Almost a year into the war in Ukraine, Russians seem to be seeking ways to distance themselves from the state.
The Russian public was unprepared for the invasion of Ukraine. The president, Vladimir Putin, felt no need to build any kind of patriotic momentum in society, apparently believing the war would be over within days. But now, as the war approaches its first anniversary, Russian citizens have had time to digest and react to this unprecedented situation.
Society is adapting to the ‘new normal’ and family, jobs and private life are taking precedence over politics and the war. Strong pro- and anti-war views exist within the country but they are in a minority: many in mainstream society are keeping their distance from those extremes.
This is not to say citizens are ignoring the situation altogether. While it is hard to rely on polls—since many people give socially acceptable answers in times of war or refuse to respond—observable trends give an insight into the popular mood which the pro-/anti- dichotomy does not explain.
It seems that Russians have experienced a loss of faith in the state and its ability to get things done. They are distancing themselves from it without opposing it, while wishing the war to be over somehow, so they can return to how things were before it started. This acquiescence is passive: most go along with the state narrative about Ukraine, but they are growing less interested in its victories and defeats and are not prepared to make personal sacrifices, such as sending loved ones into battle.
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Russian television channels are less successful in affecting actual behaviour than commonly believed. When action is required, Russians who might trust the leadership in the abstract tend to think for themselves on matters that concern them. This was evident during the pandemic: the country’s vaccination rate remained low—only 54.7 per cent were fully vaccinated—despite all efforts by state propaganda to make citizens get the jab.
On TV, political talk shows are declining in popularity because the public is tired of their relentless focus on danger and negativity. Instead, people are seeking emotional comfort and escapism, and the demand for entertainment content is increasing.
Two popular reactions are a mental leap away from the state narrative and direct action to compensate for the state’s failings.
The reality of the war is so absurd that rational explanations aren’t enough, so the collective mind turns to fantasy. Conspiracy theories abound, even among well-grounded individuals.
One theory centres on a clandestine government that rules the entire world; its members are mostly secret, though they include (before her death) Queen Elizabeth II and the Pope. According to such views, the war in Ukraine is a plot by a shadowy cabal and Putin and the United States president, Joe Biden, are puppets manipulated by puppet-masters. In another variant, the pro-war and pro-peace camps are actually global oligarchies battling each other for world dominance and Ukraine is a mere theatre for their struggle.
Other conspiracy theories centre on Putin himself, amid doubts over whether he is a real person or a collection of doubles, as reflected in a new saying: ‘He is no longer himself, or rather, not quite himself.’ Alternatively, Putin is real but he is a necrophiliac determined to take Russia with him when he comes to his natural end. Or he is an Anglo-Saxon agent placed to ruin Russia from within. Or the Kremlin is overrun by occult forces who influence key decisions, in the same way that the tsar Nicolas II was influenced by the ‘mad monk’ Rasputin during the first world war.
Such conspiracies cannot be blamed on state propaganda but reflect confusion and collective trauma. They provide an explanation (however far-fetched) for the bewildering reality and also a hope that those who started the war can quickly end it.
The war has also prompted a surge in ‘volunteerism’, especially after mobilisation was ordered in September. Paradoxically, the state’s failure to equip troops with basic necessities gives people, especially those who wish to contribute actively to the war effort, a way to participate in the so-called ‘special military operation’.
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Self-organised groups of volunteers are multiplying around the country. Largely staffed by women, these networks have several hundred to several thousand members, and view themselves as doing humanitarian work—’our guys’ at the front are short of everything and society has to step in to help, is how they put it.
Frontline units send lists of their needs, which are mostly quite basic and small in quantity, showing how low-tech the war is. They request gas burners, winter tents, camouflage gear and even ammunition belts for machine guns. Volunteers also help field hospitals, delivering cans of homemade borscht and jam to those wounded near the frontlines.
Winter has added a sense of urgency—images of soldiers freezing in trenches are easy to relate to. Some women sew warmer trousers. Others collect funds to buy hard-wearing socks or make candles for dugouts, helped by primary-school pupils from the city of Kursk near the Ukrainian border. Women make camouflage nets by hand—a laborious task requiring many hands.
The grassroots response is in sharp contrast with that of the elite, whose sons and grandsons are nowhere near the front. Some well-known TV presenters, such as Vladimir Solovyov, have even started their own ‘humanitarian’ groups, in an apparent attempt to boost their dwindling popularity.
These volunteer groups tend to have ground rules on how they operate. For example, Helping our Guys, which collects money and sends goods to help soldiers, stipulates as part of its rules on an instant-messaging platform: ‘We don’t start conflicts and fights, avoid negativity and aggression, but discuss current tasks practically and try to be as helpful as possible.’ All contributions to the group are voluntary and anybody is free to leave at any time.
Does this make informal volunteer groups ‘pro-war’? Arguably yes, but not necessarily. The volunteers ‘helping our guys’ do not necessarily have to identify with the reasons for fighting the war, which remain opaque. For them, soldiers are sons and brothers abandoned by the state that sent them into mortal danger—they can and should help if their help saves lives and limbs. This awakened grassroots activism shows an increased capacity for self-organising in Russian society, even if their ‘humanitarian aid’ carries a largely compensatory function.
There is no widespread grassroots mobilisation for the war in Putin’s Russia and the authorities do not particularly encourage it, in a belief that independent activism outside of the state’s control can be an unpredictable animal. Instead, society is responding to the war with detachment, conspiracy, confusion or volunteerism.
The socio-cultural change prompted by the war shows that distancing oneself from what the government says or does has become a coping strategy for many Russians.
This was first published by openDemocracy
Dr Anna Matveeva is a visiting senior research Fellow at the Russia Institute, King’s College London. She has worked in several conflict zones for the United Nations, donors and international nongovernmental organisations.