So far, mass public opinion is the position of an incredulous observer. However, Navalny pushes the average conformist layman out of his comfort zone. And he, this man in the street, who is completely unprepared to become a citizen, does not like it too much.
There is nothing more commonplace: a messenger bringing bad news is executed. Therefore, it is not surprising that the return of Alexei Navalny and his trials have increased the mistrust of Russian society. His no-confidence rating rose by six percentage points, from 50% to 56%.
For the “silent majority” (which is not so tacit and always prolongs the existence of the current political regime by voting in elections), the main oppositionist played the role of just such a messenger with bad news. With his return, his investigations, a film about “Putin’s palace”, he presented new evidence of the corruption and moral failure of the state leadership. But the average man in the street, a representative of the majority, does not want to know about this, blocking information that is bad and incriminating to the authorities.
This was the case with the downed Malaysian Boeing in 2014 (only 2% of respondents considered Russia to be the guilty party), in the story of the Skripals ( 3% blamed the Russian special services), and now with Navalny ( 55% did not trust or rather did not trust information about that the opposition leader was deliberately poisoned). The average Russian refuses to believe in the bad – the guilt of the authorities, repels suspicions from himself, forbids himself to think. Those who present more and more evidence annoy him more and more. And they get a high anti-rating.
Navalny has increased his trust rating at an incredibly expensive price – it has increased by 1 percentage point (up to 5% ). This is higher than that of Gennady Zyuganov, but lower than, for example, Sergey Lavrov. This is the response of public opinion.
There are many nuances indicating that mass sentiments are changing: the growth of civic consciousness, new people – young and indignant – on the streets, gigantic differences in ideas about the world and, accordingly, in relation to Navalny between the age group 18-24 and 55+ , striking examples of civic sympathy, resistance, concrete assistance to victims of arbitrariness.
However, the “deep people” are standing as a gigantic, either Berlin, or Chinese wall – frowning, distrustful, gloomy. He is either indifferent to the discontent of civil society and the arbitrariness of the authorities, or irritated by the protesters. His conformism sometimes becomes not just indifferent-automatic, but fiercely aggressive: the same Navalny destroys not too blissful, but at the same time stable picture of the world.
Mass conformism is one of the fuses in Putin’s system. As, however, in any other authoritarian mechanism in general: Marcello Clerici, the hero of Alberto Moravia’s “Conformist”, dreamed of becoming an average person, being, like everyone else, no different from others within the Mussolinian system. Conformity is not a deviation from the norm in such political models, but the norm.
Actually, hence the desire in such regimes for the normative unity of the nation. Those who do not participate in this exemplary unity are marginalized. And now, after the protests of January-February 2021, the activity of new dissidents is also being criminalized – it is labeled not just as morally deviant behavior, but as criminal activity.
The ratings of trust and approval of activities, not to mention the electoral rating, in the Russian political regime reflect a priori, predetermined, conformist obedience to irrevocable circumstances. It is incorrect to compare these ratings with the indicators of leaders in Western democracies – indicators of the real sentiments of citizens in a competitive socio-political environment rotated due to elections.
Elections in Russia, at least the federal ones, are referendum-type procedures designed to measure the degree of conformity of the indifferent majority, following the canon of approved behavior, every time. A correct citizen must go to elections and vote for the irreplaceable president, the ruling party and the candidates in power: this ritual automatism has been developed over the years to the level of a philistine reflex.
It would be strange to expect a “right” citizen to change his usual behavior just because he was shown “Putin’s palace”, evidence of the poisoning of the main oppositionist was presented, and the oppositionist himself returned to Russia, was arrested and thereby provoked large-scale protests and civil resistance.
A third of the respondents who have watched or heard about the film about “Putin’s palace” do not believe in the truthfulness of the information; 38% – believe, but are not sure about the veracity of the accusations; only 17% are absolutely sure of the truthfulness of the information . That’s the whole effect of the multimillion-dollar views of scenes from the life of the upper classes: the majority probably saw in this film a kind of newsreel about interior design and perceived the investigation as an infotainment – an amusing story from a strange and distant rich life.
Disgruntled and aggressive conformists ( 28% , and this figure is growing: +16 percentage points compared to 2017) believe that the protesters took to the streets because they were paid to do so. Moreover, only the abstract West could pay. In any case, almost half of the respondents are convinced that the legislation on foreign agents is directed against the real existing Western influence.
It is fundamentally important for a conformist to convince himself that nothing happens by itself: there is always someone behind the stage, and this someone wishes evil for the fatherland. Especially high is the degree of mistrust of the average citizen in the “capital” protests, and even more so in those associated with Navalny: rallies and demonstrations in Khabarovsk in 2020 evoked much more sympathy from average Russians than the speeches of January-February 2021.
This is a very important point: a protest without a leader, or at least not labeled with the specific name of a specific opposition leader, evokes more sympathy from the average layman than a protest with a clear political label, as in the case of Navalny. In January 2021, negative feelings ( 39% of respondents) and indifference (37%) prevailed in relation to the protesters . At the same time, 22% of respondents had a positive attitude towards the protesters. For comparison – the attitude towards the protesters in Khabarovsk: 47% positive, 16% negative.
Between protest and adaptation
The protests of 2021 by their nature continue the protests of 2011-2012 (both are a civil movement for the modernization of the state and society), but at the same time they are very different from them. 2011–2012 is euphoria after the short thaw of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, the expectation of a dialogue with the authorities and the conviction of the inevitability of liberalization and democratization.
Until May 2012, there was no fear of police and judicial reprisals – in the absence of such. 2021 – no illusions and euphoria, a clear understanding of the inevitability of repression and the unpreparedness of the authorities for dialogue and compromise.
There are serious differences from the social movement of the times of perestroika. Then – one simple and intelligible idea “Away from communism”, the illusion of an abundant democratic and market future. But it is important that the impetus and permission for democratization came from the very top of the political pyramid. A few years later, a leader appeared who symbolized this movement towards democratization within the framework of a sovereign Russia that was getting rid of the imperial legacy – Boris Yeltsin.
Due to Navalny’s monopoly position in the political opposition, and now also in a significant part of civil society, he somewhat resembles Yeltsin. But Boris Nikolaevich was, firstly, part of the elite, not the counter-elite, and, secondly, his activity was legal. Navalny is excluded from the legal, including electoral, political process. Civil resistance itself is not only not allowed, but criminalized by the authorities.
Simple idea “Down with Putin!” by no means covers the whole of Russia – the “man of the middle”, even though he is dissatisfied with the state of affairs in the country, is nevertheless not ready to support the opposition or at least become a part of a modernization-minded civil society.
The state returned not only to the political sphere, but also to the economy (which, again, is supported by the majority of society). Accordingly, the share of the population dependent on the state has increased – directly (the budgetary sphere) or indirectly (quasi-private companies, whose welfare depends on relations with the state). Rational behavior in such circumstances is employment for the state for the sake of a small, but stable salary.
Tellingly, such a model of behavior has become desirable for the average Russian since the mid-1990s – it is not surprising that now it is the main one. We are talking about rational adaptation to the circumstances set and unchanged over the years – otherwise the average Russian would be ready to implement business strategies and manage his private property.
The same applies to the external political environment: the same average Russian who is ready to adapt to the circumstances and rules of an authoritarian political regime in a liberalized situation can quickly discover the ability to use democratic instruments. But for this, the impetus and permission must come from above, as in the days of Gorbachev.
In a word, while mass public opinion is the position of an incredulous observer. However, Navalny pushes the average conformist layman out of his comfort zone. And he, this man in the street, who is completely unprepared to become a citizen, does not like it too much.
But since 2018 and at the peak of the pandemic, the ratings of the symbol of comfort – Vladimir Putin – have been declining. Something compelled the conformist to express, albeit not always too noticeably, his dissatisfaction with the authorities. How are the moods of the inert majority changing, and will the generational gap in the perception of politics and values that was revealed just before the protests work in the coming years? About this – in the next two parts of this sociological survey.