By Masha Chaykina, factory worker and correspondent
Assessing the consciousness of the masses under a dictatorship is a difficult task. In Russia, the masses are silent.
The working people and the exploited and oppressed sectors do not have their own organizations, they do not have their own leaders.
There is nothing that serves to collectively express not simply their discontent, but also their opinion. Fear of the state power machine, which showed its cruelty in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and now in Ukraine, reigns supreme. Numerous “fabricated” criminal trials and excessive convictions on trumped-up charges are demonstrative of the regime’s perversity inside the country.
And, of course, two decades of rabid and insane chauvinist propaganda have also done its dirty work: there is still a significant portion of workers and ordinary people who approve of the war with Ukraine. However, according to very rough estimates derived from indirect data and even feelings – for very few agree to answer opinion polls – about 20% of Russians strongly oppose the war and condemn the regime’s aggression. Moreover, according to the same indirect data, the majority of young people and low-income workers are against the war. In contrast, the proportion of support for the regime is higher among the elderly at about 20%, and interestingly middle-class support is at about 20% as well. And I say that this data is curious because many “public figures” and intellectuals who went into exile like to criticize the “inert, dark, and bitter” Russian people. This does not mean that all workers are against the war and all those who live in the wealthier districts of the big cities are for it. The vast majority of ordinary Russians are silent and continue to live their routine, and generally poor lives, preferring not to think or speak about the war.
The war-polarized society
However, the issue of war has intensified and sharpened the extreme polarization of society. Opponents of the war will never forgive Putin and the regime for their crimes, for them (for us) life has changed and they live with one expectation and one desire: the collapse of the regime and the punishment of those responsible for the war. On the contrary, the supporters of the war also consider their opponents not just as the political opposition but as real traitors and criminals. These are the extreme poles of society, but this division exists and is deep and irreconcilable. This gives reason for us to speak of the possible threat of civil war in Russia. This division literally runs through families, and it is a real tragedy. Considering that about a third of Russians have close relatives such as brothers and sisters in Ukraine, this division has taken on catastrophic dimensions for Russian society.
The working class
It is important to understand that Russian workers themselves are extremely oppressed. The years of the Putin regime’s “stability” have been years of hard work for the workers who have experienced the loss of social benefits. Russians are leaving villages and small towns en masse because there are no jobs and schools and hospitals are closed. To earn a more or less decent income, workers must break their backs at work seven days a week, eat and sleep little, live in rented apartments, and travel in crowded transport. For the working masses, the material conditions that allow for thinking, analyzing, or planning simply do not exist.
The regime has destroyed all the more or less independent media. The secret police permeate the whole of society where they suppress, control, or infiltrate the slightest push for self-organization, which only happens when it manages to find the necessary strength and will. All that is left is television with alienated and rampant chauvinism or stupid YouTube or TikTok videos.
Therefore, the idea that has been spread far and wide that “Russians massively support the regime and the war” is patently false. There is no mass support. What there is are workers and working people oppressed to the limit. There are also oppressed native peoples in the plurinational Russian Federation. It is obvious that, in terms of percentages, the majority of those drafted for the war are inhabitants of national republics such as Buryatia, Yakutia, and Dagestan. And it is not by chance that the most significant protests against the mobilization took place in October of last year in these republics. And in addition to ordinary people, there are elite intellectuals, living well in the big cities, who for years staged fashionable performances or published magazines for crumbs from Putin’s corporations. Some of them left the country to lie about the “massive support for the regime from the people.” Of course, a large number of the intellectuals who left Russia are real fugitives from the permanent repressions of the regime.
The Prigozhin rebellion, mutiny, or “march”.
As it happens, the facts surrounding the Wagner Group’s march to Moscow on June 24 contradict the supposed “massive support for the regime.” There was not a single demonstration in support of Putin in any Russian city when he denounced the rebellion in his message to the nation.
Many Russians did not even know what the “Wagner” was. Older people following the news on TV thought that Rostov had been captured by the Ukrainian army! And they failed to understand what a “Private Military Company” means. “What do you mean by private?” they asked.
Some veterans got entangled with the analogy made by Putin: “that Prigozhin is like Lenin, who struck from the rear of a country at war.” “He (Prigozhin) is like Lenin, he rides in an armored car, and history repeats itself,” said one who was also shocked to see and not understand the rebellion’s logic.
“If Putin wanted to restore order, he would beat Wagner!” said one worker who was perhaps speaking about the war for the first time since it began. Another colleague looked at her quietly, but said in a low voice and almost secretly, but with glee on her face, “Let them blow each other up.” An office programmer who is against the war said “it is pure theatrics to show Putin is weak.”
June 24 was a summer holiday for many. But on the subway people were constantly looking at their phones to follow the latest news updates. However, there was no fear or panic. This sense of calm among the population was in stark contrast to what the “authorities” were feeling and showing. Putin addressed the nation in an emergency speech at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning and talked about “a military mutiny that has put Russia in danger.” There were rumors about the departure from the country of known oligarchs and the escape of high-ranking officials. There were also checkpoints and roadblocks on the outskirts of the capital. And graduation celebrations (an important event for every teenager, almost as important as a wedding) were canceled, as were all public events.
But the people followed the events not with panic, but with interest and excitement. A bricklayer builder who is a Kyrgyz immigrant remarked with a wry smile that his parents had called him to suggest that maybe he had to come back home since it was dangerous in Russia now. That said when it was not “dangerous” for him and other immigrant workers from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tadzhikistan, who make up half of the working class in Russia’s big cities, as they continually suffer permanent oppression and humiliation by the state through the police and immigration authorities.
One worker, who has supported the war since the first days of the offensive, was sending memes and videos mocking the “Russian rebellion.” Retired elderly villagers, opponents of the war, learned with astonishment and distrust that the president of Belarus had intervened in the rebellion to mediate “Lukashenko? Oops, no way… What is he doing there?”
A Moscow manager, a father of three, who is sympathetic to Putin’s war, was called by his parents from another city because they were worried about how his family was doing there. He replied, “Don’t worry, we’ll hunker down at home and watch movies!”.
So we are under Putin’s dictatorship. Supporters of Putin’s war are shutting themselves in at home at the first sign of a threat to the regime. And there are opponents to the war who wished that “both Putin and Prigozhin would blow each other up.” And older people have just learned what a “private military company” is. And still others have insisted on asking: “Is Rostov a Russian or a Ukrainian city?” Then there are the young people who were robbed of their graduation celebrations, and later received a belated “greeting” from President Putin who had panicked earlier that day. And all this was happening in the midst of complaints and discontent from the majority of the population, many of whom are exhausted by their poor and routine lives.
This dictatorship is “strong” only in its repressive apparatus. And this apparatus is about to explode from within due to the stalemate of the war (and this is happening despite the fact that the Ukrainian offensive has not yet reached its full force). There is no massive support for the war. It is illusory and frantically fueled by official propaganda.
Many active supporters of the war sympathized with Prigozhin and are now extremely bitter, but they are not afraid. They saw that the rebellion was not suppressed after all. And those who still support Putin only want “stability.” In their own minds they may be “fierce” chauvinists, but in reality, they hide at home at the slightest danger. However, the most important thing is that there is a large, silent, but all-seeing stratum of people who hate the regime, who want a victory for Ukraine, and who long to prepare for the possibility of active intervention. This is how we see the situation in Russia from the inside.