By Ana Dadu
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the streets of Europe’s cities, but also the world, have burst into protest. The illegality of the invasion under international law, the atrocities committed by the Russian army, and the proximity of war on the European continent are just a few factors that have compelled many Europeans to come out and demand Russia’s retreat. Russia’s embassies in New York, Berlin, Pairs, and even here in the Hague, have been vandalized. Red paint has been sprayed onto them to symbolize the violence of their invasion, and consulate members have been publicly booed at as an attempt of embarrassment. These acts of protest serve as a sign to Russia that the people of Europe do not support the war, and that this aggression is unjustified.
On the other side of the front, the political climate amongst Russia’s population has been different. Whilst there have been spurs of protests led by Russia’s youth, on the whole, the reaction, or rather, the lack of it, has been a surprise to many of us. Russians are in denial of a war. It raises questions about whether Russians even care at all. Do they support Putin’s decision to invade? From a Ukrainian point of view, Russian apathy is bewildering. How can they allow their regime to bomb innocent people? You cannot help but ask, why are Russians not protesting Putin’s illegitimate war?
The Russian population is not a monolith, and their opinions on the war vary. Despite it being difficult to tell, as Russian surveys are often unreliable, millions of Russians are dissatisfied with the war, and the strongest dissidents are those under 25. But as the war goes on and the sanctions imposed on Russia are damaging its economy, many Russians continue to turn a blind eye to Putin’s war of aggression. In one of his recent Youtube videos, political commentator and philosopher Vlad Vexler said “if in 2022 Putin announced that Russia was giving territory to Ukraine, instead of invading Ukraine, he would’ve gotten a similar level of support from the Russian people”. This statement perfectly describes how disconnected Russian people are from their political sphere of life.
There is a combination of factors that can explain Russian apathy. First is the Soviet historical legacy. Putin glorifies the Soviet Union days, and his own leadership style takes inspiration from Stalinist leadership. Mass political protests were never a regular feature of the Soviet Union, and if they did take place, the authorities suppressed them. Same goes for today. If you spread “fake news” – that is anything that goes against the official government position – you face 15 years in prison. Moreover, the Russian government blocks independent media and persecutes journalists that go against the grain. Natalia Prilutskaya mentions that, not only are the Russian authorities hellbent on preventing and severely penalizing any protest, they are also minimizing the public awareness of it. Limited public awareness combined with harsh penalties for speaking up means not many people care to turn up to protest, and if they do, no change occurs as there is not enough momentum. The Soviet Union has completely removed its citizens from political life and Putin continues to instill this in Russian society today.
This Russian apathy is exacerbated by Russia’s imperial legacy. Russia’s sheer size makes it difficult for Russians to grasp what is going on within its own borders and outside of it. Although a bit of an exaggeration, Vlad Vexler mentions that Russians don’t really know the difference between Kharkhiv and Voronezh – the former being Ukrainian and the latter Russian – but Russians feel no particular bond to any of these places. This explains why Russia’s older generations live in ignorance. To them, if the Kremlin leaders decide that Kharkhiv is now Russian, then it’s Russian. They do not question it further.
When Putin came into power, he made an informal deal with Russia’s citizens called authoritarian capitalism – stay out of public and political life, and in exchange you get stability and freedom in your private life. Russians can go on holidays, emigrate, and even criticize the government in private. They can even watch political coverage but they have to see it as entertainment rather than anything remotely serious. And this informal deal works because the more private freedoms one possesses, the less they care about their public freedom.
In an article written by a Ukrainian living in Georgia, she expressed the Ukrainian confusion as to why Russians that emigrated still didn’t protest against the government, even in the safety of Tbilisi. The author asked a group of Russian guests at a house party what they had thought of that statement and she got three different responses. One said that “we”, the Russian people, are not capable of influencing anything. Another said that they didn’t want to protest and just wanted to simply live in peace – otherwise read as “stay out of it”. The last response was defensive, saying that they had donated to the Ukrainian army. Whilst all responses differ in some way, they are similar in that they all think participation in public life, protesting, does not work.
This deal that Putin made, this withdrawal from political life, is only exacerbated by the overall success of Putin’s reign, as opposed to a system that would allow public participation – democracy. He has brought to Russia what democracy in the 90s couldn’t – stability and economic prosperity. The historical trauma from the fall of the Soviet Union plays an important role in accepting this authoritarian capitalist exchange.
It’s vital to remember that, as previously mentioned, Russians are not a monolith. This article does not intend to paint all Russians with a single stroke of a brush. Many Russian youth who did not grow up in the Soviet Union tend to have a generational discontent from their parents when it comes to the invasion of Ukraine. Actual support for the war is difficult to measure as polling has become more difficult. Most people refuse to answer them. But this only reinforces the idea that political apathy has been indoctrinated in Russian society through seventy years of communist rule that has only been slightly rebranded under Putin’s rule.
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