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Inside Russia’s Media Black Hole

Photo by Alexander RyuminTASS via Getty
Julia Ioffe
March 10, 2022

Ever since the Russian army invaded Ukraine, I am constantly asked: what do the Russian people think about the war? Do they support it? This is a deceptively difficult question to answer. Even before the war, when Russia was an authoritarian country with a small, marginalized independent press, it was hard to separate what people actually believed from the sanctioned talking points they would parrot from state-owned television. How many Russians, after all, would give their true and unvarnished opinion to a stranger from an official-sounding organization, calling out of the blue

Of course, the job of the Russian pollster is that much harder now that Vladimir Putin has pushed the country into full totalitarian mode, shut down what was left of the independent media and criminalized any deviation from the official line on the war. Moreover, as I’ve noted before—and as a group of independent Russian sociologists recently documented—the majority of Russians do support the war, but only as they experience it in an informational blackout. It is not the same war that we in the West are seeing. Instead, they are told, it’s an easy, limited military operation to liberate the grateful Ukrainian people from Nazis, and with few casualties among the Russian military or the Ukrainian people. 

I also wanted to understand what people outside my cohort—Russian journalists and creative types who fled en masse with the outbreak of the war—thought. They are all unanimously and loudly against the war, but I am well aware that they are not a representative sample. (As Peter Kafka noted when I joined his podcast, it would be like trying to determine the mood in America by surveying people in the West Village.)

So I called sociologist Denis Volkov, who works at the Levada Center, an excellent and independent polling institution that Putin’s prosecutors have labeled a “foreign agent.” It is also the best sociological organization in Russia, and one of its oldest. Levada’s own polls showed that about two-thirds of Russians supported the war, but I wanted to get a deeper sense of the dynamics at play. Volkov and I spoke twice: today and last week, just before the Kremlin shut down the last of Russia’s independent media, making real information about the war harder to access, and before the Russian parliament passed a law making the distribution of “fake news” about the war—i.e., anything that differs from official accounts—punishable by up to 15 years in a penal colony. That includes calling the war a war, as opposed to “a special military operation.” 

I have amended our conversation to reflect this fact. Unlike so many people I know, Volkov is still in Russia and I do not want to land him in jail. In addition to those light adjustments, this interview has been translated, edited, and condensed. I hope you find it as informative as I did.

Julia Ioffe: Are you in Moscow right now? What are things like?

Denis Volkov: The streets are calm, the sun is even shining. Everything concerning Ukraine and Russia itself is happening live online. 

I heard that Moscow grocery stores were putting limits on how much people can buy. Have you seen any of that?

I heard about that as well, the limits were announced, but I haven’t encountered it personally. I went to the store yesterday and didn’t see any buckwheat, but my mother was able to buy some. I bought cooking oil with no problem. There are lots of people taking out money in the bank, but I don’t see any lines. Many of our friends have left Russia, others are seriously talking about it. 

Are you thinking of leaving?

We’ve talked about it and we decided to stay. I can’t just abandon my team. Being the first one running for the exit is not very appropriate.

So you’re not seeing any panic in Moscow?

I don’t see panic. It’s more like people look dejected, depressed. But maybe I’m just projecting. 

Where are you getting information right now?

In principle, everything is accessible if you have a VPN. If someone has the interest and desire to find out what’s happening, they can see what Ukrainian and other international media are saying about this.

I remember about 10 or so years ago, when I first moved back to Moscow, I spoke to one of your colleagues about public opinion and how it’s measured, and he said that, really, pollsters in Russia don’t measure public opinion, but the effectiveness of state propaganda. Do you agree with that?

I think that’s a pretty one-sided interpretation. I think it really depends on a person’s source of information, especially when it comes to information on world affairs. If we’re talking about Ukraine, sometimes we see that people having relatives there changes their perspective. It broadens their view and opens up new sources of information. For those that don’t have that, then it all depends on where a person gets their information and how they consume it. If they’re used to watching television or if they’ve only started using the internet recently but still continue to watch TV, then their understanding of the world is that there is a hostile West that is obsessed with humiliating and weakening Russia. That gives them the framework with which to see the world in general and this conflict in particular. These people usually don’t have any desire to seek out other sources of information because they see those sources as taking sides in the conflict, so why would you trust them? 

They see them as enemy sources of information?

Yes. And because there’s a military conflict going on and they’ve been living in an informational war for so long, why would you care what the West is saying anyway? We had one respondent in one of our polls who said, I’m sure if I watched the BBC, then I’d think about things differently because they show such horrors. But I don’t watch it. That is, she knows that a different point of view and a different source of information exists, but it’s an enemy source of information and she doesn’t want to believe in it because then her entire worldview and everything she believed to be true would fall apart.

I saw two polls on your site that, in my view, are a bit contradictory. One of them showed that something like 80 percent of Russians see Ukrainans favorably and the other showed that over 60 percent of Russians support a war with Ukraine. How do you explain that?

There’s a very widespread point of view here that the government makes all the decisions, both in Russia and Ukraine. So they think that it is the government of Ukraine that has implemented these anti-Russian policies under pressure from the West, while average people suffer—the average, simple person as a victim that cannot in any way influence what’s going on and probably doesn’t even have his own opinions. They believe that Ukrainians simply cannot be against Russians and Russians can’t be against Ukraininas, it’s just their government doing this. 

The second thing is how they see this conflict. They don’t think this is a conflict against Ukrainians. Russian media constantly emphasizes that this is against the nationalists who took Ukraine hostage and that this is about liberating Ukrainians. 

I also think that people just don’t understand what’s really going on over there, the scale of the military action and the number of victims. Their information is very limited. To fill out the picture or even begin to doubt [the official narrative], people need to have the know-how to seek out several sources of information and compare them. But for that, you need to want to do it. People who are older, even if they now use the internet, they’re not very good at it. I don’t think Russia is very different from other countries in this sense, we’re just a little further behind. The older a person is, the less confident they feel online.

Let’s come back to that in a minute, but first I wanted to ask you, is it even possible to measure public opinion in a country where there is such an intense information war and where people have such limited access to information?

Of course you can. The question is why are you doing it and how will you interpret it? If you just show some numbers, what does that give you? You have to look at various cross sections—by gender, age, their source of information—so that you can get a more complex picture and also see its dynamics. The point is to understand how people think, where they turn for explanations about what’s going on, about the splits in Russian society. I think that’s the point, not just getting two numbers and drawing conclusions from them. 

Last week, we saw the complete destruction of independent media and Russia and the new law, which makes distributing “fakes” about the war punishable by up to 15 years in jail. Does it make your work of finding out what people really think more difficult? 

The law itself won’t have a big impact because average people don’t know the law well at all. It will have an effect on the work of journalists and the coverage of this, and it already has. Some, like Novaya Gazeta, have voluntarily stopped writing about the military operation. Still, I think it won’t have an immediate effect, because the people who were getting information through VPNs are still getting that information. It hasn’t really changed people’s perception of this specific event, but it will over time.

Because people will have to make more of an effort to find out what’s really going on?

On one hand, yes, because you need to make an effort. On the other hand, these two points of view weren’t formed yesterday. They were formed a long time ago. Of course, these limitations have narrowed the available information on what’s happening in Ukraine, but I don’t think that it will immediately change people’s opinions. It may in the long run unless these measures are undone.

I am constantly asked here in the U.S. what the Russian people think about Russian military action in Ukraine. Taking all these complexities you mentioned into account, how would you respond?

The short version is that many people support it. There’s no getting away from that.

A majority?

Yes, a majority. 

Do you have a number?

Now two polling centers have gotten basically the same number: two-thirds support it, one-third opposes it. People’s answers are closely connected to their support of the government, and therefore the trust people put in the government’s narrative. We see that the main opponents of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine are those that don’t like the president. They’re opposed to him not just on this question, but more broadly. So in Moscow you see that over half of respondents are against the military operation. You see that in Moscow and the biggest cities, which is where people usually come out and protest. Who comes out to protest? Young people, but they are also evenly split. The older generation are TV viewers and supporters of Putin, so they support it. 

But it’s important to understand that they support the picture that’s formed in their heads and that is that, for the last eight years, there has been a civil war in Ukraine, that nationalists have seized power there and are persecuting Russian speakers, especially in the east, that Ukraine is under pressure from the West to be against Russia, and that this military operation hasn’t and won’t affect civilians. I think it’s very important to emphasize that people don’t see the scale of what’s happening or the number of casualties on both sides. 

Do you see any differences of opinion by geography or class? 

Class doesn’t make a difference. The main differentiator is age. Then sources of information and big cities versus more rural parts of Russia, as well as support for the government. 

Let’s talk about age. Where is the line, approximately? And how do you explain the difference between these generations?

I have to say that three months ago, when I was writing about this, the picture was really muddled because this was all just beginning and no one was really paying attention, so there wasn’t a big split. When I returned to it in mid-February, a split had already begun and now it’s even bigger. The first dividing line is at about 35. Young people couldn’t understand this at all. They can’t understand how any war could be just and why anyone would try to achieve something through war. The dividing line moves, of course, but starting at 50 you see support for the military operation increase. People over 65 are the most hard-core. They are TV watchers and Putin supporters. They are used to believing what’s said on television. They trust the government. The government bet on this generation a long time ago. It’s much easier to talk to them, especially through the TV. And the people in government are this age. They understand each other.

How much of this is a carryover from the Soviet Union? How much does the fact of whether a person lived in the Soviet Union or was born after its collapse affect their worldview?

It probably does. For example, when we ask people, “Is Ukraine a separate country or is it part of something ours?” the younger generation, almost without exception, says that it’s a separate country with its own borders and there is nothing for us there. The older generation tends to think the opposite, since we once lived together [as one country]. You have to understand that the stakes in this conflict were raised by saying that it’s our people, Russians there in Ukraine and we have to go save them. This was the main mechanism of rallying people’s support. Yes, of course we have to save them. We don’t really want to spend money on it, but since it’s an emergency situation and they’re in danger, I guess we have to. 

Young people don’t really have that, this feeling that they have to belong to a great superpower. But this is our Soviet past. What else is part of the Soviet past? Negative attitudes toward and distrust of the West. This is something you can consider part of this Soviet past because young people mostly see the West in a positive light, though aspects of the West’s policy toward Russia—the expansion of NATO, the idea that the West doesn’t take Russia’s opinion and interests into account—that also irritates them. But on the whole, there’s a positive attitude toward America and the West, toward its culture, especially in Moscow.

Is there a difference between young people who live in, say, Moscow or St. Petersburg, or even Novosibirsk, versus young people who live in the provinces?

Yes, of course, but I think that, with the development of the Internet, these differences among young people started disappearing. The internet gives them a common space and common authoritative figures, like [Russian YouTuber] Yuri Dud. 

About 10 years ago, the numbers for how many people see television as their primary source of information was something like 85 percent of Russians, and a similar proportion of them believed what they saw on TV. Have these numbers changed at all since? 

They’ve gone down in the decade since. Now it’s something like two-thirds of Russians see television as their main source of information. So it went from almost 90 percent to 60-something. In that time, more people started using the internet, though that’s primarily the landing page of [Russian search engine] Yandex. Not the best source of information but at least it gives people the opportunity to find something different to read or watch if they’re interested in finding it.

To what extent do you think Russians’ opinions about what’s happening in Ukraine have an impact on the situation? Is the government taking it at all into account?

I don’t think it matters much. I think it mattered in the sense that there was an already formed understanding of what was happening—the West is at fault, Ukraine has been seized by Nazis, they’re against Russian speakers—even before it started happening. Support for this was very high even before the start of the conflict, somewhere around 70 percent. I think that gives [the government] a certain amount of confidence. It’s not absolutely necessary, but it doesn’t hurt. I don’t think public opinion concerns them much. Do I think that the government is going to take it into account, to answer to it? No, not really. And honestly, the majority of Russians expect this. They don’t think that they can influence anything or that anyone in the government is going to ask them anything. They’ll decide for us, as it were.  

Do they think Ukraine is the same way? As in, they can’t imagine a democratic society there?

I think so. I think the majority of Russians think that everywhere is like Russia, that everyone has a cynical government and that simple people can’t influence or change anything. They think the situation everywhere is the same as it is in Russia.

And everyone else, including the U.S., is pretending and being hypocritical?

America is a whole other world, somewhere on another planet. Ukraine is right there, it’s so close to us, so they absolutely must be just like us. 

How do you think Russians see Western sanctions?

That’s difficult, and I don’t know yet. I think that for now, they haven’t felt the shock and the effect of the sanctions. The first people who ran up against sanctions were the Russian upper middle class, people who had savings, investments. That’s a very thin layer of the population of Russia’s biggest cities. They’re already in shock. The average Russian will feel it through inflation, through certain goods becoming more expensive while others disappear. But that’s still in the future.

If you had to guess, whom do you think Russians will blame for that, the West or their own government? 

I think, first and foremost, they’ll blame the West. It fits into everything they’ve been hearing about the West: that they want to dismember Russia and stop it from developing, that this is an existential battle and that the West has an irrational hatred of Russia. Then, as problems mount, I think people will start blaming the government—first the government and then Putin himself. I think his approval ratings will fall, but slowly. Because who will even criticize Putin? There’s no one left. 

It all depends on when the shooting stops, when there will be a breather, a ceasefire. I’m not calling on anyone to do anything, but if it comes, then there will be more life here. We’ll live another day. If it’s a long time coming, they’ll purge everyone, all of us. 

In the U.S., I constantly hear the opinion that if millions of Russians go out into the streets to protest, then Putin will just have to stop the war. What do you make of that argument? 

I wouldn’t count on it. We don’t have an anti-war movement. We had one, to some extent, in 2014. But now, it has nowhere to come from because there is no legal or independent opposition left, and if you don’t organize this, who will come out? You’re not even allowed to protest. [The marginalized old liberal democratic party] Yabloko is trying to do something and maybe it can use this to launch a rebirth of the party, but first, the government would have to let them do something. The Communist Party [which is loyal to the Kremlin] is for what it says is a liberating mission. There are no new people.

Yes, the political field has been razed and any competition eliminated.

Yes. And again, it depends on how quickly the two sides can come to an agreement. But waiting for some kind of massive protest movement, let alone one that topples anyone, is just stupid.