Aimar Ventsel: Why are the Russians not protesting?
If you ask someone you meet on the street in a random city in Russia whether they support the war, they will tell you that they are 100 percent against it. The trick is that such a reply means nothing at all, Aimar Ventsel writes.
In truth, phrasing the question as, "Why are the Russians not protesting?" is not accurate. While Russians make up 75 percent of Russian society, the remaining 25 percent is made up of people belonging to around 200 ethnic groups. Some of them are admittedly very small, others include millions of people. However, it is customary to talk about the residents of Russia as Russians both in and outside of the country.
Attempts to answer the question of why we cannot see mass protests in Russia have become a separate journalistic genre.
Belarusian (symbolic, don't you think?) writer Sasha Filipenko recently published a piece explaining why Russian residents are refraining from going out to overthrow their rulers.
The first reason is atomization in Russian society. And the author is spot on here. Russia is among the most individualist societies I have ever seen. The curious claim that the Orthodox faith has rendered the Russian mentality collective is sometimes made. It has not. An ordinary Russian is only interested in their narrow circle of relatives and friends. Myriad images of traffic accidents, with people simply stepping over dead bodies in them serve as a good illustration of this.
Filipenko then moves on to the popular claim that Europe is to blame for everything. European countries maintained their ties to Vladimir Putin after Georgia, Crimea etc. A well-worn and toothless claim.
Next comes state propaganda. Filipenko is right again. Propaganda pressure in Russia is unfathomable, and the lion's share of society is under its influence. Lack of leaders is mentioned next. And indeed, Russia has done everything in its power over the past decade to make sure there are no prominent opposition leaders.
After that, comes the favorite argument of all the "good Russians" – Russia's massive repressive apparatus. Let it be said that those two million police officers, national guardsmen and rapid responders did not appear overnight. Efforts to pull down the blinds, ramp up repressive institutions and do away with civil rights have been going on in Russia since 2000. Barring a few exceptions, this has caused no major protests. People either didn't care or even condoned the trend. (The saying, "There was order in Stalin's day!" is still very popular in Russia.)
The text also mentions mass poverty as a reason people are not protesting. Which is once again true. Not only is a good part of Russia's working-age population working several jobs, a disproportionate part of them are dependent on state wages or commission. The latter is hardly a motivating factor in decisions of whether to protest against the government.
Finally, Filipenko turns to Europe again. Namely that Russians have "negative experience" from Belarus. Protests in Belarus in 2020 drew massive support from Europe, while that did nothing to stop sanctions later on. Which for me begged the question of whether protesting the authority is a beauty pageant where points from abroad are the most important thing.
There are plenty of people also in Estonia who stubbornly maintain that a considerable part of Russian society does not support the war. They cite polls according to which around 60 percent of the Russian society is in favor of the war and the rest are against or do not feel strongly about it.
I believe they are wrong. Moreover, walking down the street in a random city in Russia and asking people, "Are you in favor of the war?" will 100 percent prompt the reply, "I am against war!" The trick is that this reply means absolutely nothing at all. A much more relevant question would be, "Do you believe Russia's aggression against Ukraine is justified?" But no one is asking that question.
Allow me to go back in time a little. When Crimea was annexed in 2014, all manner of polls suggested that at least 25 percent of Russians were against it.
Having spent time in Russia in March 2014 and later, I have always wondered why I cannot see that quarter of society anywhere. I could find them nowhere.
What is more, people who in my presence expressed critical opinions about the annexation of Crimea did so with a slight caveat. There were various justifications, ranging from "It is too late to do anything about it now" to "While it was not pretty, historical justice was served." The current anti-war sentiment of Russian residents can be seen as analogous.
Those who have kept up with the thoughts and statements of Russia's opposition activists and liberals know that blaming the West forms a central narrative. That had the West refrained from buying oil and gas from Russia, there would be no war. Accusations leveled at NATO for provoking Russia through its expansion are voiced somewhat more cautiously.
Blaming Ukraine is also unbelievably common. That Ukraine is to blame because it wanted NATO bases in its territory or provoked the Kremlin, for example, by talking about Holodomor. And this from people who paint themselves as the Kremlin's rhetorical opponents.
Looking at the 40 percent of Russian society who polls say are against the war, we have no reason to believe they feel any different. Just as it is speculative to claim that 40 percent of the Russian society is not in favor of the war (poll results in Russia have long since been questioned), my claim that at least 90 percent of the Russian society feels Russia's aggression against Ukraine is justified in one way or another is also speculative.
Still, having spent a long time doing research in Russia and having some experience, I dare propose that figure. In truth, it doesn't really matter whether the figure is higher or lower. If even those who are critical of the powers that be inside Russia (and now also in exile) believe that the West is looking to destroy Russia and/or that Russia has been treated unfairly, the masses will refrain from protesting. Because they just need to hang in there.
That Russia is locked in an existential struggle is evidenced in the coffins coming back from Ukraine and fresh graves in the cemeteries. And those losses are adding to the hatred people have for the West, not the Kremlin. The fact that TV Rain, which now has 15 million viewers in Russia after moving to the Netherlands, changes nothing.
Of course, Russian residents are not in favor of the war. They do not like it that they and their country are criticized in the West. They also do not like the fact they can no longer travel to Europe for vacation and studies. That several Western products that people had gotten used to have disappeared is also highly inconvenient, as is the fact that the ballooning cost of living is a problem for most people in Russia. However, none of it matters one little bit.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski