Alexei Levinson, the head of socio-cultural research at the Levada Center and one of the most respected sociologists in Russia, recently gave an interview to The Bell’s co-founder Elizaveta Osetinskaya about public opinion in Russia. Here are some of the key points he raised.
- Despite the war, Putin remains popular in Russia for a few reasons. First, he speaks to the population in informal language, using various jokes, sayings and colloquialisms. For example, shortly before war broke out in Feb. 2022, he adopted prison slang to explain how NATO betrayed Russia with its eastern expansion. The second reason is that Russians believe Putin has one sole responsibility – to uphold the glory of Russia throughout the entire world. That means domestic issues such as corruption barely move the needle, with the exception of the unpopular pension reforms in 2018 that raised the retirement age.
- The war in Ukraine is generally popular among Russians because they see it as an indirect conflict with the West and the USA in particular, Levinson believes. “How can we make America respect us? Space, ballet, playing the violin – that’s all history. Now the only way is through military force,” he said. However, nobody wants a direct confrontation with the USA and the risk of triggering World War III that it would bring.
- If Russia loses the war, it will be the end of Putin’s career, Levinson said. Popular opinion can not conceive of military defeat to Ukraine, a country one-thirtieth the size of Russia. Defeat against Ukraine would automatically be a defeat against the West, bringing a return to the themes of humiliation – “we were brought to our knees” – that have historically swirled through Russian society.
- At the same time, many Russians prefer to hear nothing about the war, Levinson acknowledged. In Russian eyes it is a painful conflict with a “brotherly” people, alongside whom Russians fought against Nazi Germany. “And then all of a sudden it turns out that we’re enemies. It’s very difficult to put this idea into [Russian] consciousness,” Levinson said. “It’s much easier to establish the idea that our enemies are America and the West.”
Why the world should care
Public support for Putin during the war is one of the most widely-discussed issues in Russia and beyond. Many Russians perceive the war as a proxy conflict with the West, in which Russia stands for “good” in the face of a “global evil.”