Polling data shows that Russians are increasingly dissatisfied with the actions of their government. However, judging by many indicators, this discontent is not directly correlated with the growth of pro-Western sentiment in the country. Most Russians still perceive the Western world, and in particular the United States, with some hostility.
Nevertheless, a number of trends offer hope that such sentiment is no longer the main factor determining the political preferences of the majority of Russian people and therefore may be subject to change.
According to Public Opinion Foundation data at the end of November, more than half of Russians are critical of the government’s actions. Vladimir Putin’s personal approval rating has plummeted over the past two years: from 59% in November 2017 to 31.7% in May 2019.
Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, the proportion of Russians who trust their president fell further, reaching a new historic low of 23%, but in recent months it has returned to “pre-quarantine” levels and reached 32%. However, if we consider specific age groups, it turns out that this growth was due to people in the age group of 40 to 54, while the share of voters aged 18 to 24 who would vote for Putin dropped by almost half: from 36% in December 2019 to 20% at the end of 2020.
Nevertheless, much of the data indicates that the majority of Russians who are increasingly critical of the authorities’ domestic policies are not yet ready to rethink their foreign policy. This is also evident from a Levada Center poll on 1 December, which illustrates what Russians expect from Russian-American relations under the new administration of Joe Biden.
In addition to the quite logical forecast of a further deterioration in relations between the two countries, Russians’ attitude towards the US as a whole has worsened during the American election season. In August 2020, 42% of respondents were positive about the US and 46% negative. Now, more than half (51%) of those polled have a negative attitude towards the US, of which 25% is “very negative”, which fits well with the rhetoric of official Russian propaganda.
Moreover, according to the Lev Gumilyov Center, xenophobic sentiment in Russia has grown for the second year in a row. Since 2017, adherence to ethnically motivated discrimination has risen from 54% to 71%, which is approaching the indicators of the “pre-Crimea” period of 2012–13, and one Russian in two now supports the slogan “Russia for Russians”.
Even more eloquently, the mood of the Russian hinterland is demonstrated by an article in April 2020 by MBK Media, which describes the mood of ordinary people in connection with the coronavirus pandemic. Most of those who responded to the reporters spoke about “Western conspiracies, the uselessness of masks, the machinations to raise prices, the benefits of ginger, and God’s punishment”. This is how the author of the article, Ekaterina Neroznikova, describes the views of her neighbour, Ivan:
Vanya does not believe in any viruses because the Americans invented them to destroy the economy and our great country. How can you blame Vanya, who has been fed a steady diet of anti-American propaganda on TV for years? [Russian TV host and propagandist Vladimir] Solovyov himself told him that all our problems are behind us, and nothing will break Russia.
The consequences of this world-view were also evident in statistics. According to a poll conducted at the end of May by the Higher School of Economics, a third of Russians (32.8%) believed that the danger of the coronavirus epidemic was exaggerated (9%) or that it was an invention by some “interested parties” (23%). Three-quarters of these people were convinced that there was no need for quarantine measures, and many of them therefore visited relatives and friends even during the period when they were supposed to be in strict self-isolation.
As a result, the growing dissatisfaction of the population with the government’s actions, combined with the belief in a “global conspiracy” and hostility to the West—both of which have been ingrained in the minds of Russians for years—gave rise to a rather interesting phenomenon.
More and more ordinary people regard the Kremlin and especially Russian oligarchs (and sometimes Putin himself) as “agents” of a hostile West. As an alternative to the current government, they dream of a “true government of the people” capable of both ensuring social justice and protecting Russia from numerous “enemies”.
A similar world-view has, by the way, been generously fuelled for many years by Russian conspiracy theorists, such as Yevgeny Fedorov, a State Duma deputy from the United Russia party, who regularly talks about the “agents of the West” who have infiltrated the ranks of the Russian elite. Until recently such theories remained relatively marginal, but now, against the background of deteriorating living conditions, they have begun to gain popularity and are targeting Putin, something that Fedorov always tried to avoid.
It is no coincidence that businessman and public figure Leonid Nevzlin noted in a speech at the Free Russia Forum in November that the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko is even more popular among Russians than Putin. While the Russian leader is increasingly perceived by some citizens as a “protégé of the oligarchs” who is “going along with the West’s plans for the collapse of Russia”, Lukashenko is seen by a significant part of the population as a “true fighter” against destructive tendencies inside and outside his country and “defender of sovereignty”.
Accordingly, each new unpopular decision by the Russian government only strengthens its image as “harmful to ordinary people”, “pro-Western” and “treacherous” in the eyes of the population.
Describing the reaction to quarantine measures by the people she interviewed, reporter Yekaterina Neroznikova notes that they were annoyed with the authorities’ decision to impose restrictions and perceived these as a burden, an excuse for new repressions and a money-making scam. Some perceived the introduction of quarantine as a sign that the Russian authorities were also part of a “conspiracy of globalists planning to carry out chipping and genocide of the population under the guise of vaccination”. All unpopular government measures such as bankrupting the healthcare system, cuts in pensions and raising the retirement age evoke a similar reaction.
Demand for Justice
Until recently, anti-Western sentiment prevailed even among people between 18 and 24 years old. For example, according to the political scientist Abbas Gallyamov, the above-mentioned drop in Putin’s trust rating among young people is explained by the fact that they no longer perceive him as a rebel who challenged the oligarchs and the “global American-centric world system”. However, it is a positive sign that it currently seems that young voters are tired of anti-Western rhetoric and are not pinning their hopes for change on geopolitics.
However, the persistence of anti-Western feeling should not be perceived as a constant trend even outside the younger age group. According to Anastasia Nikolskaya, a researcher at Kosygin Russian State University, the population’s demand for a peaceful foreign policy began to be felt in the autumn of 2018.
One gets the impression that, even among those who approve of the direction of modern Russia’s foreign policy, a growing proportion perceive the confrontation between Moscow and the West as “inevitable”, based on the belief that Russia is forced into conflicts with the outside world for reasons beyond its control.
Paradoxically, this illusion helps to maintain a sense of “normality” regardless of what happens, since the realisation of how dangerous the policy of its leadership is for Russia is even more traumatic for the country’s inhabitants. This awareness gives rise to both foreboding of the country’s collapse and a sense of personal responsibility for what is happening, which most Russians are not ready to accept. That is why the desire to blame external forces for their problems is still very strong in Russian society.
However, patriotism—even as understood by Russian citizens—is fading into the background, while social needs come to the fore. Accordingly, any politician who wants to gain popularity in today’s Russia must prove his “patriotism” not only by pro-Russian and anti-Western rhetoric but, first, by their readiness to make changes in domestic policy: to reinstate social guarantees that are important to ordinary people, reform the healthcare and education systems, start seriously fighting systemic corruption and restrain abuses by the security forces.
Incidentally, as an October 2019 survey by the Levada Center shows, people are now less afraid of change and revolution than they are about illness, abuse by the authorities and a possible world war. It is the demand for security and social justice, and not for “greatness”, that is becoming the basic need of Russians.
This is why the authorities’ attempts to channel opposition-patriotic sentiment into radical parties, such as the For Truth project created by Zakhar Prilepin, have not been successful. The Russian population is clearly tired of militaristic mobilisation and, regardless of its perception of the West, strives for a normal life above all else. This means that, if a leader appears who is able to respond to Russians’ social aspirations, their attitude to the Western world will no longer be decisive and, in the event of a change in the information discourse, it is quite capable of changing.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).