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What's Behind Russian Support For Putin's War In Ukraine?

A column of vehicles paraded through the streets of Volgograd on March 6 to express support for the invasion of Ukraine. Some of the cars displayed the letter Z, which is used as an unofficial symbol of the Russian troops fighting in the war.
A column of vehicles paraded through the streets of Volgograd on March 6 to express support for the invasion of Ukraine. Some of the cars displayed the letter Z, which is used as an unofficial symbol of the Russian troops fighting in the war.

A woman fleeing the shelling of the northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv by Russian forces on March 6 stopped for a moment to ask the Russian people a question that many Ukrainians and other foreigners have been asking: Why don't they protest what is being done in their name?

"You were able to do it before, back in our [shared] history in the 1990s," the woman told an RFE/RL journalist through a mixture of tears and rage as her teenage son looked on.

"In the Soviet Union, everyone rose up. Everyone! Where are you now? Why don't you rise up now? Why do you believe [Russian President Vladimir Putin]? Why don't you defend your own sons, your own children? Rise up, please. Protect them. I'm begging you. Please."

Although the collapse of the Soviet Union was primarily driven by enormous protests in the Baltic states, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and other non-Russian republics dating back to the late 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Russians also took to the streets during the death throes of the U.S.S.R. On March 10, 1991, for instance, an estimated 500,000 Muscovites packed a huge square outside the Kremlin, calling for the resignation of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

By contrast, Russian opposition to the war in Ukraine has been limited to relatively modest rallies, single-person protests, the signing of petitions and open letters, and social media posts. OVD-Info, a nongovernmental organization that monitors political repression, reports that more than 13,800 people have been detained across Russia for anti-war activities.

In addition, many of those who oppose the war have already fled Russia, either in recent years or since Putin launched the invasion on February 24. Despite international sanctions and the collapsing ruble, tens of thousands of Russians have left the country since the beginning of the month.

At the same time, however, there were no mass displays of support for the war -- either state-orchestrated or spontaneous -- during the first days following the invasion. Later, such demonstrations began to emerge, many of them focused on the Z symbol that was painted on many of the vehicles in the Russian invasion force.

According to some reports, participation in some of these demonstrations, such as a self-proclaimed "flash mob for peace" in the Tatarstan capital, Kazan, on March 10, was compulsory.

'I Support Putin In Everything'

With the war in Ukraine in its third week, a clearly defined picture of public opinion about it in Russia was elusive because two decades of Putin's authoritarian rule have made detailed and reliable polling in the country all but impossible. Independent pollsters and sociologists have been marginalized, while a pall of fear and self-censorship hangs over a country that has myriad ways of persecuting dissenters.

State-connected polling agencies have published results purportedly showing strong support for the war. The government-controlled pollster VTsIOM claimed on March 5 that 71 percent of Russians support what the state calls the "special military operation" in Ukraine. On March 3, another state-controlled agency, FOM, reported a poll conducted on February 25-27 that found 65 percent of Russians supported the war.

An independent poll commissioned by CNN just before the Russian invasion found that 50 percent of Russians said it would be "right for Russia to use military force to both prevent Ukraine from joining NATO…and if it feels threatened by foreign activity in former Soviet countries" -- two of the narratives that Putin has used to justify Russian aggression against Ukraine.

The accuracy and dynamics of such numbers are impossible to gauge in Russia, but evidence suggests a substantial portion of the population supports the government, and it is not difficult to find Russians who say as much.

"I am for Putin," said one woman on March 3 when a Current Time correspondent tried to show her photographs of the destruction in Ukraine. "I support Putin. I'm not even going to look at any photographs. I am for Putin. I support Putin in everything."

How Russians Reacted When We Showed Them Pictures From Ukraine
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'Shame And Revulsion'

Diverging opinions about the war in some cases have deeply strained friendships and familial relations.

Yekaterina, a 28-year-old fitness trainer in Rostov-on-Don, near the Ukrainian border, told RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities that her mother so fiercely defends Putin that Yekaterina can hardly recognize her.

"At first, her main argument was, 'There is nothing we can do and nothing depends on us,'" said Yekaterina, who asked to be identified only by her first name because of her opposition to the war. "Later, her argument was even worse: 'They asked us for help.' The war didn't shake her. It hasn't evoked any emotions in her. I was just shocked by her reaction.

"Now, I am asking myself, 'Who is this woman?" she continued, noting that her mother "sheds tears" over Soviet sacrifices during World War II every year on May 9, which is marked in Russia as Victory Day. "Do I even know her? How can a living person become so hard-hearted about a war started by her own government?"

Viktoria, a 24-year-old illustrator in Rostov-on-Don who also spoke on condition that she be identified only by her first name, told a similar story.

"The day after the war started was my mother's 45th birthday, and I went home, although I wasn't sure I should," she recalled. "We agreed not to talk about politics, but I could hear how she and papa were watching the news on television and commenting about everything: 'We're protecting our own.' 'We didn’t do that -- the Ukrainians did.' I had a strong urge to run into the room and scream, 'Wake up!' But I knew it wouldn't help.

"For the first time in my life, I felt real shame and revulsion toward my parents," she said. "Since then, I have hardly spoken to them."

The false narratives the Kremlin has pushed throughout the military campaign in Ukraine -- that Russia is the main force against fascism in the world, that NATO and Western countries are plotting to destroy Russia, that Russian language and culture are under siege -- have been cultivated in classrooms and museums, in films, on state-controlled television, and elsewhere almost since the beginning of Putin's reign in 2000.

"Since the early 2000s, Russia has witnessed a rebirth of patriotic mobilization," the International Crisis Group said in a 2018 report. "This revival is not spontaneous: It is underpinned by a concerted state effort to instill patriotic values, celebrate Russia's military past, and promote Moscow's recrudescence as a global power. [T]his mobilization appears to have helped build support among ordinary citizens for Moscow's more assertive foreign policy, including its increasingly bitter standoff with the West and interventions in countries of the former Soviet space."

The massive effort included "patriotic" textbooks and academic programs, the Immortal Regiment ritual and the cult of the Soviet role in World War II, the funding of "patriotic" films and museum programs, the cultivation of nostalgia for the Soviet Union, and the rehabilitation of notorious Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. There is even a chain of Russian "history parks" designed to present the Kremlin's spin on the country's 1,000-year history.

'Psychologically Impossible'

Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich, in a March 5 interview with RFE/RL's Belarus Service, said that "all the money that Russia earned during the fat years went to propaganda and the military."

The result, she said, has been a seething aggressiveness in much of Russian society.

"I recently had a conversation with a Russian in Berlin," she said. "You see a man sitting in a nice car, wearing a nice suit, but there was such hatred in him when we talked about Ukraine."

Belarusian sociologist Pyotr Rudkouski said the Russian government's narratives about the war in Ukraine have been effective because they are based on "necessary preconditions" that have been cultivated over time.

"It is difficult for Russia to try on the role of aggressor, to identify with the Nazi aggressors who also bombed Kyiv [during World War II]," he said. "This is psychologically impossible for most of society."

Sociologist Iskander Yasaveyev, who lives in Kazan and has demonstrated against the war, also pointed to an aggressive tension in Russian society.

"I am not a psychologist, but I think that some sort of internal tension has arisen in people. They understand they are being lied to, that they are getting propaganda. But they want to be deceived,” he said. “It is simpler for them, easier for them to suppress their inner conflict."

While such factors could prevent support for the war from eroding rapidly, Yasaveyev said that Russian society could “sober up” fast if military losses and economic pain continue to mount.

“A significant number will begin to compare their situation with what is being reported in the news,” he said. “And they will inevitably realize that they are getting lies and propaganda.”

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by Current Time; RFE/RL's Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian services; Idel.Realities, and Siberia.Realities.

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