Just how much do the Russian people know about what’s happening in Ukraine? Vladimir Putin has his propaganda machine operating at full capacity, attempting to sell the idea that all he’s doing is “de-Nazifying” Ukraine rather than invading it and bombing civilian centers. That’s been effective enough to convince at least some people in Moscow, according to one report flagged by Allahpundit:
The 25-year-old has been speaking regularly to her mother, who lives in Moscow. But in these conversations, and even after sending videos from her heavily bombarded hometown, Oleksandra is unable to convince her mother about the danger she is in.
“I didn’t want to scare my parents, but I started telling them directly that civilians and children are dying,” she says.
“But even though they worry about me, they still say it probably happens only by accident, that the Russian army would never target civilians. That it’s Ukrainians who’re killing their own people.”
It’s common for Ukrainians to have family across the border in Russia. But for some, like Oleksandra, their Russian relatives have a contrasting understanding of the conflict. She believes it’s down to the stories they are told by the tightly-controlled Russian media.
A more scientific approach to popular opinion also suggests that Putin’s successfully sold the war at home, at least for now. Of course, that “scientific” approach comes in the form of a poll conducted by Putin’s government. I think this requires a skosh more than the usual dollop of skepticism around polling methods:
VCIOM poll: 68% of Russians approve (22% oppose) of the “special military operation” in Ukraine. https://t.co/O79Foo5Mqa As I said, there is no meaningful distinction between Putin and the Russian people on this question.
— Anatoly Karlin (Z,Z) (@akarlin0) March 4, 2022
Yes, VCIOM is a state run polling organization. But I think it’s reliable. It’s internally self-consistent, and a poll carried out by an opposition organization showed 59% support/34% oppose (wording was harsher, used “war actions”, while VCIOM used “special military operation”). pic.twitter.com/35pQWLaVNf
— Anatoly Karlin (Z,Z) (@akarlin0) March 4, 2022
Nate Silver scoffs outright at the polling, noting that pollsters can’t even frame the question properly in Putin’s Russia:
I don’t know what the average Russian thinks but I also don’t really see how you can have reliable polling results in a country that’s shut down independent media and imprisoned dissenters. Note that they can’t even call it a “war” or “invasion”. https://t.co/xmvsurVGOM
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) March 4, 2022
Indeed. Does anyone think that ordinary Russian respondents don’t grasp the import of a state-controlled pollster framing this issue in exactly the language Putin used? Come on, man. The wonder of this poll is that it found as much dissent as it did, from Russians with more guts than Westerners might appreciate. It may not take long before internal security follows up with those respondents.
One Russian journalist declared that everyone knows — and everyone understands the “moral defeat” Russia has suffered with Putin’s war. Alexey Kovalev writes in the New York Times that Russians are suffering “shock and shame” over the knowledge that Putin has gone on a murderous and illegal invasion aimed at killing fellow Slavs — at least at a certain level of consciousness:
Whatever military “victory” Mr. Putin might find acceptable in his twisted mind, Russia has already suffered a crushing moral defeat.
And to a certain extent, it seems like the Russian people know it. Though dissent has been effectively outlawed, thousands of people have taken the risk to express their opposition to the invasion. And it’s not just the usual suspects, the malcontents already known to the Kremlin. Major public figures, prominent journalists and artists have spoken out against the war.
We may be far from a large-scale antiwar movement, but the seeds have been sown. And once they flower into outright defiance, it could spell trouble for Mr. Putin.
Putin’s propaganda might take some of the edges off of that guilt and shame, but it won’t sustain that impact for long. Kovalev also scoffs at the poll and says the signs of resistance are already emerging:
Beyond the streets, people are busy too. A petition condemning the war has already received more than a million signatures, and architects, medical workers, university students and even priests in the normally acquiescent Russian Orthodox Church are signing open letters demanding that it stop immediately. Big names like Yuri Dud, Russia’s most prominent video blogger, the popular singer Valery Meladze and even several State Duma members and top oligarchs have publicly spoken out in an unlikely chorus of voices.
A mass antiwar movement is still a way off. But these are, amid the gloom, promising signs. As the country continues to bomb and terrify Ukraine, more and more Russians may wake up to something only a few dare to say publicly: That Mr. Putin is an existential danger not only to themselves but also to the world. And he must be stopped.
We can certainly hope that’s the case. The more effectively the West can use Russian-language media to pierce Putin’s propaganda bubble, the closer that day will come. However, do not underestimate the power of propaganda even for people who understand its nature. William Shirer wrote about that issue in both his Berlin Diary and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, explaining that immersion in state propaganda even impacted his understanding of events in pre-war Nazi Germany to some extent — and he had access to outside media. Putin knows well enough from the Soviet era that a full-blown propaganda machine provides so much of the context for understanding of its subjects that it provides little toehold for reality to contradict it. Hence, a mother has difficulty believing the first-hand testimony of atrocities from her own daughter, even while bombs are falling in the background.
It’s way beyond time to resurrect Cold War devices such as Radio Free Europe and an effective Voice of America in Russian. Just because piercing that bubble is difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The Russian people may be wiser than assumed on this matter.