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The future becomes an increasingly frightening anticipation of punishment

Sociologist Elena Koneva on how explosions and diversions inside Russia will change society's attitude toward the war.

Interview in 'Republic', June 1, 2023.

Residents of the Russian border town of Shebekino in a bomb shelter.  Photo: 'The Real Gladkov'
Residents of the Russian border town of Shebekino in a bomb shelter. Photo: 'The Real Gladkov'

Last February, many Russians supported Putin's decision to attack Ukraine, as shown by both sociological studies and media polls (although there is much debate about the true extent of this support). But at that time supporters of the "special operation" were sure that war would never come to Russian territory, and that the Russian army would "reach Kiev in three days". But since then, the war has come to Russians' homes: the authorities have been forced to mobilize people, border towns have been shelled more intensively, explosions and diversions have taken place. Elena Koneva, founder and researcher of the sociological agency ExtremeScan, told Republic why an escalation of military events on Russian territory would lead Russian society to reject the war.

"Every day there are more and more military events on Russian territory, it turns the war from virtual to real and increases people's fear"

- The war with Ukraine is steadily moving into Russian territory, with the border regions suffering from military action around the clock. You devoted your latest study of attitudes toward the war to the three regions bordering Ukraine - the Belgorod, Kursk, and Bryansk regions. You concluded that now the situation in the border regions can be used to predict the processes that will take place in the rest of the country as the war rolls on deep into the country. Why did you come to this conclusion and what exactly did the research show?

— Let me begin by saying why the idea for this study arose in the first place. As a researcher, I was interested in the question we have been trying to answer all through the war: what is the reason for supporting this war? Even though according to our measurements it is much smaller than according to some other projects, but we still see that about 40 million people actively support the war. And they are ready to back this support with something - i.e. they are ready either to donate to the army, or to volunteer for the army, or to go to the war. They are ready for the state budget to be redistributed for military and not for social needs. We also tried to understand: what would have to happen for support to start falling? In theory, it is possible to understand why they support darn 'Edinaya Rossiya' or Putin. But it was extremely difficult to imagine the reasons for supporting the war. And when we got the first figures, of course, we were shocked.

At first we thought that the reason for supporting the war was that society was uninformed, and that the penetration of information about what was happening in Ukraine would cause rejection of the war because of sympathy for Ukrainians. But it turned out that this did not work like that.

We have proven mathematically that personal costs lead to a reduction of war support.

Sanctions, layoffs, declining incomes, all these things are happening, but the economy has adapted, and it is working slowly. The adaptive capacity of Russian society is quite strong, although not infinite, and we can see that it is being relied on by the people who regulate and control this war. We need to remember one principle: we have two Russias. The one that did not support the war, and it is increasingly not supporting it every day, there is no outflow from this group. And the one that supported it. These are two immiscible groups, and their polarization will increase. That said, we do have people from the group that support the war "on the surface," and as military events escalate, they will have to make up their minds. This resource is all those who may not admit it out loud, but they would end this war.

Elena Koneva. Photo: Elena Koneva archive
Elena Koneva. Photo: Elena Koneva archive

So far, for all of Russia, apart from mobilization and personal losses and inconveniences, the war has not particularly brought new personal problems; it is on television, and its perception depends on the current propaganda agenda. But more and more military events are taking place on Russian territory every day, and this turns the war from a virtual one to a real one and increases people's fear.

In our research you can see that in Russia as a whole there is a very high level (56%) of certainty  that Ukrainians will come to our land, and in the border regions this certainty is even higher (72%).

It is, of course, connected with the fact that the war there is already obvious, and the border has proved defenseless, despite the billions invested in fortifications. In the border areas, three groups of factors already influence attitudes to war: the personal changes that make everyday life more difficult, as elsewhere in Russia; the events localized to a particular territory, which can be various restrictions, curfews, and so on; and the purely military events, as shelling, destruction of houses, forced displacement and wounding, the death of civilians.

- Which of these is more likely to convince the pro-war part of society that the war is the origin of their problems?

— I had a hypothesis that where military events were already taking place - in villages, small towns, Belgorod itself, for example - at some point people should get so scared that they would end up saying: "Okay, I support Putin, it was impossible not to start the war, but let's end it already". The results have been paradoxical. Now the residents of the shelled territories, as well as all of Russia, are experiencing the fifth stage of accepting the war, according to my periodization - when most people have already realized the war, realized that it will not end quickly, but in one form or another adapted to it. Even the war events did not frighten residents of the border zone enough and rallied some part in the face of the threat. But when a "real war," like the one experienced by the residents of Ukraine, arrives, it will be a new stage, a stage of real fear.

Consequences of the explosion in Belgorod. Photo: / bel_obl_chp / Global Look Press
Consequences of the explosion in Belgorod. Photo: / bel_obl_chp / Global Look Press
- What does it lead to?

— I am sure that an outflow of people from the war support group will begin. In the study I compared three zones: this is the entire Russia, where there is no military action; quite "hot" line of contact with the war, the depth of which will constantly expand; and the border areas, where military events have not yet begun. This is a fairly wide border area where military events are close at hand, they can be seen, but they have not personally touched many people. But the war will penetrate more and more into Russian territory.

As I said, personal events, both general and local, affect attitudes toward the war. We see this in the research data. Something unpleasant happens, you are searched, you could not go to your mother-in-law in the neighboring village because the road was blocked, you were sent to build fortifications, at work there are monetary donations to the army - all this causes discontent and reduces support for the war. So far, the factor that a few people were wounded in your town and a building destroyed across the street causes half the population of the borderland to have a reaction of cohesion, rather than a reassessment of the war. That is, the war has not frightened everyone enough yet, except for propaganda. Events in the border areas have become an arena of information warfare. Russian propaganda speaks about intensive shelling, evacuation of children from Shebekino, and shows queues of cars to leave the area. But the real facts in the border area will become a closed topic, as will the overall losses at the front, because after victorious relays and stories about the inviolability of the border it becomes harder to explain the breakthroughs of saboteurs and insecurity from shelling, and the consequences for public perception become more and more dangerous.

"Russian propaganda has a serious weakness: it completely lacks the image of the end of the war."

- In the Belgorod region more than three thousand men were mobilized, and the war directly affected many families. A year ago in the same Belgorod region a rocket fell in the center of the city, then five people were killed. Wasn't it still enough to scare people and cause rejection?

— So far it hasn't frightened me too much, because it's not on that scale yet. Yes, a family of Ukrainian refugees died in Belgorod at the time, but conventionally it was not their own. So far, there are dozens of civilian casualties in the Belgorod region (according to local authorities in the region, 40 civilians have been killed since February 24, 2022. - Republic).

But for a person to be touched, the war must have been going on very close by, and something must have happened to your family and friends.
- Many people expected that mobilization during the fall, which frightened the public, would cause a decline in support for the war, but it declined only slightly, and then returned to its previous levels.

— Mobilization is only a probable death, and war casualties are hidden. For many, being sent to the front does not seem a direct threat. Many have gone to fight on mobilization not only out of fear of resisting the authorities, but also because they obey the herd reflex, because it is the duty of a citizen, because they actually support the war or because of the hopelessness of life at home. The are many reasons. And the suppression of autonomy and freedom has led to the destruction of even the instinct of self-preservation in some people.

The consequences of one of the shelling of Shebekino. Photo: telegram channel "Real Gladkov"
The consequences of one of the shelling of Shebekino. Photo: telegram channel "Real Gladkov"

One can imagine a pyramid of fear, where at the core would be fear of death, fear of losing loved ones, then fear of prison and deprivation, fear of power, fear of poverty and discomfort. When the stage of direct fear for life arrives, a substantial part of people will have a crack in the minds, and they will realize that the source of the threat is authorities.

But this stage has not yet arrived. It would seem that those whose relatives have been mobilized, and especially women, should logically be against the war, because they should be very afraid for them.

But so far, most of these women are going through a phase of solidarity with our army: "My son, my husband is fighting, I can't help but support the army."

And we see not only in the border regions, but all over Russia, such an effect when on one level a person understands that a member of his family has been taken away and may be killed, and he even dreams of being wounded and demobilized. And at another level there is compensation: "We are not suffering for nothing, our boys are not dying for nothing". And if a person has someone close to him who is fighting, it is absolutely clear that he has a more negative attitude toward the evaders, because "they took mine, and this one ran away".

— "Not for nothing"-what is it for? How do people explain it?

— You know that the goals of the military operation were constantly changing in the official rhetoric. They started with conditionally noble goals - to help the Russian-speaking population of Donbass. Then there was the superficially assimilated denazification and demilitarization of society, the narrative that we should liberate Ukrainians from the Nazi government. All of this presented in the first half of the year, when people still believed that the war would last a few months at most and the operation would be over quickly, since there was enough military manpower for that. Already by September 2022, this condition had changed to another phase, when the motives of defending the homeland from danger became predominant.

We ask respondents: If Putin decides to withdraw troops and start peaceful negotiations without achieving his goals, are you ready to approve this decision? We purposely included Putin in the question in order to give the person a release of responsibility and make it easier for him to agree to it. And what was the effect? In November, already after the announced mobilization, 35% of Russians were not ready to support such a decision of Putin. And when measured in February - already 47% were against such a decision, and there were even more in the border regions. This is not surprising. The governor of Belgorod has just announced that the best way to stop the shelling of the Belgorod region is to annex the Kharkov region as well. This ridiculous justification for an unprotected border is an accurate reflection of the state of fear of invasion, which leads to one wish: to fight to drive Ukrainians away from Russian borders.

Residents of the border town of Shebekino are bombarded almost every day. The photo shows debris from drones. Photo: VKontakte group "Shebekino Whisper"
Residents of the border town of Shebekino are bombarded almost every day. The photo shows debris from drones. Photo: VKontakte group "Shebekino Whisper"
— Do you think residents of border regions should fear that Ukrainian troops will seriously occupy their cities?

— I think there will be shelling, border crossings, acts of diversion in the border zone, which is what is happening now, but Ukraine will not go to Russia in the same way that Russia did to it. The occupation of Russia is both beyond Ukraine's power and not necessary. It contradicts agreements with Western partners. I am the kind of person who does not believe this, unlike the vast majority of Russians.

But the panic stage has already begun in recent weeks. Some Belgorodians on the governor's page are demanding to hand out weapons and call Prigozhin for training. Others are just leaving.

And this with very little loss, not comparable to Ukraine.

— Why are people not willing to support an end to war? Just out of a feeling of insecurity?

— There are many reasons for this. For example, if we stop the war now - then the question arises, what was it all for? If we are all left with our own, and with such casualties and destruction, the whole world has turned its back on us? As for the border areas, in relation to the "rest" of Russia, this reason also works harder and harder, this is the same growing fear. It is no longer important for many people whether it was right or wrong to start the invasion, to believe or not to believe in "Bucha". Everyone understands that enormous damage has been done to Ukraine, that so many people have been killed, and that you will be punished for this, even if you yourself had no part in it. And the consequences of this punishment are not so much about winning or losing the war, but about the fact that Ukrainians will be here, already in our country, and will take revenge.

Russian propaganda has a serious weakness: it completely lacks an image of the end of the war. There is no image of victory, and it is becoming more and more illusory.

In open responses in the summer of 2022, when asked what victory might look like, people talked about a return to the beginning of 2022: everything is calm, no one is killed, we go to visit our relatives in Ukraine. A year later, it is obvious to everyone that such a scenario is impossible.

There is no other, and the future becomes an increasingly frightening anticipation of punishment.

Belgorod Mayor Valentin Demidov in an apartment damaged by an explosion in the city. Photo: / v_v_demidov / Global Look Press
Belgorod Mayor Valentin Demidov in an apartment damaged by an explosion in the city. Photo: / v_v_demidov / Global Look Press
— So what does propaganda do instead of producing an image of victory?

— It draws an image of defeat: crazy, scary stories about how the Ukrainians will come, quartered, imprisoned, and so on. And this fear accumulates into aggression. There are many texts on this subject, how in World War I, not very experienced young soldiers rushed to the enemy with a scream out of fear. The same effect works here. At the same time, the propaganda work in the border regions at the local level is even more serious than in the rest of Russia. And it appeals to universal values and calls for volunteerism.

The governor [of Belgorod Oblast, Vyacheslav Gladkov] tirelessly travels to shelled areas, the house was destroyed - he goes there with engineers, reports, it creates a sense of involvement of the authorities. Even among young people in the border regions, who support the war much less than the elderly and mature, the support of the governor reached 91% in March. They are not ready to go to war, but they support the actions of the head of the region. He actively behaves himself, comes to universities, awards prizes to volunteers. This is the result of purposeful PR. But weapons are stronger than PR. And the more shelling and invasions, the more accusations will be brought against the governor.

— Губернатор Гладков мобилизовал на войну с Украиной более трех тысяч человек, многим из которых не дали даже нескольких часов на подготовку. Почему жители прифронтового региона воспринимают его как защитника, а не как человека, который забрал их родственников на войну в чужую страну?

— Again, this is a very good and effective PR work, in which the head of the region is portrayed as a benefactor. Our study says it all - the governor is perceived as a representative of the central power. We look at three regions (Belgorod, Kursk, and Bryansk) differentially, and we see that if the level of support for the governor rises, it immediately increases confidence in the Moscow authorities.

When you're scared, you want to rely on someone, and that's why it's hard to realize that the governor is a threat, a tool of the federal center for mobilization and war.

Yes, on the one hand, he fulfills these tasks of the Kremlin, taking children and husbands and sending them to their deaths, on the other hand, he takes care of the people left behind. In their mind, he acts as a man who organizes the defense.

Governor of the Belgorod region Vyacheslav Gladkov at the evacuation of residents in the village of Sereda. Photo: telegram channel "Real Gladkov"
Governor of the Belgorod region Vyacheslav Gladkov at the evacuation of residents in the village of Sereda. Photo: telegram channel "Real Gladkov"

As our figures, propaganda reports, and eyewitness accounts show, the population of the regions is massively involved in various types of volunteering. It is clear that there are dissatisfied residents. But the effect of participation is still powerful. As you remember, since 2018 the government took over volunteering when it realized that it is one step from a volunteer to an opposition activist and vice versa.

We conducted a study during the floods in Krymsk in 2012 and it showed that 80% of Moscow volunteers who went to help the residents of Krymsk were participants in protest demonstrations. In other words, the people who participate in volunteer movements are conscious citizens who have a willingness to participate in the life of society. In 2018, a law regulating volunteer activities was passed, and it struck me at the time that volunteerism was renamed in a more militaristic word: volunteerism. Today you help the elderly, collect money for children's institutions, and tomorrow you volunteer to go to war.

A shelled customs post in Shebekino, autumn 2022. Photo: / belgorod01 / Global Look Press
A shelled customs post in Shebekino, autumn 2022. Photo: / belgorod01 / Global Look Press

I am sure that preparations for war on various levels began long ago, and in this regard, the state has subsumed such a noble form of public participation as volunteerism.

It became used to form an internal resistance to an external enemy, ethical criteria are knocked down, and the one who takes your son away from you suddenly turns out to be a savior.

"The risk of shelling increases fear, but you have to experience suffering to change attitudes about war."

— Residents of border regions, more than any other citizens of the country, are connected to Ukraine by kinship and neighborly ties. I know many Russian families where people did not believe their Ukrainian relatives when they told them that they were hiding in basements, that they were being shelled. Why did they choose the second one between their relatives and propaganda?

— This is actually a mutual process. At first Ukrainian relatives were telling what was happening to them, and the Russians were answering that none of this was true, that in fact they saw on TV that no civilians were touched, everything was normal, it was the Ukrainian propaganda that was lying. Ukrainians were shocked: "Well, what propaganda if I'm here?" And then came the phase when the Ukrainian relatives became desperate and started to send their Russians to blazes with the words: "The time will come, you will pay for everything". In the end, there was quite natural mutual aggression, which led to a rupture in relations.

The war has separated people, severed relationships with relatives and friends, because uncritical tunnel thinking works: anything that doesn't fit into the picture in your head is rejected, even if the source is your loved ones.

At the same time, in interviews and in formal answers to questionnaires, I saw that the ties in the border zone with Ukraine are very serious. From the survey: an elderly woman from Ukraine, whose daughter married a Belgorod resident and she moved to them, has a mixture in her mind: on the one hand she feels madly sorry for Ukraine and feels connected to it, on the other hand she labels the Russian government as "ours".

Evacuation of children from the Belgorod region. Photo: Vyacheslav Gladkov's Telegram Channel
Evacuation of children from the Belgorod region. Photo: Vyacheslav Gladkov's Telegram Channel
— You said that the scale of the presence of war in the border areas is not yet the scale that people have begun to reject it en masse. Are saboteurs on tanks in the Graivoron district of the Belgorod region still not on that scale?

— It should be understood that the diversions in the Belgorod and Bryansk regions are still symbolic actions. Losses are few and accidental. People are frightened by them, but these events form rather an anticipation and expectation of something even more terrible, which, however, causes even stronger impulses than the experience of the event itself. This expectation of war, of crossing the border, of invasion so far is mostly rallying. And when a situation arises in the border areas, as it was in Kharkiv at the end of February, with the destruction of infrastructure, houses, deaths and injuries, it will be another story, I am convinced. Life will be so disintegrated that people will not even have a chance to remember solidarity. The risk of shelling adds to the fear, but to change attitudes toward war one must experience suffering.

Do you think that the same destruction that the Ukrainians are experiencing awaits the Russian border regions as well?

— Absolutely. The shelling will deepen. Escalation in the border zone will change public opinion, channel the emotions that somehow accumulate in and around the army, and Ukraine is interested in this. But for the time being there will be a combination of shelling and diversionary attacks in the border zones.

— But still, why do you think that with escalation, attitudes toward the war will cause it to be rejected rather than, on the contrary, consolidated around the flag?

— As I said earlier, the findings in our research have shown that the key factors in attitudes toward war are events that concern the individual personally. If their number increases, if there is a real fear for one's own life, for the lives of loved ones, then other processes will begin.

If we have to sit in shelters all the time, and pregnant women give birth without medical care, the end of the war will be a major wish.

For those who do not support the war, there are no insights; what is happening only confirms their rejection of the war. Insights is the fate of those who support, who are still in the support phase.

— But have the Ukrainians been united by suffering?

— I don't think it's a very productive idea to compare with Ukrainians. They have a different war, they have been defending their homeland since day one. The Ukrainians have shown incredible unity, but they too have had a year and a half of war fatigue, exhaustion of resources. We asked the question about the terms of the armistice in both Ukraine and Russia, we asked people if they would agree to cede Crimea or other occupied territories, to return to the borders of 1991/early 2022. And [in Ukraine] the closer to the border, the more people are inclined to cede something so that the war can end sooner. But not because they are pro-Russian, but because they were the first to take on Russian aggression with the harderst consecuences. Although this indicator of compromise has sunk so low during the months of war that there is no turning back anymore.

Consequences of the shelling of the Belgorod region. Photo: telegram channel "Real Gladkov"
Consequences of the shelling of the Belgorod region. Photo: telegram channel "Real Gladkov"

In Ukraine, the list of consequences is incomparably worse than ours; it is longer, more fatal. They also have mobilization, loss of life, and destruction, and it all grows and grows with each passing day. But we take people, we divide them according to what a person experienced personally. And if a Ukrainian has experienced something, not necessarily the worst, at first there is an effect of even greater cohesion, which was observed at the beginning and in the middle of the war. But nevertheless, the closer to the border, the more people agree to concessions. The gradient principle works. Although I'm talking about a small percentage so far, because most Ukrainians are still set on a complete victory and only agree to the borders of 1991.

— Because of military censorship, one gets the feeling that only Z-voices are heard inside Russia. What happens to dissenters now?

—All the time I will remind everyone and myself that there is a huge part of the people in Russia who are shocked by the war and hate it. In Russia, according to our data, there are about 30 million of these people versus 40 million supporters. But the latter are much louder, because the opponents have no channels of communication, they are in the position of the oppressed. And what is very sad, these people think of themselves as a minority, they simply have no chance to be heard. By the way, the authorities have done everything for this, and our job is to tell them that this is not the case. Now we can see the reactions of the opponents of the war, their state has shifted from anger to depression, apathy, because they can't do anything. But I think this situation must already be changing, because the tension is growing every day, and it's only going to get worse.

Here we can use this analogy: if paint is spilled on a tablecloth, it spreads out in a gradient, the bright red stain disperses and gradually turns into a still white tablecloth. In attitudes toward war, too, we see this multidirectional movement. In our society, there are 10% of those who openly say in polls that they are against "special operation". For them, the negative consequences of the war can only exacerbate the rejection of the war. There are the radicals who just want to fight. And there is everyone else. Someone for some time will still cling to this concept of war, to argue that we did not start it, we are not to blame, we need to support our boys, our army.

Some support will decrease more and some will strengthen, but overall we will see a decrease in support.

As suffering increases in the borderlands, as it does throughout Russia, it will no longer be 66%, but the same 58% as it was last fall, and it will roll like a wave deep into society to exactly the depth that Ukrainians deem appropriate to step on. When compassion is lacking, suffering helps an epiphany.

People will say: yes, we supported it, but now we must end it. And the further along we go, the more important the question will be about the stage when truce scenarios will be drawn. We can safely ask the question: what will happen if for some reason Putin stops the war, leaving the reaction of the Ukrainians out of the equation, just stops it, returns to the borders as they were at the beginning of 2022? What proportion of the Russian population will experience catharsis? It will be enormous. And then even these 20-30% of the silent will show themselves.


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