These days, the nightly newscasts on Russian state TV are more triumphant proclamations about the “special military operation” in Ukraine than actual newscasts. There’s virtually no public mention of the rising death toll among Russian soldiers. Russia media are banned from using the words “war” or “invasion” in describing the war and the invasion. President Vladimir Putin’s March 18 call-to-arms to roaring, flag-waving crowds in a stadium was carried live on national TV.
Six weeks into the war, amid the drumbeat of disinformation, state-run polling agency results have pointed to a surge of support for Putin.
Do Russians tell the full truth when asked about their support for the war? Based on our experiment, we can safely conclude that they do not.”-- London School of Economics researchers
Evidence of such a surge, however, also showed up last week in a survey by one of Russia’s most reputable independent pollsters, the Levada Center. For people looking for a sign of Russian weariness with Putin, Levada’s poll was not it.
But among academics, social scientists, and close watchers of Russian social trends, the Levada poll showed signs of something else: a Russian reluctance -- or even fear -- of speaking frankly and honestly to pollsters.
In a report published on April 6, researchers affiliated with the London School of Economics examined “preference falsification” in Russian public opinion surveys: whether respondents were hiding their true feelings on political questions; in this case, those related to approval for Putin, for the government, or for the conduct of the war.
“While it is well known that fear of repression can lead to preference falsification -- i.e., people publicly supporting positions they privately don’t share -- showing that this mechanism is at work is not easy,” the researchers, Philipp Chapkovski and Max Schaub, wrote. “After all, people are unlikely to say whether they are hiding their true preferences or not if they are hesitant to reveal these preferences in the first place.”
WATCH: Current Time asked people in several cities across Russia: "Did you hear about the Ukrainian city of Bucha?" Many echoed the Kremlin's line that images of atrocities were "fake." Some Russians, however, expressed shock and called the killings "horrible," while others were too afraid to share their true feelings.
In their experiment, the researchers used an online Russian-designed sociological tool called Toloka to recruit 3,000 adults and devised a list of questions asking respondents whether they supported one or more of four social policies: same-sex marriage, abortion restrictions, the war in Ukraine, and cash welfare payments for poor Russians.
Respondents aren’t asked to say which policies they support, merely how many of the four items they support.
In this survey, which was conducted on April 4 and which sociologists broadly call a “list experiment,” half of the respondents were given a three-item list, with the question of the Ukraine war omitted; the other half was given a four-item list that included the Ukraine war question.
The researchers also asked respondents a straightforward, yes-or-no question: “Do you support the war?”
The results showed that when Russians were directly asked the question “Do you support the war?” 68 percent said they did. When using the list experiment, however, support for the war dropped to 53 percent.
“Do Russians tell the full truth when asked about their support for the war?” the researchers wrote. “Based on our experiment, we can safely conclude that they do not.
“Russians, at least those in our sample, clearly hide their true attitudes towards the war,” they said.
Most Russians appear to be getting an incomplete picture of the war in Ukraine, which is by all accounts not going well for Russian forces.
Russian units have withdrawn from around Kyiv, which was believed to be a primary goal of the Kremlin in the early days of the war, and no major cities have been taken, including Mariupol, which has suffered under a relentless siege that has devastated the port city.
Also skewing perceptions: the death toll among Russian soldiers is not publicly available or widely discussed. Ukraine’s military claims that 18,500 Russians have been killed in Ukraine, while U.S. and Western intelligence say the figure is above 10,000.
Russia’s most recent official tally came on March 25, when the Defense Ministry reported 1,351 deaths.
In a post to Twitter two days after the Levada poll was released, Sam Greene, director of the Russia program at Kings College London, criticized it, saying Russians were hiding their true feelings, and that Levada should have published the “rate of response” -- that is, what percentage of respondents refused to participate.
Levada Center, and its director, Denis Volkov, did not immediately respond to e-mails and messages from RFE/RL seeking comment.
In an online discussion hosted on April 5 by the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, Volkov said there were clear indicators well before the war how Russian public opinion was shifting in support of the Kremlin.
“I think that these figures shouldn’t be a surprise because already before the conflict started, in the end of February, we already had the main counters of the attitudes towards it,” he said.
WATCH: Speaking to Current Time, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Russian people have no access to the facts about the invasion of Ukraine.
He said in January, as the scope of the Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders grew, Russians were not clamoring for war, “but they were morally prepared for it.”
Volkov also drew a parallel to 2014, when Putin’s support soared in the wake of the Kremlin’s decision to seize Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, but he also noted that support for Putin was not universal.
“I think it is important to bear in mind that there is not monolithic support, like with this military operation, like with Putin,” Volkov said. “About half support, half of Russians support him more or less unconditionally, and about one-third, they have some doubts, like sometimes respondents say: ‘I don’t like what is happening, but you should be patriotic in such situations.’”
The London researchers also argued that the chances of regime change are more dependent on domestic public opinion than on external pressure. And they noted that not all Russians who oppose the war oppose Putin.
“[B]eing against the war is not the same as being against Putin, whose high levels of support might well be real,” they said. “What is more, the fact that a large number of Russians support the invasion even when given the option to reveal their true private preferences is extremely concerning.”