Foreign Policy

Feb 24, 2024

Jade McGlynn’s books paint an unsettling picture of ordinary Russians’ support for the invasion and occupation of Ukraine.

For years, as Moscow’s intent to challenge the West became clearer, a key question loomed: whether the country as a whole or its leader was at fault—in effect, whether the world had a Russia problem or a Putin problem.

Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began two years ago, analysts have continued to debate the attitudes of ordinary Russians toward the war. Do a broad majority of Russians genuinely support the crimes and atrocities committed by their country’s armed forces? And if not, why do they give every appearance of doing so?

Two books by British historian Jade McGlynn published during 2023 provide uncomfortable answers. Russia’s War gives one of those answers in its title. In direct and conscious contrast to a rash of other current book titles that lay the blame squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin, McGlynn concludes that the Russian state, with the conscious collusion of part or most of its population, has achieved significant and widespread support at home for its war of colonial reconquest in Ukraine.

The other book, Memory Makers, gives us more explanation of how this was made possible through Russia’s deliberate and long-term program of hijacking history and shaping the public’s memory by recreating the past in order to shape the present.

Together, they paint a portrait of the alternative reality inhabited by Russians, created and nurtured by the state, and explain how it provides a permissive environment for that state’s worst crimes against both its own people and its victims abroad.

Russia’s War will upset a lot of people. There’s a substantial group among Russians abroad—or at least, among those who do not wholeheartedly approve of the war—who make their point that not all Russians are to blame for it by attempting to attach that blame to Putin personally.

But McGlynn firmly rejects the idea that this is Putin’s war alone. “Russia’s war on Ukraine is popular with large numbers of Russians and acceptable to an even larger number,” she writes. “Putin banked on the population’s approval and he cashed it.”

McGlynn’s book is also a direct challenge to those Western journalists, academics, and Russophiles who cling to the belief that the country is a frustrated democracy, as well as the idea that left to their own devices, Russians would install a liberal government that was less inclined to repress its own subjects and wage wars of aggression abroad. That’s a belief that has

often been formed in conversation with urban, liberal Russians—the kind who are now largely in exile or jail.

But there’s no reason to think that conversations in Moscow and St. Petersburg are any better a guide to Russia’s population as a whole than similar conversations in New York or London were at predicting former U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory or the United Kingdom’s Brexit. When the idea of a country has been constructed on sampling that is as unrepresentative as this, it can be hard to come to terms with the fact that the behaviors that the world has witnessed in Ukraine are entirely within the mainstream of social norms in the further reaches of Russia.

McGlynn doesn’t rule out the possibility that there may be Russians who disapprove of the war. But in addition to describing an instinct for self-preservation that may constrain many individuals from speaking out, she also argues that silent acquiescence is also the easier path inside their own minds.

“Plenty of people believe the Kremlin propaganda because it is easier and preferable to admitting or accepting that you are the bad guys,” McGlynn writes. In the absence of any discernible public opposition, Russians’ attitudes range from complete apathy to the frenzied enthusiasm for the war encouraged by propagandist “Z-channels” on Telegram, urging the military on to commit ever greater savagery in Ukraine. These channels, broadcasting to hundreds of thousands of subscribers—where footage of atrocities receives a joyous reaction—would not be possible in a country where backing for the onslaught on Ukraine was not widespread.

Russia’s state-aligned propaganda, McGlynn argues, does not seek to make everyone a warmonger. Instead, it aims to nudge people along a spectrum. It tries to render those in opposition apathetic, to make the apathetic feel attacked and side with their country whether right or wrong, and to induce quiet patriots to lend full-throated support.

A further twist, McGlynn suggests, is that we should not assume that the ideal outcome for the Kremlin is widespread pro-war activism. The Kremlin distrusts any spontaneous political act even if it is in support of the regime, she reminds us. So it sets clear boundaries for what is and is not an acceptable way to show allegiance, and is content if the support shown is no more than lip service. But still, criticism of the war, where it does exist, primarily focuses on the competence with which it is being fought as opposed to whether it should be fought in the first place.

Many of the state narratives around the West and Ukraine are not Putinist inventions, but instead are excuses for Russian state crimes that date back to Soviet and tsarist times. By tapping into the familiar tropes of Russia’s artificial history, the Kremlin provides the basis for new and still-evolving fictions about the world outside, brought together in what McGlynn calls “a time-worn ritual whereby Russian media and politicians slowly dismantle the truth and then replace it with a forgery.”

That ritual is examined in detail in Memory Makers: The Politics of the Past in Putin’s Russia. Appearing later than Russia’s WarMemory Makers nonetheless lays the groundwork for it, exploring how Russia rewrote its history to provide justification for its present.

History is explicitly defined as a battleground in Russia’s national security strategy and other doctrinal documents. But as ever in Russia’s perverse newspeak, goals such as the “defence of historical truth,” the “preservation of memory,” and “counteraction to the falsification of history” translate to the construction and defense of a fabricated version of Russian and Soviet history, accompanied by the denunciation of news and information from abroad as fake, all intended to protect and bolster Russia’s alternative reality.

As McGlynn explains, Russia’s reworking of history builds a narrative that “distracts from government failings, promotes government policies and reinforces the Kremlin’s view of current events.” The two books together offer an understanding of how Russia fostered the mentality that enables the war. Memory Makers explains how it was done; Russia’s War describes the effect.

Across the two books, McGlynn considers the role of state propaganda in forming the attitude that she describes and the cumulative impact of more than a decade of bombardment with relentless war propaganda that dehumanizes Ukrainians and sells the idea of a hostile West. Her conclusion is that the war propaganda fell on fertile ground. Russians were eager to be guided toward the state-approved attitude that tied in closely with many of their preconceptions about the world and Russia’s place in it.

And this has had practical and tragic results. McGlynn helps explain why Russia’s horrific casualty toll—with estimates varying widely but none smaller than the hundreds of thousands—has had less impact on popular support for the war than was widely and optimistically expected; and why Russia’s soldiers are still fighting, despite their leadership’s palpable indifference to the scale of the slaughter. Meanwhile, the dehumanization of Ukrainians that forms an integral part of the propaganda made atrocities in Ukraine not just likely, but also inevitable.


In contrast with multiple books on Russia that have been produced swiftly after February 2022,  both Russia’s War and Memory Makers have long been in gestation. They draw on close to a decade of research, including data analysis of television, print and social media, extensive interviews, and—while it was still possible—firsthand investigation within Russia itself.

Perhaps inevitably, that means neither book offers simple answers. Optimists among academics, journalists, and even government officials cling to the belief that if only Russians could be reached with the truth about the outside world, including the horrors committed in their name in Ukraine, they would turn against their leadership. But McGlynn’s books and a mass of associated research show that far deeper and more radical societal change within Russia would be essential to reverse the effects of two decades of state propaganda.

Since the end of the Soviet Union, early hopes that new generations might embrace democracy and liberalism have faded to invisibility. Instead, Russian social development is accelerating in reverse. McGlynn’s research undercuts suggestions that this is being done to Russians against their will, and instead highlights attitudes ranging from complicity to enthusiasm. The result is that Russia looks almost exclusively to the past to define its vision for the future.

The tragic implication is that Russia’s war against Ukraine cannot be ended in or by Ukraine. Its roots lie in Russians’ political and societal imagination of what their own country is and what it must be. That imagination, McGlynn shows, has been encouraged and facilitated—but not created—by a propaganda campaign that has lasted a generation.

Jade McGlynn has assembled the evidence for a conclusion that will disturb optimists hoping for a better Russia. The campaign would not have succeeded without a willing and complicit population, and too many ordinary Russians are entirely content to back their country’s most horrific actions.