31 January 2024
by Ilya Shablinsky
It’s hard to believe, but political life has briefly returned to Russia. In dozens of cities across the country, signatures are being collected in support of Boris Nadezhdin’s candidature for the coveted position – people are lining up to add their signature. We have seen it reported hundreds of times on Telegram channels, and political pundits have had their say. You can see why thousands of Russians are eager to show their support for the only candidate to have spoken out against the war. Behind these thousands, there are millions of people who know perfectly well what this war is about and despise it. The Kremlin, having intended to game things out with single anti-war candidate, now appears to be rethinking and changing the rules of the game. They didn’t see it coming, of course, and yet they are already making their move – even before the chair of the Central Election Commission carries out the order. National TV channels are featuring proud ‘bit-part’ candidates who, lo and behold, have already collected their signatures, turned down their own nominations, and come out in support of our chief ‘self-nominee’ Putin. The national channels have stopped mentioning Nadezhdin. He doesn’t exist for them.
This day has shown us once again what we basically already knew: the country is divided. Supporters of the war aren’t looking for sympathisers in queues and they’re in no hurry to sign anything. Why should they rush, when they have the whole government as their sympathiser? They already know they have the numbers, and if there was any doubt, sociologists would back them up. They have hundreds of their own Telegram channels and other websites, which right now are broadcasting to the four corners of the internet a 15-minute video of theirs featuring various groups of people from different regions, all addressing the guarantor of our still existent Constitution.
It seems to be more the work of enthusiasts than professional propagandists. It is a montage of a dozen or so individual and collective messages to Putin in which people ask their dear leader to annihilate, finish off, and crush the hated enemy. They are begging for war! No doubt there are millions – tens of millions – of people who support these calls to action.
The video seems to be most likely a response to the kilometres-long queues at Nadezhdin’s signature collection points. But these aren’t declarations of love for their leader (a candidate of sorts once again), nor is it an expression of total loyalty and admiration. The enthusiasm is gone, and instead there is bewilderment at the fact that Ukraine has yet to be finished off and is resisting and even striking at Russian oil depots and airfields. Making their feelings known, every participant in the film cites the example of the New Year’s Eve attack on Belgorod.
We have seen plenty of collective appeals before. We are not dealing in particulars here, about the medium-term outcome of the war. It has been going on for almost two years now. The assortment of demands and incantations in question undoubtedly expresses the feelings of a huge proportion of Russian residents. These are Putin’s voters – they are his people, the kind who happily make do with national TV channels. They aren’t discouraged by the contradiction between talking about aggression against Russia, but then recalling the start of the “Special Military Operation”, and so appearing to remember who started it. At least, so it would seem. But we had to strike first! They don’t care what happens to Ukrainian cities, those that have literally been wiped off the face of the Earth or those that are attacked day and night. They don’t feel even a shred of sympathy for the residents of those cities and they don’t want to know anything about the thousands of victims. They don’t seem to know about it, although they could of course find out. They have access to the same websites as the rest of us.
What are their demands? Oh, their leader is unlikely to find anything useful for himself in these demands. Immediately take measures to eliminate those in power in Ukraine. Recognise the “Ukrainian regime” a terrorist state. Introduce martial law – where it has not yet been introduced (here many of those asking “questions” even show knowledge of the Constitution, quoting Article 87). Switch from half-measures to “real measures” – otherwise it will be too late. “What are you up to, Vladimir Vladimirovich?! Wake up!” – a woman resident in Krasnodar region shouts indignantly.
At the same time, they are ready to admit that there is a slaughter, a massacre, is going on and they even recognise a degree of hypocrisy in the government propaganda. For example, they angrily report that the most basic necessities are lacking at the front and in the trenches, that the casualty numbers are very high, that people are no longer dying just on the territory of Ukraine (something they apparently are ready to consider as normal), but also on the territory of the Russian Federation itself. They are even annoyed that the official media still call what is happening a “special military operation”, while ordinary people in queues in their cities are already talking about a full-fledged war.
But they still seem to have no qualms about the need to have started the whole thing. They have no particular regrets. They do not link the gruesome consequences in any way with the decision to unleash a war of aggression. They are not ready or they are unwilling to recognise the person who started the war as the aggressor – the man who started the insane conflict with Ukraine back in 2014.
Until then, everything seemed to suit them. But then something went wrong. They began to feel something…
These people are a huge part of the population. And since above we recalled the queues in support of the only candidate with an anti-war platform, here we have to admit: these are people who have diametrically opposed political beliefs. This polarisation is a long-standing and severe disease of Russian society.
What we see are two parts of one people. Two layers, or – let’s pay tribute to political science – two segments of the electorate. Yes, I am ready to admit that the layer professing war is much more in evidence.
Do Russians want war? Many indeed do. You can watch this video yourself, listen to them talk. And yet there are also many other Russians with different views. The difference in worldviews at these two poles is so great that it is as if we see two different peoples. In a certain sense it is so. It was so a century ago, during the civil war: one Russia against the other. It was like that three decades ago when part of the citizens of the former USSR demanded democracy, glasnost, a market economy and normal relations with democracies in the West, and the other part wanted none of this. And that was also a major split that almost resulted in a full-fledged civil war.
We are witnessing this split right now. It is getting worse as the wheel of war spins. This is a war, unleashed by the nationalistic regime in Russia against a neighbouring state and a people that until recently Russian politicians called “brotherly”. But it is also a war unleashed by the regime against its own people and their fundamental interests. And even those people who in ultra-patriotic videos call on the commander-in-chief to take “decisive measures” are aware that their situation is getting worse, the slaughter is dragging on, their compatriots are dying en masse, and there is no end to this madness in sight.
Nevertheless, very soon they will vote for war. The militaristic psychosis defies rational argument. And war will exacerbate to the limit the crisis developing before our eyes. Just where that limit is, I cannot say.