“Victory is the Russian emotional drug”

Researcher Elena Koneva on how sociology works in the face of war and censorship


Is it possible to conduct sociological surveys when the country is under military censorship? Who are the people who support the war with Ukraine, and how is this support distributed across age groups? Elena Koneva is one of the founders of modern Russian sociology: in the late 1980s, she worked at the newly created VCIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Center), the biggest state-owned polling organization. She later founded COMCON, the leading center for market research in Russia. After the war in Ukraine began, Koneva started the independent sociological community ExtremeScan, which has conducted three waves of opinion polls in Russia about the war. Holod spoke with the researcher about how many Russians want a war "until the victorious end", how many are willing to settle for compromises, and what needs to happen for the military operation to be over.

Holod: Do you understand why so many people in Russia support the military operation? 

Elena Koneva: Right now, our society is experiencing the “virtual consciousness” stage—that is, we are witnessing people losing touch with reality, replacing reality with fictional images under the influence of external sources: the Internet, outdoor advertising and, first and foremost—television. As a result, a particular picture is created in people's minds, and only that which corresponds to it gets through. Many of the answers we get when we conduct surveys are responses to the picture provided by the TV rather than to the respondents' actual life experiences.

Through our surveys, we aim to understand how many people have been supportive of the military operation. It was natural to assume that the number of supporters was affected by the scarcity of information channels available to people. But deeper research shows that access to truthful information does not save the day. On the contrary, people simply ignore or rationalize it to not destroy the concepts of themselves, the country, and the government. Which are, to a large extent, created by propaganda.

The propaganda of recent years has been a massive preparation for the military invasion. The rhetoric directed against the West and Ukraine, the militaristic rhetoric associated with the Victory Day, the militarism romanticized through symbolism, and everything said on TV about Donbas—all this has been on the rise for eight years and has been escalating over the past two years. 

Do Russians understand the goals of war against Ukraine?

At the beginning of the military hostilities, 20% of the people whose primary source of information was television did not understand the operation's goals. As for those who did not watch TV, 38% had no understanding of the operation's goals. But this does not only indicate that these people have different views. The answer “I don't know” can express a literal lack of understanding and a condemnation: “I don't know why we even went there in the first place”. 

The majority of the respondents thought Russia was protecting the interests of the DPR and LPR (self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic.—ed. Holod). This belief was encouraged by TV reports of people suffering in Donbas. That is, propaganda was evoking sympathy and, therefore, people considered this to be a noble goal. Many still believe that protecting Donbas was the operation's primary goal. In early April, 15% of people thought the entire operation was only within Donbas. 

In the last wave of our research on attitudes toward the military operation, we simulated negotiations between Russia and Ukraine to see which scenario people would accept to stop the military operation immediately. So, essentially, we were asking, "What was the purpose of the military operation?" — because if Russia could achieve this goal, that's where we could stop. The most popular scenario was the recognition of the LPR and the DPR.

There was a very high percentage of people who could not identify the goal or found it difficult to answer. And the further the operation continues, the more people don't understand its goals because the authorities' rhetoric keeps changing. 

How do researchers adapt to military censorship?

In terms of the law, our research community is not doing anything illegal. We do not use “war”; we say “military operation”. But it's not even about the censorship; it's about the fact that we are interested in making the questions sound as neutral as possible. 

Adaptation to censorship occurs during the interaction between an interviewer and a respondent. For example, I listened to an interview from a recent wave of telephone surveys. After certain questions, a female respondent would suddenly freeze, and I could hear her tense breathing: she was thinking about how to answer. 

How do you ask questions to understand what people actually think?

We have concluded that to understand the attitudes toward what is happening more accurately, one should be asking questions not about support for the operation but support for the cessation of hostilities. Of course, from the standpoint of censorship, one is obliged to support Putin's decision. Still, one is not obliged to want military action to continue when it has already been a month and a half (this interview was taken at the end of the April 2022.—ed. Holod) and there are apparent human, material, reputational, and isolation losses.

If we use this wording, 50% of the respondents believe that we should pursue the surrender of Ukraine—we set the statement “push for the surrender” against “stop as soon as possible”, that is, we are essentially asking: “Do we need this victory or can we stop?”

Another question that we ask is, under what conditions can the military operation be terminated? As scenarios for the termination of the operation, the following options are suggested: recognition of Crimea, the LPR and the DPR, guarantees of Ukraine's non-accession to NATO, capitulation, and an even more radical option—to terminate it without any conditions. 

And how many people are for the war until the complete capitulation?

It turned out that there are 15-16% of core militarists. It is the war with Ukraine that they have their mind set on because when asked how Ukrainian citizens greet Russian troops, they answer that they are hostile; at the same time, they are in favor of pushing for capitulation.

Those who support the military operation differ in how much they endorse it what exactly they support in it. It's like a multi-layered sphere. It's essential to sort out the core nuclear militarists and then look at all the other supporters of the war. And these guys are contradictory. On the one hand, they support the operation, but on the other, they are ready to compromise if Russia keeps Crimea and the LPR and the DPR are recognized. For some, even the ban on Ukraine's accession to NATO is unnecessary. Many respondents who are willing to compromise have already experienced the consequences of the military operation: 7% of them have lost their jobs, some have had loved ones leave the country, and some are ready to emigrate themselves. 

We also ask a question in which we set achieving the goals of the military operation (whatever they may be in the respondents' minds) against saving the economy. In answer to this question, a third of those who support the military operation say that it should be ended. This is because they felt the economic consequences.

One of the main motives for support is to save the citizens of Ukraine, the “brothers”, from “Nazi oppression”, which is why people believe that it is necessary to overthrow the Ukrainian government and, therefore, to push for capitulation.

There is a majority, but no monolithic majority believes in going all the way, no matter what.

In what way have the “Fake News” laws, adopted on March 4th, impacted the research?

The level of "Difficult to answer" is higher than usual. For some questions, it reaches 25-30%. To understand what such an answer expresses, we added the “I don't want to answer this question” option to the questionnaires. That was an articulate option, and we went for it to establish the discrepancy between the answers in a survey and people's honest opinions. 

For example, we try to understand how many people do not support military operation. We take the people who have answered “I don't want to answer this question”, and we look at their answers to other questions and their socio-demographic indicators: gender, age, education, region, income level, and so on. It turns out that a high percentage of the people who responded, “I don't want to answer this question” are very similar in the rest of their profile to those who answered that they do not support the military operation. 

Of course, we don't lump these two groups of people into the same category when we publish the results, but internally, we realize that this response has become a haven where people have gone because of the fake news law. We called it the censorship coefficient. Our colleagues conducted a study based on combining different judgments (a list experiment by Philip Chapkovsky and Max Schaub.—ed. Holod). Their coefficient was 15%, and ours was 13%.

We have published the results of this study on Holod. But it begs the question: can we rely on data with that censorship coefficient?

We should for two reasons. Approximate knowledge is better than complete ignorance. First, researchers never get data that completely reflects the real picture. All we do is work towards approximating reality. The criterion for getting good data is that we can make reliable predictions based on it.

Different groups are distinguished within the general indicators. For analytics and forecasting, it is essential to describe them so that anyone would be able to recognize in one of these groups themselves, or friends, or loved ones with whom they have heated arguments. 

Another goal of these studies is to create an alternative to the vicious circle of conventional opinion polls so that commentators stop saying: “We have no independent sociology". Independent sociology needs to be supported. Otherwise, we will only see flashy militaristic headlines like “81% of Russians want victory over Ukraine” (a number from a Levada Center poll.—ed. Holod). This statement is untrue. Yes, indeed, the majority of people support the war. However, it is a matter of ratio: 81% “for” and 10% “against” or 50% “for” and 32% “against”.

Independent and professionally executed surveys are essential for government functionaries, too, for their prediction work. It is crucial to preserve independent studies for the sake of the independent research industry but, most importantly for the country, for the sake of the society.

How solid is the support for the military operation?

People have historical experiences related to military operations in Georgia, in Syria. So it seemed to them that a military operation takes place somewhere far away; it’s where we came as peacekeepers to restore order, and it will all result in some kind of a victory, which we have been missing so much. Victory is the Russian emotional drug. 

But then there are events happening that do not support this positiveness. The operation has dragged on for a long time, we suffer heavy losses, and the Ministry of Defense admits this, and Russian troops have retreated from Kyiv. Moreover, the goals keep changing. It is no longer clear to people whether we are saving the Russians in Donbas, liberating Ukraine from fascism, or defending against the advancing NATO.

The Russian society has climbed the high mountain of support, holding its breath to wait for the military operation to be completed and victory to come. Still, the victory is not coming, and the air is already running out. Therefore, I do not know what needs to happen for the next surge of approval and how long the “rally ‘round the flag’” effect (a political sociology term meaning an abrupt rise of support for a national leader during an international conflict or crisis.—ed. Holod) can last. 

What is the socio-demographic profile of the people who support the “special operation”?

When a phenomenon is supported by 60% of respondents, all demographic groups are present, just in different proportions. But here is what stands out in the generational groups: the younger the respondents, the less support they have for the military operation. The income level also plays a role: the lower the income, the more people doubt the necessity of the army operation.

Many assume that people with lower incomes are less educated and more susceptible to propaganda. But what we see is that the lower a respondent's income, the more they expect their income to decrease even further. Any military action is expensive, which means fewer resources will be available for everything else.

When or under what circumstances will those who are currently supporting it begin to change their point of view and move to the opposite camp?

When their own material lives take a drastic downturn. According to our research, people's incomes are steadily declining, and concerns about prices are rising. Even assuming that the uncovering of the actual events will shake people, it will not happen to everyone and not right away. I'm afraid, we can count on selfishness rather than charity for now.

Russians are unlikely to have easy informational access to reality anytime soon. But the problem also lies in “tunnel thinking”: for a long time, Russians will not be able to perceive any information that would make them question the rightness of the deployment of troops in Ukraine, even if this information is poured into their eyes and ears from everywhere.

For example, a woman in a focus group is asked:

— Well, you have a conviction based on the television. Do you know any alternative sources of information? 

— Of course, I do—and she even names some media that haven't been blocked yet.

— Do you use these sources?

— No. I don’t need to.

I used to hope that when the Internet became widespread, it would increase the liberalization of our society because there would be a variety of points of view available. But in fact, the Internet is used for absolutely other purposes: to read high-society news, cook recipes, watch football, and so on. It turns out that the most important thing is not the media but a person's values.

There can be two reasons for changes in support of the military operation: a person's own life and understanding of what Russia has done to Ukraine. And shortly, we can only count on either economic consequences or those of mobilization—when your stomach starts growling or your son goes missing.

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Alex Naanou, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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