People Who Support Putin’s Invasion Are of no Use to Anyone in the EU

The Russians should realize that their country has invaded its neighbor and is waging a devastating war. In the nineteenth century, representatives of my nation would perhaps already have been placed in special camps. Today, in a united Europe, they enjoy all rights and freedoms – says Ivan Preobrazhensky in an interview with Małgorzata Nocuń.

Małgorzata Nocuń: Analyzing the political and social situation in Russia, analysts often quote the results of sociological studies. But does it still make sense to follow these studies? Or perhaps they should be suspended.

Ivan Preobrazhensky: Sociological surveys should not be trusted completely; one must learn to analyze them. In fact, this was also true before the war. Today, under Russia’s wartime censorship, sociology has become a valuable instrument for identifying the direction of changes in social sentiment. Some would say that this is not much, but I am of a different opinion. I still see the point in surveying public opinion. There is one problem: the goal of the social scientists should become the real measurement of social moods. To achieve this goal, they should stop asking direct questions. Respondents are afraid to give honest answers to such questions. Less direct questions should appear in surveys, and the researchers’ further work should be to analyze the answers in the context of the news about public moods that we can find in the press. This is a difficult task, but I believe that creating and implementing such a method could give us much more information about the mood of Russian society.

Has the Levada Center, the famous institution that has been engaged in public opinion research for many years, preserved its independence? Does the work published by Levada still help us understand Russia? To find out what Russian society thinks?

Unfortunately, all NGOs and media operating in Russia are only ‘partly free’.

Russia and Belarus are not authoritarian regimes, as they are often called in journalism, they are totalitarianisms of a new type.

In the Stalinist years and later, in the second half of the twentieth century, the USSR also functioned under totalitarian conditions. At that time, however, we were dealing with straightforward ‘prohibitions’. Implementing them led directly to full censorship.

Today, thanks to new technologies, which function in a much more complex, but also much more effective way, the regime manages to control information.

Therefore, unfortunately, we cannot consider the Levada Center as fully free of Kremlin influence. 

I believe, however, that the main problem does not lie with sociologists who study public sentiment. Sociologists, like journalists, have succumbed to self-imposed censorship. They do not try to reject the war censorship that exists in our country. In my view the biggest challenge is to establish a dialogue with respondents, who, for the sake of their own and their families’ safety, cannot give honest, truthful answers to the questions posed to them.

The Levada Center reported that about 70 percent of the Russian public supported Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Do you accept this claim?

The failure of the method used in the poll is obvious here. These are largely telephone surveys. In the current situation, this deforms their results. Let’s take a look at how respondents approach the surveys today. After the outbreak of the war, most of the public refused to participate in public opinion studies. Those who agree, for the most part, give answers that they believe to be satisfying for the regime. Those who oppose the war try not to answer questions about the situation in Ukraine. Because such an honest answer can bring repressive measures against them and perhaps even a criminal case. The regime has found an instrument to discipline society: a new article of the criminal law says that it is forbidden to “discredit the Russian army”. 

In my opinion, the armed conflict in Ukraine is actively supported by no more than 15 percent of the population. The remaining 85 percent either oppose the war or do not want to publicly consider or analyze this topic at all.

No less than 15 percent, but no more than 25 percent, oppose the war. A small part of them are able to publicly display their position. They take part in demonstrations and sign petitions of opposition. 

The statistical data on the mood of Russian society should not, however, reassure observers of the Russian political scene and foreign policy. They may turn out to be important in a critical situation, when the ruling regime in Russia begins to fall apart and it turns out that practically no one wants to support it. At present, with the ongoing war in Ukraine, this passive mass of society is the pillar on which the government builds its power.

“There is no society in Russia” – this is one of the opinions about your country repeated by Western media.

Russian society undeniably exists. I quite  frequently hear the opinion you quoted. The most active part of it, which unfortunately is also the most visible and vocal one, are the representatives of the ‘uncivil’ society. The majority of them are advocates of the war. Now and then, civil liberties serve this group only to wage war against civil society. We also have a true civil society, but today it is strongly suppressed. Their efforts are inestimable. These people have spent years creating organizations and structures for independent information, establishing free media, as well as legal and cultural institutions. All these efforts have been nullified and wasted. Nothing has survived of these structures. Unfortunately, today the majority of Russian civil society is in exile. And I belong to this group. We decided to leave Russia and live in the countries of the European Union, but not only.

What does a typical Russian know about Ukraine and its people?

The average Russian knows practically everything about the daily life of Ukrainians. Even after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukrainian TV shows were broadcast in Russia. Some of them were even produced by the team of President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is in power today. Of course, most Russian citizens are convinced that these shows were produced in their own country. They were broadcast in the Russian language. 

But if we take up the subject of Ukraine’s history and cultural heritage, the average citizen knows maybe two or three names from the pantheon of great Ukrainian artists and political activists. These would be Taras Shevchenko, Stepan Bandera and Nester Machno. Other writers, composers, and scholars have either not been heard of in Russia, or are generally considered to be of Russian pedigree.

Interestingly, even Russians who actively oppose the war, who risk their freedom by incessantly calling for an end to the bloodshed, have no knowledge of Ukrainian history. Amazingly, this is true even of people who were born in Ukraine. And although they left for Russia, they still maintain relations with their friends living in Ukraine. Their picture of Ukraine and Ukrainian society is also incomplete. 

And the last point: Kremlin propaganda has succeeded in achieving its goal. It has stripped the Ukrainians of their human qualities. This has led to their complete dehumanization.

Many representatives of Russian society have accepted the message of television and politicians. They have accepted it as true, and according to it, our neighbors are not “fully human beings.”

Ukrainians and Russians had lived side by side for many years. There were mixed Ukrainian-Russian marriages. How did it happen that Russians suddenly believed in the existence of bloodthirsty Ukrainian nationalists?

Yes, for many years Russians and Ukrainians lived in one state, the Soviet Union, but let’s remember that its core was Russia. Russians got used to the fact that there was only one correct model for arranging social and state relations, namely: “It is to be as it is in Russia.” Among Russians, nationalism is a response to any cultural difference. Perhaps in the context of this reaction it is more appropriate to use not so much the word ‘nationalism’ as ‘chauvinism’. In addition, for the past eight years, Russians have been subjected to very powerful propaganda. Unfortunately, as a consequence of these actions, the average Russian believes that, “Well, we’ve had enough of Ukrainians speaking Ukrainian.” Unfortunately, in Russia, the use of this language is seen as a sign of nationalism. Why should Ukrainians use their own language? The vast majority of them speak Russian. They can easily communicate in it. So let them speak Russian! 

It’s very sad, but even the Russian intelligentsia doesn’t take Ukrainian culture seriously. And while some of them oppose the war, at the same time they try to ‘explain’ to Ukrainians that their culture will simply die without the “great Russian inheritance”.

Do you think that the Russian public really has no information about the hostilities in Ukraine? It is not aware of the scale of losses in people, equipment?

The majority of Russian society chose to believe the propaganda, they deliberately gave up the opportunity to use alternative sources of information. Approximately 60 percent of Russian citizens do not look for them at all. The propaganda is not very professional. But what remains if you reject it? The real-life images recounting the actions of our army in Ukraine are too traumatic, too overwhelming to watch. You can see our troops killing Ukrainians, including civilians. They are slaughtering people, razing cities to the ground. People don’t want to accept this message, so they close their eyes to it. After all, it is much easier to believe the propaganda. To say: this is my choice, I watch the state television. All the more so that the majority of Russian society does it.

Do you miss Russia?

I don’t have a feeling of nostalgia, which is so often mentioned in our literature. When I left Moscow and settled in Prague, I missed my acquaintances and friends. But now most of them are also emigrants. And the Russian capital itself has also changed a lot, and unfortunately this change does not suit me very much. So I can answer this question as follows: I love my country, but I do not miss it. In any case, it would be hard for me to miss it, because I know what is happening there. It is a nightmare, and the future still seems very much uncertain.

When the war broke out, you wrote “God forgive us” on Facebook. Do you feel co-responsible for the events in Ukraine?

Since 2014, I have tried to explain the difference between the two concepts: ‘guilt’ and ‘responsibility’. Guilt is a legal concept. It is individual in nature, and anyone bearing responsibility for the crimes committed in Ukraine should be punished. Collective guilt is an anti-humanitarian concept. It is nothing less than an attempt to hold an entire nation responsible. Joseph Stalin did this, for example. This was manifested by such things as the mass deportations of selected nations, such as the Chechens and the Ingush. 

Shared responsibility is something else. And this feeling accompanies me. I believe that we Russians have failed to prevent a group of criminals from taking power. And it is not important that most oppositionists say: “After all, I didn’t vote for Putin”. In recent years, elections were rigged and no one elected Putin according to democratic rules. However, we have not succeeded in removing him from power. 

What is our role now? We should do everything possible to minimize the evil that Russia, as a state, is doing.

As long as this conflict continues, it should be a priority for us Russians to take care of its victims. Every noble gesture of ours can help the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian army, which bears the burden of defending Europe against the totalitarian Russian regime of a new type.

In such a context, I define collective responsibility as an attempt to change the situation in Russia itself. The Russians should realize that their country has invaded its neighbor and is waging a devastating war. In the nineteenth century, representatives of my nation would perhaps already have been placed in special camps. Today, in a united Europe, they enjoy all rights and freedoms. Sometimes we are asked to answer the following question: “What is your attitude to Putin’s regime?”. And this is a legitimate question, because people who support Putin’s invasion are of no use to anyone in the European Union.

How did your close friends in Russia react to the war? Do you sometimes find it difficult to communicate with them?

My friends who still live in Russia do not support the war. I asked them about it. I could find no one supporting armed actions on Ukrainian territory. 

Some actively oppose the conflict. However, such people are a minority, it should be frankly admitted. Someone quit a job requiring loyalty. Before the war it was still possible to survive there, but now it is difficult to be among those who support the conflict. Such places force you to be loyal. You can’t be against, you can’t ‘abstain’. You have to support the regime and its moves. Besides, many of my friends have already left the country. Consider that about 500,000 people have already left Russia. 

Some are trying to keep quiet. They have made it their goal not to discuss the current situation. They immerse themselves in their work, take up their hobbies. Therefore, I have no problem finding a common language with them. With the exception of propagandists who receive money from the presidential administration and representatives of the security departments, I manage to avoid conflict during my conversations. I raise doubts, however, in my interlocutors’ minds surrounding the official version about the ‘special operation’.

Not long ago you told me that the war would end in success for Ukraine. How do you understand it?

Yes, I hope that Ukraine will achieve full victory. This is not only about what territories will be liberated by Ukrainian troops. The most important thing is that the Ukrainian people themselves must feel that they have won a victory. And that the bloodshed should stop. And will they retake Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea? That is another question.

The success of the war should not be measured only by the captured or regained territory. Consolidation of Ukrainian society is more important. And creating a common national narrative.

The idea of the disintegration of Russia has recently become very popular. Do you share it?

I share the view that secession of part of the territory from Russia is theoretically possible. But only after Vladimir Putin leaves power. The complete disintegration of Russia could, however, create new problems. For example, the Kursk Oblast army has a nuclear arsenal. It is unclear who would manage it and on what terms after such a breakup. Such a situation could be dangerous not only for Ukraine, but for all of humanity. National conflicts and power struggles would become inevitable. Crime and wars would spill over into neighboring countries. It would be really better to avoid it.



Małgorzata Nocuń

is a journalist specializing in Eastern Europe. In 2004-2006, she was a correspondent for the Tygodnik Powszechny weekly in Ukraine and Belarus. She is an editor of the Nowa Europa Wschodnia quarterly. She is the author of the book Wczesne życie and, together with Andrzej Brzeziecki, the books Białoruś: Kartofle i dżinsy, Ograbiony naród: Rozmowy z intelektualistami białoruskimi, and Armenia: Karawana śmierci. In 2014, she won an award in the Amnesty International “Pen of Hope” contest for her reporting from the North Caucasus.

Ivan Preobrazhensky

is a political analyst, PhD of Political Sciences. He is the coordinator of the Moscow political club and European observer for the independent news agency Rosbalt and Deutsche Welle columnist.

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