An Analysis of Russian Public Opinion Polls: 84 by 16

By Lyudmila Petranovska, psychologist, blogger, author of several books, the creator of the Institute of the Family Unit
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine  

Photo by Eugene Razdobarina

Lyudmila Petranovska. Photo by Eugene Razdobarina.

This figure from the public opinion polls has become a symbol of the current sorry state of Russian society. 84% support the regime. They are happy with annexed Crimea. They hate Ukraine and Europe. They are unafraid of sanctions. They welcome the witch hunting of those who think otherwise. They are ready to do anything for the “Russian world.” The opinion surveys repeat, the number varies a little, but the conclusion is the same: the overwhelming majority of the population supports the continuing madness. Those who are against, are in a clear minority.

It is enough to get depressed, is it not? It is timely to recall the tale of the city in which there was not even a dozen righteous citizens to be found, and it was destroyed, and there was only one solution for the decent man in this situation: to leave without looking back. Let them face Judgement Day, the wheels of history or the invisible hand of the market, they have themselves to blame, since they are participants in the crimes. And let us stop talking about the deceived and hurt people. They are bastards, not people. This point of view is presented, for example, in quite a mild form by Matveii Ganopolskiy, and in not a very mild form by Viktor Erofeevyi and in a multitude of openly hysterical blog posts.

For now, let us put aside, or rather into a separate category, the issue of the feelings of the Russian liberal intelligentsia towards the Russian people; there is a lot there that is complex and multi-layered, and it deserves a separate topic. But for now, I think, it is useful to apply the intellectual’s critical faculty and to look, actually, at this number – 84%. What and who is behind it? Is everything really so hopeless?

Many believe that these surveys are falsified, that they are simply written inside the cabinets at the regime’s request. I do not think so. Maybe, someone twisted the truth, more likely, certain results are achieved by the wording of the questions, but it is doubtful that they are outright lies. People do reply roughly like that.

[the survey conducted by VTsIOM in June 20, 2014]

On the other hand, someone wrote me not long ago in the heat of a debate: “You’d better think about why 84% of the population does not like you.” I honestly sat down and thought. And no, I do not notice this. As far as I can tell, I am on good terms with at least 84% of people I know, even though I do not hide my position. Those who do not like me are either completely hard-nosed imperialists, or those paid by the authorities.

Something is not right here

84% is a lot of people, it is at least very, very different individuals, they simply cannot be a homogeneous group. Even our remaining 16 percent are not at all homogeneous, not to mention about 100 million adults in Russia (that is roughly what you get if you take away minors and dissenters). Let us try and see what, and who, they consist of. Are there any simple explanations of this unity that do not need hypotheses about “the culture of slavery,” “rotting entrails” and other horrors?

In my view, on the surface there are at least three reasons for the “popular consensus.”

Milk, the daughter in law, and politics

Remember this May? A nightmare happened in Odessa, war broke out in Donbas, separatists captured Mariupol, every day we expected an invasion by Russia. Stormy days. And during these same days, my eldest went with his girlfriend to visit her relatives in a city by the Volga, a moderately industrial city, not from the criminal or depressive sorts, but quite well-educated and cozy. They were there for almost 10 days, and when they returned, my husband and I of course, asked them: so what do people say there about the events in Ukraine? It was interesting to find out the opinions of people outside the capital. The folks, on hearing the question, looked at each other in puzzlement. And in that moment we realised that during the past ten days they not only never participated in a single discussion “about Ukraine” (in our house it was constantly in the background) but completely forgot about it all. They helped the granddad to dig a garden at the dacha, they fried meat with the uncle and went to the sauna, they ate pies made by the mother and walked along the banks of the Volga River. Yes, the TV was sometimes on there, they were saying something about the terrible events and one of the women, looking past, may have raised her hands and said: “Those poor people, how awful!” – completely without linking this sympathy to any considerations of politics and especially geopolitics. The dead, injured, destitute – poor people, whomever they may be. And then they’d carried on with their own affairs.

For the majority of people the events are happening there, inside the television. Almost like in a series. Maidan, Donbas, Obama, Putin – it’s all there, in the TV. Sanctions, indexes, ratings – this is all also there, in the television. And in the meantime they are building houses, fixing cars, running their business, planting blackcurrants, marrying off their children, playing with their grandchildren, looking after their elderly. They do not have the time or any particular interest to delve into the situation, the ashes of this battle are not knocking in their hearts. Should we blame them for it? Well, do we lose sleep knowing what is happening now in Iraq? Do we spend hours talking about it? We read about it in the news, get horrified, shake our heads – how awful – and then carry on working or resting.

In a strange way these people in the province are much more separated from the state than Moscow’s supposedly independent intelligentsia. Their standard of living is more dependent on the potato harvest and on whether their child will get accepted into college on a government-funded or private stream, than [it is] on blue-chip indices. Their well-being in old age depends much more on their relations with their grown-up children, than on the state of the Pension Fund. Over many years they have gotten used to adapting to changing living conditions, to depend first of all on themselves and on their family and they view the government like the weather: whatever it may be, you still need to live with it.

At the same time, if you come to them at some moment with the question: “do you support the current foreign policy of the Russian government?” – what would they have said? “Yes, of course we support them, how can we not?” Do they believe that Russia should help the DNR and LNR [Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics]? “Yes, of course we need to help, look how the people are suffering.” Sorry, I need to go, my milk is boiling over, my daughter-in-law is giving birth, the seedlings need planting, the boiler is acting up, the granddaughter has come to visit – actually, loads of events and things to do that are more important than your politics.

And what, these people are the “rednecks”? Accomplices in crime?

Is it these people that you are saying we should stop talking to, us righteous and evolved individuals? Their way of living their lives is less worthy than our sitting around, reading blogs? Are you serious? And how in this sense are Russians different from the inhabitants of any other country? Does the average individual of a small German, Australian, Mexican town spend a lot of time thinking about his country’s foreign policy?

Of course, non-participation and the reluctance to delve in has its price, and they will pay it in due time, along with the rest of the country. But their “approval” is rather the usual distancing from something that you do not have the power to affect, rather than a conscious support of the actions of the government.

Photo: RIA Novosti/Scanpix

Photo: RIA Novosti/Scanpix

When it comes to something that affects their lives and interests, people become much more involved. For example, everyone is following the Ruble exchange rate – that is why they are not letting it plummet. When coffins started arriving in the province, filled with real neighbours’ kids – there was an immediate response, and the regime got scared, started covering its tracks, buying off the relatives, and generally slowed the war down. People have nothing against Putin going on television to send his televised money and weapons to some “brotherly Russian” rebels from the television. But as soon as they were asked directly: “Should Russia send troops into Ukraine?” – only 9% replied “Yes.” Because that is not “they are on the television,” that is – our houses that will receive first the draft orders and later, coffins. And 84% immediately turns into 9% – like Cinderella’s carriage turns into a pumpkin.

Human beings

Psychologists are very annoying creatures. They always find out something about human nature that makes us uncomfortable. For example, in the famous experiments of Solomon Ash, participants were offered to answer a simple question: which of three lines are equal in length. In every group there were seven people, but the real test subject was only one of them, and he answered last. The others were decoys, who were asked by the scientists to give the wrong answer. An obviously wrong one, because the lines were clearly different in lengths. So, in this situation, 75% of the subjects show conformism – they agree with the opinion of the majority, contrary to their own perception of the situation. They believe, not their eyes, but other people. And those 25% who were able to withstand the group pressure, and ended up saying what they saw with their own eyes, said that they experienced intense discomfort, right up to feeling physically unwell. Although in theory it was clear that there was nothing to fear – they were surrounded by cultured people.

Ash’s experiment, illustration from

Ash’s experiment, illustration from

The experiment is a little upsetting, but we have what we have. Humans are social creatures, group cohesion and the associated conformism is necessary for the survival of our species, we have to stick together and think alike, in order to survive in a world of far stronger predators, and most importantly – in a world of foreign cohesive human groups. The number of conformists in a population is quite a stable quantity, this guarantees the stability of small and big groups and their ability to act in unison. If everyone were a conformist, the group would lose in a competitive struggle, being unable to generate novel decisions. If there were less than half – the group would fall to pieces, shaken by crises and power struggles. So from two thirds to three quarters is just right.

Conformism is not silliness, it is not a sin nor infantilism – it is simply a natural programme. We can, of course, resist it when it is not just about comparing lines, but about matters of value, but the process of resistance is stressful and costs a lot of mental energy (no wonder that those who have ended up among the 16% now feel like they have spent all summer dragging weights or have survived poisoning).

Did not Russia’s propagandists create exactly this situation? The very possibility of a different point of view has been uprooted from the television and from popular newspapers, mass rallies are staged in support of the regime, hordes of Kremlin Internet trolls are kept on the payroll whose main job is specifically to generate group pressure, to create a feeling of “I am the only one out of line.” It is not an accident that the favourite line of pro-regime propagandists is: the people have decided thus, and you are what, against the will of the people?

What does the 84% figure tell us in this situation? Only that the customer has almost unlimited resources to recreate Ash’s experiment on the scale of a whole country, and that we are human beings. If you were to take away from the 84% the hardcore imperialists and pro-Putin people (those 9% who are #PutinSendInTheTroops) you will get about that 75% from the total number. The majority of Russians, it turns out, are of the species “human,” with typical levels of conformity. Amazing, what a stunning conclusion, we must immediately fall into despair.

What’s interesting is, that in these same experiments, the percentage of those who “withstand” rises sharply if even one of the stooges is allowed to answer correctly. Even one case of dissent greatly weakens the grip of group pressure. And if there were two of them, the number of answers given in spite of the obvious decreased very much.

Do you still think that “there is no use in talking to them”?

Do not anger ‘the dad’

In the experiments of Ash the participants were in safety. Can the same be said about Russians in the current situation?

Imagine that you live with a drunkard psycho-father who sometimes goes into a rage and starts to brutally beat everyone in the household. Now, of course, it is not so bad, but back when he was younger and stronger… when he just has a hangover, he is unhappy about everything, he lashes out at everyone and no-one can say a word against him. At best he just sleeps, mumbling something and stinking of alcohol.

Only rarely he is kind and cheerful – when his favourite football team is playing. He is an ardent fan and also plays football betting. The outcome of the match determines his mood for the next three days: if the team wins, he might buy a cake and stroke you on the head. If it is defeat – await a beating, because you are in the wrong place at the wrong time and did not support the team hard enough. Now tell me, honestly, will you not root for this very same team? Without pretending – but really, genuinely support it?

And, let’s be honest, is this situation not similar to the relations between the Russian people and their government for the past 500 years? The dad is kind only when our guys are winning. In the Olympics or in some war on the periphery. And if we are not winning, then woe betide the one who ends up being a scapegoat.

This is called Stockholm Syndrome, or identification with the aggressor, and has been repeatedly described using hostages as an example. Having unwillingly ended up bundled up with the aggressor, completely dependent on him, the victim starts to share in his demands and wishes, and starts to genuinely see his worries as their own – because that is their chance to survive.

You do not need to be very attuned spiritually to be able to recognise that the Ukrainian crisis is very important for the regime. The Kremlin has put virtually all their eggs into this one basket, it is their desperate attempt to renegotiate the social contract with the population, because it can no longer guarantee stability or a growth in living standards – everything has been stolen, spent, nothing new was created. A defeat in Ukraine will mean a collapse of Putin’s regime and, by the looks of things, a fall of the Russian imperial idea in general…

Quiet! The dad is watching the very very final match! He bet everything he has on the outcome. You have to be a kamikaze to mention at that moment that our guys are playing unfair. And that, actually, they deserve a red card and a penalty for their insolence. Who will dare to even think, let alone say, such a thing? Maybe he won’t kill you this time, after all he is a bit old now, this daddy of yours. But what if he remembers his old days? It is better to cheer on with him and to shout “down with the ref!” when he gives the other side a penalty.

Intimidation happens constantly, directly and indirectly. Remember the demonstrative sacking of the university professor for the “wrong” position regarding Crimea? The arrests after people unfurled a Ukrainian flag? And what other purpose is served, for example, by the ridiculous witch-hunting of [Andrei] Makarevich, as if deliberately made up on the spot: so the guy sang for some refugees, where is the crime in that? If the aim is to intimidate then everything is correct: a famous person is chosen, who before was quite loyal to the regime, an obviously absurd excuse – and attack, attack! So that everyone remembers: the daddy is a psycho, it is unclear what and when he imagines something, and there are no untouchables among us when the stakes are this high. Well, this communication channel is quite well-developed among the population, there is no need to repeat it twice. We were there before, we know all this. We already love “the insurgent Donbas” and hate “the Kiev junta.”

About a third of the participants of social surveys admitted that they are afraid to answer questions “about politics.” All of their inter-generational (and among the older generation, their own) memory is terrified of the process itself: someone is asking you about your loyalty to the regime, and are writing down your answers into some official papers. The Stockholm Syndrome is a vile thing, but everyone is affected by it, simply because of human vulnerability and the ability of the mind to adapt to anything, including violence. If someone has enough resources to stay strong – great, but to despise and vilify those who do not have enough strength – what right do we have to do that? The last thing should be to blame the victim for the consequences of aggression. That means becoming an ally of the one who made them a victim.

*  *  *

So what is left of the huge 84%? Something obviously remains. True believer imperialists, fanatics of the “Russian world,” adepts of the “strongman” philosophy, those who developed the tag “Putin, send in the troops,” those who spend far more time thinking about NATO bases than about their own house. They are not people who get on with their lives, not peaceful conformists and not victims. Specifically these people – some for money, some because of a calling of the soul – they give the impression of “all the people in unison.”

How many of them are there? Maybe, the same 16%. Maybe 9 – those who supported the idea of a direct invasion. Maybe more. But certainly not an overwhelming majority. The story of the 84% is like the old joke about a stir in a brothel: “Yes, it’s terrible. But not like terrible, terrible, terrible!”

In agreeing with the myth of national unity, we agree with pseudo-patriots, who for some reason claimed for themselves the right to speak in the name of the country and in the name of the people. We agree that the dirty game with public opinion that was started by the government is not only successful (that in itself is hard to deny) but has a right to exist. Moaning about the 84% is not our private matter, it locks people in a trap of conformity and victimization, making the situation self-sustaining. Our society becomes less aware and less free – with our participation. And I believe that is not really the job of the intelligentsia.

P.S. Last Sunday, September 21, there was a “Peace March” in Moscow, before which the net was full of fears that it will be attended by at most a couple of thousand people, and there were loads of calls to government supporters to stage a counter-rally and to stigmatise the “traitors.” On Sunday we saw a never-ending stream of people on the “Peace March,” many said that there were not this many people on any previous event. I know that this march was attended also by people who before had not been to a single rally.

The participants of the “Peace March” in Moscow on September 21, 2014. Photo: AFP/Scanpix.

The participants of the “Peace March” in Moscow on September 21, 2014. Photo: AFP/Scanpix.

Source: Spektr – Journalism without borders and censors


This entry was posted in Analytics, English, English News, Others, Pictures, War in Donbas and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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