In May, the Public Sociology Lab published the second report from their study of how Russians perceive the war in Ukraine. The report is based on 88 in-depth interviews with Russians who do not oppose the war.
In our first study, respondents were divided into “supporters” and “opponents” of the war, as well as the “undecided” who didn’t take any explicit stance. In the new study, we didn’t interview anti-war Russians, and dropped the distinction between “supporters” and “undecided,” since these categories have become much more blurred. Instead, we focused on those Russians who aren’t explicitly anti-war.
One of the findings of our first study was that even among the “supporters” of the “special military operation”, only very few people thought of it as something desirable. On the contrary, most of the “supporters” justified their support by insisting that the war was inevitable. For the second study, we collected the interviews more than 6 months after the start of the full-scale invasion (fall-winter 2022). Thus, our respondents evaluated not only whether the war was inevitable, but also whether it should continue.
Based on these two evaluations, we observed four distinct patterns of how the war is perceived by those Russians who aren’t explicitly anti-war. It is important to note that people articulating those types of perception are united by the ways they perceive and discuss the war, not by any structural, socio-economic or demographic characteristics. We reconstructed the logic of their reasoning, but did not aim to locate them within Russia’s social structure.
‘The fight was inevitable’: confident supporters
These are people who are convinced that the war was inevitable. They also believe that it is necessary to continue the war until Russia’s victory, regardless of the costs involved. Respondents employing this type of logic often refer to a well-known statement that Putin once made: “If a fight is inevitable, strike first”.
At the same time, six months after the war started (at the time of the interview), these people became more critical of the course of military operation. While they continue to insist on the inevitability of the war and the need to continue it until victory, they also criticise how the war is waged: its pace and results, legal and moral status of the ‘special military operation’, which has never been officially declared as war.
Within this criticism, particular emphasis is placed on the timeliness and justification of initiating the “special military operation”. Some confident supporters believe that since the war was inevitable, it was necessary to wait for an attack from Ukraine’s side; others insist that the preventive strike was necessary. Regardless of a particular position, this issue is very important for this type of logic:
“Well, we are aggressive after all. I think it was a big mistake to have started this military operation first. Should have waited a bit longer, two months, no more.
In any case, there would have been an attack on Donbas [by the Ukraine army]. Yes, things would have been worse, but motivation would have been clearer, the world would have seen who started it first. It would have been better for us. But unfortunately, we started first.” (46-year-old male, entrepreneur, November 2022).
‘It is all very sad of course, but that’s the way it is’: hesitant supporters
These people still believe that the war was inevitable, but they doubt that it is necessary to continue it. Unlike confident supporters, they refrain from criticising the “special military operation” and instead focus on describing intense emotions, concerns, and doubts they experience.
Feeling anxious and depressed, however, does not turn them into the opponents of war — they continue to insist that it was inevitable (“there was no other choice”), but they are ready to end it with a compromise, even though “there won’t be any winners on either side” (37-year-old male, entrepreneur, October 2022).
These people perceive their situation as dead-end: in their opinion, prolonged war, albeit justified, has already resulted in unacceptable casualties and destruction, but they do not see a realistic possibility of how to end it:
“Of course, I wanted it all to end much sooner, but it didn’t happen. This whole thing takes too long. I don’t know whose fault it is, and if it is anyone’s fault. And I feel very sorry for the people who die on both sides of the frontline.
I feel very sorry for the soldiers of the Russian Federation, and the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. I feel very sorry for the civil population that are there, and that suffer from these things. Of course, I want this thing to be over as soon as possible. I didn’t think it would take that long. It is all very sad of course, but that’s the way it is.” (38-year-old male, occupation unknown, November 2022).
A woman looking at her phone waiting for a train in the Moscow metro. Russia, 19 April 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE / YURI KOCHETKOV
‘I want things to go back to the way they were’: in search of neutrality
Another type of logic identified in the interviews is striving for “neutrality” understood as a right to refrain from taking a stand. Respondents who employ this logic are not sure that the war was inevitable, nor that it should be continued. They insist on the impossibility of “knowing the truth” or in general having an opinion on politics.
Many respondents striving for “neutrality” use inferred justification — they insist that the military-political leadership of Russia had reasons to initiate the invasion of Ukraine, even if it is impossible to know what those reasons were. These people are the most depoliticised — from their point of view, politics doesn’t deserve their attention until it affects their everyday lives.
“I stated my position straight away: I don’t know the whole truth, and I will stick to that middle ground. For me, this is also a position. Some people are for one side, some people are for the other, and I’m for ‘neutrality’. Because I seriously don’t know. I didn’t start this war, it’s not for me to end it.” (34-year-old male, manager, November 2022).
Respondents that are in search of “neutrality” focus on their personal lives and articulate a desirable outcome of the conflict in a distinctly utopian manner:
“You know, honestly, I couldn’t care less about it. I think we are just ordinary people. We are victims of propaganda.
We are all victims of propaganda. We, Russians, have our own truth, the West, they have their own. It is foolish, in my opinion, to believe someone. We are puppets, that’s what I think. So I really don’t care whose fault it is. It’s all politics. For me, to get involved in it, well… <…> Who am I to make decisions for people out there, you see? <…> I just want things to get back to the way they were. I want the war to end, I want — I’m sorry — I want American brands to come back. I want things, everything, to go back to the way they were.” (male, 21 yo., student, October 2022).
It is possible to say that the essence of the “neutrality” they strive for is to keep the ability to remain depoliticised even in the midst of a protracted war.
‘We are already in conflict’: new patriots
Finally, the last type of logic is perhaps the most interesting one. These are people who did not think that the war was inevitable, and could even condemn it during the first months of its start. Yet the prolonged nature of the war, the number of casualties and destruction, and the escalation of rhetoric on both sides of the frontline compelled them to find arguments in support of the war and realise the necessity to continue the war till the end.
“I don’t know if we attacked for legitimate reasons or not, but the whole world has united against Russia, [international] brands and companies left, and there are subversive actions against Russia
— so I feel like my country is being unfairly treated. And I became even more patriotic than I have ever been.”
(37-year-old female, entrepreneur, October 2022).
In our report we named this type of respondents “new patriots”. Thoughts on love for one’s country are certainly not exclusive to supporters of war. Opponents of war and respondents that strive for “neutrality” can also express patriotism. But we use the concept “new patriots” to highlight the novelty of such thinking for people with this type of logic.
Customers browsing in a Maag, a brand of clothing that has taken over a flagship store in Moscow that had been vacated by Zara. Photo: EPA-EFE / MAXIM SHIPENKOV
Some of these people perceived the onset of war as a situation of choice, and made a decision “to support our own” and “to be loyal to your country” (23-year-old male, journalist, October 2022). Others explain their position by noting that “the only thing worse than war is a lost war”: the defeat of Russia will lead to catastrophic consequences (both material and moral), which can only be avoided through victory.
“Of course, war is bad. But the only thing worse than war is a lost war.
[…] Christian feelings are nice, one can turn the other cheek, of course. But there are more people in our country, so in case something happens, the impact will be greater and more noticeable for our country, not only in terms of sanctions. If hostilities start on the territory of the Russian Federation, many more people will suffer as a result.” (32-year-old male, bricklayer, November 2022).
Unlike confident supporters, “new patriots” did not immediately realise the inevitability of war, but came to this idea only after six months of hostilities:
“Right now, I actually generally support the decision to start [“special military operation”]. I came to the understanding, to the conclusion that it was inevitable. Maybe it was possible [to avoid it], but it didn’t happen. And now there is no other way to go about it.” (40-year-old male, university staff, November 2022).
Sometimes cause and effect get mixed up in their arguments: for example, military successes of the Armed Forces of Ukraine are taken as an evidence that Ukraine had been preparing an attack, which then is taken as a justification for initiating the “special military operation”. As one of the respondents put it: “Look, you asked me if I believed in the threat from Ukraine. I do. Damn it, I do. On 24 February , I didn’t believe that. And now I do. When it all [happened], I believed and I realised that they were not just messing around, that they were actually serious.” (60-year-old male, retired, October 2022).
With or against the country
The way “new patriots” perceive and justify the war is of interest because of its complexity. Unlike confident supporters, whose views had been formed before 24 February or immediately after the start of the hostilities, “new patriots” formulated their position in the conditions of a prolonged war, and they were aware of these conditions. In this respect, “new patriots” are different from hesitant supporters, whose initial support of the war was shaken by the scale of casualties and destruction caused by it, and from those respondents who strive for neutrality by escaping into private life.
An important part of the reasoning of “new patriots” is their desire to avoid blame. That desire makes them reflect on the criteria of justice in international politics: the question of why “it’s OK for them to do it <…> but not OK for us to do the same?” (22-year-old male, software engineer, October 2022). It is likely that before the war, many of them didn’t see any real opportunity for political participation, and therefore are not ready to accept responsibility for supporting the war which they didn’t choose and which was started in their name, but against their will. The refusal to take the blame doesn’t mean that “new patriots” are amoral, but rather testifies to the depth of political alienation in contemporary Russia:
“And with each passing day, you realise that you are not to blame for anything. You’re not the one calling the shots, you’re not the one saying things, you’re not supporting it financially. Well, no, sure, you pay taxes anyway, so you’re indirectly supporting it, but still.
You are not involved in sending troops or providing ammunition or anything like that. However, you are still considered guilty. And it [this feeling] has been building up and intensifying over time.
[…] Like it’s OK for them to do something, but it’s not OK for us to do the same? And that’s what bothers people, and I think that’s why more and more people are starting to support the “special military operation.” (22-year-old male, software engineer, October 2022).
For the “new patriots,” the key question is not whether to support or not support the war — after all, many of them opposed it initially. In formulating their position, these people don’t choose between a simple “for” or “against,” but try to answer the question “who am I?”, and they answer it while being in Russia, after 7 or 8 months of the war (at the time of the interview). If, as one of the respondents puts it, “we are already in conflict,” the question of support of, or opposition to, the invasion of Ukraine gets replaced by a more important question of identity. Am I with my country or against it? Am I with those who are guilty, or with those who are right? How am I to be in this new situation?
An elderly woman standing in front of a damaged residential building following reports of a drone attack on Moscow, Russia, 30 may 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE / YURI KOCHETKOV
To further clarify the role that the problem of identity has in the reasoning of the “new patriots,” it’s worth turning to Albert O. Hirschman’s model of exit and voice, well-known in the social sciences. Hirschman was interested in how individuals react to the situation of “decline” in an organisation when the latter’s activities deviate from what people (business customers, political party members or citizens) expect from them.
According to Hirschman, there are two main ways how this decline can be stopped, using different feedback channels. On the one hand, it is possible to “exit” — for instance, stop buying the products of the brand that is declining, leave a political party, emigrate or renounce citizenship. On the other hand, it is also possible to raise one’s “voice” to make the firm or party management aware of one’s concerns, join street protests or find some other way of participation in politics.
Yet in practice, the choice between “exit” or “voice” is often determined by “that special attachment to an organisation known as loyalty,” writes Hirschman. The role of “loyalty” is especially important when public goods are in decline — e.g., the rule of law, transport infrastructure, national defence or access to clean water. Such goods are consumed by all members of a community, and are non-rivalrous in consumption.
This logic is applicable not only to public goods, but also to “public bads”: for example, in Hirschman’s words, “if a country’s foreign and military policies develop in such a way that their ‘output’ changes from international prestige into international disrepute.” It is possible to stop being a “producer” of the “public bad”: to escape into private life and minimise one’s interactions with the state, or just leave the country. However, it is impossible to cease being its “consumer,” neither in internal, nor in external emigration — especially, if the emigrant still cares about what’s happening in the country they left.
In other words, “exit” is possible only at the cost of refusing to remain a member of the community — not simply emigration or renunciation of citizenship, but refusal of identifying with this community.
The concept of “loyalty” helps understand the motivation of the people who do care about their country, but are deprived of any opportunity to exercise their “voice” — like one of our respondents belonging to the “new patriots”:
“I hope that it will all be over soon. We will get back to a peaceful life. I can focus again on the rights of LTBTQ people, at-risk youth and so on. […] And it’s sad that I will be doing it alone, as everyone else took off to Tbilisi. […] The balance of power is still in Russia’s favour. Essentially, people will be deprived of the opportunity to accomplish something inside Russia for the rest of their lives. You can say anything you want from abroad, but it’s only from within that you can promote political activism or engage in any meaningful action.” (34-year-old male, marketing, October 2022).
From this respondent’s point of view, “exit” in emigration can make the decline even worse: if all activists leave Russia, there will be no one to promote LGBTQ rights or help at-risk youth. The possibility to contribute to the public good in the future is more important to him than the involuntary participation in the maintenance of a “public bad” in the present.
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Future as guiding force
This future orientation is one of the key elements of “new patriotism.” Talking about “loyalty,” Hirschman adds:
“That paradigm of loyalty, ‘our country, right or wrong,’ surely makes no sense whatever if it were expected that ‘our’ country were to continue forever to do nothing but wrong. Implicit in that phrase is the expectation that ‘our’ country can be moved again in the right direction after doing some wrong… The possibility of influence is in fact cleverly intimated in the saying by the use of the possessive ‘our.’ This intimation of some influence and the expectation that, over a period of time, the right turns will more than balance the wrong ones, profoundly distinguishes loyalty from faith.
There is a direct link between “new patriotism” and hopes for the future (more about it here). The war has cut the ground from under many Russians’ feet, so that they had to assemble not only their worldviews, but also themselves, rethink their identity. The sense of belonging to one’s own country, right or wrong, gave “new patriots” a new ground to stand on, one that they lost on 24 February 2022.
“New patriots” can be seen as calculating opportunists or amoral philistines concerned about brands leaving Russia in the eighth month of the war. Yet it doesn’t bring one closer to understanding their motivation. As the war will continue and the international sanctions against Russia will tighten up, such a way of reasoning will become increasingly attractive to larger numbers of people.
However, it is important to remember that “new patriots” started to voice support of the war only more than 6 months after its start. This “support” is reactive and is not rooted in ideological indoctrination, but in spontaneous patriotism, Hirschman’s “loyalty,” and thus implies a hope for a better future.
Tourists taking pictures with cardboard matryoshkas near a souvenir shop in Moscow, Russia, 14 April 2023. Photo: EPA-EFE / YURI KOCHETKOV
“New patriots” tend to see the possibility of Russia’s defeat — a ceasefire and the return to the borders of 1991, — as a catastrophe. For them, to refuse to support their country means to refuse to have any future. And yet, if given a clear perspective of a positive future scenario for Russia after Putin’s military ambitions have failed, “new patriotism” can become anti-war. Articulation of such prospects is right now the crucial task of Russian anti-war opposition and media.
Alya Denisenko and Anatoly Kropivnitskyi, independent social researchers, co-authors of PS Lab studies on how Russians perceive the war in Ukraine
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