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‘The divisions are clear’ Sociologist Alexei Titkov on how the war against Ukraine has changed Russian society

Source: Meduza
Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

More than hundred days of Moscow waging war against Ukraine has changed the lives of many Russians. Those opposed to Russia’s full-scale invasion initially took to the streets. When the authorities passed criminal penalties for “discrediting” the Russian army, they started taking part in the greater anti-war movement. Many were forced to leave the country. Others went to rallies in support of the “special operation” and parroted the arguments put forth in Russian propaganda about “denazifying” Ukraine. What has changed in Russian society during the war so far? How are Russians getting along with each other, and who is really supporting the “special operation”? Meduza posed these and other questions to sociologist Alexei Titkov. 

Please note. The following translation has been edited and and abridged for length and clarity. You can read the full Q&A with Alexei Titkov in Russian here.
Alexei Titkov, sociologist

How have Russian sociologists adjusted their work since the start of the war? 

I’ll start by grouchily reminding readers that polling companies are not the same thing as sociologists. They do their thing and we do ours. Since the end of March, polling companies have had to make serious adjustments to the new circumstances. There have been shifts in what questions people are willing to answer and to what extent, how honestly, and how truthfully they are willing to answer them. 

It’s very similar to the story with our elections: there are more loyal voters, and more oppositional ones. Depending on the strength of the campaigns some voters are more successfully motivated to vote, and the relationship between these groups is dynamic. In December 2011, loyal voters in the State Duma elections who were happy with everything stayed home, and more of the protest voters showed up. As a result, the ruling party ended up with a significantly worse outcome that what they had expected. 

The pollsters are facing a really similar situation right now. This can be read in the indirect signs. Since the beginning of March, compared with previous polls, the proportion of people whose main source of information is television is rising. It’s gotten harder to find [respondents] willing to [participate in polling] among the young and educated. In order to get the proper proportion, arithmetically more of them need to be selected than usual. This is the first difficulty that’s emerged — the composition of the polling population. 

The proportion of people prepared to respond has shrunk. It’s always been small, around 10 percent. It’s gone down three or four percentage points. The important thing is not that it’s decreased — the difference between 10 percent and 7 percent isn’t that great. What matters is that it’s decreased disproportionately. So there have been greater deformations in the general pool. 

The second difficulty is that since the beginning of March, people have really assimilated the terms “fakes” and “discrediting.” When someone calls them or approaches them [on the street] and asks them to answer questions, people rationally suspect that some of their answers to the poll may lead to their being punished for [spreading] “fake news” and “discrediting” [the Russian armed forces] — who knows who this pollster is? This is especially true of polls conducted over mobile phones. This used to the be the most widespread, convenient, reliable, and affordable method for conducting polls. Now it’s the one that triggers the greatest precaution. 

As a result, the most sensitive questions need to be adjusted for insincere answers — that’s about 15 percent. And the insincerity can take place on multiple levels. On the first level, people might not think the way they’re “supposed to” and so they answer according to the officially accepted rules. A more subtle situtation, that’s also important and causes distortions, is when people have some doubts but, just in case, they conceal their doubts and give confident answers to compensate. Polls have options like “definitely yes” and “most likely yes” and “definitely no” and “most likely no,” and when people are being cautious, they are less likely to express their doubts, and choose “most likely” options less often than “definitely.” These kinds of corrections need to be accounted for. 

How has the increased number of refusals and insincerity among respondents affected the quality of studies? Can they be trusted at all any more?

They can be used, taking into account that these distortions are present and mentally adjusting for them. I personally don’t believe that this is good reason to say that the [polls] are all lies and they shouldn’t be used. A sample is a sample, it still tells you what’s going on and what people think, but you just need to be more careful when drawing conclusions, and correct for all these distortions.

Readers should be advised to always look at a polling company’s press releases rather than journalists’ summaries of polls, which are often distorted. And the second thing is that people should pay attention to the technical details, how a poll was conducted. Companies are legally required to disclose that. 

Analyzing Russia’s opinion polls

Russia’s tricky opinion polling Sociologist Alexey Bessudnov shares five charts that help explain how to read the Kremlin’s survey data on support for the war in Ukraine

Analyzing Russia’s opinion polls

Russia’s tricky opinion polling Sociologist Alexey Bessudnov shares five charts that help explain how to read the Kremlin’s survey data on support for the war in Ukraine

The state-owned pollster VTsIOM published a survey on May 30, after a long hiatus. It said that support for the “special operation” was “stably high” at 72 percent. The most recent poll on the same subject from the independent Levada Center was published on June 2, and according to that one, support for the war rose insignificantly during the month of May, hovering around 47 percent. The Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) has stopped putting out these polls altogether. When there is no consistency among these data, no shared started point, how can we draw any conclusions about the mood among the population? 

We have to seek out more independent samples from different polling companies. If these samples more or less align, than this data can offer guidance. What’s going on for now? VTsIOM has said that its results haven’t changed after almost two months of hiatus — their second most recent poll had come out at the end of March/beginning of April. “Stably high” or just “frozen” is just a matter of phrasing. Very recently, Extreme Scan, an independent project, concluded that the fixed proportion of support for the war hasn’t changed since the beginning of March. At the very least, they say, it hasn’t increased in the past two months. This is the first trend that we can use as a point of departure. 

The second one is that compared to the end of February/beginning of March, declared interest in the subject of Ukraine has been visibly decreasing. The number of people who say they are closely following this subject, and believe it’s the most important event of the week, is decreasing. 

What other changes have taken place in society over the past 100 days? 

There are actually relatively few of these. The matter of whether people support or do not support the war is a long-term factor that’s difficult to change. The proportions we see now are very similar to the ones we saw in 2014 and early 2015, during the acute, hot phase of the conflict in the Donbas. 

Some factors that were set into motion in 2014–2015 have shown themselves now. The most important of these is the value judgment regarding who is right and who is wrong. This is a normal thing for a civic assessment — when it’s completely unclear what’s going on, people assume that their country and government must be doing the right thing.

For over two-thirds of Russian citizens, back then and today, Ukraine and the West are the ones to blame for the situation to varying degrees. First and foremost, and to the greatest extent, it’s the West. It’s unlikely that much will happen with this indicator. There are two variables: “Who is to blame?” and “What is to be done?”. “Who is to blame” is a stable variable. “What is to be done” is much more mobile. We need to watch this carefully. 

The expectations that the military operation will end very quickly, in a matter of weeks, must have declined considering the fact that it’s been going on for 100 days already and there are absolutely no signs that it might suddenly end. 

The view from the Kremlin

What has been achieved? Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is about to mark 100 days. Meduza sources say the Kremlin told state media ‘not to focus attention’ on this fact. 

The view from the Kremlin

What has been achieved? Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is about to mark 100 days. Meduza sources say the Kremlin told state media ‘not to focus attention’ on this fact. 

Over three-quarters of respondents have said and will continue to say that the conflict will end with Russia’s military victory. After that, it gets complicated regarding how people define victory, and what result they would consider right. 

When neither the television nor official figures give obvious hints regarding what to think, people tend to decide for themselves that “our people” are right, that the Russian side is fighting for its righteous cause and that it will win in the end. But what is our righteous cause? Officials have given too many different versions of an answer to this question on TV and so people are forced to determine the central significance of these events for themselves. Aside from some general words, it’s completely unclear what the end goal is. People have to make it up. The most common personal understanding that respondents choose for themselves is that Russia is conducting a defensive campaign to protect itself from Western countries and NATO. While the Ukrainian side, including those “evil Nazis,” come in second place in terms of purported cause. 

What does it tell us that people don’t have a single, coherent understanding of the purpose and significance of this war? 

We know where that comes from. This has been one of the main activities for journalists in the past three months — watching [Russian] officials make their statements, and observing how the official stated goals of the military campaign shift. When officials are saying different things all the time, people have to choose which of the stated objectives seem the most justified and worthy to them personally. 

Returning to the fact that people have lost interest in the war lately, can we speak of the emergence of public fatigue, as it happened in 2014 when they were showing the war in the Donbas on TV all the time? What do you think this kind of fatigue will lead to? 

The loss of interest can probably be described as “fatigue.” Next, we can discuss why this happens. If we think for people, we can say that it might be because at least in the past month, the information sphere has not changed very much. The frontlines are basically the same as they had been during the first days of the war when everything was changing really quickly. 

The situation is relatively stable. This means that the values undergirding the choice of “whoever I support is right and whoever I don’t support is wrong” haven’t changed very much. If people are less interested in this, it means they think about it less. Which means that they are a lot more likely to think the same things about it that they had thought before. 

Another important variable that paradoxically remains at the same level as it had been before the war is Russians’ generally positive attitude toward Ukraine as a country. This support has declined, but nevertheless, a significant portion of people still have positive attitudes toward [Ukraine].

If we add all this up, we see two stable indices. In polls, a very significant percentage of people say that they support the war that is taking place on the territory of a country whose citizens they are overall positively inclined toward. Seeing them as a close, and even fraternal nation. 


‘The TV is winning’ Many Ukrainians now share a common experience: their relatives in Russia refuse to believe their accounts of the war.


‘The TV is winning’ Many Ukrainians now share a common experience: their relatives in Russia refuse to believe their accounts of the war.

At the beginning of the war, some sociologists suggested that precisely because Russians have so many familial ties to Ukrainians, they will only grow more dissatisfied with the war. They also predicted that this dissatisfaction would grow in measure with the increasing effects of the war on the economy. That hasn’t happened. Why not? 

The key question is: why didn’t the index of support change? Because it’s not a question about a specific event or a specific problem, but about who is essentially right: your country, your army, or some other side. When citizens have to choose for themselves, the option that your country is still in the right is a choice that most people would have made in basically any country. In order to see a change in people’s attitudes, the questions need to be asked differently. 

The Levada Center attempted to do this. They asked people about what emotions they experienced connected to the events in Ukraine. Nearly 50 percent of respondents said that they felt pride, and about 30 percent [named] fear and anxiety. But this isn’t a very reliable sample set right now. Because pride, like, for instance, love, is what psychologists call a complex emotion. We don’t understand exactly how it works. You and I can understand how people might feel fear or happiness or other feelings like that; we understand the gestures and expressions that might come with embodying them. But what does it look like when someone is proud? The answer is not obvious. And so this answer “I feel pride” is more likely to be a value judgment rather than an emotional statement. 

In order to understand what I feel, whether it be pride or shame, I need to decide, again, which side is right and which side is wrong. If I decide that “our side” is right, then I have no choice but to be proud. A more mobile index that actually does need to be looked at is not “who is right” but “what course of events do people foresee overall?”. Life has shown us that this military conflict won’t be resolved quickly; it has gotten dragged out. And it’s important to find out whether people are choosing “fighting until a victorious end” with various ideas of what a victory would entail, or whether they would prefer all this to end now. Questions like this, asking whether to keep going or to stop, usually end up with a 50 to 30 split. At the very least, about a third of Russians who answer this question would prefer it all to end already and stop immediately. 

On shifting attitudes among Russians

‘When the blitzkrieg failed, he started to have doubts’ The Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine put some Russians at odds with their loved ones. For others, it brought them together.

On shifting attitudes among Russians

‘When the blitzkrieg failed, he started to have doubts’ The Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine put some Russians at odds with their loved ones. For others, it brought them together.

We can also reconstruct how we end up with that proportion. By the beginning of 2022, and even up to February 23, a minority of people supported using the armed forces on Ukrainian territory. Based on polls from 2014–2015, around 20–25 percent of people wanted that. Since then, their proportion obviously could not have risen. It turns out that approximately a little bit more than 50 percent of the population believes that the “special military operation” ought to be continued. Of these, about half or a little bit less are ideological supporters of the idea that “Ukraine ought to be punished” and that we need to triumph over it. The other side believes that since we already have a military operation going, then it needs to be taken to its best conclusion, like anything else. Thus, even if people have issues with the military campaign, it still needs to be continued. So these are kind of forced supporters who hadn’t initially wanted the war but now support it out of a support for “our country and our people.” 

Now we can look at what proportions we end up with. The largest group — about two-thirds of respondents — say that they approve of the “military operation.” The next largest group, around 50–55 percent out of those two-thirds say that they are proud of this situation and are prepared to continue it until the end. From this, we have that around 15–20 percent of citizens support the war but are not necessarily proud of it and are waiting for it to end. Out of this remaining 50–55 percent, 20–25 percent are relatively rigidly convinced supporters of a military solution, a faction that formed back in 2014–2015 and has stayed true to this day. The remaining 20–25 percent have accepted it retrospectively, but what’s happened right now means that our people are right and they need to be actively supported. What does this pyramid mean? First of all, paradoxically, although many people are stated supporters of the military operation, only a relatively small proportion of them, that 20–25 percent, are actually staunch [supporters]. 

This resembles what Russian Field did when they asked respondents, “If the Russian President declares that he is ending the military operation, would you support him?”. That same stable two-thirds appears again, in support of a peaceful solution if it comes from the first person, on the initiative of our country itself. So, paradoxically, we can’t say that the majority of Russian citizens are inclined toward war. The majority of people want peace, they’ve just found themselves on a train heading in the opposite direction. 

But why is it that Russians who are certain of the correctness of their country’s actions don’t change their perspective in response to the harsh economic consequences? Doesn’t the crisis that they are experiencing disprove the rightness of their country? 

There’s a Levada Center poll from mid-May about the index of consumer attitudes. People are very pessimistic and grim about their personal economic position and their futures at the moment. But when they are asked about where they think they will be in five years, they are a lot more optimistic. So people think that in three to five years, everything will turn out alright, just like it had after the 2008 and 2014 crises. So they will just have to hold on for a few more months, and then things will somehow get better again. 

And then there’s the question of [those who have] Ukrainian relatives and friends. There haven’t been samples taken of how this factor has influenced [society] in the present situation. In the Russian and Ukrainian opposition media, they are always telling stories of unsuccessful conversations, Ukrainian relatives calling and saying that they’re being bombed and the Russians refusing to believe them. But we don’t know how often this actually happens, or whether this really is what occurs in the majority of cases. However, we do know what things were like before. 

There’s a traditional poll by the Levada Center that they do in collaboration with the Kyiv International Institute for Sociology on Russians’ relationship to Ukraine and Ukrainians. When they do a special sub-section and ask people whether they have relatives, friends, or acquaintances in Ukraine, those who say they do give more moderate answers and are more sympathetic to Ukraine. There is no fresh data on this, but we can be fairly certain that most likely, we would still see this effect. The people who have people on the Ukrainian side are overall less supportive of war. 

This is what it said in the most recent study from Extreme Scan. Would it make sense to say that Russian society is polarized right now? We know stories of people’s perspectives on the war tearing families apart, people who are against the war feeling like foreigners in their own country. Can we come to any conclusions regarding how inter-Russian relationships have changed over the course of the past three months? 

The divisions are clear. Around half of people are fairly convinced supporters of these policies albeit without any bloodlust or militance. The rest feel differently. Approximately one-fifth or one-sixth of people are openly against the military operation, and the remaining quarter of the population are those who feel overwhelmed and confused about their feelings. If you were to ask them directly whether they support the war, they would most likely say, “Yes, I do.” But without any joy, they’re not proud of it. They are just anxious and waiting for it all to end. 

Another index from the samples that is important to understand is that around three-fifths of people are sympathetic toward Ukrainians as a people. At the very least, those three-fifths say that they are anxious about the military operations, and their anxiety is humanitarian and humane. They don’t like that people are dying, that cities are being destroyed, that people are losing their homes and jobs. These kinds of feelings are also common and contribute to the background. 

So people say that they support the [“special operation”], but they have very few positive thoughts or feelings about it. I would venture that if someone were to approach or call the average Russian with a survey and put the question in a skillful enough way, they would find the divisions in the answer. 

Is there any information on regional variation among Russians when it comes to attitudes toward the war against Ukraine? 

We only have very fuzzy data. Overall, we can say that regions that traditionally vote for United Russia are also very loyal right now, more often than not saying that they support the “military operation.” Considering the fact that these regions include Central Black Earth Region and the south of Russia, which are currently border zones in the war, this further fortifies their position. The northwest and the Urals are traditionally more opposition-minded, and there is less support for the war there. I’ve only seen contradictory data regarding Siberia and the Far East and so I can’t say anything about them with any certainty. 

Moscow and St. Petersburg are, to a minor extent, truly different from other regions. As in 2014–2015, there is higher degree of polarization. These cities have higher proportions of conscious, militaristic supporters of the war alongside a greater number of conscious objectors. 

To summarize: the war has been going on for over three months, people are less interested in it than ever and fatigue is setting in. Where might all of this lead? 

Public opinion may change if people firmly opposed to the war learn to talk to those who are still vacillating. If they put forth a tenable stance for those who consider themselves patriots; those who do not want Russia to lose or to “speak badly of our own,” but are still unhappy with what is happening and and want peace. Whether the politicians will figure out such a formula is one of the things that we are most interested in seeing in the coming months. 


Feeling around for something human  Why do Russians support the war against Ukraine? Shura Burtin investigates.


Feeling around for something human  Why do Russians support the war against Ukraine? Shura Burtin investigates.

Interview by Anna Evdanova

Abridged translation by Bela Shayevich

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