Shocked at first, many Russians are now backing Putin’s invasion

The flow of anti-war letters to a St. Petersburg lawmaker has dried up. Some Russians who criticized the Kremlin have become war cheerleaders. Those who publicly opposed the move found the word “traitor” scrawled on their front door.

Five weeks after President Vladimir V Putin invaded Ukraine, there are signs that initial shock from Russian public opinion has given way to a mixture of support for their troops and anger at the West. On television, entertainment shows have been replaced by extra doses of propaganda, leading to a 24-hour storm of falsehoods about the “Nazis” running Ukraine and American-funded Ukrainian bioweapons laboratories.

Polls and interviews show that many Russians now accept Putin’s claim that their country is under siege from the West and had no choice but to attack. The opponents of the war leave the country or remain silent.

“We are in a time machine racing to the glorious past,” an opposition politician in western Russia’s Kaliningrad region, Solomon I. Ginzburg, said in a telephone interview. He portrayed it as a political and economic throwback to Soviet times. “I would call it devolution or involution.”

Public support for the war lacks the underlying patriotism that hailed the 2014 annexation of Crimea. But polls released this week by Russia’s most respected independent pollster Levada showed Putin’s approval rating hit 83 percent, up from 69 percent in January. Eighty-one percent said they supported the war, citing the need to protect Russian speakers as the main reason.

Analysts warned that public sentiment could shift again if the economic pains caused by the sanctions deepen in the coming months. Some also argued that polls are of limited importance in wartime, as many Russians fear expressing dissenting opinions, or even their true opinions, to a stranger at a time when new censorship laws are banning any deviation from the Kremlin narrative punishable by 15 years in prison.

But even allowing for that effect, Denis Volkov, director of Levada, said his group’s polls showed many Russians had adopted the belief that a besieged Russia needed to rally around its leader.

Particularly effective in this regard, he said, has been the steady drumbeat of Western sanctions with airspace closures, visa restrictions and the departure of well-known companies like McDonald’s and Ikea, feeding the Kremlin line that the West is waging an economic war against the Russian people.

“The confrontation with the West strengthened the people,” Volkov said.

As a result, those still opposed to the war have retreated into a parallel reality of YouTube streams and Facebook posts that are increasingly distant from the general Russian public. Facebook and Instagram are now inaccessible in Russia without special software, and Russia’s most prominent independent outlets have all been forced to close.

In the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, near the border with Ukraine, a local activist, Sergei Shalygin, said two friends who had previously joined him in pro-democracy campaigns had drifted into the pro-war camp. They have taken to forwarding him Russian propaganda posts via the messaging app Telegram, allegedly showing atrocities committed by Ukrainian “fascists”.

“A dividing line is being drawn, like in the civil war,” he said, referring to the aftermath of the Russian Revolution a century ago. “It was a brother-against-brother war, and now something similar is happening – this time a bloodless war, but a moral one, a very serious one.”

Mr Shalygin and other observers elsewhere in Russia, in interviews, pointed out that most supporters of the war did not seem overly enthusiastic. Back in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea in a swift and bloodless campaign, he recalled, every other car seemed to be sporting the orange and black St George’s ribbon, a symbol of support for Putin’s aggressive foreign policy.

Well, while the government has tried to popularize the letter “Z” as a confirmation of war, Mr Shalygin said it’s rare to see a car with it; The symbol appears primarily on public transport and government-sponsored billboards. The “Z” first appeared on Russian military vehicles that took part in the Ukraine invasion.

“Enthusiasm — I don’t see it,” said Sergei Belanovsky, a prominent Russian sociologist. “What I see more is apathy.”

While the Levada poll found that 81 percent of Russians support the war, it also found that 35 percent of Russians said they paid it “virtually no attention” – suggesting that a significant number knee-jerkly supported the war, without to have great interest in it. The Kremlin seems keen to keep it that way and continues to insist that the conflict must be labeled a “military special operation” rather than a “war” or “invasion”.

But for those who watch TV, the propaganda was inevitable, with additional newscasts and high-profile talk shows replacing entertainment programming on state-controlled channels.

On Friday, the Kremlin-controlled Channel 1 schedule recorded 15 hours of news-related content, compared to five hours on the Friday before the invasion. Last month, the network launched a new program called Antifake, dedicated to debunking Western “disinformation” and featuring a host best known for a show about funny animal videos.

In a telephone interview from the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, Stanislav Brykov, a 34-year-old small business owner, said that while war is a bad thing, it was forced on Russia by the United States. As a result, he said, the Russians had no choice but to unite around their forces.

“It would be a shame for these soldiers defending our interests if they lost their lives in vain,” said Mr. Brykov.

He called a friend named Mikhail, 35. Mikhail had criticized the government in the past, but now, he said, it was time to put disagreements aside.

“While people frown at us everywhere outside our borders, we need to stick together, at least for this time,” Mikhail said.

Opponents of war become the targets of ubiquitous propaganda portraying them as the enemy within. Mr Putin set the tone in a March 16 speech, calling pro-Western Russians “scum and traitors” who need to be purged from society.

A dozen in the last two weeks Activists, journalists and opposition figures in Russia have come home to find the letter “Z” or the words “traitor” or “collaborator” on their doors.

Aleksey Venediktov, the former editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow, the liberal radio station that was forced to shut down in early March, said he found a severed pig’s head outside his door last week and a sticker that read “Jewish pig.” On Wednesday, Lucy Stein, a member of the Pussy Riot protest group, which sits in a Moscow municipal council, found a photo of herself taped to the door of her apartment message Imprinted: “Do not sell your homeland.”

She said she suspects a secret police unit was behind the attack, although Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said on Thursday such incidents amounted to “hooliganism”.

Anti-war protests, which led to more than 15,000 arrests across the country in the first weeks of the war, have largely died down. According to some estimates, several hundred thousand Russians have fled outraged by the war and fearing conscription and closed borders; A trade organization said at least 50,000 tech workers alone had left the country.

In St. Petersburg, where some of the biggest protests took place, Boris Vishnevsky, a local opposition MP, said he had received about 100 letters urging him to “do everything” to end the war in the first two weeks finish only one supports it. But after Mr Putin signed a law effectively criminalizing dissent over the war, that stream of letters dried up.

“These laws have been effective because they threaten people with prison terms,” ​​he said. “If that were not the case then the change in public opinion would be quite significant and it would not be to the government’s advantage.”

In a telephone interview, a 45-year-old political scientist in Moscow described visiting police stations across the city last month after her teenager’s repeated arrests during protests. Now the teen is receiving threats on social media, leading her to conclude authorities have leaked her child’s name to people who are harassing activists online.

But she also found that the cops she dealt with didn’t seem particularly aggressive or war-loving. Overall, she believed that most Russians were too afraid to voice resistance and were convinced there was nothing they could do about it. She asked that her name not be published for fear of endangering her and her child.

“It’s the state of someone who feels like a particle in the ocean,” she said. “Someone else decided everything for her. This learned passivity is our tragedy.”

Anton Troianovski and Ivan Nechepurenko reported from Istanbul, and Valeriya Safronova from London. Alina Lobzina contributed reporting from Istanbul. Shocked at first, many Russians are now backing Putin’s invasion

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