How do you know what the Russians, who seem so apathetic about the war unleashed by their president, think? The answer is not easy. According to the latest survey of the independent institute Levada, more than 71% of them support “the special operation in Ukraine” (and 21% are against). But this type of organization solicits citizens who are suspicious of pollsters – the repressive apparatus being quick to nip the slightest opposition in the bud. As for the media, the orders, they no longer reflect the state of opinion, in a country where public debate no longer exists.
In this context, a vox pop produced by a journalist has little value. My experience has shown me that the same Russian can support the war in front of a stranger, in the street, and be very critical of power in his kitchen, surrounded by his family or his friends. In reality, the Russians are lost. Disoriented. Which makes them more apt to be manipulated. Vladimir Putin largely bases his power on the poorest populations and the elderly. The middle class has split between those considered “useless citizens” who have left the country and those who are closing ranks behind the Russian president to help him keep the system in place.
All of these pro-Putin Russians are particularly sensitive to official war propaganda. “It was you who started by making Ukraine a springboard for your offensive, which was planned for the end of February. We were ahead of you”: now settled in France after fleeing Russia, Alexandra, 35, does not didn’t believe her eyes when she received this message from a Muscovite aunt. Especially since this woman was, before the war, rather pro-European. “If nuclear missiles fly in our direction, then it will be bad for you. And our missiles will not hit your passport, but your faces. Your French passport will not save you”, also wrote this radicalized sexagenarian to her niece.
This argument that Russia had no choice but to attack its neighbor has relieved the conscience of many Russians, who prefer to believe in this version. Why would Putin have launched a war if the risk did not exist? The logic seems implacable. “We didn’t want this war, we are not barbarians,” says Natacha, in her fifties. This Muscovite, met in the fall during a patriotic event on Red Square, had burst into tears in front of the foreigner that I was. Finally, she could say what was on her heart and express the schizophrenia of a population that says itself against war in general, but for this war allegedly initiated by the West.
“We always got on well with you, why are you doing this to us?” she had exclaimed, addressing herself, through me, to the Europeans. This woman knew about the war crimes perpetrated in Ukraine, but she attributed them… to the victims, the Ukrainians. We then understand that in the Russian upside-down world the horrors of war can, despite everything, affect the population. In Moscow, the psychologists are said to be overwhelmed. And the business press says antidepressants have been selling out in droves since February 2022.
But another Russia suffers even more. The one who gets up every morning thinking that her country is an aggressor, without being able to do anything about it. The weight is heavy to bear. The NGO OVD-Info has counted 19,478 arrests linked to anti-war positions since February 24, 2022. Opponents of the conflict who have not left the country are, moreover, hunted down by zealous defenders of power. Olesya Krivtsova, a 19-year-old student, was denounced by her classmates to the FSB for having criticized the “special operation” in Ukraine in a private group chat. In police custody, the young girl was threatened to finish the skull smashed with a club according to the sinister method of the paramilitaries of Wagner. She faces up to ten years in prison. “Whistleblowing is a patriot’s duty,” officials told his mother. An atmosphere of intimidation that incites many Russians to silence.
At least 1.5 million Russians are said to have left their country in recent months. Among these exiled opponents of the war, not all adhere to the values of the West and have not necessarily fallen into its camp. Several of them have also caused a scandal by their positions. On December 6, Latvia revoked the license of Russian opposition television in exile after the channel’s host, Alexei Korostelev, urged viewers to “provide basic equipment to those Russians who are on the forehead”. Russia’s tendency towards imperialism leads some to criticize Vladimir Putin for the military mobilization, the corruption within the army and the number of deaths due to the war… while finding perfectly legitimate the occupation of Crimea, Donbass and annexed territories of southern Ukraine. To say that people’s minds are confused is an understatement.