Russia’s indifference problem Four experts explain why the Kremlin’s political repressions haven’t provoked more public outrage
Last week, as Russians remembered the victims of political repressions during the Soviet Union, the human rights group Memorial updated its list of persons imprisoned in modern-day Russia for political or religious reasons. There are now 420 people on Memorial’s list, and activists say the true number could be several times higher. This magnitude of repression rivals what Russians experienced in the late Soviet period, but the public today seems largely unbothered by the situation. Even before the authorities tightened restrictions on demonstrations, expanded the persecution of protest organizers, and dismantled Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, few citizens openly displayed dissatisfaction with the state by picketing or attending rallies. Meduza asked a sociologist, a political scientist, a historian, and a psychologist why Russians appear to be so indifferent to the repression of their compatriots.
sociologist, Levada Center director
Polling shows that many people in Russia, like in most countries, aren’t particularly interested in politics. Just a third of adults say the subject matters to them, explains Volkov, and pockets of interest are concentrated in big cities. The most engaged Russians make up just 10 percent of the population, they’re generally critical of the authorities, and they get most of their information online, especially from Telegram channels. Volkov stressed to Meduza that alternative viewpoints and independent media sources are crucial to shaping the public’s perspective on political repressions.
Over the past few years, prevailing opinions about Russia’s “foreign agent” law have largely flipped. Previously, most people told sociologists that the legislation was needed to counter “Western influence,” but more and more Russians now say the law was created to suppress free speech.
In surveys, some Russians acknowledge the modern-day existence of political prisoners, but they are unable or unwilling to name many individual prisoners. Many respondents know about Alexey Navalny, but not everyone familiar with his case believes that he is a political prisoner. Also, Volkov says sociologists notice that more Russians appear to be afraid of discussing Navalny directly, as more and more people become aware that even reposting certain information can result in criminal penalties.
Volkov compares the Putin regime’s consolidation of control over television networks to the mass media under the Soviet Union, where ordinary Russians lacked easy access to alternative politics and reporting. After 15 years, however, the rise of digital platforms has restored some alternatives and “returned Russia to the 1990s,” says Volkov.
Today, between 30 and 40 percent of Russians consume news content online, challenging the bezalternativnost [absence of alternatives] that sustains the Putin regime’s hold on power during crisis and economic stagnation. Internet-savvy Russians are more likely to be younger, however, and young people are generally less politically engaged than older age groups, who are conversely less likely to consume information online.
To boost awareness about political repression in Russia today, Volkov says it’s important for opinion leaders and the mass media to discuss the issue more often. He points out that prison torture has gained public salience as major independent news outlets have joined nonprofit organizations in talking about the problem and sharing visual content that makes it visceral to people. “When torture is really shown to a large audience, it produces a much greater impression,” Volkov told Meduza.
political scientist, head of European University at St. Petersburg’s Wider European Doctorate program
Zavadskaya says the available sociological evidence doesn’t necessarily indicate that Russians are indifferent to political repressions. In fact, she says, the legitimacy of protests has risen in recent years, albeit not as fast as fears and risk adversity. People are generally more informed now, but they rationally practice passivity as the authorities raise the price of collective action. According to Zavadskaya, the citizens who are aware of their authoritarian conditions have three reaction options: emigration, protest, or loyalty.
For their own survival, authoritarian regimes also rely on a three-factor toolkit: economic stability, an appealing self-image, and targeted repressions. In Russia, says Zavadskaya, the authorities have had to lean increasingly on this third pillar, though the public today recognizes the legitimacy of protests far more.
For Russians, caution is now the prevailing social norm, but this could change very quickly, “in a manner of hours,” like it did in Belarus, where mass action rapidly reduced the costs of demonstrations and raised the costs of political repression. In some authoritarian regimes, economic crises leave the state incapable of supporting its repressive apparatus, suddenly reducing the costs of collective action. “But Russia is not a poor authoritarian regime dragging out its existence in the margins,” Zavadskaya told Meduza.
The last major shift in Russians’ everyday politics was when Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014, but that patriotic fever cooled when lawmakers raised the country’s retirement ages, argues Zavadskaya. “Now [protests] are pretty much perceived as a normal part of the political reality,” she said.
Echoing Denis Volkov’s remarks, Zavadskaya says the dissemination of information is the main factor that can “politicize society.” She, too, cites recent reports about the torture and abuse of inmates at Russian prisons, arguing that such attention allows the public to react on an emotional level. In what she calls a “positive trend,” Zavadskaya says Russians are gradually embracing the view that the country’s incarcerated “are also human beings worthy of respect,” though the regime still makes collective action too difficult for most people. At the same time, certain kinds of information flows can cause “fatigue from negativity,” suppressing political engagement. “If, every day, you’re learning about new repressions, new victims, and new emigrations, the effect of each subsequent news story begins to dull,” says Zavadskaya.
historian, Memorial human rights organization
“I think a huge number of people know [about the repressions], but they mask it in different ways,” Bondarenko told Meduza. He says the Kremlin’s authoritarianism is now too omnipresent for Russians to claim ignorance plausibly and many cope with the knowledge by parroting state propaganda or telling themselves that it doesn’t affect them personally. Modern Russian society finds itself in something resembling the Soviet era or even fascist Italy, but the public’s susceptibility to government-run media doesn’t mean people are any less politicized today.
Bondarenko says Russians grasp and accept of the fact that differences of opinion exist, though he argues that the concept of politics itself is “drifting a lot now.” At the same time, the disappearance of opportunities to express various points of view obscures the population’s political literacy. Like Margarita Zavadskaya, Bondarenko predicts that Russia’s authoritarian politics will drive more people to emigrate, which he warns will further divide society.
psychologist, Mental Health Center
By and large, human beings worry most about their own problems, explains Andrey Aksyuk. “Very few of us treat what’s happening nationally as a personal tragedy,” he told Meduza, noting that American psychologist Abraham Maslow's “hierarchy of needs” presupposes that people prioritize physiological and safety necessities like family income and material existence before bothering with abstract rights and freedoms. Real-world influences on human behavior aren’t so rigid, however, says Aksyuk, who points out that Russians struggling to make ends meet are still capable of rallying for political and environmental causes, as evidenced in recent activist campaigns in Khabarovsk and Arkhangelsk. “It would be naïve to believe that all these people who came out to protest were only satisfying their basic needs,” he told Meduza.
Like the other experts who spoke to Meduza, Aksyuk stressed the significance of information flows, pointing out that eliminating “data shortages” is one of cognitive behavioral therapy’s key approaches to treating neurotic and other pathological conditions. “We often make decisions without all the information,” he explained, citing fears about flying based on news coverage that ignores most planes that land safely. The same goes for worries about being arrested at a large protest because a friend ended up in police custody, even when most demonstrators never came close to arrest.
The concerns that suppress political activism in Russia are part of the same evolutionary mechanism that keeps people alive and capable of passing their genes onto future generations. Overcoming these anxieties requires willpower, which is impossible if someone doesn’t grasp why it’s necessary to defy his or her fears in the first place. Aksyuk says this understanding is feasible through the clarity achieved in “goalsetting” and the confidence gained in a community.
“In many ways, a person’s culture and surrounding environment, followed by personal experience, are what influence his or her behavior,” Aksyuk told Meduza. “Personal experience is what psychologists work with primarily, and it’s the only thing you can change about someone. Within the framework of private therapy, we can’t change culture, and we can’t change biological conditions, either.” Whether or not Russians march through the streets to demonstrate their political views, they’ll manage the stress of politics more easily if they can explain why some fears are worth confronting and why others are not, says Aksyuk.
Summary by Kevin Rothrock