Thursday, April 10, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Russians Back Putin on Crimea but Aren’t Ready to Suffer the Consequences, Gudkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 10 – The majority of Russians support the annexation of Crimea but do not understand the implications of that action and are “not willing to suffer the consequences,” according to Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada Center, the leading independent polling group in the Russian Federation.

            In a report issued this week, entitled “In What Land Do We Live: Russian Society from November to March ( and summarized by Elena Vlasenko in Grani (, Gudkov says that Russians view Crimea the way they view the Kuriles, as Russian even though many of them could not find the latter on a map.

            Russia’s intellectual elite, the sociologist says, have not been willing to try to understand why Russia’s population feels this way.  Indeed, he suggests, that failing is a major shortcoming of the country’s intellectuals.  But now its members need to make sense of why so many Russians are encouraged by the annexation of Crimea and why so few are ashamed of it.

             “The majority of people have become victims” of the government’s propaganda since 2002 and especially since 2007 when Vladimir Putin gave his Munich speech, Gudkov says.  But not everyone has been affected in the same way or even in the way that the Kremlin has intended.

            Given the coverage of coverage of corruption between 2010 and the end of 2013, many Russians had concluded that the regime was falling apart and according to polls, “a majority (!) of people ever more frequently refused to recognize it as legitimate.” Indeed, in January 2014, polls showed that Russians viewed the regime and Putin in almost entirely negative ways.

            It was thus “not surprising that the first reaction to the mass protests of 2011 was approval” by the population, and the regime’s harsh approach to those protests had the effect of producing greater fear among Russians that mass repression lay ahead. But the events in Kyiv ‘s Maidan and the Kremlin’s presentation of them changed how people viewed protest as such.

            When the Maidan began, Russians had “no illusions” that Ukrainians were protesting against a regime that resembled in many respects that of Putin. And as of October 2013, Russians “did not consider interference in Ukrainian affairs a correct move,” the pollster says.  But everything changed after the forced dispersal of the Maidan in December.

            At that time, Gudkov argues, “Russian state propaganda began to work more intensively than even had been the case in Soviet times.” Moreover, the Kremlin shut down most “alternative channels of information.”  As a result, he says, “the population remained one on one with [state-controlled] television.”

            One “detail” is especially important, Gudkov continues. Fear of repression had not only reached its highest point in recent years but so do had levels of mass xenophobia and nationalism.  In October, polls showed that these were at the highest levels at any time over the last 25 years.

            A sense of being surrounded by corruption and being defenseless against the authorities generated in people a sense that there was a need for “’the defense of Russians’” abroad. Kremlin propaganda seized on this and suggested that “all protests” were an effort by the West to “weaken Russia and push it out of its traditional zones of influence.”

            That led the Russian population to approve of what Putin has been doing in Ukraine, but a closer examination of the data shows, Gudkov insists, that very, very few Russians were paying extremely close attention to what was taking place and evaluated everything in terms of slogans about defending Russians and returning Russian lands.

            Large shares of Russians were thus ready to accept the idea that Ukraine was a failed or failing state, that it was about to or had already slipped in conditions of civil war, and that Moscow had an obligation to come to the aid of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, even if that involved annexing territory.

             But while they may be pleased with the idea that annexing Crimea returns to Russia the status of a great power, the majority, Gudkov continues, are “not ready to pay for what is taking place.” They are willing to see force used – but only on condition that no one will respond to Russia’s use of force with its own.

            Other scholars, Vlasenko says, agree with Gudkov’s assessment.  Sociologist Boris Dubin says that the Kremlin has managed to convince Russians that what is going in Ukraine is “’not about us.’” Historian Nikita Sokolov says that the Russian regime now is playing on the old idea of  “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality,” something that contributes to a loss of a sense of reality. 

And philosopher Aleksandr Rubtsov  points out that the Russian authorities are trying to use history but not in an appropriate way.  “In fact, the authorities do not know history and do not want to.  Thinking they are invoking history, they are in fact appealing to historical ideological treatments.”

That gets them into trouble, he says, as the discussion of the different between ethnic Russian and civic Russian identities shows.  An opposition figure like Navalny, Rubtsov suggests, can talk about that, “but at the state level, it sounds like a provocation.”

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