A shopping spree in Russia Tuesday night after the collapse of the ruble (Photo from social networks)
Russians living in the largest cities, the people who benefited the most from the oil-driven boom of the last decade, now feel the greatest concern about the impact on their lives of the economic crisis because they are better informed than those in smaller ones and rural areas, a pattern that suggests how Vladimir Putin may now proceed.
On the one hand, the Kremlin leader cannot afford to have social unrest emerge in Russia’s megalopolises, the places from which revolutionary movements have most often come, and thus will be compelled to take measures to try to limit the impact of the downturn on these places while putting in place the forces to suppress any risings.
But on the other, this pattern suggests that Putin may look to Russians in smaller cities and rural areas as a base of support, a turn that could lead him to adopt an even more traditionalist, nationalist and Orthodox set of policies than he has done so far in the hopes of shoring up his political base lest he lose support from this sector.
Those are some of the reflections prompted by an interview given by Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada Center, in an interview published today by “Novyye izvestiya” (newizv.ru/politics/2014-12-22/212289-direktor-levada-centra-lev-gudkov.html).
The Kremlin has been successful in retaining support, Gudkov says, by an “unprecedented” propaganda campaign which has “convinced Russians that “in the south-east of Ukraine a genocide of the Russian population is taking place and that the rulers of our country are doing everything possible to defend [those people].”
Russians really continue to believe the Kremlin’s version of events, but the economic crisis and the worsening of the standard of living in Russia is gradually leading ever more of them to reassess what they are hearing from government outlets, and that trend will continue as long as the economic decline does, the sociologist says.
Few Russians get reliable information about sanctions and other events because “approximately 94-95 percent of them” get it from state television. Only 18 percent go on-line for news. But even the Internet is not the accurate source many believe: the government has blocked many sites and put up its own as well.
Nonetheless, Gudkov continues, public attitudes about the war in Ukraine are changing. “Earlier 74 percent of the residents of the country supported the participation of Russian forces in military actions on the territory of Ukraine. Now [only] 35-38 percent do.” And the number supporting the annexation of Crimea has fallen ten to fifteen percent as well.
More to the point, only five or six percent of Russians are prepared to make any material sacrifice for the annexation of Crimea or military actions in Ukraine now, the analyst continues.
Approximately 80 percent of Russians are now feeling the impact of sanctions and counter-sanctions, he says, although most do not recognize that they suffer more from the latter than the former. “The residents of the megalopolises are already beginning to understand this because such cities are more dependent on imports.”
“The highest level of concern is found in Moscow, the most educated and informed city. Here,” Gudkov says, “people clearly recognize the causes of the crisis and its dawning sad consequences.” But two-thirds of the Russian population live in small cities and villages, and there, people “continue to believe” the Kremlin’s notion of a Western conspiracy against Russia.
But and this may matter in the future, even in these places, “an awakening is beginning.” So far, most of those outside of Moscow are taking things in stride but that will change as the crisis spread, although Gudkov said he would not predict when it would embrace a large fraction of the country.
The Levada Center head stressed that what he was saying is being found by all pollsters. Pro-government ones like VTsIOM and FOM may try to put the best face on things, but even they are going to report this because the Kremlin has to be concerned about what is going on in order to be in a position to take action.
In any case, he concludes, sociologists aren’t “capable of forming public opinion. It has been formed by government propaganda” up to now, but in the near future, it will be shaped by something else: “the worsening economic situation.” And that change presages serious problems for the regime.