Society Behind the Fences

Boris Kagarlitsky on the meaningless "support" of an indifferent citizenry

Source: Russian Dissent

A recent publication by the Laboratory of Public Sociology has revealed the results of a series of interviews conducted with supporters of the special operation in Ukraine. The authors of the study wrote that, in trying to understand their subjects, they sought to “analyze the specific thoughts and emotions they put into their arguments [in favor of the war].”

We must admit that the conclusions of the study were not exactly original. The researchers themselves point out that the respondents did not say anything unexpected: “In general, the discourse of war seems relatively poor and undeveloped, and even staunch supporters of war constantly refer to the arguments of their opponents, which they have heard via the polemics disseminated to convince the public of the need support the war.”

But making sure that people reproduce these well-known clichés is not enough. To better understand how people make sense of the war, one needs to analyze the specific meanings and emotions they put into their arguments. Although propaganda provides them with a set of arguments, those who justify the war are not just brainwashed people. Like the opponents of the war – which is officially only called the “special military operation” (SMO) in public – they incorporate these arguments into their experience and knowledge, which they then use to think about the military conflict. If we want to influence their positions, we must understand exactly how they do this.

At the same time, the authors state with some bewilderment that while several arguments cited by the supporters of the SMO contradict each other, on the whole they correspond to what the government itself offers to justify its actions. What might constitute an independent understanding of the situation, we, alas, did not learn from the publication.

If the authors of the study had set themselves the task of proving the complete “zombification” of their subjects, it would be difficult to give more convincing arguments. But in fact, the researchers are right to challenge the “zombie” thesis. They are simply approaching the issue from the wrong side. They thought that they were studying one object, but they have actually encountered a completely different one. There are no real opinions or ratings. There are no notorious meanings, and most importantly, emotions. There is an information-propaganda shadow that falls from the outside on the consciousness of people, in which there is no political content of its own at all.

No matter what is shouted from the TV screens, no matter what the opposition reports on the internet, Russian society remains indifferent and inert, and is not reacting to any particular political agenda. It is quite obvious that the level of our citizens’ awareness of the current events in Ukraine is an order of magnitude lower than that of the events of the Vietnam War amongst Americans in the 1960s. And although Ukraine is geographically close to us, and what is happening there affects a fair number of people both here and there, Vietnam was on another continent thousands of miles from the coast of the United States, and the war there was a preoccupation for millions of America. Where there is no awareness, there can be no understanding.

In this regard, it is completely pointless to discuss the motives or logic of people who support the SMO. Repeating the words of official propaganda (whether heard on TV or spoken by superiors at a work meeting at which attendance is mandatory), these people do not deeply engage with the meaning of what was said. Therefore, attempts to convince, to find counterarguments, or to employ facts and logic against these beliefs are useless, because there are no real convictions at play, and most importantly, no one is interested, really. No one feels any sense of personal involvement. The detached repetition of received ideas indicates only one thing – the absence of an emotional connection with the events. They “support” it because the question of one’s personal preference between “support” or “against” is, in principle, meaningless. It’s not about “zombie” propaganda, but about indifference. Not about patriotism, but about the fact that the state is perceived as something alien, abstract and distant; about the futility of forming an opinion, which is both unnecessary and pointless.

If the socio-political situation changes (it does not matter under the influence of which events), so too will these attitudes. But a Russian citizen will show a real interest in social events only when what is happening affects him personally, either directly or physically. This was the case with vaccination, for example, when a specific question arose as to whether it was necessary to allow something to be injected into your body. That’s when citizens really put their feet down. They did not just repeat ready-made arguments, but also developed their own, and shared their own personal horror stories.

If people argue about Ukraine, for the majority it is an argument about something abstract. And neither the number of victims on either side, nor the facts of destruction affect anyone directly. Unlike Afghanistan or Vietnam, a contract army is fighting in Ukraine, separate from society. This has nothing to do with the life of a particular Russian and his family members. And if it does, then the event can be considered pragmatically, as in the case of parents rejoicing that they were able to buy a Lada with the money received as compensation for the death of their son.

Russians live behind high fences, in isolation from each other. And where there are no physical fences, there are emotional barriers. The apathy of the public majority can only be overcome by a common misfortune, from which it will no longer be possible to hide. However, in addition to this majority, there is also a sizable minority, which also constitutes a fair portion of society. This population isn’t divided into supporters and opponents of the SO, nor even into supporters and opponents of the authorities generally, but into those who somehow are able to live in society, and those who exist outside of it. There are, of course, fewer citizens who imagine their lives in the context of political, civil or economic events than there are those who think of themselves as outside any kind of social context. But this still encompasses millions of people. And it is on them, alas, that the fate of the inert majority will depend.

Translated by Dan Erdman

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