Vladimir Putin’s Russia has sharply constricted the space for free expression in recent years, but some independent pollsters who fled the country have not abandoned their work.
They are still trying to track Russian public opinion on key topics, including the war in Ukraine, providing a rare window into how the Russian public views the war’s dramatic turns over the last 18 months.
Voice of America’s Russian Service contacted one of these researchers — Elena Koneva — about how she and her team approach their work phoning people in Russia and asking for their opinions.
“Analysts have learned to deal with and avoid authoritarian pressure,” said Koneva, founder of independent research agency ExtremeScan.
“For example, when we ask people about support for the war, we give the option to evade the answer: 'Do you support, do not support, find it difficult to answer or do not want to answer this question?’ The new position — 'I don't want to answer this question' — is almost a protest.”
She said researchers believe that people who disagree with the war often answer this way. One participant said, “Thank you for the opportunity not to testify against myself.”
Galina Zapryanova, senior regional editor for the Gallup World Poll, told VOA that polling in Russia " has indeed become more challenging since 2022, but it is not impossible."
In a written response to questions, she said that despite the self-censorship, pollsters "can usually have higher confidence in the reliability of poll findings that show some fluctuation over time."
"Even if the baseline result may be affected by self-censorship ... shifts in the trend over time show that people are willing to report changes in opinion," she wrote. "Trended data can also be very informative about the direction of changes in public opinion even if the magnitude is exaggerated."
At first glance, the Koneva group's most recent polls from Russia continue to show broad public support for the war.
Sixteen months after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the majority of respondents still support the war, and only 20% say they are against.
Overall, researchers say they have tracked just a 9% fall in support for the war last year.
The number of respondents who say Russia should “cease hostilities while maintaining the occupied territories” has more than doubled since last summer, from 11% to 28%.
Koneva said her research group has focused on examining the opinions of the core audience that supports Russia’s war in Ukraine.
She said after people express general support for the war, researchers use more questions to better understand how they view the war and its impact on their lives.
“For example, a person says, 'I support,' but then researchers will follow up with questions to determine if they are ready to go to war, ready to donate to the Russian army or expect benefits from a possible victory," Koneva explained.
Because researchers have watched as censorship and repression grow, they see people’s answers on two levels: those who generally declare support, and those who follow up that declaration with real support for specific political decisions.
As a result, researchers estimate that the core group of war supporters numbers around 30% to 35% of the total number of survey respondents.
These are the convinced supporters of the war. If researchers exclude this group and also exclude the 20% of Russians who admit they oppose the war, that leaves about half of the country's population who researchers say support the war only at the "declarative level."
Koneva said researchers found that people in this group, the largest single segment of the population, have contradictory attitudes toward the war, consisting of narratives from both sides of the conflict.
Oleg Zhuravlev, a researcher at the Public Sociology Laboratory, another independent research center operating remotely, has done more in-depth interviews with this group of Russians to understand how their opinions have shifted from the first days of the war to now.
He said for many people in this group, opinions changed in June 2022 when many realized the conflict was becoming protracted and not the fast military operation initially promised.
“The feeling of the inevitability of war from the life of Russians, the feeling that the war is now with us, and we are with this life, caused the emergence of new meanings of war,” Zhuravlev said.
“So, many of our informants began to reason as follows: Maybe this war is immoral, but it was inevitable, which means that it remains to wish good luck to our side in this conflict,” he said.
Koneva saw similar patterns in her data among this group as their opinions shifted.
“After the inspiration of some and the anger of others, it is clear that the war is real, and it is for a long time. Fatigue and apathy set in,” she said, as people adjusted to panic-buying, high inflation and unemployment, and the departure of foreign businesses.
Some 38% of respondents reported the war “has reduced their options or ruined their plans.” Among them, 14% of respondents reported a job loss, 36% a decrease in income and 56% reported spending more savings on food.
What events affect public opinion?
Throughout the war, researchers have been trying to understand what factors would reduce public support in Russia.
Koneva said initially, when Russians heard about the damage and losses suffered by Ukrainians, Russian people looked more critically at the reason the Ukrainians were suffering.
“But Russian propaganda finds an “antidote” to any truth,” Koneva said. “In the minds of most Russians, the horror of the town of Bucha [where Russian forces carried out mass killings of civilians] has been supplanted by incredible disinformation about the staging of terrible events.”
Koneva said that in June 2023, respondents were asked to send "virtual telegrams to ordinary Ukrainian citizens."
The most popular responses, a third of all telegrams, were expressions of sympathy, support and "calls to be patient until Russia releases them," and a "reminder of the brotherhood of the two peoples."
Koneva also studied how public opinion shifted after Moscow announced a mobilization campaign in September 2022 that resulted in the conscription of certain people.
Even then, the support rate decreased by only a few percentage points, from 58% to 52%. But it recovered to 57% after three weeks in mid-October 2022.
And when it comes to Russian war casualties, Koneva said the losses have been successfully covered up by the country’s strict censorship measures.
“The Russians do not understand the real numbers of losses. … The media gives only authorized information, and the [country at large] 'absorbs’ losses,” she explained.
Koneva said public opinion in Russia increasingly seems resigned to a longer-term war.