Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
Situated on the Baltic Coast, the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is closer to Europe than any other part of Russia. It is surrounded by NATO powers, Poland and Lithuania. A former Prussian territory, it also has a long tradition as a center of European culture. Immanuel Kant walked its streets in the eighteenth century; Thomas Mann wrote a novella there in 1929. Until the war in Ukraine began, the region even had a modicum of integration into European life: Kaliningrad did a brisk trade with Lithuania and Poland, and its residents could enter Polish territory by using a special card.
Now, many of the region’s inhabitants lament the end of cross-border commerce, which has reduced standards of living and cut residents off from many European products. Yet few seem to doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special operation” in Ukraine is righteous or that neighboring Poland and Lithuania are Russia’s enemies. From a sociological view, this contradiction exemplifies a typical Russian attitude, made all the more stark by Kaliningrad’s geographic location. Take the Curonian Spit, a picturesque coastal land formation that extends from Kaliningrad into Lithuania. According to many locals, the part that belongs to Lithuania is better cared for than the Russian part, just as Polish food is far better than that available in Kaliningrad. Yet this observation is sometimes followed up with an offhand remark: “Once we’ve taken back Ukraine, maybe we’ll take the Lithuanian part of the spit, too.”
For average Kaliningrad residents, diet and values are entirely separate. As they see it, those same Lithuanians who have been convenient everyday business partners are also the ideological minions of the United States. In fact, two core beliefs allow Russians to remain convinced that their leadership and army are in the right: the first is that there was a threat to “their own people”—by which they largely mean Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine—and the second is that responsibility for what is happening in Ukraine lies entirely with the West. According to this view, Putin’s war is a purely symbolic affirmation of Russia’s greatness that has nothing to do with everyday life.
That these contradictory attitudes persist a half year into a conflict that has caused a significant but still not so visible decline in living standards makes it even more important to understand the complex nature of Russian public opinion about the Russian government and about the war. Sociological research that I carried out for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace with Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Center, the independent Moscow-based polling organization, offers new insight into how average Russians think about the war. It also provides a clearer picture of how the regime has been able to manage the population since the war began, as well as of some of the underlying tensions that have begun to emerge in Russian society.
In the 23 years since his de facto accession to power, Putin has not only built a regime of great brutality. He has also succeeded in hypnotizing much of the Russian population to an extent that civil society has been driven largely into the catacombs and his rule appears to be unshakable. Of course, many of the tactics the government has employed—media censorship, ruthless crackdowns on dissent, and rituals of obedience such as raising the flag and singing the national anthem in schools on Mondays—are hardly unique to Russia. As the case of Kaliningrad suggests, however, in few other countries has a regime achieved such a complete repression of a society that had managed to become modernized and even Westernized. For those seeking to further isolate Russia from Europe and the United States through travel bans and visa restrictions, it is essential to understand the nature of this regime-induced hypnosis and where its vulnerabilities lie.
To start with, Russian opinion about the war is far more complicated than a cursory study might suggest. Polling by the Levada Center between February and August has consistently shown strong support—70 percent or higher—for the Ukraine war. Similarly, Putin’s general approval rating has increased since the war began, much as it did after the annexation of Crimea in 2014; Western sanctions and travel restrictions have done nothing to change it. Yet a closer look at these figures suggests a society that is increasingly divided about many issues, including attitudes toward the regime.
When asked why they support the “special operation,” for example, Russians offer diverse reasons. In focus groups, some participants express outright support for a war of aggression or claim that Russia had no choice but to invade Ukraine. Alongside these enthusiastic supporters, however, are a smaller group of passive conformists, who show little interest in the war but find it more comfortable to follow the mainstream point of view.
There are more dissenters today than in 2014, but they are silent.
These differences become even more apparent when Russians are asked to describe their feelings about the war. According to a poll conducted in March, a bare majority of respondents—51 percent—said that the military campaign in Ukraine prompted feelings of “pride in Russia” and that they “definitely” support it. But many others had markedly different takes: 19 percent said they felt “fury and outrage,” “shame,” or “depression and despondence”; 31 percent felt “anxiety, fear, and horror”; and 12 percent felt “shock.” Taken together, this range of negative feelings expressed by nearly half of respondents contrasts with 2014, when Russians were overwhelmingly positive about the Crimea annexation.
Perhaps even more striking are what the polls reveal about the level of dissent. In the face of mass detentions and harsh penalties, very few Russians say they are prepared to attend a protest today—just half the number who said they would in 2014. Yet the number of respondents who say they do not agree with Russia’s actions in Ukraine has actually risen slightly, from 14 percent in March to about 17 percent in August. Notably, this figure is almost double the level of dissent during and after the annexation of Crimea: there are more dissenters in Russia today than in 2014. But they have remained virtually silent.
Putin, along with his officials and propagandists, insists that Russians are united in support of the “special military operation” and that Russian society has been fully consolidated. Those who disagree deserve to be branded as pariahs. But these claims are not true: the consolidation is very shaky, and among the roughly 30 percent who “rather” support the operation, many are shocked and hesitant and appear to be simply trying to adapt to the new situation by following the mainstream. Some have done so out of fear; others because they have no opinion of their own and prefer to borrow Putin’s. This is called status quo bias or anticipatory obedience.
The visa restrictions that European governments have proposed are unlikely to turn Russians against the regime. Citing the high support for the war among ordinary Russians, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as a number of European leaders, has called for strict travel restrictions to punish the Russian population. But as the popular response to European pressure campaigns over the last six months has shown, such measures seem likely to instead reinforce support for Putin and the war. And by building new barriers between Russians and the West, these restrictions could make it even easier for the Russian government to shape the narrative it wants about the war.
Rather than further cutting off ordinary Russians from the outside world, Europe and the United States might accomplish much more by doing the opposite: helping Russians have greater access to outside information sources. With the Russian state now wielding almost total control over Russia-based media, it is crucial to preserve alternative sources of information, especially via YouTube, which has not yet been blocked in Russia and which offers viewers access to video content from the team of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and from former hosts of the independent radio station Echo Moskvy and Dozhd TV, which were shut down after the war began. Other important sources include Telegram chat app channels, as well as independent media sites and streams that are blocked in Russia but can still be accessed by means of a VPN, including, for instance, Novaya Gazeta Europe—founded in Latvia by Novaya Gazeta journalists who fled Russia—The New Times, and Russian investigative outlets such as the Riga-based Vazhnye Istorii and The Insider.
Some European governments and influencers have questioned whether Russian journalists, analysts, activists, and academics deserve to live in the West. In doing so, they fail to fully understand how vital it is to enable representatives of banned and exiled Russian media to continue publishing and broadcasting from abroad. In many cases, the information they provide has become the only Russian-language alternative to Russian state propaganda, which is now the sole source of information for many average Russians.
Truth is now one of the main threats to the Putin regime, which has built itself on the indifference and ignorance of ordinary Russians. Moscow’s information front is almost as important as its military front running through Ukraine. By July 2022, Roskomsvoboda, a resource set up to track blocked information online, had recorded more than 5,300 sites and links that had been barred. Meanwhile, Russia’s prosecutor general recently announced that 138,000 websites and URLs have been subject to military censorship. Journalists have been fined and prosecuted for disseminating “fake news” about the army and “discrediting” the armed forces; in early September, the journalist Ivan Safronov was sentenced to 22 years in prison for his reporting on the Russian military and Russian arms deals.
Of course, for those Levada Center poll respondents—about half—who are active and aggressive conformists, accurate information about the war is “fake news.” Most likely, many of them do not perceive foreign reporting as “fake” but rather as a threat because it helps the enemy. They will not be swayed by more such information. Many other Russians, however—those who are passive conformists or largely indifferent—seem far less wedded to the official narrative. Should the power of official media and television be weakened, those in this segment of the population may begin to change their minds about the “special operation” and their own government. But to do so, they must have access to alternative sources of information and analysis. Certainly, many of Russia’s political and business elites are educated enough to understand what is true and what is a lie.
As Kaliningrad’s own cultural history suggests, the techniques that Putin has used to render the Russian population passive and reinforce his rule are not new and are typical for authoritarian regimes. In August 1929, Thomas Mann wrote the novella Mario and the Magician while vacationing in the Prussian coastal resort of Rauschen—today the Russian town of Svetlogorsk. The novella tells the story of the hypnotist Cipolla, who conducts experiments on spectators, including a “gentleman from Rome” who allows himself to be experimented on while deliberately resisting hypnosis. The gentleman is nonetheless hypnotized and dances at the hypnotist’s command. The lesson is clear: explaining the meaning of his novella, Mann wrote that simply rejecting something, without taking action against it, may not be enough to retain the “idea of freedom.” To the contrary, in exercising passive rejection, a victim may allow himself to fall prey to the hypnotist’s spell. The political meaning of Mann’s story—the subjugation of a passive population by a dictator—was too unsubtle for its time. The novella was immediately banned in fascist Italy.
Putin, like Mann’s hypnotist, has succeeded in inverting the meaning of words. The invasion of Ukraine is a “liberation” of people and the “return” of territory. Universal human values are “neoliberal totalitarianism” imposed on various nations. The descent into the dark ages in politics, economics, and everyday life is “building a more democratic world.” Although Putin claims to be “fighting Nazism and fascism,” it is Putin’s worldview and practical policies that are dangerously close to those ideologies. Nearly all the elements of these systems are present in the Russian state today: ultranationalism; imperialism; the cult of the leader; an increasingly primitive world view; the sacralization of the state and what Putin calls its “thousand-year history,” full of heroism and victories; the glorification of death for the motherland; state interventions in the economy, politics, the legal system, and the private sector; the imposition of “correct” forms of behavior on the public, including calling on people to denounce those who disagree with the regime; phobias of everything foreign; the battle against “national traitors”; and the designation of groups of second-class citizens as “foreign agents.”
If the West continues to isolate them, there is little hope that Russians will reject Putinism.
In such a place, no rational arguments, no punishments in the form of sanctions and travel bans will work: the portion of the population that intends to hold Putin responsible is not large enough. To the contrary, a large majority of Russians blame the deterioration in their relations with other countries and the decline in their quality of life entirely on the United States and its allies. They believe that people who openly speak out against the regime are undermining the country’s greatness and sabotaging the efforts of those working to affirm it. Even investigations into corruption are seen as anti-Russian. Under this logic, the new iron curtain is being built not by Putin but by the West, which seeks to lock Russians inside their own borders through its sanctions and visa bans. Like Putin, many Russians view Ukraine in imperial terms—as within Russia’s sphere of influence—and regard relations with it as Russia’s internal affair.
Six months after the start of his “special operation,” Putin’s project to build a new authoritarian state on partly totalitarian foundations is politically complete. As long as he is in power, it is highly unlikely that Russia will be able to return to the vector of democratic development. Given how precarious independent thought in Russia has become, it is utterly essential to keep Russian youth connected to the West; otherwise, Putinism will indeed outlive Putin. By maintaining open lines of communication to Russian exiles and helping Russians get access to outside information, the United States and its European partners could at least begin to sway more of those Russians who until now have been largely indifferent, rather than ideologically committed. But if the West continues to isolate Russia, there is little hope that the Russian people will throw off the yoke of Putinism. Not only because half the population doesn’t consider it a yoke but also because such reasoning fails to take into account quite how brutal the Putin regime’s treatment of the country’s many dissenters is.
The hypnotist can keep playing to the crowds, or he can disappear. But the ending of Mario and the Magician, in which the hypnotist is simply shot dead, seems little more than a novelist’s fantasy in today’s Russia—just as it was at the time of emerging dictators, when Mann was writing his novella on the shores of the Baltic Sea.