War versus apathy:
An exhausting draw
December 13, 2022
  • Mikhail Vinogradov

    President of the Petersburg Politics Foundation
Mikhail Vinogradov writes about the state of Russian society against the backdrop of the extraordinary events of recent months. How have they affected the tendency of Russians to build individual strategies while ignoring radical changes taking place around them?
There is no agreement among experts on how to correctly describe the state of Russian society in 2022. The three most offered explanatory models are bellicosity, depression and submissiveness.

Sociological crossroads

The notion that bellicose moods predominate in Russia supposes some sort of stable mass support for the military operation, solidarity with official rhetoric and dreams in the public consciousness of a major geopolitical revanche. The formal basis for this is the quantitative data of sociological surveys – or rather their uncritical interpretation.

Meanwhile, the idea of a depressed society suggests that society harbors a significant negativistic and protest potential that has no legal outlets, while the people themselves do not believe that their own actions can bring about serious results. Adherents of this position proceed from a (sometimes unreasonably) heavy focus on local centers of protests – for example, to the protests of women in the national republics during the beginning of the mobilization or to riots of mobilized men.

Although the latter idea about a depressed society is well founded, its adherents pay too much attention to individual outbursts in the regions, overestimating their significance and effectiveness, as well as the public response.
Alexander Prokhanov, a prominent figure in the Russian conservative camp, wrote in March 2022: “The Russian people will move, they’ll leave the cities for fields and forests. They’ll pick mushrooms, berries, nuts – the Russian people are ready to turn into a chipmunk people at a moment of great sorrow.” 
Source: Wiki Commons
A third position assumes that the main feature of Russian society is submissiveness, which entails neither any special reflection on what is going on, nor a consistent attitude toward observed events. The public and political sphere is considered a distraction from everyday life and the areas where people can actually be active. The general feeling of there being no alternatives encourages Russians to tow the line set by the strongest pole (from the standpoint of the average person). In addition, the focus on what is needed for individual survival makes the horizon even narrower – it is no coincidence that the metaphor of a “chipmunk people,” coined by Alexander Prokhanov in a different context, has turned out so resonant. 

There are many arguments in favor of each of the abovementioned viewpoints. However, the notions about bellicosity and repression consider less the present than the expected future – the readiness of the mass person to become a driver of further escalation or to wait for the right moment and “stiffen up.” The third notion is a good metaphor, though it explains little and is more polemical, lacking the possibility for sociological verification.

2022: The world will never be the same again or everything is the same as ever?

All experts are trying to answer the same question: what has changed radically in the mass consciousness in 2022? And has it changed at all? There seem to be more arguments in favor of something having changed. The year brought many surprises to those who study Russian society. In the spring, Russians readily accepted the official version of the conflict with Ukraine, while in the fall they did not oppose the mobilization (resistance was limited to individual efforts to dodge it) – though its specter has frightened even the most trusted loyalist sociologists.
"The authorities have ceased to consider public opinion as a serious constraint, especially after the many extraordinary events of 2022 did not elicit a sharp reaction; in fact, Russians were almost indifferent."
However, many things had pointed to such a prospect in previous years. Society had not shown a great desire to be a “mirror” of political processes and the actions of the authorities in the 2010s as well.

In this regard, it is worth returning to the subject of the study conducted by the Petersburg Politics Foundation at the end of 2021 – the phenomenon of social apathy. In the Russian language, this concept has a special meaning and energy that is not quite the same as "anomie" and "absenteeism". The differences primarily lie in Russians’ heightened ability to ignore surrounding processes (both good and bad ones) and not to weigh them against either their own assessment of what is going on or their plans for individual and collective action.

When did everyone stop caring?

When did the relation between Russians and the political sphere begin to flame out? The experts we interviewed offered several turning points.

1. The 1990s. The utopian consumer-democratic ideal that had taken shape during perestroika collapsed, while the political sphere came almost completely under the control of a self-contained corporation – usually referred to as the “regime” (“vlast’”) – and could not serve as a channel for expressing the “collective will.” In addition, Russians did not see it as a tool that could be used to improve their lives.

2. The collapse of the "Medvedev thaw.” People have been trying not to remember the thaw itself for some time now – just as they tried not to remember Nikita Khrushchev for 20 years after the October 1964 plenum. Yet the feeling of failure of the modernization project and reorientation toward a retro utopia hung in the air at least until the middle of the 2010s.
Protest rally against the raise of retirement age. Moscow, September 2018. Source: Wiki Commons
3. The pension reform of 2018. It showed that the surge in expectations and euphoria around the annexation of Crimea was not a ticket for the country to some happy Soviet future/past.

What after apathy?

In our 2021 study, we modeled four possible paths out of mass apathy: mobilization euphoria, depression, aggression and panic. None of them looked appealing, and in fact rather nudged you toward the conclusion that it was better to just leave everything as it was.

The model of euphoria and mobilization was the only option where apathy is replaced by energy with a "positive" direction. Still, that positivity looked rather dubious, as did similar examples from the past, such as Komsomol construction projects during the first five-year plans. It supposes not only broad acceptance of declared ideals as being realistic and attractive as values, but also a readiness for self-sacrifice, as well as the priority of collective over individual goals.

An important constraint for this option has been and remains the popularity of consumerism in Russia – the ideal of a "consumer society" that matured after World War II and Khrushchev's mass housing project and reached its peak around the first decade of the 21st century.

Depression involved the current passivity developing into a sense of impasse spurred by a lack of energy and will. With the necessary reservations, you can point to similar examples in the recent past – particularly military and other failures, such as the First Chechen War or the 1998 default, which brought down the approval ratings of the government to levels approaching zero.

Aggression, on the contrary, involves the current neuroses developing into a readiness for serious resistance – against the authorities or other suddenly discovered objects of mass anger. If you do not go back to medieval revolts, then there are relatively few obvious equivalents in modern history. Even October 1917 or the Russian Civil War is difficult to describe in such terms. Moreover, it is hardly possible to assess whether there is a significant potential for aggression in Russian society today or, conversely, the aggressive agenda of 2022 is increasingly contrary to the relatively calm and apathetic society.

Panic is a much more familiar state, involving the transformation of those neuroses into hyperactivity, action for the sake of action without clear purpose. In our memory, panicky moods have often emerged in response to events or rumors – whether it be defaults, monetary reforms or the prospect of mandatory (especially children's) vaccination against the coronavirus.

Tried everything but did not like anything 

The events of the beginning of the year seemingly should have pushed the very idea of mass apathy off the agenda and out of researchers’ focus, as in terms of their drama the events rapidly approached those of 1905, 1917, 1941 or 1991.

It seemed that such sharp turns in history required an extremely swift reaction to the rapidly emerging challenges and that there was certainly no place for apathy.
"The escalation of hostilities has been accompanied by periodic attempts by the authorities to mobilize society by fostering mass solidarity and a rally ‘round the flag and creating expectations of a 'big victory'.”
Meanwhile, in September the word "mobilization" turned completely from a sociological metaphor to mean a military event.

It seems that apathy seemed to gradually give way to the states described in our four scenarios, yet in the end almost nothing came of it, and no transformation took place. The line between a genuine sense of a "people's war" and its imitation from above is difficult to distinguish even for observers on the ground in Russia, regardless of their ideological predilections.

Depression did not spread across the whole of society but was characteristic of the politically active part, both those radically loyal to and critical of the government. For the latter (they are rarely estimated below 20% or even 30%), the state of depression has persisted throughout the year, with its key feature being a sharp reaction to any signs of a further deterioration in the situation.

As for the radical loyalists, during the September retreat from Kharkov region they were shocked by the loss, as it seemed to them, of their ability to speak on behalf of the majority: the “majority” were celebrating Moscow City Day, did not notice the frontline fiasco and behaved, to use loyalist rhetoric, rather "treacherously."

Society drifted toward aggression to a lesser extent – here the tone was set rather by loyalist media, which focused on the ideas of national exceptionalism, historical revanche and expanding the boundaries of permissible and morally sanctioned violence. Still, this rhetoric did not trigger either sustained enthusiasm or rejection from the average person. In addition, the lowered expectations of a "nuclear apocalypse" that emerged by mid-October were greeted rather with relief – a clear indication that the supporters of a war to complete self-destruction do not have broad support.

As for panic, we can recall at least two episodes when such signs appeared in the masses. In the spring, consumer anxiety prompted Russians to line up for many hours at the stores of global brands leaving Russia. Later, after the announcement of the mobilization in the autumn, a symbol of panic became the multi-day queues at the border, which, judging by license plates, were mostly residents of the proverbial “deep Russia.”

With each of these stress tests, apathy each time returned to its original levels. Its most striking manifestations included the reversion to previous household and consumer behavior in May-July, as well as the declining intensity of public passions after the first wave of the mobilization and even after the loss of military control over Kherson.
"Apathy has been more persistent and viable than expected.”
general decline in interest in the ongoing extraordinary events was noticeable in the dynamics of news consumption (it should be noted that the loyalist media usually does not show maps of the fighting, and the mass viewer is not particularly interested in it), which gives the authorities fairly wide scope for maneuver – from escalating the hostilities to interpreting hypothetical concessions as a big victory. For example, if they wish, they could announce that Russia has successfully thwarted the plans of “enemies” and did not allow itself to be lured into a trap of armed conflict. Another thing is that the establishment is also inevitably imbued with the spirit of apathy, as a result of which the speed of decision-making is increasingly lagging the dynamics of the ongoing events. Apathy somewhat lowers the risks to the authorities from the "broad masses,” whether in the form of "aggression,” "panic” or "treason.” However, apathy does not solve the other obvious problems associated with the functioning of the state apparatus and clearly unrealizable tasks being put forward.
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