Reservoir for resilience:
Why Russians do not see 2022 as a disaster
January 11, 2023
  • Denis Volkov

    Director of the Levada Center (Moscow)
Denis Volkov on how Russians have adapted to wartime. Staying out of politics, withdrawing into private life, focusing on everyday problems, communicating with loved ones – these are the key strategies common people have used to keep their distance from the conflict.
The original text in Russian appeared in Forbes. Republished here with their permission.
At a late-October meeting with President Putin, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the partial mobilization was being wrapped up. Though draft notices continued to be served, many Russians felt relief. Source: Wiki Commons
As expected, the December polling of the Levada Center (named a “foreign agent” by the Russian government) showed that the most important events of 2022, in the eyes of Russians, were related to the Ukraine conflict, including the “special military operation” (46% of respondents), the partial mobilization (34%) and the incorporation of new territories into Russia (32%). Every fourth Russian mentioned the explosions on the Crimean Bridge, while only every fifth named Western sanctions.

The pandemic, which was seen as the main event for the past two years, faded into the background this year, with about 30% of respondents mentioning it. A falling number of coronavirus cases against the backdrop of the conflict quickly fueled conspiracy theories that the pandemic had been “called off,” meaning it was all a fiction. Only every tenth respondent named the World Cup among the most important events of the year, 6% mentioned criminal sentences for well-known opposition politicians in Russia and 3% pointed to Russian human rights activists being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

An ‘average’ year

The abovementioned responses remind us that 2022 was rich in terrible and traumatic events. Throughout the year, focus group participants talked a lot about their anxieties, frustrations and emotional burnout. Thus, it is not surprising that most of our respondents considered 2022 to have been harder than 2021. It may be surprising, however, that the pandemic-marked 2020, as well as the economic crisis periods of 2015, 2009, 1998 and most of the 1990s, seemed even harder for Russians at the time. Note that respondents believed that 2022 was harder for the country than for them personally. Still, 2020, 1998 and the early 1990s were seen as harder years for the country than 2022.

Overall, slightly more than half of respondents called 2022 “average” and only 30% “bad.” Only twice, in 2020 and 1998, have Russians seen the outgoing year as “bad” (the question was not asked in the early 1990s). Moreover, most respondents considered 2022 rather good for themselves personally.

There is a temptation to attribute to the notorious endurance of the Russian (or Soviet) people the relative calmness of society in the face of the challenges that have befallen Russia over the past 12 months. Moreover, over the past few months, I have repeatedly heard similar comments in focus groups that the country has lived in a holding pattern for a long time, moving from crisis to crisis, from challenge to challenge, from economic difficulties to the pandemic, from the pandemic to a hybrid war with the West. Thus, people have subconsciously begun to think about what the next challenge will be.

Though such explanations are quite often heard in the everyday discourse, they are hardly satisfactory. To understand what is happening, let's look back and trace the dynamics of public sentiment throughout 2022.

Mood swings

The year 2022 began with escalation over Ukraine, for which most Russians already then blamed US-led Western countries. The heightened geopolitical tensions boosted government approval ratings and general confidence about the future in January-February. At that time, the first signs of public opinion consolidating around the government appeared – the so-called rally 'round the flag effect – very similar to what was observed eight years ago during the first Russia-Ukraine conflict.
"And though the beginning of hostilities came as a shock to many, jingoistic moods prevailed. This was all strongly reminiscent of the consolidation seen after the incorporation of Crimea into Russia in 2014."
The general surge in optimism and support for the country's leadership could not be dampened by concerns over the introduction of Western sanctions, the resulting plunge in the ruble exchange rate, the freezing of Russian investors' accounts or the jump in price inflation. The sanctions mostly hit two very different groups: a narrow stratum of well-to-do members of the middle class who live in big cities and are part of the global economy, and the poorest segments of the population. The former were not numerous enough for their problems and fears to spread broadly across society, while their access to resources helped them to adapt. The latter were somewhat supported by the state.

Two thirds of the population felt the impact of the sanctions rather indirectly and are not particularly concerned about them. Moreover, at least half of respondents see the sanctions as an opportunity for the development of domestic industry – ‘they did not want to develop on their own, but now Western countries have forced them.’ This has further fueled optimism on the part of the common man.

With all the ups and downs, the peak of optimism came at the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. By that time, most Russians had already calmed down following the shocks of February-March and began to actively adapt to the situation, at the same time accustoming themselves to the idea that the special military operation did not directly impact them – ‘it is being fought by professional soldiers and volunteers somewhere on the outskirts of the country.’ Thus, the announcement of the partial mobilization at the end of September came as nearly a bigger shock than the launch of the special operation.

At that time, very unclear criteria for being drafted, mess-ups at enlistment offices and contradictory statements by officials at various levels created the impression that almost any Russian man could be called up. This meant that what was happening could no longer be brushed aside. At the end of September, public sentiment deteriorated sharply. Russian society was facing tremendous stress, and assessments of the current situation tumbled across the board, marking the biggest single deterioration in the entire history of regular sociological surveys. Nevertheless, these events did not particularly affect the government’s ratings.

The most egregious mess-ups at enlistment offices were eventually corrected, while frightened members of the well-to-do stratum were allowed to leave the country. Most importantly, by November the government reported that the mobilization had been wrapped up. Most of our respondents breathed a sigh of relief – ‘it’s over!’ Sentiment began to pick up, and by the end of the year it had almost completely pared the sharp losses at the end of September, approaching pre-mobilization levels: in July, 80% of respondents indicated a positive mood, dipping to just 52% at end-September before rebounding to 63% in October and 77% in December. In addition, 68% said that the country was moving in the right direction in August versus 63% in December.

Nostalgia and family

Conversations with focus group participants, along with the responses to open-ended questions, point to several factors behind people’s seeming satisfaction with the current state of affairs. It is here – and not in a mythical endurance of Russians – where we must look for an answer to why people have successfully adapted to the hardships of 2022.

People who believe that the country is headed in the right direction usually mention increased social support: bigger pensions, benefits, welfare and broadly more concern shown by the state. Luckily, a significant part of the population has very modest expectations – ‘there are products in the stores – that’s already good;’ ‘we survived the 1990s and we will survive these difficulties too.’
"Clearly, targeted state support for the most vulnerable segments of the population and broadly people who are financially dependent on the state has played a role."
Endless talk about import substitution, boosting domestic production and reviving domestic industry and agriculture, along with the need to rely only on Russia’s own resources and the growing role of the state in the economy, makes older people feel nostalgic for the Soviet Union and convinces them that the country is headed in the right direction – ‘back to the USSR;’ ‘we are bringing back everything good from back then.’ Meanwhile, talk of new problems for oligarchs – who have ‘finally got theirs’ – has a similar, pacifying effect on public opinion.

The environment of global conflict and the desire to support the government against a common enemy have also helped people come to terms with restrictions and the declining standard of living. It is much more important today to ‘defend ourselves against NATO’ and ‘defend our independence,’ or else ‘the West will not let us live our lives.’ Thus, now is ‘not the time for criticism’ or expressing dissatisfaction. Moreover, the authorities will not listen to the ‘little man’ anyway and will do things how they want – ‘big people will make all the decisions.’

Staying out of politics, withdrawing into private life, focusing on everyday problems, communicating with loved ones – these became the key strategies in 2022 to cope with what was going on. Focus group participants often said that in 2022, they began to especially value communication with relatives and friends, drawing strength to maintain their peace of mind. This is likely the explanation of why most Russians considered 2022 to be rather good, despite all the issues.

Hopes and outlooks

Most respondents (70%) expect 2023 to be tough. Still, people are again generally much less worried about their own future: a little more than half are sure that the year will pass calmly for them. Forty percent, however, believe that it will be a tough year for both Russia and their families. People are waiting for a “finale,” a “turning point,” a resolution in the Ukraine conflict. This seems like hoping for the best – what people wish would happen rather than a sober calculation. After all, the number of Russians who are prepared for the special military operation to last more than a year is only rising, peaking at 41% of respondents in November (double the number as of May). In any case, the majority has left the decision to the government – ‘as they decide at the top, so be it.’

Considering the dynamics of public sentiment over 2022, as well as the experience of the so-called Crimea effect, which has lasted far beyond 2014, the coming year will likely be marked by high levels of reported satisfaction and support for the government. A new wave of mobilization could shake things up, though people may be rather indifferent, like before with the second and third waves of the coronavirus – they have already experienced adapting to a bad situation, and draft reprieves have been secured and measures taken. Another potential shock could be a sharp deterioration in the economic situation and living standards. The Russian authorities seemed determined to prevent such a scenario, however, so that seems unlikely currently.

It might be thought that the public mood could take a hit from setbacks in the special military operation, though up until now such news (for example, about the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kharkov region and Kherson) has had practically no impact. Most common people still do not feel truly involved in the conflict, and such feelings are likely to persist in the near future. Thus, 2023 looks set to offer another spate of challenges, to which most Russians are already accustomed.
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