‘Me, a Person with Antiwar Views, I Suddenly Found Myself Signing Up for the War’
June 6, 2024
Sociologist Anna Kuleshova writes about how, as the war drags on, Russians who initially were against it but stayed in Russia are gradually changing their views.
The original text in Russian was published in Republic and is being republished here with small changes and with their permission.

In 2022, all my respondents shared antiwar views and had a negative view of the Kremlin’s political line (see the author’s previous articles for Russia.Post here and here). It was important for me to understand how they were doing, what their everyday life looked like and what problems they faced. Some of them left Russia, some returned, some never left and some remained abroad.

Recently, while checking in with them for my research project, Hidden Opinions (Skrytye mneniia), which I do approximately every six months, I began to notice that some have changed their attitude toward the war and/or toward the authorities. This article is about how that shift in views is taking place and what is driving it.

Note that this is not a quantitative study. A total of 184 people participated, but the number of respondents was different at different stages, and only some were interviewed for a second time or more.

Sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman did the following exercise with his students. They were shown 20 drawings, the first of which was of a dog, and the twentieth of a cat. In the rest, the dog gradually lost its features, turning into a cat. It was important to record the moment when doubts and hesitations appeared about what exactly was being depicted in the picture and respondents began to realize that the dog was definitely mutating. In a sense, I am doing something similar, trying to capture the moment when antiwar and/or anti-Putin views turn pro-war/pro-regime and why.

My observations show that this shift depends on several external factors, with the more factors coming together, the higher the chances of someone’s position shifting. Still, much is determined by the “resources” (psychological, social, etc.) that a person has. Another important point is the inconsistency of views – in recent years, sociologists have increasingly noted that people often simultaneously pursue mutually exclusive goals, without noticing the contradiction in their behavior.

I would like to emphasize once again that my work, which is based on in-depth interviews, is a qualitative study, and based on it, estimating in numbers or percentages who supports or does not support the war, or the frequency of shifting views, is impossible. However, these interviews advance our understanding of the logic behind behaviors and answer the question: what is making people like this? This is important when it comes to such an elusive process as the shift from an antiwar/oppositional position to a pro-war/pro-regime one.

The respondents who changed their views, about whom this article was written, live in Russia, but this does not mean that such changes are impossible among those who left the country. In a situation of full-scale war, representative research is difficult because, basically, reachable are the respondents who show up for the interview as a result of self-selection. This is a significant limitation of the project.

The factor of time, new rationalization and adaptation

The gradual realization that the war will continue for a long time, coupled with the sudden death of Alexei Navalny in prison, had a significant impact on those resisting the regime inside Russia.
Swimming against the current requires a fair amount of strength, and not everyone has it. It’s hard to be in the minority for years, hide your views and live in fear that you will be denounced.
A pro-war rally in Moscow, March 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Against this backdrop, respondents began to reconstruct their attitude toward what is going on, explaining it in a new way and giving it a new rationalization.

Having not received the expected support from outside or the possibility of at least some decent way out of the situation, some of my respondents chose nonresistance to the regime, which in some cases turned into full-fledged loyalty.

I don’t want to go to prison, I don’t want to pretend to be a rebel. I just want to live. If they make me listen to [Nikita Mikhalkov’s show] Besogon, I’ll do it, no questions asked. They tell me to go to a concert, I’ll go. I no longer try to change anyone’s mind about anything. I’m tired. I can only accept it and live the life that I have.

This position indicates fatigue and a lack of strength to resist, not explicit support for the war or the regime. If the situation changes and becomes more in line with their values, these people will gladly throw off the “burden of adaptation.”

Importantly, over the past year many of my respondents have stopped following the news and focused on their daily lives. There are respondents, despite the troubled times, who made the decision to have children as a way to disconnect from everything that is going on around them.

An important factor driving the shift in views among respondents is a narrowing circle of trust. Fearing denunciations, dissenters avoid contact, and fearing being left alone and not wanting to live in fear, uncertainty and/or exile, they join the majority.

In 2022-23, asked about oppositionists who left Russia, my respondents usually passed over the question in silence or limited themselves to brief remarks, in the spirit that they still listen to them on YouTube or in podcasts while noting that [oppositionists abroad] less and less have a feel for what is going on in the country.

In 2024, grievance and disappointment began to be voiced more often in interviews. Respondents said that the opposition is often guilty of wishful thinking and manipulates facts, and that the West does not always act logically or decently.

They chose to abandon painful and exhausting reflection in favor of loyalty to the regime. This helps them to live their lives and normalizes both the war and repression. As one respondent put it: since the opposition and the West cannot be trusted, we will be friends with Putin – “he is a cannibal, but he is one of our own.”

Western countries seem to be doing everything to help Putin’s propaganda. I was very surprised when I heard from Angela Merkel that all their negotiations were just a smokescreen, that they wanted to give Ukraine time to breathe, that the negotiations were just a deception. In other words, the head of one of the largest countries in Europe is openly saying: a) we can’t be trusted in any negotiations; b) a bunch of us have conspired to deceive you... And Putin’s propaganda skillfully uses this. But the point isn’t that propaganda uses it, but that it is reality. And I, as a normal person, have a question: if they treat us this way, [it means] we are enemies for them. After such statements, the West is seen as an enemy of Russians, and so, their enemy, Putin, is our friend.

Respondents whose views shifted regarding the war and/or the regime emphasize: when the West blocked their cards and accounts, when they heard what Ukrainians (including their relatives and friends) were saying about Russians and how they called for them to be annihilated, they decided that the current regime, whatever it may be, is less hostile to them.
Tired of feelings of guilt, shame, disappointment and indignation, they basically preferred peace of mind and joining the majority, accepting the rules of the game: do not discuss politics, do not speak out publicly, swear allegiance to the values that the regime declares.
A Bradley Fighting Vehicle displayed at the war trophies exhibition at Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow, May 2024. Source: VK
This choice is understandable in a situation where no political activity is possible anyway, and the repression machine is only gaining steam. In addition, for several respondents this strategy ensured material benefits and career opportunities.

Moral dilemma

Speaking about their shift in views from anti- to pro-war, respondents noted that no matter what, they encountered people who suffered in the war – classmates or school friends who were called up or went to fight as volunteers, as well as their children, colleagues and just acquaintances. Telling them to their faces that their sacrifices were made in vain became both morally difficult and unsafe. To maintain relationships and friendships, they had to silently listen to stories about what they experienced and saw at the front. When it was important people [in their lives], it was impossible not to sympathize with them.

For Russians who initially were against the war and the regime but remained in Russia, their compatriots who went to fight or have delivered humanitarian aid are much more sympathetic than those who emigrated. They are “in the same boat” with their relatives, friends and colleagues.

When we were teenagers, a lot of things happened. If our lads would get caught, I bore false witness and lied in every way [to get them off]. Later, I’d tell them what I thought, but I didn’t betray them. That’s not how lads operate. And now, I understand with my head that they’re wrong a hundred times over, but they’re my lads, and I’m with them. And even if I’m against the war, I can’t be against them.

Propaganda equates antiwar sentiments with betrayal, and people with such views are equated with accomplices of Russia’s enemies who want to annihilate as many Russians as possible. This is very hard to bear, respondents note.

Meanwhile, the state is softening such moral blows with material and social benefits, free concerts, and beautiful and comfortable urban spaces, supposedly demonstrating concern for people in general and for those returning from the war in particular. “Human-centricity” has become a cliché for many employers and bureaucrats in Russia.

Respondents inclined to help their neighbors participate in efforts to help front-line soldiers, as in a situation of war and external isolation, it is with these people that, they say, they share a “common destiny” and are “in the same boat.”

One of my respondents, under the influence of such sentimental feelings, went to sign up as a volunteer for the war: “Me, a person with antiwar views, I suddenly found myself at the military enlistment office, signing up for the war...”

Being religious, he hoped that he would not need to kill, but would be able to help “our lads” without using a weapon, since “he could no longer stand by [and watch].” If he had to kill, he decided that he would desert, for which he was mentally prepared to be beaten and receive a criminal sentence.

You can also increasingly meet those whom Maria Lipman and Michael Kimmage have characterized as “anti-antiwar” – they do not necessarily support the war themselves, but strongly disapprove of or are outraged by unpatriotic compatriots who do not support the Russian army or even take the side of Ukraine.

Seeing the soldiers returning from the war and the growing death toll, Russians (among them many who did not initially support the war) often place the blame not on the Putin government or the military, but on their fellow citizens – those who are against seeing the war through until a final Russian victory.

Rejection and polarization

The state of rejection and isolation that Russians are experiencing due to international cooperation and educational projects being shut down, as well as shortages of certain goods and medicines, denial of visas and other sanctions, is pushing them toward an anti-Western position.
The attitude is: if the West condemns us for remaining in Russia, we will go to the end and become real orcs.
The mechanisms by which feelings of rejection are transformed into collective pride have been described by researchers and are not unique to Russia. These feelings strengthen nationalist sentiment and authoritarian regimes.

Another factor contributing to the shift in sentiment from anti-Putin to pro-regime is radicalization and polarization.

[The insistence on] making everything black or white is backfiring. Any attempts to express doubts about the actions of the Ukrainian or Western side are automatically perceived both internally and externally as pro-Putin behavior, the result of brainwashing, etc. “That” side turns out to be infallible and beyond criticism.
If you criticize the actions of the West in any way, you are automatically labeled a Putinist. And I want to say: if you treat me like that, well, to hell with you, count me in for Putin...
The billboard reads "For the Motherland, for our wives, our children, our mothers and fathers." Dubovka, Volgograd Region. Source: Wiki Commons
Ressentiment and the demons of propaganda

Russian propaganda has aroused ressentiment among some of my respondents. They began to believe that the war was really about preserving the status of Russia as a great power, which its enemies were supposedly trying to take away from it and trample on. These people think that Russia must always win, and they agree with the official version of Russian history, which affirms Russia’s greatness in all times.

Respondents more than once used the phrase “release the demons,” meaning that the current situation helps their friends and themselves experience a sense of unity, superiority over the rest of the world and a sense of their own righteousness and chosenness.

War – as happens in autocracies and dictatorships – is seen as the highest manifestation of the strength of a nation, its vitality and the guarantee of the preservation of its culture and traditions.

Some respondents noted that the official rhetoric – explicit and catchy – began to seem more acceptable to them compared to the reasoning and reflection of members of the opposition.

Shift in views does not bring peace of mind

My respondents say the number of antiwar Russians is declining today. After the death of Alexei Navalny, I often hear in interviews that every second or third person among respondents’ contacts changed their views.

It is hard to say how strong this trend really is. I estimate that about a third of Russians who were clearly against the war and the regime and stayed in Russia have changed their views; however, of course, this estimate needs to be confirmed by data, which is currently not easy to do. In addition, perhaps there are Russians who have gone from the “patriotic” to theoppositional camp (I assume that we hear from these people even less).

Respondents who are uncertain and/or whose views have shifted feel the need for support, at least for arguments explaining why antiwar sentiments are not equivalent to betrayal and why the war is actually destroying Russia, not restoring its greatness.

In the current conditions, they do not see a dignified way out of a situation where they are locked inside a dictatorial regime and powerless to change anything. Today, the only thing they can do is to maintain their sanity and adapt to reality so they can live to see better days.

They are anxious about the lack of a positive vision of the future and are concerned that they cannot protect their own children from being indoctrinated at school or help them to leave the country, not only because of financial difficulties, but also because of anti-Russian sentiment in other countries – meaning trouble with opening bank accounts, issuing visas and obtaining residence permits.

For them, the statements of some oppositionists along the lines of Russia has become a “radioactive swamp” are unacceptable.

Respondents from minority ethnic regions, for example, Yakutia and Bashkortostan, also express frustration with the oppositionists who left. For the latter, they supposedly remain “invisible,” even though people from these regions make up a disproportionately high percentage of those fighting and killed, while local activists, like Asians of Russia, are engaged in difficult and important work.

The Kremlin has demonstrated a greater savviness and capacity to adjust in dealing with itscitizens than the opposition and European politicians expected, but this does not mean that there are no opportunities left to support those within Russia who are still resisting or wavering. Without the participation of these people, positive changes in Russia are impossible.
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