Putin’s master plan

How Russia’s ‘stubborn majority’ of war-indifferent people was born

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Putin’s master plan


Why does the Russian public at large appear so oblivious and unconcerned about the full-scale invasion of Ukraine? How did most people become accustomed to something that has caused so much pain and suffering?

The public reaction to the war in Russia is not just surprising but outright confusing, and a lack of answers and explanations is an issue – these range from the late abolition of serfdom in the Russian Empire to the deeply entrenched and hereditary fear of the state as a reaction to the Soviet-era Great Purge and Stalin’s repressions.

There is also another opinion. People behave like this because they are powerless: the war is ongoing and I can’t change anything.

I’d like to offer some of my thoughts on the topic. I come from the premise that the Russian general public's reaction to the war is quite natural rather than paradoxical. I don’t believe it can be attributed to the heavy legacy of Russian history, at least not directly.

If we accept the “nothing depends on me anyway, therefore, I don’t think about the war” argument, then here’s a question: how did ordinary people develop such a great ability for self control? In this paradigm, they can just block any unwanted thoughts at will. Not exactly how this works.

I believe that the war attitudes we are witnessing in Russia now are an immediate consequence of the past 20 years of designing and implementing Vladimir Putin’s vision for the country.

Over these years, Russia has established a system where both Putin’s cronies and large social strata can win or at least consider themselves as winners.

Naturally, this is not the inclusive growth which academics regard as a precondition for democracy. This is a progress that buttresses the undemocratic status quo. It is characterised by the fact that even though large swathes of people do get to win, the size of rewards is monstrously asymmetrical: the elites get far more out of this arrangement than the general populace.

However, the key point here is that this gap does not lead to the problem of perceived inequality, which can potentially destabilise the whole society. Everyone is walled off inside their stratum and compares their winnings to those that their peers can get their hands on. For instance, teachers can compare themselves to the headmaster but not a senior official or an oligarch. This is exactly why investigative pieces about palaces and yachts owned by those in power largely fall on deaf ears.

This system is far from primitive. It’s a very cunning scheme. It is essentially an art: give enough (but not too much) and give different things (depending on the target audience).

Retirees get pensions, which are just enough to get by, but they are indexed — what a treat. Public sector employees get salaries, low ones, but at least there’s job security. Mothers get state support for bearing children and various bonuses.

Intellectuals and academics get career opportunities and keep their statuses even without publicly pledging allegiance to the Kremlin. Sometimes they were even allowed some criticism (not crossing the line though, of course).

It’s worth mentioning that this complex stratum was not homogeneous in the pre-war times: some universities were allowed more liberties than others. However, the moment when tanks started rolling towards Kyiv quickly evened these differences out.

Finally, the disgruntled students (factoring in their youthful impulses and maximalism) get opportunities to study abroad or at least live in Russia keeping in mind that this option is on the table.

On top of these myriad of bonuses, everyone got a free side of the “great power” and a bunch of endless and unconditional foreign policy conquests as proof of this status. It was optional, however — no one forced you to accept it.

This elaborate system of distribution of various large and small bonuses, which perpetuates the state of “we are generally satisfied” (“it will do” and “we are satisfied but not too much”) in large demographic groups, makes any demand for change not just risky (because whatever you have might be taken away in a flash) but just downright mad. The conclusion? Supporting the system, or at least not standing in its way openly, is a rational thing to do. Meanwhile, anyone who dares to break out of the rigid stratum lines and “spit in the wind” is immediately designated as a pariah, a dangerous lunatic, who will be swiftly expelled from the group.

That’s only half the story, however. Reactions of these groups could have been different if both winnings and losses were taken into account, especially if these losses were considered to be significant. But the system is vigilant to prevent this: the strata are to focus on what the system gives rather than what it takes. Importantly, the process of taking things away was gradual — to distract people from it happening in the first place.

So, what has the system taken from Russians of various demographic backgrounds and affiliations? It has revoked their political involvement (“I am not just a pawn, I can decide something”), the rejection of violence, the positive attitude towards pluralism. People have slowly lost the ability to discuss serious topics.

This process has been ongoing for many years, and 23 years is a long time. Over this time, the combination of “I won” and “this cost me nothing” has worked a treat. The victory is tangible, and its price? Not so much. Everything was accounted for. That’s why when Putin unleashed the war on Ukraine, everything had already been laid out. The authorities were counting on the very social reactions that we are witnessing today.

It’s us who are confused and hurt. The system is deeply satisfied with the results it was meant to deliver.

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