Why are Russians indifferent to the repressions taking place today? Sociologist, political scientist, historian and psychologist answer

October 30 in Russia – Day of Remembrance for Victims of Political Repression. On the eve of ” Memorial ” released an updated list of Russian political prisoners, it lists the citizens who are persecuted by the authorities for their religious or political beliefs. Now it includes 420 people, but, according  to Memorial employees, in reality there may be several times more such people. This number is comparable to the number of political prisoners during the late USSR. However, outwardly repressions do not seem to bother Russians: even before the  law on rallies was tightened , their participants were persecuted and  the  FBK was destroyed.few citizens openly showed their dissatisfaction with the authorities by going to rallies and single pickets. Meduza learned from a sociologist, political scientist, historian and psychologist why many people in Russia are indifferent to the fact that their compatriots are being repressed.

Denis Volkov

sociologist, director of the Levada Center

According to our polls, two-thirds of Russians are not interested in politics ( according to a Levada Center study published in March 2021, 35% of Russians are moderately interested in politics, 25% are not interested in politics at all, and 27% are not at all interested in it – approx. “Meduza” ) and do not particularly follow what is happening. Our standard sample is 1,600 people, which is representative ( reflects the opinion of the population – Meduza’s note ) for the population of the country aged 18 and over.

With each new wave of repression or pressure on the media, such as [for example] the inclusion of independent media in the register of “foreign agents” , we conduct new research. Of course, attention to political issues is concentrated in large cities, primarily in Moscow. There are more of those who rejoice at such inclusion [in the register of “foreign agents”], and [those] who are sad. But even in cities with a population of one million, this topic is no longer so interesting. 

The most critical and informed are about 10% [of the population], mostly readers of Telegram channels. They are the most politicized part of society, which is critical of the authorities.

However, over the past few years, attitudes towards the “foreign agents” law have changed. If earlier most of them said that it was needed to combat the “influence of the West”, now most of them are sure that this law was created to restrict freedom of speech. I think that the general trend of growing critical sentiments towards the authorities has developed partly due to the development of independent media on the Internet. If earlier television was a monopoly on the picture, now from 30 to 40% of [residents of Russia] watch content on the Internet.

People’s confidence in official sources of information has never been high. The point is that for a long time [they] had no alternatives. With the popularization of the Internet as a source of information, the state came there and began to try to control it. Previously, this was not so significant. Now this has begun to influence the mood, so the authorities are beginning to press, restrict and hang labels. In a state of crisis and economic stagnation, the current government rests only on no alternative: if not Putin, then who? For the authorities, this is always associated with an alternative political position, so control will only grow stronger.

People feel that there are political prisoners, but these are also not very large numbers (I mean the number of people who know about political prisoners – Meduza’s note ). In polls, people say that there is repression, but when we ask for examples, few mention them. Now basically everyone knows [Alexei’s politician] Navalny, but not everyone is ready to evaluate him as a political prisoner. In addition, in the last year we see that people are afraid to talk about Navalny. Now everyone understands that you can sit down for a repost.READ ALSO

In our country, participation in political processes is not encouraged – it also scares people away. In many respects, the regime is stable, because it manages to maintain itself on this indifference [of the population]. 

In any country, a third of the population lives its own life, this is not a specific problem for Russia. The problem here is that many who are interested in politics still do not have access to alternative points of view – especially those who are older. They are just now starting to master the Internet and use it as a source of information. Young people, including in Russia, are less often [than older people] interested in politics. The most included age is 35-40 years old.

Before, people knew much less about repression. Alternative politicians and the media were generally out of the reach of an ordinary Russian. When all the channels came under the control of the state, we, in a sense, returned to the Soviet Union for 15 years. Now, with the development of digital platforms, this is no longer the case, now we are “back” in the 1990s, where there are different points of view. The state has taken seriously the repression of this environment, because it really began to influence the mood.

For people to pay more attention to repression, it is important that these topics are raised more often by opinion leaders and the media, then the number of active politicized citizens will grow. Whereas earlier it was mainly non-profit organizations that talked about the problem of torture [in prisons and pre-trial detention centers], now large independent media are talking about it: [they] show videos, photos, accompany [words] with visual content. When torture is shown to a large audience, it makes a much greater impression. 

Margarita Zavadskaya

political scientist, Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Political Science and Sociology, European University at St. Petersburg

I cannot say that people are indifferent to repression. Recently, against the background of a sharply increased level of government pressure, the price of a protest has grown significantly. The fact is that even if you are dissatisfied with something, then you will most likely prefer to refrain from somehow showing this dissatisfaction to the world. It is not indifference, but rather fear and risk avoidance strategy. 

Russians have not been inclined to protest before. But if we look at the data of opinion polls, we will see that the awareness of the population has grown, people are aware of what is happening: political repression, the media – “foreign agents” and all these stories.

If we take the history of repressive authoritarian regimes, then detachment is the first and rather simple reaction of citizens to what is happening. If the cost of collective action rises, most citizens will choose to wait and see what happens next. 

However, in Belarus in the summer [2020], people still took to the streets – despite the threat of violence. This is an unprecedented scale of protest, which actually reduces costs [such as the use of violence by the authorities]. 

If you see a huge number of people [and their actions], then you have a new norm. If now the norm is to sit and be silent, then at some point it develops into the norm when people take to the streets. This change can happen in a matter of hours. Returning to the Russian reality, now the norm of social behavior in society is caution.

2014 played an important role in the formation of political consciousness, which politicized people who were not interested in politics. The Crimean events were on everyone’s lips, against this background there was a triumphant return of politics to the everyday life of Russians. If the movement “For Fair Elections” in 2012 was important for large cities, then the events of 2014 became an all-Russian phenomenon.

Now the Russian political context is so repressive that passivity, oddly enough, is reasonable. Unlike authoritarian regimes, where protests and mass repressions take place in a situation of total economic collapse, Russia in this sense is a non-standard regime with a relatively high level of economic development, but at the same time rather repressive. 

I think citizens pay attention to repression. If you rely on research [of those] totalitarian regimes where dissent was really punished, [you can see that] people reacted differently to events. Their reaction boils down to three options: withdrawal, protest, and loyalty. Many, if life in such conditions becomes unbearable, prefer to emigrate. We see, even according to official statistics, that a huge number of highly qualified citizens have left recently, including for political reasons. 

The main factor that can politicize society is the dissemination of information. For example, reports of torture and bullying of prisoners are a very important message. In fact, the practice of bullying prisoners has been forming for decades, and only in recent years, after the case of [activist Ildar] Dadin, it has grown into a phenomenon to which people have begun to emotionally react. 

It seems to me that the situation is gradually changing to the side when Russians understand that prisoners are also people who are worthy of human relations. Oddly enough, I see a positive trend. However, in the conditions in which the political regime now finds itself, collective action or serious pressure is very difficult.

Another important factor is negativity fatigue. People are not ready to emotionally respond to even more “crap” that pours out on them. If every day you learn information about the new repressed, victims and emigrants, then the effect of each subsequent news is dulled. But this does not mean that the information should not come in.

Access to information is key. The fact that Meduza, Dozhd and a number of media outlets have fallen victim to the law on “foreign agents” suggests that the authorities take alternative sources of [information] very seriously, including because it is a very important tool. disseminating information and maintaining awareness [among] the general population. And at the moment, the most important thing is to maintain access to these sources of information. 

Putin says that “foreign agents” in Russia will not face criminal liability. This is not true Factcheck “Meduza”

10 days ago

Back in 2016, it seemed that it couldn’t get any worse. But every new year continues to set anti-records. An authoritarian regime maintains its stability on three grounds: economic stability, a pleasant image of itself, and targeted repression. In a situation where there is no economy, and mass patriotism around Crimea faded away after the pension reform, then nothing else [except targeted repression] remains. But in a situation where repression becomes massive, people’s disloyalty begins to grow. The very acceptance of protest as a legitimate form of manifestation of discontent [among the population] has become much higher. Now it is rather perceived as a normal part of political reality. 

Regarding repressions, there is such a term, “the structure of political opportunities”, when, under an unexpected combination of circumstances, a situation arises in which the use of mass repressions becomes impossible. For example, in a situation of economic crisis, when there is no way to “feed” the repressive apparatus, the costs of going out on the streets [for the population] are not so high. But Russia is not a poor authoritarian regime that drags out its existence somewhere in the backyard. And the archaic institutions in which this country exists are rather surprising. 

Unfortunately, regimes of a personalistic type ( regimes built around the personality of a leader – Meduza’s note ) live a long time even in conditions of a deteriorating economy. If there are no external or internal unexpected events, then the lifespan of such a regime is equivalent to the lifespan of an authoritarian ruler. At the same time, even the death of a conditional dictator cannot guarantee democratization.

Sergey Bondarenko

historian, employee of the ” Memorial ”  society

It’s hard for me to imagine that repression doesn’t bother people at all. I think that a huge number of people know about this [about the repression], but everyone disguises it in different ways. Someone is discouraged by political propaganda – [tell others] as if it should be so. And someone just thinks that this will not happen to him. It seems to me that this knowledge is widespread, and the assessment is adjusted in very different ways.

In a historical context, this [the repressive processes taking place in Russia and the reaction of society to them] is quite similar to the Soviet era. Then the level of knowledge that something like this was happening also fluctuated. For example, in the 1950s, during rehabilitation , during perestroika, there was a surge in the existence of this topic on the political agenda. The rest of the time [the citizens of the USSR] had passive knowledge. 

I am very skeptical of people who say “we didn’t hear anything at all, and then they opened our eyes.” At the basic and subject level, it is impossible not to know about such events; you can interpret it in different ways. I would say that the situation now is in many ways similar to the continuation of Soviet history.

It seems to me that now it is already quite difficult to hide something global, especially such a thing as repression. Everyone knows that they exist in one way or another. But if [the state] has the ability to influence the assessment and interpretation of [repression by the population], then [the perception] is more likely to be influenced by this.

It is difficult to draw full-fledged historical analogies with the current social state in Russia. In recent months, Italy under Mussolini of the early 1930s most often comes to my mind, when very few are pursued very harshly and “on the surface”, but many are not so loudly pursued. And yet there is a vivid nationalist picture in the main [state] media.

I don’t think that society was more politicized before. The point is that the concept of the political is now very drifting. It seems to me that the level of politicization is about the same, but the prevailing themes and agenda have changed. At the same time, the level of people’s involvement [in politics] remains high. Even this terrible state television is also politicized. Every day we see more new people who are interested in expanding their ideas about the world. People understand that everyone has different opinions, and there is nothing wrong with that.

I believe in the constant and persistent affirmation of an alternative opinion and, most importantly, in the possibility of this opinion. It is important that in the minds of people there is an idea that there can be different opinions in society, that people can go out, protest, even if they [going out to protest] initially cannot change anything. It is important to be able to speak your mind openly. Now this opportunity is almost completely lost.

There is nothing phenomenal in what is happening now, it really looks like the logic of an authoritarian dictatorship. The longer it exists, the more repressive techniques are exposed. The only way for it to continue to exist is to plant [the opposition in prisons], unleash wars and raise rates. Such actions lead to the fact that more and more people will simply leave – this is the most obvious scenario. A different culture and people with different views will physically be in a different place. This will lead to the fact that society will be even more divided.

Andrey Aksyuk

psychologist Mental Health Center

Within the framework of personal therapy, we very rarely come across the fact that a person is worried about external factors and events. Of course, there are times when people are preoccupied with the political agenda. But basically a person is worried about his own problems, and very few people perceive what is happening in the country as a personal tragedy. 

But, of course, there are such people too. As we know, in large cities there are communities of people who are concerned about freedom of speech, openness and honesty of electoral processes, and, ultimately, freedom of movement. 

The simplest explanation for people’s disinterest can revolve around a theory that describes a person through the gradual satisfaction of initial needs: food, sleep and safety. An example is Maslow’s pyramid . In it, a person’s needs in protecting his rights and freedom of speech are an order of magnitude higher [and therefore less important] than what interests him in the first place. Roughly speaking, if the level of family income is not enough to simply support their existence, then there is no need to talk about their involvement in political life.

But in fact, much more factors than needs affect human behavior, and psychology has long known this. People, for example, protest locally: we can recall the events in Khabarovsk about [former governor Sergei] Furgal, Shies . These are examples of people who were very worried about the political events that took place in their community. It would be naive to believe that all people who came out to protest satisfy their lower needs to the fullest. Accordingly, at this stage, Maslow’s pyramid stops working. 

The situation is interesting with fear. I have met many people who have a rule not to read the news, because news is usually stressful, and sometimes it is very strong. Up to the point that we are faced with panic attacks, with the actualization of mental disorders, when a person closes at home and does not want to go out.


Our behavior is greatly influenced by our emotions. If a person is scared, at this moment the frontal areas of the cerebral cortex, which are responsible for our behavior and purposeful actions, are inhibited in favor of those areas of the cortex that are responsible for fear, survival and defense mechanisms. If a person is really scared, it is far from the fact that he will go to the rally. 

One of the biggest problems is public awareness. I work in the approach of cognitive-behavioral therapy , its main mechanism is precisely the elimination of the lack of information. We often make decisions without all the information. A simple example: I heard that my friend was taken to the paddy wagon, so I will not go to the rally. At this moment, a person does not think how many people were not hit with truncheons and how many were not detained. The same thing happens with the fear of flying. A person is very much afraid of crashing, because on the news we hear that another plane crashed and all the passengers were killed. But they don’t tell you how many planes have landed successfully. 

It is always important for a person to understand why to overcome this or that fear. It is an evolutionary mechanism that allows us to preserve our lives and pass on our genes to descendants. If we find in ourselves beliefs with which we cannot come to terms, then the fear of problems can recede into the background.

If we pay attention to people who are engaged in human rights activities, then they are most likely also scared, but they very clearly understand why they need it, this is a matter of goal-setting. How to overcome fear itself is particular. If there is a community of people that shares common views, then together it is no longer so scary. 

People who simply do not pay attention to repression regulate themselves in the moment. We do not really know whether [the security forces] will come for them or not. A person who finds himself in a public space can say anything, just to be left behind – this is a moment of situationality. At the same time, the psychology of the crowd is different from the psychology of one person, it is an extremely complex matter that is influenced by many factors. There is no tradition of mass disorders in Russia, but this does not mean that this cannot be.

In many ways, human behavior is influenced by culture and environment, then personal experience. Personal experience is the main thing that psychologists work with and the only thing that can be changed in a person. We cannot change the culture within the framework of personal therapy, biological attitudes are also unchanged. 

Any mechanism of repression and suppression of society has short-term and long-term consequences. For example, when a person is imprisoned for posts on social networks, the short-term consequences of this [event] are as follows – people are scared at the moment. Accordingly, the authorities suppressed the wave of discontent. Then comes the world of possibilities: someone can say that this is trash and go out into the street. [Or show yourself differently:] no political litigation is complete without at least minimal political support [from caring people]. 

The second moment is when people see it and start cleaning up their social networks. Intuitively, it seems to me that there are more second ones, because not everyone understands why they need these problems. 

You can understand both those who take to the streets and those who do not want to do it. The main thing is that a person can specifically answer [himself] to the question “why?”. If a person understands this, then he experiences political events much more calmly.  

(C)MEDUZA 2021

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