Staunton, May 3 – For many Russians, World War II or as they call it “The Great Patriotic War” represented an escape the humiliations they experienced under Stalin, to feel that they were leaders in a moral crusade, and even to hope that victory would bring them some relief from what they had lived through.
That those hopes were dashed in the case of the Soviets who fought and defeated Hitler does not mean that they weren’t real and that they were not deeply rooted in the national mentality of the Russians. They were real and explain one of the reasons an appeal to the Great Victory is so powerful among Russians to this day.
Throughout his presidency, Vladimir Putin has promoted those views about World War II and thus laid the groundwork for exploiting such feelings among Russians to gain their backing for his “special military operation.” And it is those deeply held feelings rather than the acceptance of specific arguments about the current war that explains Russian support.
Those are just some of the conclusions suggested by a remarkable survey of Russian opinion carried out by journalist Shura Burtin and her Meduza colleagues, the results of which are described in a 13.000-word article available in both Russian and English (meduza.io/feature/2022/04/24/voyti-vo-mrak-i-naschupat-v-nem-lyudey and meduza.io/en/feature/2022/05/03/feeling-around-for-something-human).
“’I don’t understand why people in Russia are silent!’ she writes. “This cry was heard across hundreds of Ukrainian posts during the first weeks of the war. ‘Do they really support this? Do they not care? We’re getting bombed and they are too scared to get fined for protesting? Maybe they don’t know what is happening? Somebody, tell them!’”
“After Bucha and Kramatorsk,” she continues, “Ukrainians seem to have stopped caring what Russians think. But I too couldn’t understand how the majority of Russians could possibly support all of this. It seemed nightmarish, you just wanted to run from it.” She and her partners spoke with more than 50 Russians about their feelings.
According to Burtin, in Moscow, Kaluga and Kostroma, “half the people we asked refused to talk to us,” but “the other half were usually open to fairly in-depth conversations … They are not intended to be representatives. We just wanted to get some sense of what was going through people’s heads. To enter the darkness and feel around for something human.”
“Some people,” she writes, “believe that support for the war comes out of the propaganda itself. In a way, this is true, of course. But why do people believe it? The formulas work because people can use them for their own ends. The public are the victims of propaganda but, at the same time, it’s made-to-order just for them.”
It satisfies some of their deeply held but very contradictory feelings, the notions that Russians have been humiliated and betrayed but can provide leadership, that the Ukrainians are part of the Russian nation but have betrayed it and become “the other” which can be destroyed without any sense that morality is being violated.
“There is absolutely no room for an independent Ukraine in this worldview, which is a completely dichotomous: just us vs. them. The propaganda worked hard to get to this archaic sensation in the depths of the subconscious,” the Meduza journalist says. “But I think that people needed that to protect an even deeper sense of anxiety.”
And that is this: “Russia has been afflicted with a mythical image of itself as the vanquisher of forces of evil and chaos for a very long time now; it triumphed over the 1990s, terrorism, the West. This mythic image gives us a reason to live. Putin’s decision to finally defeat this “evil” once and for all makes it especially hard for people to start questioning it now. Because if they do, it will destroy their entire worldview.”
“For many years, people have run from this feeling of humiliation toward a reality where we have accomplished something magnificent. The sanctity of our Great Victory, the fact that we saved the world from fascism, make it feel like our government, and, by extension, all of us, are all right. The war unites people, it gives them a sense of being part of something. It’s a response to the crisis of purpose, of loneliness.”
One psychologist even told her that “the war comes as a psychological relief after many years of stagnation. It’s like a fire in a prison – at least something exciting is happening” – something very much like how Russians reacted to the German invasion in 1941 after a decade of Stalinist repression.
Burtin says that “as strange as it might appear, Muscovites were noticeably more ideologically charged. In Moscow, support for the war was nervy and uncompromising. In the provinces, most people also supported the “special operation,” but they were more gentle, more willing to see the complexity, to feel compassion for people in Ukraine.
Moreover, she continues, “support for the war drops precipitously whenever someone is forced to face it head on. Like mothers of conscript-aged sons or people who have close relatives in Ukraine (although not all of them). The majority of the people we met who were against the war were guileless women not ruled by political convictions but a visceral horror of war.”
Also at work is a flight from anxiety, Burtin argues. “The easiest method for protecting yourself from anxiety is narrowing down the number of things you’re responsible for. You just tell yourself that nothing you do can change anything and then you don’t have to think about anything because you’ve accepted it all as a given” – a kind of “’learned helplessness.’”
“One member of the intelligentsia, a woman we met in a Kostroma church,” she writes, “put it this way: “People in Russia right now are like a child who’s been told his dad is a homicidal maniac. He can’t believe it, he lashes out against it, he loses his temper, he comes up with justifications, he looks for people to blame. Of course, he’s in a very bad place.”
And she continues: “People in Russia are accustomed to seeing war as a sacred experience, one that can wash everything away and return them to some true meaning, restoring them to themselves. They think war will release them from what they ended up living in,” again much like what Russians felt during World War II.
All this means, of course, that the Russian people do not back Putin’s war in Ukraine as such but rather feel that it is either not their business or can be their salvation, attitudes that may make it easier for some leader to change course but that provide the basis for similar aggression when a Kremlin leader is committed to it.