Photography for Prospect by Sara Morris, post-production by the Retouching Shed

What do Russians think of Putin and the war in Ukraine?

Fed by propaganda, most Russians support Putin’s war against Ukraine—and the conflict he is stoking with the west
May 12, 2022


hat do ordinary Russians think about the war in Ukraine? Stop them in the street and they will tell you. “Sooner or later, it had to happen,” one tells a reporter, “it was necessary to destroy this evil.” Another says of the Russian army’s tactics: “they don’t bomb, they exterminate some criminals very precisely.” Still another in reference to the Ukrainians: “because they’re all under the US… this is a liberation. From fascism.” And another: “the west has generally gone berserk.”

In such street polls, interviewees don’t use the word “war.” As noted by the Levada Centre the government lie about this being merely a “special operation” was required because, when it all started in February, the population was not ready to approve a full-scale war with Ukraine, a country where millions of Russians have relatives and friends. But the Russian leadership did not foresee the possibility of defeat and, as the war has hardly gone to plan, it is increasingly using the media to mobilise the population for proper wartime self-sacrifice. 

Such propaganda dehumanises Ukrainians but also softens up the population for a bigger war with Ukraine’s supposed master: the west. For Russians, the west is an abstract stronghold of evil. According to official Russian statistics, only 9 per cent of them travel abroad regularly, and 76 per cent have never been abroad. These shocking figures can be explained by poverty. Moscow and St Petersburg, where 12 per cent of Russians live, can boast a European standard of living. But other regions are as deprived as the poorest countries in the world. It is from these areas, where desperate people need to make a living, that young men volunteer to fight in Ukraine en masse. 

The independent media website People of Baikal, which reports on Siberia, claimed there were 110 dead soldiers from the autonomous Buryatia republic alone. (The website has now been banned for spreading “inaccurate information.”) Buryatia ranks second in terms of losses. According to the website Mediazona (now deemed a “foreign agent” and similarly blocked) there are even more dead from Dagestan in the North Caucuses. Yet the well-heeled residents of Moscow and St Petersburg are almost absent from the casualty lists.

Life under Putin

Most of the dead are young. Political activist Andrey Petrov, who for a long time lived in Kandalaksha, a town in the remote Murmansk region in the polar north of Russia, told Radio Liberty: “I am amazed by the routine reaction to the news about the death of another soldier in Ukraine: ‘died a hero.’” 

When he finds out a soldier has died, the first thing Petrov does is note their date of birth. “They were born under Putin, they graduated from kindergarten and school under Putin, they joined the army under Putin and died under Putin. There is nothing strange for them in justifying Russian violence against Ukraine, when the school system serves the interest of the state; domestic violence has been decriminalised; women who fight for their rights are considered inferior; and minorities are subjected to humiliation. People are not shocked by photographs of bombed Ukrainian cities because their towns look alike.” It is not easy to say such things in Russia. For his support of Ukraine, Petrov’s own father insulted him.

Sergei is an ordinary 39-year-old from Siberia who approves of “Putin’s special operation.” In 2018, tired of the poverty around him, Sergei did not vote for Putin and neither did many of his friends. They did not go as far as to support the opposition leader best known in the west, Alexei Navalny, but instead voted for Pavel Grudinin, who promised better economic development. Sergei did not know that Grudinin was widely seen as a “spoiler candidate” allowed to stand by the Kremlin. As soon as his support exceeded 7 per cent, state television began to broadcast negative stories about Grudinin. Officially, Putin won 76 per cent of the vote. 

Sergei works as a driver. He does not look at websites declared “undesirable” or as “foreign agents” by Russia, even those which have published investigations into the aviation industry, where he used to work. Sergei has a car, paid off by credit. He has two children. Since the beginning of the war, food prices in his city have increased by 1.8 times, while petrol prices have shot up. The cost of Russian products has risen by 20 per cent. “But Putin is not a fool, he knows what he is doing,” Sergei insists. He had begun to question Putin but, after the “special operation” began, he fell into line.

“Ukraine was preparing biological and nuclear weapons on the orders of the United States, have you heard?” Sergei says. (This is a line regularly pushed out on Russian television by “fakesperts.”) He does not entertain the thought that this could be a lie—how could one lie about such a thing? Russian officials have opened an investigation into biological weapons developed by the US in Ukraine. These reports have appeared on television as well as on a special Whats-App mailing list. Sergei is convinced. He is now glad that others voted for Putin—thank God it is Putin at the helm at this time of US aggression!

Such is the mindset of an average Russian being groomed by Putin to sacrifice. 

This is the story of how a deeply ill country—with less than 2 per cent of global GDP for a population of 144m—threatens to start a hot war “against the west and US hegemony.” The aim is, as it was in the Soviet era, not only to intimidate the population but to provide moral meaning. Officially, the USSR fought for peace and Putin now is also portrayed as the “chief peacemaker.” Sergei quotes Putin’s propaganda slogan: “Russia doesn’t start wars, it ends them.” He believes the official narrative pumped out on TV that the west denigrates Russia’s victory against Nazism—and now “Putin will put an end to it.”

Russian society is like the story of a frog in boiling water: if the frog had been immediately thrown into the bubbling pot it would jump out. But if the water is heated gradually, the frog does not notice it is being boiled alive. Leaving the Putin cult is difficult. Yes, this is a cult when Russian propagandists say openly “if Russia does not win, I prefer nuclear war… we will go to paradise.” Large numbers of Russian people now think “there is no choice” about the country’s course, and that “we can’t change the history.”

Presenting the truth  

Is it really imaginable that things would change if Russian citizens had access to accurate information? After Crimea’s annexation in 2014, freedom of the press in Russia dropped to 155 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Index. By now, since the invasion began, it should be close to the bottom of the league, as the last tiny independent media outlets have been closed and their frequencies given over to propaganda.

When Putin’s regime falls, liberals will have the same daunting task of telling the truth about Russia’s victims as they did when the USSR fell. In Russia today there are many who are nostalgic for Stalin. The main organisation for preserving the memory of the victims of Stalinist repression, the NGO Memorial, has been closed. During its final days, it pointedly aired a movie about the Ukrainian famine, or Holodomor, inflicted by Stalin. Though even when it was active, Memorial’s support-base in Russia was tiny. 

Why has the task of exposing the truth about the Soviet Union remained unfinished? Why did the transition to democracy fail? Today there is more and more evidence that the notorious chaos of the 1990s—the explosion in crime from which Putin officially “saved” Russia when he came to power in 2000—came about with the direct participation of Putin’s associates from the criminal underworld. Back then, Putin saved the country from a crisis created by his own cronies. Today, Putin has similarly manufactured a threat from Ukraine and the west from which he is the supposed saviour.

Among other factors, Ukraine deeply angered Putin by opening the archives of the Ukrainian branch of the KGB after the 2014 Maidan revolution. The Chekist security police, the heirs of Stalin’s executioners who are now in power in the Kremlin, could not forgive this. Their hatred for Ukraine is real. The KGB agents were all taught that Ukraine has never been an independent country. While Ukraine was moving towards becoming an open society, the opposite was happening in Russia: the Chekists dominated all the spheres of power and the economy. 

Leaving the Putin cult is difficult

The so-called Investigative Committee of Russia has opened dozens of cases (with new ones added every day) about “biological laboratories in Ukraine,”  “war crimes in Ukraine” committed by Ukrainians, nuclear weapons being prepared in Ukraine and so on. This committee even opened its own TV project, Za Pravda, or “For the Truth,” which argues that Ukraine is an artificial state. The head of this committee, Alexander Bastrykin, is more than loyal to Putin. According to an investigation by the exiled Russian investigative website The Insider, for which I write, Bastrykin was helped into his position by a St Petersburg crime boss with the help of the current deputy head of the FSB. Bastrykin is under British sanctions in connection with the Magnitsky case (but not under EU sanctions). Bastrykin now promises us a special tribunal on “Ukraine’s war crimes.”

More parallels with the Soviet era suggest themselves. In Soviet times, there was a Burdenko commission on the “truth on Katyn,” which published “investigations” that concluded that the Germans shot 20,000 captured Polish officers in Katyn in Smolensk, near the Russian border with Belarus. The killings were in fact carried out by the USSR in April 1940 following the Hitler-Stalin pact. In the same spirit, Russia has recently announced its “tribunals” against the “Ukrainians who carried out the massacre in Bucha.” The move is designed to convince the local Russian population that human rights atrocities could not have been carried out by their heroic army. This is how 144m people are being prepared to support a bigger war with the west, which is accused of unfairly blaming Russia for Ukrainian crimes. 

The defeat in Afghanistan led to the eventual collapse of the USSR. Some political scientists who remember the Soviet era urge us not to panic when Putin and his propagandists threaten the world with nuclear weapons: the same tactics, they remind us, were used by the Soviet leaders. 

But it must also be remembered that, back in the Soviet era, the Communist Party and not the Chekists were in charge. Back then Ukraine existed as an autonomous socialist republic with its own borders. Despite the policy of culturally assimilating Ukraine into Russia, there were no official statements that this is actually “one people” and that Ukrainians do not exist—statements we regularly hear from Putin. 

Today even children are being mobilised. A case was recently brought against an 11-year-old schoolboy who spoke out against the war. If the first pillar of Putin’s system is propaganda, the second is terror. Deep in their soul many Russians fear what will happen to them and their children if they don’t support the state. And the state is Putin. 

Therefore, in a sense, Russia is more dangerous than the USSR ever was: there is no longer any power over the Chekists with their crazy conspiracy theories, mediocre training, appetite for cruelty and determination to stay in power at whatever cost. And we should never forget that even with a more disciplined USSR, on many occasions the Cold War nearly went hot.