In one sense (perhaps more) Russia is a wilderness. Its political landscape has been cleared of everything that might present an obstacle to Vladimir Putin.
Russians surveying this barren topography in search of inspiration have little to see. The political parties, the media, the church, the security forces, and the educational system say much the same thing — support the current regime, which is good and competent, or pay the price for suggesting it’s not.
When Russians are asked in surveys by the Institute for Conflict Studies and Analysis of Russia (IKAR), which conducts monthly sociological monitoring in Russia — and which the author runs — who they would vote for if Putin was not on the ballot, the response is bewilderment.
Some 70% of respondents did not know who they would support if their leader of 23 years did not run. The findings provide little hope for those non-Russians hoping for a more liberally minded Kremlin leader — of those who did have a favored candidate, most supported pro-government or quasi-opposition candidates.
Yet one figure does have a very high profile, and even if that isn’t yet as significant as Putin’s it is nonetheless very notable.
Evgeny Prigozhin may be seen in the West as a notorious thug, a man with Soviet-era convictions for violence and theft who rose to become the leader of a brutal private legion of ex-soldiers and convicts with a global presence. That’s not how he is seen by Russians.
Prigozhin was one of the most frequently mentioned figures by Russians in 2022 surveys, second only to the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Meanwhile, singer Alla Pugacheva, who has been popular since Soviet times and spoke out against the war, was mentioned by only 5% of respondents. Her husband, Maxim Galkin, received 3% of mentions, and Russian opposition figures imprisoned for their political views, including criticism of the war, scored even fewer mentions, just 2-3%.
Moreover, Prigozhin has significantly boosted his favorability and recognition among the population, with over 60% consistently voicing a positive attitude toward him. This number steadily increased during the winter of 2022-2023 and was recorded at the end of last spring. Only 13% of Russians said they had a negative attitude towards him and this figure has remained virtually unchanged for the last six months. Prigozhin’s recognition among Russian society has steadily grown – in December 2022, 41% of respondents did not know who he was, by June that number fell to only 17%. Even the ban on his appearance on federal and other media outlets since the mutiny has not affected the increase in his recognition numbers. As evidenced by the results of IKAR media monitoring of the Russian press for the last six months, Prigozhin consistently ranked in the top five most-cited persons almost every week, along with Putin and other high-ranking politicians.
More than half (53%) of Russians attribute the public conflict between Prigozhin and the leadership of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) to Prigozhin’s desire to correct the mistakes of the military bureaucracy and to help the army, which is precisely his argument. In addition, 29% believe that the root conflict with the owner of the Wagner private military company lies in the incompetence of the MoD leadership.
Perhaps more alarmingly for the Kremlin and the MoD, half of Russian society (50%) believes that Prigozhin has a political future on the national stage, with 36% disagreeing.
Like many opinion polling findings from Russia, the results are perplexing. Don’t Russians understand that war crimes are being committed by their armed forces in Ukraine? Have they not heard what Wagner is up to?
From the Ukrainian point of view, Russian society knows the truth and is thus guilty for everything that is happening. On the other hand, much of the Russian opposition seeks to portray Russian society as completely detached from the war, denying any responsibility for atrocities in the occupied territories, war crimes, or engaging in aggressive warfare. It places the blame solely on Putin personally or his regime.
Russian propaganda meanwhile attempts to interpret this war against Ukraine as justified; it suggests this is a battle for “liberation” and depicts the Russian masses supporting this, willing to personally participate and endure hardships until complete victory is achieved.
The truth appears to be that Russian society suffers from a split consciousness that developed in part because there is no alternative moral and political authority for a significant number of citizens who do not align with the establishment. The reasons for this are well-known, ranging from the systematic and long-standing repression of the opposition to divisions and political ambitions among opponents of the regime.
There is also something we can describe as a criminal mentality, exhibited by a significant portion of Russian society. Relying on this, Prigozhin speaks to Russians in the language of criminal romance, a cult of violence, homophobia, and a lack of responsibility and trust in civil society.
The dichotomy constructed by the Kremlin over the years — particularly after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donbas in 2014 — that either you are with us or against us — leaves no room even for cultural figures to stand outside the political process and maintain their authority. With the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, this fundamental ethical distinction has become even more pronounced, especially in relation to a few moral authorities from arts and culture, who are either pushed out of the country or pressured to support the war of aggression, as many have done.
Putin used the last two decades to make sure that nothing democratic grew in his shade. But he missed the possibility that someone like himself, or worse, would be fueled by the full-scale war. This new type of figure chooses mutiny and violence rather than political rallies and discussions. And Prigozhin was just the first of this kind, not the last.
Dr. Oleksandr Shulga is the head of the Institute for Conflict Studies and Analysis of Russia (IKAR), the only institution in Ukraine conducting monthly sociological monitoring in Russia. He possesses 16 years of advanced experience in the field of quantitative and qualitative sociological research. During this period, Dr. Shulga was engaged as a supervisor, consultant, or expert to carry out various studies, including areas of potential risk of escalating tensions and instability.