After February 24, 2022, it became apparent that most Russians supported what Putin called “a special military operation.” Yet, weeks later, most Russians still supported an obvious full-scale war with a neighboring nation, the war that killed thousands and split families apart. Even one year later, when Russians felt their life quality spiraling down, with the Russian military reportedly losing around 200 000 killed and wounded and the history-record high level of sanctions, most Russians still render the war their silent support.
Different polls conducted in Russia by Government-backed Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VtsIOM) and independent researchers, like Levada Center, show that the war in Ukraine gets the support of most of the Russian people, a stable of 70-74% of them supporting the war in Ukraine (some independent research showed the support as low as 51%, though). As enthusiastically Russians welcomed the annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea in 2014.
The seizure of Crimea, a peaceful political foreign action backed by a seemingly solid military force, seems to have become a justification for any foreign military action from then on for Russian society. One might doubt the quality of polls in contemporary Russia, but the broad support of Putin’s military policy is undoubtful. And why is that? Russian society is generally educated, with a literacy level of 99.69% and a rich history of science and culture. And why do educated people support the war, which is aggressive by nature and does not bring them any immediate or strategic profit? Has Putin created perfect propaganda mechanisms, or does the Russian imperial spirit calling for military expansion have deeper roots in Russian society? There are two main answers tho these and similar questions: the paternalistic core of Russian society and the devaluation of human lives.
Paternalism, as a word, comes from Latin and means a system of relationships when the authorities provide for the needs of citizens in exchange for dictating what citizens can and must do. All the predecessor-states of the existing Russian Federation were paternalistic, be it a tzar’s Russia or the USSR. The example of the USSR is more important for us as this is the story to which Putin always appeals. The USSR’s economy was the administrative command one. The administrative command approach of the Soviet Union followed the relationship model of a traditional Russian family, though. In the traditional Russian family, the father controlled the labor tools, and in the planned economy, the state controlled means of production.
The head of the USSR, Iosif Stalin, had the title of “The Father of All Nations.” That title epitomizes the Russian paternalistic relationship between society and power. Under the USSR, paternalism had precise egalitarian nature, and in contemporary Russia, it has become more ceremonial. Nevertheless, it remains a type of paternalism when Russians delegate decision-making power to the authorities.
The 1917 radical change from monarchy to socialism demanded terror and violence. The Soviet power succeeded in installing slave psychology into Russians, starting with physically eliminating its enemies in the 1920s and ending with sending dissidents of the 1970s to mental clinics. The atmosphere of terror and silence permeated the entire Soviet society. Several generations were raised in it. This brutal past is still there, and it is still with the Russians who, even before the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, acquired the habit of being afraid to speak out.
It was not too difficult for Putin to resume this tradition of paternalistic dominance reviving the terror-bred social obedience habits. What he added was a campaign for the devaluation of human lives. He started it with the war in Chechnya in 1999. Back then, the democratic press used the word “liquidation” to tell stories of Russian military victories, and killings. For every new Russian military aggression, Georgia in 2008, Donbas in 2014, and Syria in 2015, the press coverage became less and less covert, quickly getting rid of brackets when depicting murdering of enemies of Russia.
Putin’s propaganda accentuated the greatness of Russia, trying to raise and maintain a sense of patriotism, shifting attention from the existing economic problems and corruption. The sentiment for the great Russia that needs to regain its dominance compelled Russians to support the “anti-terrorist operation” in Syria and the “liberation movement” in Donbas and welcome the seizure of Crimea. In a way, Russians expected a short and victorious war in Ukraine, following the propaganda narrative of the “great Russia.”
At the same time, Putin surpressed and then liquidated human rights organizations, rebranded Stalin’s personality cult, eliminated any real opposition, and magnified the status of the state. Putin has created an influential institution of TV propaganda that indirectly propagated the right of the strongest installed by Putin as a principle of power relations in Russian society. Gradual economic marginalization of most Russians and the overwhelming feeling of lack of power made the innovative and young leave the country, leaving the silent majority behind.
For the year after February 24, 2022, people in Ukraine and Western countries have been calling Russians for protests, blaming them for being passive. However, recent academic research conducted in Russia on the collaboration of Soviet people living on occupied territories during WWII showed the following. Not more than 12% were the so-called “administrative collaborate.” And only 9% of people contributed to the partisan movement against the Nazis.
We see that about 80% of Soviet people remained neutral, trying to avoid either of the opposite movements. And they remained passive after having undergone pervasive propaganda and state terror. Also, the stakes of being seen as not loyal to the Soviet state were very high had it come back. And still, they kept passive.
In the Soviet Union, they called WWII a Great Patriotic War. And indeed, it was a war that no one was indifferent about. A patriotic attitude to that war was very easy to feel, as people shared common cultural values in the USSR of the time. Only by sharing similar cultural and moral values, a nation can produce a strong culture that would resonate with the society. Russian history is very clear about this. Even Russian literature started to appear in the XVIII-th century, after Peter the Great unified Russian society. This unification came with blood and pain, as everything does in Russia.
Russian society now clings to the culture with big inertia from the times of the USSR with cultural codes that Putin tries to revive. But in fact, Russian society has no shared values now but some economic interests that could barely act as a feeble unification factor.
Irresponsible economic and social policies of the last 40 years have drained Russia’s financial, economic, and human resources. The aftermath is a perceived lack of creativity and innovation affecting both the economy and culture. Russian culture, which flourished before with world-famous names in ballet, literature, theatre, music, and science, now can produce just a handful of stand-alone stars. Likewise, Russian science has declined from dominating space technologies to buying basic computer components from China. Neither Russians can not feel any cultural ties with Ukrainians to be compassionate, nor they can unite in the shared anti-war sentiment.
The passiveness of Russians now is the same passiveness that has always existed in the Russian paternalistic society. People delegated the decision-making authority for the country to Putin. People feel no responsibility for what is happening. At the same time, if tomorrow Putin changes the rhetoric for the opposite and, for example, says that Russia has won but it should withdraw all its troops from the Ukrainian territories, Russians will welcome this turn. In Russia, people do not support a policy but a tzar. Putin is a tzar in the spiritless Russian society. So, Russians support the source of policy rather than the policy itself. Those who disagree with the current state of things are either in jail or have left the country.
Nazis built the Buchenwald concentration camp quite near the town of Weimar. Its inhabitants could see the chimneys with the smoke of the burnt. When asked later how they felt about it, the Weimar people used to say that they knew nothing. When asked again how they could not see the smoke from the chimneys, they answered, “We always looked in a different direction.” That is what Russians do; they look in a different direction. But looking in a different direction means they know exactly what direction to avoid.
American political theorist Steven Lukes in his book “Power: A Radical View” stated that the power can not be dramatically changed as any power is supported by a power structure and to change the power you need to change this power structure, which is impossible. You can only dismantle it and then reassemble it or create a new one. Vladimir Lenin dismantled the power structure of Russian society in 1917. Back then, the war started with patriotic expectations to end soon with a victory. Instead, the war lasted long, killing millions, and impoverishing people, eventually unbalancing the passive Russian society into the revolution. These and many other similarities between the current Russian situation and the state of Russian society during WWI leave hope for a change. Right after Russia started the war in Ukraine, there were mass protests against the war. Only on February 24, 2022, more than 1800 people were arrested for protesting. A year later, protests continued, but on February 24, 2023, only 50 people were detained. Neither thousands nor hundreds. In a country with 140 million population. Unfortunately, the awaited change may not come soon.