On this sad anniversary of Russia’s large-scale assault on Ukraine, many are asking themselves once again whether Russia’s war against Ukraine and Europe’s liberal democratic values is mainly linked to Vladimir Putin personally. What parts of Russian society are behind him? And could criticism catalyze itself into resistance? Lev Gudkov, renowned sociologist, opinion pollster and academic supervisor of the Levada Center, Russia’s only independently operating opinion research institute, has bleak answers.

Opinion research in Russia?

Like few others, opinion pollster Gudkov can provide insight into how his fellow citizens think. Backed up by extensive data, Levada Center’s studies examined and conceptualised how learned life practices of “Homo Sovieticus” keep reproducing, carrying on to the generations born after the Soviet Union era itself.

The 76-year-old Lev Gudkov, still living and working in Moscow, meanwhile coined the term “Homo Putinus”, describing a continuation of the anthropological Soviet type of person. In 2016, Russian authorities classified Levada Center as a “foreign agent,” which gives the Russian judiciary the power to liquidate it – on the slightest pretext. The Center disagreed with this decision and tried to challenge it in court.

Major Putin speech on the anniversary of Russia’s large-scale invasion

On the same day that one year ago, Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of the Ukrainian regions Donetsk and Luhansk by decree – followed within days by the de facto invasion of Ukraine – he this year held his annual address to the nation.

Back in 2022, he skipped this major and regular speech (last held in April 2021) that gathers together Russia’s elite and is broadcast widely, presumably because it was too difficult a task to explain why the supposedly swift “special military operation” did not go smoothly at all, let alone to argue that it was in Russia’s best interest.

As expected, Putin’s speech this year contained perseverance slogans and presented Russia’s war as justified, necessary and under control, at the same time downplaying its negative effects on the Russian people. Nevertheless, the scope of social promises made and the glorification of victims is reason to look deeper at some of the real effects of war in Russia and explore how anxious Russians might be vis-à-vis the war and its effects.

The power elite is a closed society – We only interpret the visible conflicts

What appears to be essential is, above all, what happens in the circles of power. This is because Vladimir Putin has created a personalized system of exercising power that has no controlling authorities. Therefore, hope lies in counting on some forces in the power elite understanding the damage the war causes for Russia – and for them personally – and initiating a turnaround.

However, opinion researcher Lev Gudkov has little confidence that a change in politics will be initiated by the power elite. While there are different interest groups and conflicts within this group, i.e., between those who command the regular army and those in charge of mercenaries or between the security hard-liners and the economic elite, he sums up that these conflicts are beyond any serious assessment from the outside.

He moreover points out that there is systemic and ongoing repression of members of the power elite as well. Every year, between two and three percent of the functionary class is replaced – sometimes arrested and sentenced. In recent years alone, ten to twelve percent of the members of the political class have been replaced. This creates a climate of fear that forces loyalty, Gudkov says. The fact that in Moscow, the political leadership, as it was at the start of the war, is in office without significant change confirms the sociologist’s observation, as do the cases of “defenestration” where singular Russians “fell” from windows, like the Russian Lukoil chief who spoke out against Russia’s war.

Russians are conscious they live in an increasingly totalitarian system

But not only elites support Putin’s course. The author of this blog post is one of the many who believed that coffins with Russian soldiers would weaken Putin’s support. Gudkov, who at the beginning of the war also had illusions about its rejection, shows with his data that passivity and “submissiveness” are stronger. Over 70% of the Russian population supported the war consistently.

chart: Do you personally support the actions of Russian military forces in Ukraine?
Source: Levada Center

At the same time, a slim majority of around 50% wants an end to the fighting. Gudkov explains this apparent “contradiction in people’s minds” with, on the one hand, people’s identification with Russia, while on the other hand, there is a personal level of concern about their own lives. Publicist and long-time observer of Russian society Jens Siegert in his essay “Victory of Apathy” attributes this to the fact that precisely the younger age group is affected by the war personally, with mainly younger men having to go to war.

Chart: Do you think it is necessary to continue military actions or proceed to negotiations?
Source: Levada Center

Perhaps the use of mercenaries, especially in the high-loss battles, is also helping to keep protests down, as many of them were recruited in Russia’s prisons and camps and lured with the prospect of post-deployment impunity. In addition, there are now, at least in Putin’s address to the Russian nation, manifold promises being made to the families of the wounded, as well as “heroization” of the fallen.

All in all, Russians are aware that they live in an increasingly totalitarian state and have no influence. Gudkov concludes that this is why people subordinate themselves and close their eyes to the criminal character of the war. The comparatively low level of dissatisfaction that still exists in the metropolitan areas of Moscow and Sankt Petersburg was diffuse and disorganized – and only a topic of “kitchen talks,” a term reminiscent of the Soviet Union with its restrictions on freedom of expression.

chart: If there were such mass protests with economic demands], would you personally participate in them?
Source: Levada Center

In any case, those who still believe in Putin predominate. His approval ratings hover consistently around 80%. And while the credibility of opinion research and data collection is often doubted in relation to Russia, with reference to the totalitarian character of the regime, Lev Gudkov rejects such accusations as unfounded. He explains how Levada’s interviewers invest time and build trust before they collect data and calls it a total misconception when observers argue that respondents in Russia were afraid to answer. Levada’s response rate is between 24 and 26 percent – only slightly lower than the 28 to 33 percent in Germany.

chart: Putin's approval rating
Source: Levada Center

Outlook? Control of public life and totalitarian consensus

The increased repression and the loyalty derived from it in Russia both result in a new “generation of devoted Putinists,” concludes Gudkov. The system reproduces cadres who think along the lines of the current leadership.

Vladimir Putin has not only considerably advanced on the path of transforming Russia into a totalitarian system in which he alone decides, without any controlling bodies. He has moreover taken precautions to secure his own position by amending the Russian constitution in 2020 so that he can remain in office until 2036 rather than this being his last year in office. Thus, after over twenty years in power already, Putin’s candidacy in Russia’s presidential election next year is another formality. At present, there is nothing to suggest a different path.

About the author

Miriam Kosmehl has been Senior Expert Eastern Europe with the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s “Europe’s Future” Program since 2017. From Berlin, she works primarily on the Eastern Partnership region, since 2022 with a particular focus on the strategic management of global interdependence.

Read more perspectives on the war in Ukraine from the Europe’s Future team

The War Against Ukraine & Europe