Preparation for possible transformations in “Russia after Putin” includes minimizing the consequences of the current military adventure for the economy, international image and reputation of Russia.
One of the elements of work in this direction is the persistent promotion of the thesis portraying Russians as “hostages” and “victims” of a despotic regime that is clearly aimed at the Western audience. And contradictive to the objective reality and sociological data on attitudes inside Russian society. The question itself (arguing the responsibility of “ordinary Russians” for what is happening and supporting the preservation of Russian international influence through the tools of “soft power”) is objectively beneficial not only to the opposition “anti-Putin” groups but also to most other supporters of the “preservation of the Russian state concept” who are making plans to remain in power/come to power after the fall of the regime.
The background. On February 10, 2022, British magazine Time published a text written by Russian oppositionist Ilya Yashin “Don’t blame all Russians for Putin’s war“. His main message to the Western audience boils down to a request -to draw a clear line between Putin (“responsible for this tragedy… a real symbol of evil… cursed all over the world”) and the Russian people (who are “increasingly becoming an object of hostility”).
Yashin argues the notion that Russians massively support or, at least, do not resist the aggressive policy of their leadership.
In support of his position, he puts forward three theses.
A. Mass resistance and street protest actions in Russia. According to Yashin, since the beginning of the invasion and throughout 2022, police have detained almost 20 thousand anti-war protesters in Russia. Relying on some “testimonies of human rights activists”, he also claims that “since February 24, protest actions have flared up almost daily in different cities, and only 18 calendar days have passed without detentions and arrests during the war”.
B. The increased emigration flow from Russia should also be considered a form of mass civil protest (“people are fleeing from Putin”). Yashin gives the figures from 1 to 1.5 million citizens who have left Russia and claims that “the absolute majority of them emigrated, not wanting to be involved in military aggression”.
C. The “silence” of millions should be interpreted as forced and secured by the fear of bloody repression by the regime. According to the oppositionist, “those who remain in Russia are the hostages,.. and the silence of a hostage, at a gunpoint of a terrorist, does not make him an accomplice of a terrorist”.
Yashin (the fact of the repressions applied personally to him is supposed to give weight to his words) called on the West to show “wisdom” and “abstain from humiliating Russians”, since such rhetoric “only strengthens Putin’s power”. “By shifting responsibility for the Kremlin junta war crimes to my people, you are lifting Putin’s moral and political burden”, he claims.
During the war year, such theses have already been voiced, repeatedly and in different versions, by Russian “anti-Putin” politicians. In particular, another political prisoner, Alexei Navalny and his entourage, have persistently promoted the thesis that Western sanctions should have “personalised” character, and be applied only to the representatives of Putin’s entourage, the “war party”, oligarchs – but not the Russian economy or “ordinary Russians”. The topic of the inadmissibility of “collective responsibility” applied to all Russians was also heard from the opposition camp, following the visa restrictions imposed by the EU (and, rather tellingly, it was also argued that such discrimination would cause a sense of resentment and “push” ordinary Russians to support Putin).
Yashin’s article is just one of the elements of the “new wave” promoting a line of messages that only Putin and his entourage are to be blamed in the current war. While the Russian people are just “innocent victims” of a bloody despot, the introduction of any restrictions against “ordinary” Russians or the manifestation of disrespect for Russian culture – would force the Russians, albeit passively, to support the Kremlin and the war, etc. Also, simultaneously with Yashin’s text (also on February 10), Putin’s former speechwriter, and political scientist Abbas Galyamov, published a material where he states that there are “only 10% of ideological supporters of war” among Russians (however, the analysis of opinion polls conducted by the “Levada Center and the Zircon research centre”, shows that the number of Putin’s regime supporters significantly exceeds 50% and has increased over the past year).
The main objectives of this informational “special operation”.
– to provide argumentation to the politicians of those countries (Germany, Italy, France) who already adhere to such positions (talking about “Putin’s war”, and not Russia’s aggression).
– to continue promoting the idea that it is the Russians who have suffered the most in this situation (“the people are the victim of a tyrant”, “the people are hostages”).
– to remind that the Russian opposition has effective and heroic leaders, who are persecuted for their beliefs, and significant support of “the people” (both manifested, and potential).
However, none of the arguments in favour of their interpretation of the situation, stand up to even elementary critique.
Firstly, the real “street” anti-war protest potential is rhetorically exaggerated. The figure cited by Yashin of “20 thousand anti-war protesters detention” seems manipulative in the least. We are probably talking about a) the total number of detainees at different unauthorized rallies, including those with environmental or social requirements, and b) the majority of detainees were either not charged at all, or punishments were limited to fines. For example, in the first half of 2022 (when anti-war demonstrations in big cities were actually recorded), Russian courts had processed 16,151 cases of organization or participation in illegal rallies. As a result, 14,180 people were fined, 1,465 were arrested, and 361 were sentenced to court-ordered community works. At the same time, in the first half of 2021 (i.e., the “anti-war” component can be confidently excluded from these statistics), there were a quarter more such cases. In any case, even if we accept the figure of 20 thousand “anti-war activists” Yashin speaks about, it is a little more than 0.001% of the total population of Russia.
Secondly, the interpretation of the emigration wave as evidence of “protest against the actions of Putin’s regime” is merely a case of wishful thinking. There is no statistically reliable estimate of the scale of the “exodus” from RF in 2022 (Yashin himself admits this, using figures in the range from 1 million to 1.5 million people). Things look even more pessimistic with the “sociological profile” of this mass flow. It is unknown how many of those who left have dual citizenship and decided to leave Russia for the period of “turbulence”. Or how many had left temporarily and returned (you may not trust the words of Duma Speaker V. Volodin who said that 60% of those who had previously left have already returned － but I. Yashin’s argument is based on exactly the same unfounded speculations). It is not clear whether politically active citizens make up any significant part of those who have left (i.e., whether we are talking mainly about economic migration/relocation (as in the case of IT workers). And even more so, there is no reason to believe that those who evade mobilization (who, starting from the end of September 2022, make up the majority in the new wave of emigrants) really do not support the war with Ukraine or the Kremlin’s foreign policy, and are not just minimizing personal risks and threats.
Thirdly, the attempt to declare all Russians “hostages, silent at gunpoint” is also nothing more than manipulation.
Arguments that do not support such interpretation:
– Sociological data, indicating, for example, that, since September 2022, support for mobilization has multiplied several times, and Putin’s ratings remain consistently high (there are no convincing arguments in favour of the fact that these indicators are falsified). According to the estimates of a respected Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov (From 2006 to 2021 — Director of the Yuri Levada Center of Analysis (Levada Center), the level of war approval in Russian society has consistently exceeded 70% throughout the year.
– Extremely low (for the size of RF) number of cases where the new legislation “for discrediting the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” has been applied (under a hundred people per region).
– The fact of mass, voluntary participation of Russians living abroad in “pro-Putin rallies” – while there is no noticeable participation in the anti-war activity of the same emigrants abroad (for example, out of about 15 thousand Russian students in Germany, 208 people signed a petition against the war over the period of 11 months – a little more than 0.01%).
1. This example shows that the West is being offered to “buy” not a scenario of real changes (impossible without profound shifts in the Russian mass public consciousness), but only a change of the “interface” in the monstrous formation that is the Russian Federation. The stories about “the non-involvement of ordinary Russians in the crimes of Putin’s regime”, the deliberate struggle against the “cancellation of Russian culture” in the West, etc. reflect the objective coincidence of the interests of all Russian groups hoping to gain power in “post-Putin Russia”. In many cases, it is difficult to “identify” on whose behalf certain individual figures act (even more so- considering the oversaturation of the opposition groups with the agents of Russian secret services).
2. The anti-Putin opposition continues to persistently promote the thesis that only Putin and Co. should become a proverbial “scapegoat” for everything that is happening, whereas the Russian people can not and should not share the blame for the unleashed war.
3. The idea is being formed/strengthened in the West that the RF citizens are not accomplices in the war crimes, but only passive “victims” and “hostages” who also need compassion and help, like Ukrainians.
4. Statistical stretches and manipulations help to create the illusion of mass discontent among Russians with the war(and, therefore, the presence of a potential support base for the absolutely marginal anti-Putin opposition).
5. This group of political figures has no real “sense of guilt” towards Ukraine and Ukrainians for what is happening (despite ritual assurances to the contrary). The position of some of the Russian emigrant intellectuals (“We are all to blame. Not only Putin and his team.” Vladimir Sorokin – about the war in Ukraine and the collective responsibility of Russians“), who think/feel differently – has no chance for support among representatives of the “other Russia”.
6. Behind the current statements about “Putin’s war”, there is a cynical calculation to avoid paying reparations and carrying out “denazification” processes, similar to those in Germany after 1945. The same motives are behind the earlier demands of Navalny team representatives concerning the spread of a hypothetical post-war analogue of the “Marshall plan” to RF, and the core theses of M. Khodorkovsky’s speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 18 (“Any post-Putin government will need the sanctions to end“).
7. The “anti-Putin” opposition often demonstrates the same imperial and chauvinistic mentality as Putin’s elites. These people claim to be or to have the potential to be some kind of future “centre of power” that the West needs to listen to/reckon with. However, preserving the integrity of the Russian Federation is not the only possible scenario for future arrangements on the territory of Northern Eurasia.