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Why So Many Russians Believe Propaganda

Russian propaganda and the prohibition of humanism 

Being a Russian living in Europe means having a mind filled with possibilities inadequate for the Russian context and cherishing an imperishable, naïve hope in resistance for a better future. People in the EU are calling on Russians to protest. However, the current conditions changed the meaning of politics  in Russia; even the most intimate feelings such as anger, shame, pain, or empathy became a demonstration of resistance, and as such dangerous and subject to punishment (interestingly, half of those who do not support the military operation feels depressed in comparison with 11% of those who support it). A certain kind of humanism has been prohibited. Going to protests brings incredibly high risks and instead of a social change promises days or years in prison. The Exclusion of Russian scientists from international communities in this context appears to be revenge for keeping silent under conditions of impermissible speech. How is it possible to stop silence with even more silence? 

Currently, many Russian sociologists are working on the question which appears to be the most painful for many Russian citizens: why do so many people believe in propaganda? This work is taking place at a time considered by many to be a sunset of sociology. Under a totalitarian order people are afraid to express their opinion to interviewers, so polls have lost their validity. What makes sociology itself – its public critical voice turning the institutional order upside down and an ability to deconstruct normality, is diminished. What could explain such widespread support for the current state of affairs, such credulity before the propaganda machine? 

Numbers come first 

There are several sources that indicate overwhelming support for the state propaganda in Russia. Some of them are connected to the state and some not, but both show close numbers that demonstrate high support. According to the poll conducted by the Foundation for Public Opinion (FOM) beginning on March 13th 68% of respondents approved and 12% disapproved of the “special operation” in Ukraine. Almost the same number (67%) considered Russian security, the disarmament of Ukraine and the prevention of NATO enlargement reasons for the operation. Lower numbers named the protection of DNR and LNR inhabitants (51%), a change of the Ukrainian political course (22%), and the liquidation of Ukraine as a state and its annexation to Russia (11%). Polls from other state and independent sources are not so different. The last independent research that could be found on ExtremeScan telegram channel found 60% support but pointed out that a proper data analysis is not possible because of war-time censorship and respondents’ need to articulate socially acceptable answers. 

The influence of propaganda on changing attitudes towards Ukraine between 2013 and 2014 is clear. A famous propagandist cliché “Where have you been for 8 years?” relates to this year when the conflict in Donbass began. According to the Levada Center in 2013, 75% of respondents claimed that there is no need to intervene in neighboring countries, while in 2014, after the launch of a heavy propagandist ship on the dark waters of Russian television, 60% of the audience approved of a possible invasion in Ukraine. And while 70% claimed that they do not understand what is going on in Ukraine, 80% supported annexation of Crimea. All state and independent agencies claim a strong and growing support to Putin as well to anything else political. 

Non-homogeneity and a militant core 

The first explanation for such strong support lies in the nature of the data. Alexey Bessudnov, a sociologist from the University of Exter claims that there are several facts that must be taken into account.  First, wording plays a role – the polls ask about support for the military operation and not the war. Second, there is a heterogeneous demography: a big difference in age (9/10 respondents above 70 supporting the operation versus half of 30-); gender (women tend to support the operation less) and the size of the city (big cities are less supportive). Third–and this is most obvious– TV watching correlates with support: 75% of those who watch TV support the operation. 

Finally, amidst the repression of anti-war opinions and the active work of pro-Kremlin trolls, respondents will likely say what they think is expected from them. In authoritarian regimes people do not want to express their opinions on conflicted issues; the independent organization Russian Field claimed that respondents just hang up when they hear questions about Ukraine. An independent project Do Russians support war brings citations from telephone interviews: “Well, now answering what you think on this topic is forbidden by law. This is why I will abstain. I would like to answer, but I have no right to do so (a man, 58 years old, urban).” However, the interesting outcome is that the number of those who supported the military operation and at the same time thought that Ukrainians will militarily resist the Russian army is 20%. Others either hesitated to answer or thought that Ukrainians would not fight. They believed that the operation aimed to be peaceful and some of them even claimed that Ukrainians would welcome the Russian army. Exactly this 20% and not 60% are the militarists – those who support war in the sense of a military conflict between two armies. 

Antiwar graffity. The word in Cyrillic characters reads: "Tribunal." Anonymous source.
Antiwar graffiti: “tribunal.” Photo: anonymous source.

Easy cognitive constructions 

The second line of explanation considers the role of propaganda in society. Russian propaganda comprises narratives about international politics – a topic that is both far away, that is, of little relevance to everyday life and at the same time hard to comprehend. The previously mentioned data from Levada (that 70% of Russians claimed that they do not understand what is going on in Ukraine, 80% supported annexation of Crimea in 2014) supports this point. Nowadays, the main emotion towards Ukrainians among those who support the military operation and watch the state TV is empathy (30%). Confusing? Not really, if we understand propaganda as an easy mental construction that people use to explain things that are not greatly relevant to them. Russians do not hate Ukrainians but at the same time cannot explain what is going on and thus they rely on propaganda. 

Russian political scientist and Youtube superstar Ekaterina Shulman argues that the war in Ukraine is less important for the Russians than rising prices of food and the lack of everyday goods. Propaganda according to her is related to four signs of the authoritarian personality: obedience, aggression, the tendency to use easy and comprehensible explanations and, surprisingly, an interest in others’ sexual life. Indeed, Russian propaganda is based on these components. It promotes an inevitable choice between alignment with the master or becoming an enemy of the people, fuels aggression within Russian society (e.g. towards liberals) and outside of it (towards Ukraine, NATO, etc.), has a very easy explanation in a friend-foe dichotomy, and condemns LGBT+ for having deviant sexual behavior that Russians are required to care about. Propaganda produces a person with such a set of convictions – an obedient, aggressive human with facile explanations of social reality and hatred towards those who decide on their sexual life without an official manual. 

What is important to Shulman is that in an authoritarian regime, the aim of propaganda is to disable citizens from any activity (in comparison with totalitarian and democratic regimes). It aims to bring simple explanations to which citizens will nod and go marinade cucumbers they brought from their dachas instead of civil activity. She claims that “rather than 2 minutes of hate [allusion to Orwell], an authoritarian regime needs long seances of disorientation, production of meaningless noise that form people’s opinion on the issues that are irrelevant to them and prevent a conversion of an opinion into action.”  

In Russia, the state constitutes society 

The third line of explanation considers the surprising statistics showing that poorer Russians tend to support propaganda less than the middle class. This might be explained by the poorer citizens’ fear of the state having fewer resources for subsidies and life in general, which makes some condemn the state for financing the war. Another explanation may lie in the dynamics of the Russian middle class and society in general. From 2000, state employees (including силовики, those who work in security structures) have slowly been replacing replacing cultural workers and entrepreneurs. They constitute the third largest group of the middle class after the workers in the extraction and manufacturing sectors (the companies in which a majority of shares is usually owned by the government as well). The largest group still consists of those employed in services. The growing numbers of state employees is visible to the naked eye, that is, to anyone who has used a Moscow metro, where the usual picture includes 15-20 people from the police, security, and the Russian Guard walking around the station without any visible purpose. 

While some authors point out that there is also a growing role of the state in the western capitalist economies, it is important to emphasize that in comparison with the liberal democracies that imply (or at least pretend to) an alternation of power, in the Russian context the ones in power are in a different and ambivalent position. Power based on personal connections is stable in a sense that hardly can be changed by elections and unstable at the same time because of the very nature of personal ties, the lack of an institutional framework and a post hoc role of law that affirms what is done instead of giving the guideline for action. 

Speaking about the middle class however may be problematic in the Russian context. At a minimum, the role of the middle class and the civil sphere (let me build on the popular definition of the sphere “outside” of government) has a different meaning in Russia, as well as the state itself. A former Putin advisor now in opposition, Gleb Pavlovsky, claims that the Russian state is not a state per se because it is not separated from the society (общество). Instead, what is currently growing up is a “society of power” (социум власти) in which all relationships including intimate ones are based on power. The state has neither an outside nor an inside. 

Kindergarten teachers have their pupils draw pictures supporting the government’s version of events. Photo: anonymous source.

At a maximum, it may even be misleading to speak of classes at all. Some sociologists prefer the term “estates”. Estates are constituted by the clew of different groups (prosecutors, state security, investigation committee…) who are intertwined by revenue and under-the-table payments conditioning the favorable redistribution of resources (the real object of power manipulation instead of money and goods which are a “fallacious external reality”). “Revenue is what constituted the wholeness of the state”. In this society the support of propaganda comes rather as a natural thing than as a surprise. 

Propaganda as pure fiction 

Finally, one must look into the content of propaganda. Russian propaganda varies from inconsistent statements to ridiculous hallucinations. In such a manner, the story of Bucha was first about walking dead(!), then it turned out that there were no dead bodies at all, later that there are but that this was a provocation by the Ukrainian army. Finally, it changed again to the statement that the bodies appeared after the Russian army left the city. Propaganda does not aim to explain reality as a whole. 

Reality is what must be filled in the blanks by the TV audience themselves. Rather than giving a clue of what is going on in the new world of absurdity, it indeed brings confusion and disorientation. 

Russian propaganda is a Rancièrian fiction that functions based on a distinct temporality and spatiality. This fiction does not respect logic, fact-checking, or the sequence of arguments. Everyone who had a discussion with a propaganda believer knows this – it is impossible to win this dispute on the basis of empirical evidence. This discussion is not about how things are but about how they could be. In his book Illusions of Choice (in orig. Иллюзии выбора: 30 лет постсоветской России) Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov claims that the waves of public content and discontent are not connected with an understanding of the situation in society but are rather based on “hopes, illusions, indignation or the feeling of pride and collective unity”. They come “from the inner impulses and not from knowledge” (p. 9). Historical positivism, empiricism and fact checking are rewarding but currently they seem to constitute only one of the genres of thinking about the world and politics. 

Such a difference between two positions made political discussions impossible, which is the most important outcome of the propaganda machine. The purification of genres of empiricism and fiction made a “constitutive outside” in the Derridian sense impossible – the “outside” is not constitutive but non-responsive or frightening. It is indeed antagonism that demonstrates how Schmitt’s ideas of politics do not work, because there is no shared symbolic space for the mutual construction of political identities as Chantal Mouffe pointed out. The same scenario happened already during Covid – but did we learn anything? None of the groups tried to step out its truth or illusion, no shared symbolic space was created, no political language invented.  

Just as emotions are only true in the movement one lives them, Russian propaganda makes sense only in the moment of watching. It is junk energy for Russian imperialism and pride. Emotions that are addressed by it could be described differently. For example, Leg Gudkov argues in his article Nationalism Based on Ressentiment (in orig. Рессентиментный национализм) that nowadays Russian nationalism has a compensatory function for the traumatized society. The logic behind it goes back to the time of the USSR when the pride of a pitifully humiliated, always poor, and powerless “small human” was fed by the regime with the glory of the biggest and the most militant country. This country does not exist anymore, but small people are still small. In its absence, Russian nationalism today is built on the energy of a “massive ressentiment” and “collective frustration”. It is preoccupied with myths about the past and the search for enemies to blame for the fall of the empire, economic degradation, failed transition and so on. Russian nationalism aims to “eliminate obstructive complexes of national inferiority and painful experience of historical drama of a failed nation state” (171).

This recognition of powerlessness fuels Putin’s belief that he must restore the great country for the people – the country that has been taken by the forces of history. The country where the power of the state is more than an individual’s life and freedom and is based on political mythology rather than economic prosperity or equality. “It is necessary to reconstruct the citizens’ trust in authorities (восстановить доверие к власти). It is necessary that people feel that not everything has been taken from them [in the 1990s] … A major part of society is nostalgic. This is the moral question … I am thinking about my parents. We threw everything away, cut up everything. It is like this people did not live at all. This is very cruel” (1.14.17) – explained Putin as the reason for using the post -1944 Soviet anthem (words and music) as the basis for a new Russian anthem in 2000, when many citizens of Russia were still hoping for a democratic future and freedom for their country. 

The author wishes to remain anonymous.