#183: What Are Russians Thinking?

We keep hearing in the news frequently that most Russians support Putin’s war. This is highly misleading, and very probably wrong.

There cannot be objective surveys in Russia. All independent journalistic institutions have either been closed or are about to close. Any independent thinking is being actively discouraged, and if discouragement does not work, it is punished. The regime has a long history of jailing or killing journalists, dissidents, and political competitors.

For the ordinary Russian, this means the following:

  • If somebody asks you on the street what you are thinking, you will not say anything that may incriminate you, because you could be arrested on the spot.
  • If somebody calls you at home and asks what you are thinking, they know where you live and could come get you.
  • In any public or unknown setting, someone may be listening.
  • If friends or family talk to you, you will not know whether any of them cooperates with the authorities.
  • If you do not care about being punished yourself, you may care about your family and friends.

I have grown up like that, I know how this feels like. Still today, I am carefully weighing my words when talking with people that I do not know I can trust completely (although, living in Germany and the US, you do not have to be afraid of dictatorial government if you do not break any democratically legitimized laws – but you should never be disrespectful of the authorities anyway, as a rule).

So, how can we tell what ordinary Russians are thinking?

We can only make the following assumptions:

  • Older people who still remember Soviet times (like myself) can “fall back” into Soviet mode: stay quiet, don’t speak until spoken to, and if you do, assume someone is listening. In case of doubt, pretend, adapt, stay below the radar, lie to protect yourself and others.
  • Russian propaganda is very powerful (even some people in the West are falling prey to it!), but in Russia, you also see how reality looks like. Sanctions are working (see the recent Yale Study), which means that Putin’s promise of economic betterment and stability has been proven a lie. Outside the big urban centers, Russia is less glamorous. The promise of a better life has not been fulfilled – and you can only tolerate this disconnect between government propaganda and reality for so long.
  • Certainly, nobody wants their own country to be evil, so even if you disagree with Putin, you will find it hard to accept reality. I am German, I know how hard it is to have to face up to reality – luckily, my people’s crimes lie mostly in the past, but it is still painful, and Nazi Germany does belong in its very own category of evil. You want to love your country, but your country does not make it easy. This conflict may explain some reluctance or cognitive dissonance as well – it may change once the government collapses some day, and then we will see a how a spell is broken, just when communism ended. It will happen – but maybe not tomorrow.
  • Young people and people below retirement age had gotten used to democracy. Do not let anyone tell you Russians are not capable of democracy – this is a russophobic lie. Most Russians are just as cosmopolitan, freedom-loving, democratically-minded as other Europeans or Americans. They have been victimized and traumatized by their governments, and it will take time to overcome this. These younger people may have to decide to somehow arrange themselves with the system, or emigrate.
  • Those who can afford to leave either have left or will leave the longer Putin’s system carries on. But not everyone can leave – you would have to have employment abroad, speak a foreign language, have some assets to make the move, be willing to leave family and friends, and be so desperate as to be willing to abandon your country.
  • Some will believe the propaganda or benefit from the system and support it. We cannot be sure how many people this will be – but one thing is certain: It is not everyone, and the activities of the enforcement apparatus tell you that the Russian government does not trust its people.

This holds true for all brutal dictatorships such as China and North Korea and others. We should not pass judgement on those who live in circumstances that most in the free West cannot even imagine. Even Russians abroad may feel constrained about how much they can say, because the may still have family and friends in Russia. My own experience growing up in Communist East Germany tells me though to not to underestimate the Russian people, no matter what their government and some of their fellow compatriots are doing.

My favorite example is Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. He was full of disdain for Stalin and the Soviet system, yet he had to make a living. Thus you’ll find some symphonies that are utterly critical of the system, but once in a while, he felt the urgent need to compose a few propagandistic pieces to keep the system at bay. He lived on a razor’s edge, as illustrated in the fantastic documentary on the War Symphonies (ironically, in cooperation with Valery Gergiev, who has to probably navigate similar difficulties, and I seriously do not feel I can judge him).