just asking questions

‘Russia Is Completely Depoliticized’

A sociologist from Moscow explains how the nation learned to deny reality.

Saint Petersburg pedestrians cross a street in front of a billboard displaying the letter Z, a slogan in support of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Photo: AFP via Getty Images
Saint Petersburg pedestrians cross a street in front of a billboard displaying the letter Z, a slogan in support of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

The photos from Bucha are hard to ignore. In image after image, bodies line the streets and shallow graves, each one proof that Russian soldiers are committing atrocities on Ukrainian soil. While the evidence they offer appears to be incontrovertible, the Kremlin has called them a “monstrous forgery” designed to smear its soldiers. It is tempting to believe the photos could undermine Moscow’s propaganda and help turn Russian public opinion against the war.

The sociologist Greg Yudin believes that’s unlikely to happen. A professor of political philosophy at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, Yudin said in an interview this week that most people under Vladimir Putin’s rule passively support his “special military operation” in Ukraine because Russian society has become thoroughly “depoliticized.” It’s been difficult to gauge how Russia’s war is playing at home after the country abolished the last of its free press and outlawed speech critical of the war, but Yudin — who is also an expert on public-opinion research — says two decades of authoritarian rule have made the Kremlin’s line easy to accept. If the war lasts for longer than a few months though, the mood may change, and Putin may be tempted to escalate.

The images out of Bucha have shocked the world, but how are they received in Russia? Is there any chance they will undermine the propaganda that’s coming out of the government? 

I don’t think so. The dominant attitude is to preserve your everyday life. A Russian citizen might say, “What am I supposed to do?” It’s impossible to imagine what would be the response to that. And of course, the government gives them the story line and the talking points to reject it, and they’re willing to believe it, not because they believe the propaganda — Russians don’t believe anything and anyone — but because it reconciles them with the reality that helps you protect your everyday life. I haven’t seen anyone so far saying, “I was kind of supporting this war, but now there’s just too much.”

One thing that I’ve been curious about for a while is the Kremlin’s emphasis on the “denazification” of Ukraine. Does this line really resonate with the public? 

That’s difficult to say. People are swallowing it, and they kind of buy this narrative. Are they really emotionally invested in denazifying Ukraine? I think that it might be true about the elderly generation.

What I find more disturbing is that this denazification narrative turns into an operational concept for the troops on the ground, and that’s very, very worrying. I mean, we already see what it leads to because once the troops perceive the situation as a battle against Nazis, they start doing what they were doing in Bucha. They were trying to purge, to purify, to clean the land from the Nazis. And since Ukrainians have resisted, it obviously implies that they, too, seem to be nazified. Therefore soldiers have to denazify them completely, meaning purges. And I don’t know if you had a chance to read it, but the main news agency, RIA Novosti, just published an article by Timofei Sergeitsev, who basically says precisely that, We were wrong about Ukrainians: They turned out to be much more nazified than we expected, and therefore they have to pay the price.

That is dangerous, once again, because it gets transferred into the operational concept on the ground. But it also infects Russian society because this kind of narrative becomes more and more acceptable. We heard about those crazy ideas, the ideas of the Nazis in Ukraine and Nazis in the government, but it never took such a terrible turn until now. It never was like, We have to purify the whole 40 million people near us. This is a Nazi vision of national purity, of attaining the purity of a whole nation through force.

What should Americans understand about the political climate in Russia right now?

The most important thing to keep in mind is that Russia is a completely depoliticized country. People generally don’t want to have anything in common with politics. There is an incredible contempt and disdain for all kinds of politics just because Russians are completely certain that there is no possible way to change anything through politics, that no change is possible in general. So for that reason, people prefer to lead their private lives. They have opportunities to do that because most of them are better off under Putin. Any kind of political activity is all just complete nonsense to a vast majority of Russians. If you believe in extraterrestrials, that’s at least interesting. If you are into politics, you’re silly. Particularly for people in business, that’s a complete no go. I always say the best way to spoil the party is to start talking about politics in Russia. You will never be invited again.

Against this background, I think it might become a little bit easier to understand the perception of what is going on. The vast majority is either in denial of what is going on in Ukraine or assume this attitude of passive support that the narrative produced by the state is enough for them to keep leading their everyday lives. This narrative tells them, This is not particularly serious, everything’s under control. It was necessary because it was a threat, and a threat means, of course, the destruction of everyday lives, and we don’t want that. You have people who are militarized and amplified by the state media. On the other hand, you have people who are vehemently against the war, protesting. But in the middle, you have the vast majority, which is still in denial and trying to stick to those stories because it brings reconciliation.

There’s what I call the “few months” theory. People keep believing that in two or three months, all the sanctions will be lifted, the war will be over, and Ukrainians will be, of course, happy with being part of Russia.

Depoliticization to this degree doesn’t happen overnight. Can you tell me a little bit more about its roots?

I think there are several factors to it. One of them is, of course, the late Soviet Union, where it was an endless swamp and there was a kind of specific atomization of life. The second factor was radical market reform in the 1990s. It was brutal. It completely destroyed the ways of life people were used to. It was very traumatic for many people because they kind of learned that there are no friends. You have to fight all the time. So that was like an unchained market where, basically, there’s a war of all against all.

And then comes Putin. There was already a lot of disenchantment by the end of the ’90s that was not used strategically, but he turned it into a strategic weapon. His media was constantly trying to depoliticize people even further. It is precisely under Putin that this disdain for politics took shape. This is how his system worked for quite a long time because everyone knows that Putin and his party always win the elections. But very few people know how they do it, technically. Turnout is very low because people are persuaded that it makes more sense to tune out at the elections.

Elections are a masquerade. They were flooded with all kinds of ideas just to create repulsion toward politics. You had all kinds of porn stars, like complete kooks. And that, of course, created the impression that you shouldn’t show up. Then you have like 20 percent turnout, with 15 percent of those mobilized for your party. And that gives you 75 percent of support. And then nobody, of course, cares about looking at the turnout numbers. You have this perception that there is a vast majority for the president or for the ruling party.

The TV show House was actually incredibly popular in Russia precisely because the motto is “Everyone lies.” This is so to the point with what Russians feel. Everyone lies. There’s no truth at all. It’s endless relativism. And the media was saying all the time that you should never trust anyone, including the media, of course. That destroys any kind of social bond between people.

Sociologists have this tool, asking, “Do you think that people, in general, can be trusted?” Russia has very high levels of distrust. I’ve seen it as a sociologist. Often people don’t even understand the question — “How on earth can you trust people?” You can trust dogs, cats, but with people, this is impossible. I’m sure it was strategic for Putin to depoliticize the country and to trade relative economic prosperity for complete civic disengagement.

What degree of repression do intellectuals, antiwar activists, and other dissenters experience now? 

It’s definitely worse than what we have ever seen under Putin. We have criminal cases against people here who protest against the war. Otherwise, people are easily fired. Just yesterday, I was told that civil servants are asked by their employers if they have relatives in Ukraine, which means that, of course, you have to say no. If you say yes, you are suspicious. So basically, you’re told to sever ties with your family in Ukraine and your friends in Ukraine. So there’s this sort of pressure. People are fired from universities over their position, even if they didn’t make it explicit. Students are expelled.

Can you expand on what the situation is like in universities? Has there been, for example, a chilling effect on research?

Oh, I think academic life is over. First of all, there’s a lot of ideological stuff now in the universities. Students are made to attend school lectures that are basically promoting Putin’s crazy views of Ukrainian history. Many universities are doing that, many schools are doing that, and even kindergartens. They’re basically imposing this theory on children. They have to pass the tests on this, and if you have to pass a test, that means that you are not free to make up your mind.

As for scholars, well, obviously the vast majority of the international connections are now broken. International scholars really depend on access to academic articles and papers, and some of the journals are now severing their dealings with Russian universities, and it’s impossible to work meaningfully without them. Many international partners have pulled out of Russian journals. This transformed the whole orientation of academic science. For instance, in almost all universities, one of the key indicators for scholars was to publish articles in the leading international journals. So now it is, of course, no longer possible.

You’ve talked about how depoliticized the public is. With that in mind, I’m curious to know how worried people are about the threat of a nuclear conflict? Do they take it seriously?

In many respects, the attitude that Putin himself developed but also imposes on society is that nuclear blackmail is okay. And it was like that even before the war. But when the war started, I think it got even worse. Because there was just this deep belief that the more we’re bragging about the ability to start a nuclear war, the more concessions we will get. The belief is that the United States is weak and is not going to start a nuclear war over some country in Eastern Europe or Europe in general. And for that reason, we just have to be strong enough, and that will be enough for them to give us whatever we want. There’s deep resentment in Russia. Putin has done everything to amplify this resentment about the loss of the Cold War. There is this deep revanchism, this longing for revenge. I mean, Putin at some point said that if there’s no Russia, there’s no point for the world to exist. And by Russia, he means himself. Make no mistake.

What do you think might happen if the war drags on longer than a few months?

Well, after the “few months” theory, there will be another “few months” theory. But still, it becomes more and more difficult for people to pretend that everything’s all right. And it is for that reason that I don’t really feel that Putin has so much time. I honestly think he will escalate once he understands he isn’t making progress.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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‘Russia Is Completely Depoliticized’