“They slaughter and maim tens of thousands of men, and then they say prayers of thanksgiving for having slaughtered so many people (inflating the numbers) and proclaim victory, supposing that the more people slaughtered, the greater the merit. How does God look down and listen to them!“
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Almost exactly 33 years ago today, I was on a train traversing the 5000 miles between Khabarovsk, in Eastern Siberia, and Moscow. I’d been working in Japan and had decided to take the scenic route home.
‘Scenic’ is perhaps to give a false impression of the views from my compartment aboard the Trans-Siberian railway, which – apart from a glorious stretch of line along the shores of Lake Baikal – mainly consisted of featureless expanses of frozen tundra, forest and steppe, and the occasional grimly impoverished Soviet town. It was nonetheless a fascinating journey, and one that I’ve had cause to remember in the past few weeks.
I was one of very few foreigners on the train, and shared my compartment with an ever-changing mix of Russians and people from other Soviet nations, none of whom spoke any English. As I had no Russian, this made communication difficult. For long stretches I buried myself in Tolstoy’s War and Peace – the journey had seemed the ideal opportunity to finally get to grips with this masterwork of Russian literature.
It certainly helped to take my mind off the discomforts of the journey – the bunks on the train were several inches too short for me, and the food in the dining car consisted of thin soup, stale bread and indescribably unpleasant sausage (I was told that the fare was better on the outward leg to Siberia, and that it was difficult to replenish supplies for the homeward journey).
At a station stop (I think it was in Omsk) an army officer in uniform joined our compartment and, as he spoke a little English, conversation became possible. It turned out he was on his way home to Moscow from a posting in Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union had been engaged for nearly ten years in a brutal war against the Afghan Mujahadeen. And he made no secret of the facts that this war was not going well and that he was thoroughly sickened by it, comparing it to the bloody swamp that the US had created in Vietnam.
I was surprised that he was so open about this. The Soviet Union was then in the early stages of Gorbachev’s reforms – perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), but for a military man – I think he was a major – to talk in this way to a foreigner and in mixed company struck me as a potentially high-risk kind of honesty.
What I’d probably failed to grasp is that, by that time, the failure of the intervention in Afghanistan was common knowledge in the Soviet Union. Some 15,000 Soviet troops had come home in body-bags since 1979, and the Kremlin had expended an enormous amount of treasure as well as blood in trying to impose its will on a fiercely resistant population (some two million Afghans also died in this cruel and pointless war).
This failure was not, of course, something that you would hear anything about in the Soviet media. But many people were highly distrustful of official news as it appeared in Pravda and other such state organs, and truth had a way of spreading by word of mouth. It was also reflected in the famously dark humour with which Russians mocked their ruling elite. One joke went like this:
“Brezhnev is dying; a doctor and some members of the Politburo are present at his bedside. With his last breath, Brezhnev demands “Get me a priest!” and expires. Only the doctor hears this clearly. One of the Politburo members asks the doctor what Brezhnev said. The doctor replies ‘Invade Afghanistan.’”
One might think that in the age of global communication it would be easier to gauge what Russians are really thinking about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a war which – if we are to believe necessarily unreliable Ukrainian sources – has already seen more than 13,000 Russian troops killed, including, as of today, four generals.
Many Russian families will already have received the worst possible news of their sons, husbands and fathers sent to pursue Putin’s war of imperialist aggression. Many of these soldiers are conscripts, poorly equipped and trained, and with inadequate rations many years past their use-by date. Even the state-owned media, which function almost entirely as tools of Putin’s propaganda, are finding it hard to pretend that everything is going as planned. or that Ukrainians are welcoming their Russian ‘liberators’ with open arms, though this has not stopped them trying.
On Russian state television, pundits expound on the alleged war crimes committed by Ukrainian forces (a classic case of projection) and on the need for public executions as part of the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine. This is interspersed with stirring scenes of Russian citizens expressing their staunch patriotic fervour, sometimes in ways that seem more than a little bit, well… Nazi.
In one particularly repellent instance, a group of terminally ill children at a hospice in Kazan were taken outside to make up a Z formation in the snow – the Z having become the symbol of Russian military triumphalism.
Clearly, you are no more likely to get a true impression of Russian opinion from Putin’s media stooges than you would have been from the pages of Pravda. But the thousands of protesters who have been arrested in cities all over Russia and the incredible bravery of Marina Ovsyannikova’s intervention in the prime-time news broadcast on the biggest state TV channel are not the only indications that the Russian public is by no means united in support for Putin’s war.
There are almost no independent media left in Russia following the clampdown since the invasion started, and any journalists voicing criticism of the war or reporting on protests are liable to arrest and jail. Even referring to it as a ‘war’ rather than a ‘special military intervention’ is now a criminal offence in Russia.
One of the very few independent newspapers that has managed to continue functioning (despite continual harassment by the security services) is Novaya Gazeta. It was the only paper to report Ovsyannikova’s action, and it had to blur out her anti-war poster in the image that accompanied its report.
Yet research is being conducted that sheds interesting light on what Russians are actually thinking. The website Do Russians Want War was set up by the Moscow-based political activist Alexey Minyaylo with a team of sociologists and data analysts. Its goal is “to talk about how Russians perceive the war with Ukraine, to speak honestly and with reason, based on verifiable data”.
Minyaylo’s team has been conducting regular opinion polls, focus groups and social media research, and the results published on its site are fascinating.
Minyaylo posted a twitter thread a few days ago to summarise some of this research, and as he says, what it indicates is “complex, bitter, but more optimistic than dry data shows”.
The bad news was that 59 per cent of Russians surveyed answered “Yes” to the question “Do you support war in Ukraine.” But this answer is based not on hostility towards Ukrainians – only 2.4 per cent of social media posts analysed showed such hostility. It is based, rather, on these people having bought into the entirely fictitious version of reality that is being promoted by state media.
Of these supporters of the war, 79 per cent said that they “highly” or “totally” trust official sources = the same sources that are telling them Ukrainians are desperate to be freed of their ‘Nazi’ rulers and that Russian casualties are very low.
More positively, many more people in younger age groups were against the war.
As Minyaylo concludes:
“So what we see is not actually a support of all-out war, and most Russians are neither Nazis nor bloodthirsty beasts. Those who support war are mostly deceived by propaganda. That’s why government imposed a law that can get you in prison for 15 years for saying truth.
“Also you should take into account that in dictatorships people are prone to give acceptable answers to polls. Especially after government imposed a law that threatens you with up to 15 years in prison for expressing anti-war position.
“And you should consider the ‘rally round the flag’ effect, which temporarily increases public support of authorities in times of crises, even if authorities are wrong. We’ll see how long it lasts.”
My own guess is that it will not last long, and that when thousands of traumatised soldiers return to their friends and families in Russia, it will become impossible for Putin’s regime to conceal the true nature of his evil war, any more than it was with the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
I started this piece with a quote from Leo Tolstoy, and will end it with another, from a pamphlet he wrote on the future of Russia in 1906:
“Force-using power destroys itself in two ways. It destroys itself through the ever-growing depravity of those in authority, and the consequent continually increasing burden borne by the ruled; and through its ever-increasing deviation from the ever-developing moral perception of the ruled. Therefore, where force-using power exists, a moment must inevitably come when the relation of the people towards that power must change.”