Lev Gudkov investigates what makes Russians tick with his independent opinion research institute. In an interview, he discusses the lack of morals in his home country, Russia’s victim mentality and fears of nuclear war.
Interview Conducted by Christina Hebel in Moscow
Outside in the winter rain, people are strolling along the illuminated Nikolskaya Street toward Red Square, past vendors and an ice-skating rink. Up on the second floor of an 18th century building, away from the hustle and bustle, Lev Gudkov is sitting at his desk, showing tables on his computer screen.
The pollster can judge how Russians think in a way that few others can. The 76-year-old is the scientific director of the Levada Center, the only independently operating opinion research institute in Russia. When Gudkov surveyed the mood among people in Russia shortly after the war began, it was a watershed moment, he says. At the time, 68 percent of respondents supported the attack on Ukraine. Ten months later, the picture he paints is even bleaker.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Gudkov, President Vladimir Putin recently said that “the special operation proceeding apace, everything is stable.” To what extent are Russians subscribing to that narrative, especially following the Russian army’s setbacks in Kharkiv and Kherson?
Gudkov: State propaganda is still managing to forge a broad consensus. Most recently, the majority of respondents, 53 percent, believed that the military operation in Ukraine has been a success. These are mainly people who watch state television and have little access to the internet, older Russians. But there is also another, smaller element of society, one-third of respondents, who say the operation has been unsuccessful.
DER SPIEGEL: What reasons do people give for their skepticism?
Gudkov: They say the operation is taking too long, that no progress has been made. People worry almost exclusively about their own country’s military defeat, the chaos in the army, the incompetence of the leadership. For years, they were told that the Russian army was the strongest and had miracle weapons, but that myth has evaporated.
DER SPIEGEL: The war itself isn’t being questioned.
Gudkov: No, the attacks on Ukraine and the massacres play no role. The Russians have little compassion for the Ukrainians. Almost no one here talks about the fact that people are being killed in Ukraine.
DER SPIEGEL: Can you quantify that?
Gudkov: The share is just 1.5 to 2 percent of respondents. And only an average of 10 percent of the population feels guilt and shows empathy – Russian society is amoral. Of course, they don’t want war, but people behave submissively, passively and don’t want to engage in open conflict with the state.
DER SPIEGEL: So they avoid it.
Gudkov: The war has exposed mechanisms in society that have existed since Soviet times. Out of habit, people identify with the state and adopt its rhetoric about their fatherland’s struggle against fascism and Nazism, just like they did in Soviet times, to justify the situation. It’s all been present in people’s minds for quite some time, and propaganda has activated these patterns. They block out any compassion and empathy for what is happening in Ukraine. Those feelings only apply to their own dead and wounded soldiers, “our men.”
DER SPIEGEL: Is that the response you expected?
Gudkov: No. This passivity and submissiveness is disappointing. We conducted an express telephone survey on February 27, right after the war began. At that time, I still thought that the reaction would be very critical of the war. But I was wrong. Sixty-eight percent supported the war. I was categorically opposed to publishing that poll. Our employees were horrified at first – we had spent money on it, which we as an institute don’t have much of. But publishing such data in a situation like that would have only added fuel to the fire. We released the poll publicly later in March, after government institutes had released their data.
DER SPIEGEL: According to your polls, approval for the war even increased after that.
Gudkov: Yes, it has been consistently over 70 percent.
DER SPIEGEL: More than 10,000 men are reported to have been killed in this war, according to independent Russian media, and tens of thousands according to Western sources. Are people aware of the losses?
Gudkov: Not really. We are experiencing total censorship. Facebook and Twitter are blocked, as are many internet media outlets. The share of those who know how to circumvent the blockages through VPNs (services that establish an encrypted online connection) has risen from around 6 to 8 percent to 23 percent, but it is still small. They are mostly younger, educated residents of the largest cities. The predominant share of the population is still exposed to propaganda. For the clear majority, especially older Russians, the only authoritative sources of information are the state television channels.
DER SPIEGEL: The young people are more critical.
Gudkov: It’s important to see the relationship. The most recent data shows that among 18- to 24-year-olds, 59 percent supported the war, whereas 34 percent were opposed. By comparison, among Russians of retirement age, 79 percent were in favor of the war, and 16 percent were opposed. At the same time, however, 65 percent of young people thought that the attacks in
Ukraine should be stopped in order to start negotiations. This shows the contradiction in people’s minds: On the one hand is their identification with the state; on the other, there is the personal level, the concern for their own lives. They are potentially subject to military service and may be drafted. They can’t like the war. They are not clear about the goals of the war, which are constantly changing. Sometimes, they are fighting against the fascists in Ukraine and at others against NATO. On top of that is the growing anti-Putin sentiment. Only five years ago, this age group had the most Putin supporters. I spoke at the time of the Putin Youth, but that doesn’t exist in the same way any longer. And negative attitudes are growing even among the slightly older, among those up to 30.
DER SPIEGEL: What follows from that?
Gudkov: (laughs briefly before growing serious) Even if these younger people don’t want the war and are better informed by the internet, they still go along with it submissively. Very few are willing to take any responsibility for the war. It all reminds me of the behavior of people in the Soviet Union when they were sent to the collective farms to harvest crops. None of the students liked digging potatoes out of the ground. But they did it anyway because they knew that resistance and open protest would lead to total social exclusion. And that’s how it is today as well.
DER SPIEGEL: Is this also the reason why there are no protests? Many in Ukraine and the West are wondering why almost no Russians are taking to the streets against the war.
Gudkov: The willingness to participate in protests has fallen sharply in recent months. People are afraid of the police and of repression. The number of political prisoners is in the hundreds. But the main thing is the fear of isolation if you go against the majority. I’ve been asking in our surveys for years: “Are you willing to fight if necessary?” And always more than 50 percent answer: “Whether my country is right or not, I am ready.” Of course, many of them don’t really want to fight, they’re just behaving in a purely conformist way toward the state. We have seen that those who could, ran away and left the country.
DER SPIEGEL: But there are wives and mothers who have publicly demanded that their conscripted husbands and sons be provided with better clothing and weapons or be withdrawn from the front.
Gudkov: Pardon the comparison, but if I feed my dog later than usual, he doesn’t bark at me, he barks at the corner where the food usually is. It’s the same with these women. In principle, they are opposed to the war, but they can’t say so, so they grumble about the army’s poor equipment.
DER SPIEGEL: Putin consistently invokes the heroic death of Russian soldiers. Does this militaristic pathos work?
Gudkov: Hardly. When the mobilization was announced, it was a shock. People saw it as a sign that defeat loomed. In August, 48 percent were in favor of continuing the fight, while 44 percent favored peace negotiations. After the mobilization in October, it flipped: Fifty-seven percent were in favor of peace talks, whereas only 36 percent wanted to continue fighting.
DER SPIEGEL: What kind of peace negotiations do the Russians envision?
Gudkov: They have few ideas about that. They don’t understand that in the current situation, Ukraine would not accept such talks. It shows the imperial arrogance of this society. The point of view of the other is not understood or accepted. In November, the number of supporters of peace talks fell again. The mood calmed down somewhat after the first phase of mobilization was declared to be over.
DER SPIEGEL: And the same thing will happen when the next mobilization is announced?
Gudkov: A majority of people believe that Putin is lying when he speaks of “partial mobilization.” Sixty-six percent think he will continue the mobilization. I don’t think people will be that shocked again. The war has become routine.
DER SPIEGEL: What is the prevailing mood in society?
Gudkov: Uncertainty. People are very afraid that the economic situation will deteriorate further, that this war could escalate into an all-out war with the entire West. This is a very painful reaction to Putin’s threat to possibly use nuclear weapons.
DER SPIEGEL: In other words, this fear has a strong inward effect as well, and not just in the West?
Gudkov: The war was feared here before it even began. It was there for a long time in the collective consciousness. People were prepared for it: All the talk about blowing up America and turning it into nuclear dust if something happened was there years before. The fear of nuclear war has been built up here since the annexation of Crimea. Soviet stereotypes were serviced, such as the complex of Russians supposedly living in a besieged fortress, being victims and not being liked by anyone. These are deep-seated mechanisms based on militaristic and anti-Western ideology. They are taken for granted, especially by older people, and do not require any confirmation or argumentation. It’s true to the motto: We have always known how things are.
DER SPIEGEL: Putin has now been in power for more than 22 years. What distinguishes the “Homo Putinus,” a term you coined …
Gudkov: … yes, and I was immediately accused of Russophobia and slander by everyone …
DER SPIEGEL: … from the Homo Sovieticus?
Gudkov: In my opinion, Homo Putinus is a continuation of Homo Sovieticus, but the former is deeply cynical, confused and disoriented. Homo Sovieticus knew that life was not rich, that there was a constant lack of something, be it goods or variety. But they believed that things would get better with time – and this top-down optimism was essential. Now, there is no longer any hope, the people in power are discredited. They are considered corrupt and selfish, they place themselves above the law and treat people as though they are replaceable. But they do defend the national interest, and that achievement is credited to Putin. He has restored Russia’s authority on the international stage. Despite all the fear, the Homo Putinus hopes that Putin will protect the
country from the West and lead it out of the economic crisis, as he did during the first years of his presidency.
DER SPIEGEL: So, the real enemy was always the West, not Ukraine.
Gudkov: The responsibility is seen as lying with the United States, NATO and Europe. Ukraine is not regarded as a sovereign state.
DER SPIEGEL: This anti-Ukrainian sentiment has been fueled for years.
Gudkov: As recently as the end of 2013, when the Maidan protests began in Kyiv, an absolute majority of 75 percent said there was no need to interfere in Ukraine’s internal affairs. They felt the question of integration into the European Union was Ukraine’s business. Only 22 percent thought this should be prevented by all means, including militarily. Once Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who is loyal to the Kremlin, fled Ukraine, the tone changed drastically. Russian propaganda spoke of a coup d’etat initiated by the USA. There was talk of fascists coming to power. A label that absolutely dehumanizes the enemy.
DER SPIEGEL: Do sanctions have an effect Homo Putinus?
Gudkov: Only about 18 to 20 percent of Russians feel the effects directly, the wealthier urban middle class. Most say they haven’t been affected. The poorer ones are busy just trying to survive – for them, the sanctions take place on TV.
DER SPIEGEL: Putin’s approval ratings are stably high, exceeding 80 percent, just as they were after the annexation of Crimea.
Gudkov: There was euphoria then, but it is completely absent now. The state propaganda artificially maintains his high polling rates: Putin isn’t a charismatic person, but he is portrayed as one.
DER SPIEGEL: What must happen for his approval ratings to drop?
Gudkov: A military defeat. We can see that the shelling of border regions and of military bases is affecting people. You can hear that the tone of the war coverage on state television has changed, there was criticism of the army leadership. Margarita Simonyan …
DER SPIEGEL: … the editor-in-chief of the state broadcaster RT …
Gudkov: … says that we will all end up in court in The Hague, from the janitor right up to the leaders. The certainty of victory is gone. And yet many still hold out hope that the Ukrainian army can be defeated. These are the contradictions that exist side by side.
DER SPIEGEL: In the Soviet Union, people were promised a bright future. What future do they see for themselves under Putin?
Gudkov: The view of the future has shrunk to the horizon of a few weeks. More than half of respondents say: “I don’t know what will happen in a month.” It isn’t possible to plan or to save the money that most don’t have anyway. People understand that the war will last for a long time.
DER SPIEGEL: You paint a bleak picture. What effect does all this have on you personally?
Gudkov: I would call it depression. An occupational hazard. But the total mistrust of independent Russian media and of political scientists is particularly bad. Many refuse to accept our data and explanations. Again and again, questions arise as to how polls can be conducted at all in a totalitarian state and in war, when everyone is afraid and doesn’t want to answer. How credible the data can be.
DER SPIEGEL: Justified concerns?
Gudkov: No. Of course, we can do surveys. We go to great lengths to verify the reliability of our data. We usually conduct in-person interviews that last about an hour instead of short, 10-minute phone calls. Our interviewers first build trust in such surveys so that the meaning of the questions becomes clear to the respondents. They repeat questions to clarify how reliable the respondent’s answers are. People are not afraid to answer, that is a total misconception. The response rate hasn’t changed that much in recent months: It is between 24 and 26 percent. For comparison: In Germany, it is only slightly higher at 28 to 33 percent.
DER SPIEGEL: What future does sociology have in Russia?
Gudkov: (exhales heavily) The vast majority of sociologists work for the leadership. Each governor has a sociological service. The sole purpose is to secure the interests of the state. We have collaborated with very good universities, taught, done projects, but that will probably all end.
DER SPIEGEL: You have remained in Russia and are speaking out publicly and very critically.
Gudkov: This is the meaning of my life, my duty. I’m already old, it’s too late for me to move away. We can’t plan far ahead here at the Levada Center. The authorities could say tomorrow that we are engaged in anti-national activities. If that happens, we have to assume we would be shut down.
DER SPIEGEL: Aren’t you afraid?
Gudkov: It would be dumb not to be afraid.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Gudkov, we thank you for this interview.
Lev Gudkov, born in Moscow on December 6, 1946, is a sociologist and pollster at Russia’s only independent polling institute, the Levada Center. The sociologist Yuri Levada first published studies on how people think and feel in the Soviet Union, at that time for the state institute VCIOM. Gudkov was his employee. In 2003, together with other researchers, they founded their own institute. After Levada’s death in 2006, Gudkov was elected its head; he led the institute for 15 years. Now he is the organization’s deputy head and scientific director. In 2016, the Russian authorities classified the Levada Center as a so-called “foreign agent.”