Faith the Russian people have in President Vladimir Putin dropped to the lowest level its been in more than a decade, dealing a serious blow to the image of the Russian leader as the widely popular and respected father-figure of the state.
Confidence in Mr. Putin dropped more than a third early this year to a 13-year low, according to a poll by the Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), published in late January. Just under 33% of Russians expressed trust in their president, down nearly 40-points from the 2015 high of 71%, peaking shortly after Russia annexed Crimea after annexing the Ukraine territory.
Sociologists predict Mr. Putin’s domestic approval rating will continue to fall, primarily due to the decline of living standards in the country of 144.5 million, falling household incomes and backlash against the government’s attempt to reform pensions by increasing the retirement for men to 65, an age to which 43% of Russian men won’t live.
The number of Russians supporting Putin’s foreign policy also fell recently, hitting a record low of 16% in 2018. Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center, an independent non-government polling and sociology center headquartered in Moscow, believes Russians are tired of seeing their country spend billions on military adventures in Syria and Ukraine, on “rearming the army,” and on costly political conflicts with the West.
“There is some fatigue from the policy of confrontation with the West, discontent with Russia’s imperial policy, people believe that this costs the country too much. Russians want to normalize relations with Western countries. Although the media almost do not write about it, this desire is strong and has existed for quite some time,” Mr. Gudkov told the German news agency Deutsche Welle.
But, while Mr. Putin’s popularity has taken a hit, he still remains the most popular politician in Russia, well ahead of the second and third most trusted politicians in the state, Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, and Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, who trust ratings were respectively 13.7% and 9.3%. And, although the numbers supporting the president have fallen, there are still groups in Russia that view the country’s foreign policy positively.
Those still backing the aggressive foreign policy of the Putin government can be broken into six groups, each of which expresses direct or veiled support for Russia’s current foreign policy course. Below, I analyze these categories, identifying likely pros and cons in working with these groups of people.
The “Active Imperialist” segment is made up of ideological fanatics, fascists and nationalists, and are the masterminds of the aggressive policy of the Russian authorities. This group includes not only the ideologues of the “Russian world” and “hawks” in the government, but also television propagandists, as well as the “new ideologues” like Aleksandr Dugin, Nikolai Starikov, Yevgeny Fedorov, Sergey Kurginyan, and others, who often create their own youth organizations. Each of these leaders has a highly disciplined movement of supporters, often consisting of ideological supporters of these leaders themselves, and Vladimir Putin personally.
- In comparison to the rest of the Russian society, this group is relatively small.
- The ideological ardency of many of its members ultimately leads to the sharp outflow of supporters when they become disillusioned with a particular idea. That is what we are witnessing today in the mass disappointment of supporters of “Novorossiya,” the Russian operation in Donbas. Moreover, it is precisely the disillusioned “patriots” who often become the most radical opposition to the current government.
In addition, the majority of participants in such movements most often are not leaders, but ordinary performers of some simple tasks (anonymous Internet trolling, pickets, petty bullying of dissenters, secret denunciations). Accordingly, they are almost unknown in the media space, and therefore it will not be so difficult for them to leave the movement and “get lost in the crowd” in the event of a threat of regime collapse. Therefore, they do not have a need for preserving the regime as a means of self-defense.
- Despite their small numbers, such Putin supporters are very active in the Russian media space and on the Internet, and therefore can still determine the information agenda in some segments of social networks.
- The participants’ ideological ardency determines the importance, for them, of the advocated ideas, which, in turn, correspond to their own internal complexes and ambitions. It is extremely difficult for people to give up ideas to which they have devoted a huge amount of strength, work, and years of life.
- Leaders of ideological movements or individual gangs well-known in the media environment have committed many war crimes and finally “crossed the line.” Therefore, if they have not yet publicly expressed disillusion with the actions of Moscow, it is quite possible that in the event of a real threat to the current regime, they will defend themselves rather than Mr. Putin, and therefore will serve as the support for the current government until the last moment.
“Active conformists” are those who, while not being fanatics of certain ideas, serve them out of pragmatic, utilitarian considerations. Such people are unprincipled, fearful and have active, often proactive intent to curry favor with the authorities. This category, unfortunately, turns out to be much bigger than the other categories, demonstrating the willingness of a relatively large group of Russians to be led blindly.
This group includes not only journalists, but also many historians, professors of higher education and teachers of secondary schools, the military, the officers of all law enforcement agencies involved in the persecution of dissidents, judges who make unjust decisions, etc. This group also includes various “social activists” who declare their goal a total war with dissent, even including physical destruction of dissidents.
University professors and school teachers who belong to this group, in addition to creating models that justify Russia’s conflict behavior, often stoop to bullying their own colleagues who hold different views. Practically all spheres of activity of the Russian society are affected by the deepest social split, which is repeatedly aggravated by the activities of “aggressive opportunists”.
- This group is still a minority within the whole Russian society, just like any other active group against the background of the general passivity peculiar to Russians.
- Having no ideological core, as well as a personal inner interest in the ideas they advocate, these people most easily “switch sides” during the crisis of the system, moreover, at certain moments they, as a rule, begin to look for the opportunities to make such a transition.
- This group represents the majority of the politically active population of Russia.
- This group, like a certain part of the previous one, may stubbornly persist in supporting the regime, fearing being held accountable for misbehavior in support of Mr. Putin by a replacement government. Unlike faceless social movements, these people are mostly publicly known. Many of them are so strongly identified with the regime that they could reasonably fear lustration or even prosecution in the event of the collapse of the Putin government.
- Considering that repressions are growing every day in Russia and the level of aggression in the information space is not decreasing, many representatives of this category cut off their own opportunity to retreat, and therefore will have to defend the regime as their only guarantee of security. In essence, the criminal principle of “mutual cover-up” comes into effect, as everyone somehow becomes responsible for the common crimes.
- The victims of this group of people are also mostly unforgiving, and the longer this goes on, the less they will be inclined to forgive their offenders, which only reinforces this group’s desire to prevent change.
This category of people is rather arbitrary, they are not united in any kind of community on an ideological or professional basis, and may include people of different social strata and wealth level. Their attitude to what is happening can be defined as ordinary adaptability: they quite objectively perceive what is happening in the world, but nevertheless do not see anything reprehensible in Russia’s actions.
Many people in this group are representatives of the “middle class.” These people turned out to be smart enough to be skeptical about, say, the stories of the “fascists” and “bloody junta” in Ukraine, but at the same time they are not knowledgeable enough about foreign policy and therefore believe that Putin’s actions are in Russia’s interests.
- These people mainly express their views to those around them, and do not actively promote them in the information space. They didn’t actively make enemies; thus, they have no reason to fight for the preservation of the regime.
- Due to the lack of moral standards, it will be easy for them to adapt to any new government.
- They are not organized, and therefore do not constitute any pronounced force.
- The idea that “the end justifies the means” or of the greatness of Russia appeals to these people, and even after losing in the future, they can create fertile ground for the revanche of the imperial ideas.
This includes the vast majority of Kremlin supporters. With regard to Ukraine and most other countries, such people are in fact quite peaceful. They are horrified by any reports of death and violence, constantly emphasizing that they do not understand anything in politics, but oppose any war ss terrible. With all their heart they want to believe that tragic events will bypass them, have no relation to them and will never touch them. The main illusion, in which the majority really wants to believe is the illusion of a quiet life, which it fears to lose. The main characteristic of these people is a high level of inertia and fear.
The overwhelming majority of this group, despite the obvious reality, convinces itself that everything is the same as before, and that Russia is forced to clash with the outside world for reasons beyond its control. These people are ready to hide from the cruel truth in any lie, the value and content of which does not matter.
The truth for such people is unpleasant, not because they agree with the aggression and interference in the affairs of other countries, but because it instills anxiety in their heart and destroys their illusion that peace and stability will last forever. The thought of the inevitable collapse of their country, to which the policy of the authorities is leading, becomes so unbearable that it gives rise to the very outpouring of aggression and the desire to blame others for their troubles, which we see from these people in public space.
- These people, in principle, are not interested in maintaining the regime, and with a further fall in the standard of living, most likely, they themselves will increasingly desire its change, an evolution we are starting to see today.
- With all their fear of authorities, they are capable of protest if what motivates them affects important areas of their life, first of all, the standard of living, social services and health care.
- A high level of fear combined with irresponsibility, as well as the traditional for this group of Russians sacralization of the state and their naive belief that “everything will turn out for the best” without their participation lead to their willingness to endure significant deprivation for a long time without daring to openly protest.
- Right up to the complete collapse of the Russian economy, such people will try to at least passively support the current government out of fear that otherwise “it will be even worse.”
Passive victims of propaganda
It is somewhat difficult to separate these people from a “typical everyman,” who is also ready to believe propaganda in his flight from reality. The difference here, perhaps, is only in the degree of this faith: if a “typical Russian” in his heart recognizes the real situation, but with all his strength tries to turn away from reality and at least not think about it, the “victim” does not doubt what he is fed by propaganda. Instead of turning away from it, he embraces it.
These are mostly people with a low level of education, immersed in their everyday life. Often, they sincerely sympathize with the “crucified boys who suffered from the Bandera junta,” the “dying Syrian children under American bombs” and other images created by television.
- Such people, as well as “typical everyman”, are not personally interested in maintaining the regime. The main thing for them is their life, and they are willing to tolerate the regime only if it provides for at least some kind of stability.
- In all aspects, except for foreign policy, they, like “typical everymen,” can criticize the authorities.
- This is, in fact, the only category of people that is truly capable of “waking up to reality,” and this can have a significant impact on their psychological state. For them, the truth can become a shocking discovery, and genuine repentance may induce at least some of them to radically reconsider their views.
- The fear that in the event of the change of the regime life will be even worse is even higher in this group than that of the “typical everyman,” since such fear is the pivotal basis of the very propaganda in which they sincerely believe.
- Due to the mostly low level of income, this group would experience the effects of economic collapse later than others.
- This group is the most passive, and therefore its potential of protesting against the regime remains rather low.
Active victims of propaganda
This is a sub-category of “passive victims of propaganda,” which finds television propaganda falsehoods particularly appealing, because they play to their distorted self-esteem. For such people what is particularly important is the illusion of self-esteem, which they get from pursuing a hobby of geopolitics, and the feeling of being associated with something meaningful and bigger than their own lives. Discussing such topics creates for them an illusion of their influence on these processes, which, again, significantly increases their self-esteem. As a result, propaganda becomes for these Russians a kind of drug, to which they become “addicted,” and which becomes the main meaning of their life in contrast to the routine of the everyday life.
The difference from the “passive victims of propaganda” here is precisely in the degree of enthusiasm of such people for TV-reality. More passive propaganda consumers perceive television lies as a terrible inevitability, while the “active” ones revel in the information they receive, begin to repeat the news they hear, and thus instill in themselves the feeling that they can influence something in global politics.
- Among such people there are quite a few marginal types or personalities, in principle, accustomed to living by illusions. As a rule, they are not capable of real defense of their illusions in case of the increase in the level of real threats.
- Their increased domestic difficulties sooner or later can distract them from illusions and turn their attention to more pressing matters, which, again, is quite clearly manifested at the moment.
- Their protest potential is slightly higher, since for such people the very fact of awareness of their own significance is important, and the processes in which this significance manifests itself no longer have a special meaning.
- Out of enthusiasm for propaganda, at least some of these people can form an ideological idea, which later will be extremely difficult for them to abandon.
- They are subconsciously interested in preserving the regime, as they feel comfortable in the psychological atmosphere of struggle and conspiracy theories, which it creates.
In general, it can be noted that, whatever the size of each of these conditional groups, against the background of a further decline in the standard of living of Russians, support for Vladimir Putin’s policy will continue to decline, and this process will become completely irreversible at a time when most Russians realize that Putin is solely to blame for those “external threats” from which he promises to protect his people.