the war. In general, she believed that most Russians were too afraid to express resistance, and was convinced that there was nothing they could do about it. She asked that her name not be made public for fear of endangering her and her child.

“This is the condition of a person that feels like a particle in the ocean,” she said. “Another has certainly everything for them. This learned passivity is our tragedy. “

© 2022 The New York Times Company

Leave a Comment