The stream of anti-war letters to a lawmaker in St. Petersburg has dried up. Some Russians who had criticized the Kremlin have now become cheerleaders for the war. Those who publicly opposed it have scribbled the word “traitor” on their apartment door.
Five weeks after President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, there are signs that the Russian public’s initial shock has given way to a mix of support for their troops and anger against the West. On television, entertainment programs have been replaced by extra servings of propaganda, leading to a 24-hour barrage of falsehoods about the “Nazis” who run Ukraine and US-funded Ukrainian bioweapons labs.
Polls and interviews show that many Russians now accept Mr Putin’s claim that their country is under siege by the West and had no choice but to attack. The opponents of the war leave the country or keep quiet.
“We are in a time machine, racing into the glorious past,” an opposition politician in the western Russian region of Kaliningrad, Solomon I. Ginzburg, said in a telephone interview. He depicted it as a political and economic regression to Soviet times. “I would call it a devolution or an involution.”
Public support for the war is missing the patriotic tidal wave that greeted the annexation of Crimea in 2014. But polls released this week by Russia’s most respected independent pollster, Levada, showed Mr Putin’s approval reaching 83 percent, up from 69 percent in January. Eighty-one percent said they supported the war and described the need to protect Russian speakers as the primary justification.
Analysts warned that as the economic pain caused by sanctions deepens in the coming months, the public mood could change again. Some also argued that wartime polls are of limited significance, with many Russians fearful of expressing dissent, or even their true opinions, to a stranger at a time when new censorship laws penalize any deviation from the Kremlin narrative by as much as 15 years in prison.
But even taking that effect into account, Levada director Denis Volkov said his group’s surveys showed that many Russians had taken on the belief that a besieged Russia should rally around its leader.
Particularly effective in that regard, he said, has been the steady boom of Western sanctions, with airspace closures, visa restrictions and the departure of popular companies like McDonald’s and Ikea feeding the Kremlin line that the West is waging an economic war against Russia. people.
“The confrontation with the West has consolidated the people,” said Mr Volkov.
As a result, those who still oppose the war have retreated into a parallel reality of YouTube streams and Facebook posts increasingly removed from the wider Russian audience. Facebook and Instagram are now inaccessible in Russia without special software, and Russia’s most prominent independent outlets have all been forced to close.
In the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, near the border with Ukraine, a local activist, Sergei Shalygin, said two friends who had previously joined him in pro-democracy campaigns had invaded the pro-war camp. They forwarded him Russian propaganda messages on the messaging app Telegram that claim to show atrocities committed by Ukrainian “fascists”.
“A dividing line is drawn, like in the civil war,” he said, referring to the aftermath of the Russian revolution a century ago. “It was a war of brother against brother, and now something similar is happening – a war without blood this time, but a moral one, a very serious one.”
Mr. Shalygin and other observers elsewhere in Russia pointed out in interviews that most supporters of the war did not appear to be particularly enthusiastic. In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea in a swift and bloodless campaign, he recalled, every other car seemed to wear the orange-black Saint George ribbon, a symbol of support for Putin’s aggressive foreign policy. †
Now, while the government has tried to popularize the letter “Z” as an endorsement of the war, Mr. Shalygin said it’s rare to see a car driving it; the symbol mainly pops up on public transportation and government-sponsored billboards. The “Z” first appeared painted on Russian military vehicles that took part in the invasion of Ukraine.
“Enthusiasm – I don’t see it,” said Sergei Belanovsky, a prominent Russian sociologist. “What I prefer is apathy.”
While the Levada survey found that 81 percent of Russians supported the war, it also found that 35 percent of Russians said they paid “virtually no attention” — indicating that a significant number reflexively supported the war without much notice. to be interested in. The Kremlin seems happy to keep it that way and continues to insist that the conflict should be called a ‘special military operation’ rather than a ‘war’ or an ‘invasion’.
But for those who watch television, the propaganda has been inescapable, with additional newscasts and high-octane talk shows replacing entertainment programs on state-controlled channels.
On Friday, the programming schedule for Kremlin-controlled Channel 1 featured 15 hours of news-related content, compared to five hours on the Friday before the invasion. Last month, the channel launched a new program called “Antifake”, dedicated to exposing western “disinformation”, with a host best known for a show about funny animal videos.
In a telephone interview from the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, Stanislav Brykov, a 34-year-old small business owner, said that while war was a bad thing, it had been forced on Russia by the United States. As a result, he said, the Russians had no choice but to unite around their armed forces.
“It would be a shame if those soldiers who protect our interests lose their lives for nothing,” Mr Brykov said.
He called a friend named Mikhail, 35, on the phone. Mikhail had criticized the government in the past, but now, he said, it was time to put disagreements aside.
“While people frowning on us everywhere beyond our borders, at least for this period, we need to stick together,” Mikhail said.
The opponents of the war become the target of ubiquitous propaganda that portrays them as the enemy within. Mr Putin set the tone in a speech on March 16, referring to pro-Western Russians as “scum and traitors” to be purged from society.
A dozen in the past two weeks activists, journalists and opposition figures in Russia have come home with the letter “Z” or the words “traitor” or “collaborator” on their doors.
Aleksei Venediktov, the former editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow, the liberal radio station that was supposed to shut down in early March, said he found a severed pig’s head outside his door last week and a sticker that read “Jewish pig.” On Wednesday, Lucy Stein, a member of the Pussy Riot protest group who sits on a Moscow city council, found a photo of herself taped to her apartment door with a message printed on it: “Do not sell your homeland.”
She said she suspected a secret police unit was behind the attack, although Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov said on Thursday such incidents were “vandalism”.
Protests against the war, which led to more than 15,000 arrests across the country in the early weeks of the war, have largely subsided. By some estimates, several hundred thousand Russians have fled out of outrage at the war and fear of conscription and closed borders; one trade organization said at least 50,000 techies had left the country alone.
In St. Petersburg, where some of the biggest protests took place, Boris Vishnevsky, a local opposition lawmaker, said he had received about 100 letters asking him to “do everything” to end the war in the first two weeks, and there are there is only one that supports it. But after Mr Putin signed legislation criminalizing dissent about the war, that stream of letters dried up
“These laws are effective because they threaten people with prison terms,” he said. “If it weren’t for this, the change in public opinion would be pretty obvious and it wouldn’t be in favor of the government.”
In a telephone interview, a Moscow political analyst, 45, described visiting police stations across the city in the past month following the repeated arrests of her teenage child in protests. Now the teen is receiving threats on social media, leading her to conclude that authorities have passed on her child’s name to people who bully activists online.
But she also found that the police officers she dealt with didn’t seem particularly aggressive or enthusiastic about the war. All in all, she believed that most Russians were too afraid to voice any opposition, and they were convinced that there was nothing they could do about it. She asked not to publish her name for fear of endangering her and her child.
“This is the state of someone who feels like a particle in the ocean,” she said. “Someone else decided everything for them. This learned passivity is our tragedy.”
Anton Troianovski and Ivan Nechepurenko reported from Istanbul, and Valeriya Safronova from London. Alina Lobzina contributed from Istanbul.