Propaganda, protest, and repression in Russia: an insider's look with Anna Zhelnina

May 9, 2022

Anna Zhelnina, post-doctoral researcher and Graduate Center alum (PhD Sociology, '21), discusses the state of the Russian opposition to the war in Ukraine on the International Horizons podcast

Anna Zhelnina in an orange parka appears to the left with colored responses to polling in the background

How do Russians feel about the war in Ukraine? What information are they getting about the war? What about the reports of people leaving, especially people in the tech world, but certainly in other fields as well? Are Russians protesting the war? Or has there been too much repression and disinformation for them to want to do that?

Anna Zhelnina, post-doctoral researcher at the Helsinki Institute of Urban and Regional Research and Graduate Center alum (PhD Sociology, '21), talks with Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey about the evolution of protests in Russia and the Russian government's repressive machine. Moreover, Zhelnina outlines how Russians respond to the pollsters with their opinion about the war, and how many Russians are leaving the country, the ways in which artists and common citizens silently protest the war, and what might come after Putin. 

International Horizons is part of the New Books Network of academic podcasts. Subscribe to the RSS feed or find it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts A lightly edited selection of the transcript follows below.


John Torpey  00:06

How do Russians feel about the war in Ukraine? What information are they getting about the war? What about the reports of people leaving, especially people in the tech world, but certainly in other fields as well? Are Russians protesting the war? Or has there been too much repression and disinformation for them to want to do that?  

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast to the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I'm director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. We're fortunate to have with us today Anna Zhelnina, a postdoctoral researcher at the Helsinki Institute of Urban and Regional Research in Finland. She received her PhD in sociology from the CUNY Graduate Center two years ago with a dissertation on housing strategies and political mobilization in Moscow's renovation. And that dissertation won the Dissertation of the Year award of the American Sociological Association's section on collective behavior and social movements. She's written a chapter on Russian protests against Putin in a forthcoming book, edited by Jim Jasper and a number of graduate student colleagues at the CUNY Graduate Center, including previous International Horizons interviewee, Jessica Mahlbacher, who is a specialist on Hong Kong. Thanks so much for being with us today, Anna Zhelnina.

Anna Zhelnina  01:40

Thanks for having me.

John Torpey  01:41

Great to have you. So you're in Finland. And I wonder in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Finns have been, as you know, moving toward the idea of joining NATO, along with the Swedes. So what's the mood of the people in the country? Are they concerned that the war is going to spill over to them?

Anna Zhelnina  02:03

Well, especially in the first days, or even weeks after the invasion, you could really sense it here that people were concerned. And there was, well, there were, many people were scared, and they were quite explicit about their feelings. And I think the increase in support for NATO membership kinda reflects that sentiment. I think, when the last polls came out, the support was somewhere in the area of 60% of those who participated in the poll. So that's quite a lot compared to the poll that took place a couple of years ago. And back then it was like 20%, or something. So it really affected people in Finland. And I think it's going to happen sooner or later, although there are also voices kind of opposing NATO membership. Also, because of the past relationships of the country with Russia. There's, of course, a very complicated history between the two countries, but it's also a very close neighbor. And there's also another fear, not just the fear of invasion, but also the fear of provoking Russia to do something that Finland doesn't want or need. So there's like this kind of double sentiment going on.

John Torpey  03:32

Well, yes, it would seem to be a very complicated position to be in. And of course, the Finns have had a long and complicated, delicate relationship with Russia, that for a long time had a name for itself, namely Finlandization, right. And it meant a certain kind of neutrality in regards to international affairs and not antagonizing Russia. So it's obviously very much implicated in the current whole question of what provoked Putin to do this. You know, how people should think about the idea of expanding NATO in the middle of this conflict. But in any case, it's not surprising that the Finns would have complicated and perhaps contradictory views about this question, because that's surely the case more broadly.  So let's turn to what's going on in Russia, you're a Russian national. And, you must have a sense of how much- I mean, there's a lot of talk about widespread support, or at least Putin is putting out the idea that there's widespread support in Russia for the war (or what used to be the "special military operation"). But many suggest that this is really just a result of the fact that people are afraid to say anything  negative to an interviewer. So what's your sense of the situation?

Anna Zhelnina  05:06

This is a very interesting question, actually. Because polls in Russia in an authoritarian state have been a contested topic for a while now. So it's not just the war that changed how people respond to the polls under authoritarianism. And researchers and like political sociologists, and philosophers working in Russia have pointed out that the authoritarian regimes like to use polls as a kind of a weapon to rather shape public opinion and not just to collect it. So it was not always clear whether you could trust the polls, even before the war. But when the war started, it became, of course, even more complex.  And I think these days you can find so many discussions, on like, online, on Twitter, in the sociology journals even, talking about whether we can trust those polls or not. But you're right, most of them show kind of the majority support for the special operation, because remember that you cannot call it war in Russia, because it's illegal. You can really be persecuted for just saying the word "war" when referring to the events in Ukraine, because they passed a new legislation to completely control the discourse. So you cannot call it a war, but the polls usually ask about "the actions in Ukraine" or the "special operation" in Ukraine. And it is true that most of them show support in the area of like 50 to 70%. 

But again, it depends on how the pollsters formulate a question. And there's a lot of discussion about that.  So it's not just the fear, but also the kind of prompting that's included in the way that the question is phrased, that kind of pushes people to answer the correct way. So it's not just the fear. It's also the deliberate strategic work of the polling agencies who are often not independent. But it's also true that even the relatively independent pollsters still kind of show higher levels of support than one would hope for. But again, I just need to point out that it depends a lot on how the question is formulated, how people really- how well they are informed about the events, because that's also something that scholars have pointed out that it doesn't make much sense to ask a person about something, their opinion about something that they don't really think about, they have no kind of pre-existing opinion. 

John Torpey  08:04

Sorry to interrupt. But is it your sense that there are a lot of people who aren't even really thinking about this? I mean, I had the impression that there was an enormous amount of coverage, if that's the right word on Russian televised news that was obviously meant to give people a particular view of how things are going in Ukraine.

Anna Zhelnina  08:23

Sure, yes, propaganda is at full swing. It's working on television and other media. But it's another important piece of political context here that Russia, again, as an authoritarian state, has a very impressive kind of degree of political apathy and just political rejection. People don't want to know about it, and they actively exclude any kind of information that would disrupt their normal lives or their positive outlook on life. So that's something I have written about that political apathy is something that has been produced in Russia over the past couple of decades. People think politics is a dirty thing. They don't want to know about it. They don't want to have anything to do with politics. And that's kind of a standard response. So whenever something political is asked of you, you just say, "Oh, that's something I don't know anything about or want to know anything about." But also I want to refer to the work of some Russian colleagues who have explored propaganda and have studied public opinion in Russia today. 

So for example, Maxim Alyukov, a sociologist from Russia who currently works in the UK has summarized some reasons why, for example, polls should be taken with a grain of salt. And one of the reasons is exactly this, that people often do not have a formulated opinion, despite all the propaganda and despite all the kind of flow of information. And I think, yes, it is very important to keep in mind that people actively work to ignore it. But then again, there are people who are listening to propaganda, and it's really kind of efficient, the way propaganda works in Russia. And it's even people who are kind of prepared. And they have all the right information, the correct information about the war, when they start watching the Russian TV, they're going to notice this effect that they start doubting even, they're already existing and fact checked views.  There's more than one reason to say "yes" to the question whether you support the war effort or not. And propaganda is, of course, one of those reasons that people are just like watching the news, and they believe everything they hear. But then another interesting reason to say "yes" is that people just kind of fall back to default answers when they don't have an opinion. But all they hear around them, is that, "okay, there's a war going on, and our country is fighting for whatever values in this war," even if they don't have enough information, or they don't have an opinion, they would just say yes, because it sounds like a socially appropriate kind of answer. So it's not necessarily a very formulated and kind of supported opinion that people would defend. That's what I'm trying to say.  

So it's a powerful tool, and it's wrong to underestimate it. It works. And again, I'm going to refer to a project that's been published in OpenDemocracy. It's a project by my colleagues from the Public Sociology Laboratory, Svetlana Erpyleva, for example. They have collected qualitative interviews with people who oppose the war and support the war, to figure out why they do or do not support the war to kind of supplement this quantitative data from the polls, and what they found out was -I think it's very interesting- that there are more than one way to support the war. 

John Torpey  12:29

Right. So, I mean, there are a couple of areas related, I suppose, to propaganda that I want to explore with you. And these are, I think, really, in your area of expertise in particular, and that is about protest. You know, we heard early on about people going out and holding up signs, and then of course, the police would come generally fairly quickly. And, you know, it seemed to me also early on, although I don't think we hear this quite so much lately, has been a discussion about regime change. And that Putin needs to be removed from power, which I've always thought was really needlessly provocative. And it just gives him a reason to fight to the very end and to do who knows what along the way. But one of the things that it seems to me has kept him in power all these years is indeed precisely his ability to repress dissent. So I wonder if you could talk about how the repression has kind of developed or unfolded over the last 20 years of his rule. And tell us what you know about what's happening on the protest front; I mean, has that been effectively squelched as a result of the repression early on, or what's happening?

Anna Zhelnina  13:52

Well, to kind of give a broader overview of what was happening with protest and protest culture in Russia, one would have to go back 10 years, because this year, it's exactly 10 years since the most recent largest anti-regime protests in Russia: the so-called "Bolotnaya," or "The Winter Revolution," or whatever you want to call it, there are several nicknames. And I think that was kind of an important threshold after the Bolotnaya protests, which were, again, the biggest, I think, event of this kind in the post-socialist history of Russia. After that, the repression has increased steadily. And I think again, I would just repeat this idea that repression and kind of political discouragement, the cultivation of apathy, they go hand in hand really, because again, frustration, disappointment - those are the important things emotional outcomes of an unsuccessful protest which Bolotnaya was because the regime change back then didn't happen.  

The protests was about electoral fraud, basically. People were trying to demand a recount of the votes in our parliamentary election, which didn't happen so one of the biggest rallies was brutally repressed. And it was exactly 10 years ago, it was on May the Sixth, 20- on no, not 10 years ago, it was 2013, so it was 9 years ago, but exactly on this day that we are recording this episode. And after that day, of course, people grew more afraid of participating in such events, also, the kind of the repression, the repressive machine itself became more aggressive. And basically, it would turn to this tactic that I think the kind of Stalinist regime was famous for a very random attack on people. So you could participate in a protest and have experienced no consequences. But you could also be punished severely for doing something really minor. And this kind of unpredictability of repression is, I think, what really keeps people weary. And since then, it all kind of deteriorated gradually. The new legislation to repress or to kind of discourage the nonprofits, the human rights advocates from doing their jobs, all that really didn't help and but now, it's, of course, a different page in Russia's political history.  

Also, because kind of the beginning of the war is associated with the new legislation that's even more repressive. Like I said earlier, you can't even call the war what it is; you can't use the word war. But you can also just be punished for bringing up this topic in the conversation. People can be punished for basically standing somewhere outside with a banner with a quote from 1984 or something like that. Basically, anything can become prosecutable. The new legislation, this new kind of anti-fake information legislation that was passed, really scared people and reduced the capacity of people to protest in the regular, usual ways. But at first, before this new legislation was passed and implemented, people really turned to the usual kind of tools and ways of protesting. So they went out. They tried to assemble in the usual protest spots, because normally, basically, every big Russian city has a traditional spot where people would just go

John Torpey  18:27

Pushkin Square, or something? 

Anna Zhelnina  18:29

Yes, exactly, exactly. There are like those anticipated protest locations. And that happened, because even there was no kind of central call for action. People just knew that they had to go out and visit those particular places, for example, in St. Petersburg is Pushkinskaya on Nevsky Prospekt. So those are the classic kind of protest spots where people would just go. But not just the people were the ones who knew where to assemble, but also the police. And the police was waiting there for them with, of course, all the gear and equipment and it was just a very kind of scary sight just to see those videos and pictures from all over Russia showing people just being arrested immediately after they just set foot in those areas. And most of the kind of central squares in the cities were fenced off. So that was just visually, a very different sight from even the previous kind of episodes, protest episodes. But still people would go out and protest and get arrested and it went on for days and weeks.  

But then, it just became, I think, obvious that those protests were not working in a way that you normally expect them to work. And by that, I mean, they were not creating a picture of like millions of people marching down the street because they just couldn't assemble. It was just technically not possible. So it became clear that this wasn't working in this sense, but also the new legislation made it so much scarier to protest in this way. But still, the protests did not disappear. I think it's a very interesting transformation that the contemporary Russian anti-war protest is going through, because now you see all sorts of alternative techniques of how people can show their discontent. And it's amazing how much, for example, art means these days. Street art, but also performance art; there are so many interesting creative events that people come up with to just show that they disagree with current foreign policy, or the special operation or whatever word you want to use.  

And it's also very interesting, I think, that one of the largest and most organized anti-war movements currently is the feminist anti-war resistance. Basically, they are the one remaining network of activists and kind of politically oriented people suggesting alternative ways to protest. And these ways of the feminist or the quiet protest include things like, for example, switching price tags in supermarkets with like stickers containing some information about the war, or something like that, or writing like an anti-war slogan, or a message on on banknotes, and using them to pay for stuff and hoping that people will get those banknotes with those messages. So things like that are happening. But again, they are still risky. It sounds like something small and kind of low risk. But actually, even those small events and artistic expressions are risky. Because I think I mentioned before that even when someone goes out and just tries to stand somewhere in the open with a banner, for example - there was an internet meme recently, but it really represents what's going on the degree of repression - where a person couldn't stand openly with a banner saying war and peace, basically, the cover of the famous Tolstoy's book, because it had the word war on it. So it had to be replaced with special operations. So things like that, like even just very kind of ridiculous reasons can get you arrested. 

John Torpey  23:13

Sure. But I mean, I don't want to cut you off, but I do want to sort of get into the question, you know, the back to this issue of sort of regime change or getting rid of Putin, I mean, it strikes as though there's a reason he's been in power for 20 plus years. And the idea that he's going to somehow easily be removed. Now, you know, he's a KGB guy, he knows how to whack people that you don't want around. So presumably, he set all kinds of procedures, mechanisms in place in order to make sure that doesn't happen to him. And I've often thought that when they show us these pictures of him sitting 20 feet away from the person he's talking to, Antonio Guterres, the head of the UN, and people think  "Well, is he paranoid?" Sort of like, maybe he's paranoid, but even paranoids have enemies, right? And I think he this is part of how he has stayed in power. He has been cautious. He has made sure there are no challengers, no threats that can really get at him. So I mean, but I'm no Russia specialist. So I wonder what you would say about that.

Anna Zhelnina  24:27

Well, we don't know much about the situation within the elites around him, right? Because they are very protective about that. Like basically, we just don't know what's going on there. But it also creates an atmosphere where rumors can spread and emerge and like you can you probably know that there are now rumors circulating that he has cancer, that there's like a coup kind of brewing, but there's no way to know what actually is going on. And to be honest, like all this talk about a coup against Putin doesn't look as a good prospect either, just because there are no better guys around him to replace him, you know. So I heard from people a lot that everybody's, of course, kind of, they keep their fingers crossed that something would happen to him. But then like, if you think about it, who would be there to replace him? They're much worse or, or even just as bad as he is. So there's no kind of hope in this regard. So if it's a coup, it's not helpful. That's what I would say. Because the like, the actual political opposition is kind of destroyed, basically: the main challenger is in prison, nearly poisoned. When was that two years ago already? Or one year ago, I think? So it's not clear how that would benefit the country. Or how that would benefit Ukraine, even. We just don't know.

John Torpey  26:19

Right? So okay. You may or may not know, the famous book by Albert Hirschman called Exit, Voice and Loyalty, but "Exit and Voice," as we know from his book are the two kind of fundamental alternatives that people are confronted with in situations of what he calls decline in firms, organizations and states, which, arguably, Russia has been facing, shall we say. So, we know that the voice option has been largely shut down. And we also know, at least early on, that some significant number of people seem to be leaving Russia, kind of throwing up their hands and saying, "we simply see no future for ourselves here." So can you talk a little bit about who that is or was? Is it still possible to leave? Are more people leaving? You know, those kinds of those kinds of exit questions.

Anna Zhelnina  27:17

People do exit. And actually, just today, I think the Federal Bureau of Statistics in Russia has published new numbers on how many people are leaving the country, and it's just incredible. Since the beginning of this year, so in the first, I think, what is it now three and something months of 2022, almost 4 million people have left the country, which is almost as much as the kind of out migration in the previous 20 years. So people have been leaving, of course, there was this kind of constant migration out of Russia. But those numbers are just striking. So I think it's like 5 million who left before like 2020, or 2018, something like that. But those just first months of 2022, like 3.8 million people have left. And it's also kind of interesting how people still managed to leave despite Coronavirus and whatnot. Because there are all these travel restrictions, you can really go everywhere. If you, if we want to leave Russia, you also need a visa you need like all sorts of things. It's not an easy feat that people still leave, and they go to countries that have kind of an easier visa regime, for example, countries like Georgia, Armenia; hundreds of thousands of people went there. And some people are just leaving even without having any long term plans. It was a very quick decision to leave as soon as possible after the war started. And it became clear that it's not going to end soon.

John Torpey  29:13

There's some indication that Putin actually wants some of these people to leave; that he's kind of showing them the door. I mean, pushing them. I'm not sure exactly how much but I guess there was a piece in The New York Times just in the last few days about people who kind of fit this bill, a political scientist in Moscow, I think, named Schulmann. And, you know, it reminded me of the old days of East Germany where the regime as an alternative to incarcerating people would actually just push them out, and often they didn't want to leave in East German times because they wanted to stay and sort of fight the good fight. But you know, that was precisely the reason the government wanted them out. They were bad publicity. And so I wonder how much of that sort of thing might be going on.

Anna Zhelnina  30:05

That might be going on. But there are not too many political scientists in Russia, right, and not too many kind of vocal journalists, oppositional journalists. It's definitely more people leaving, then there are those professions. So one big concern for, I think, the regime is now that there are many tech professionals or just like those IT professionals leaving. And it immediately became clear that they don't really want them to go because they are a huge part of the country's well-being. And those are educated, kind of members of this innovative economy, and they are needed. And actually, the reason it became clear right away that the country kind of wants them, wants to keep them, were all these news about people trying to leave and being held at the airports for questioning. And one of the questions was like, "Are you working for IT? Or are you doing something that's important for the economy?" And it became clear that some occupations are kind of more at risk when they try to travel.  

But yes, initially, it was relatively easy, especially until the flights were not all shut down, because now they're just physically not many ways how you can leave the country because you can either go by bus, but that's also kind of a limited number of options. You cannot fly anywhere. And now it's much more complicated just to organize a trip. But also, it seems that even in these past few weeks, the restrictions on leaving the country have increased because they still use the Coronavirus restrictions to limit who can leave the country. So it's not clear whether it is like there's no proof that those new measures are related to the war, because again, they cannot have any war legislation, they can't have any war related restrictions, because 

John Torpey  32:27

because there is no war

Anna Zhelnina  32:28

Right exactly, they can't really do anything using the war as an excuse. But they can still use the corona pandemic, which is what's happening. For example, like I am in Finland, and I know a lot about people trying to cross the Russian-Finnish border because it's one of the two basically remaining borders that you can use to go to Europe. And it's becoming increasingly more difficult. Because the Russian side of the border, first it usually takes hours just to cross that border, because people are again being held for questioning. The border guards require unexpected kind of documents and paperwork from people, citing Coronavirus restrictions. So yes, I mean, it's kind of an unofficial piece of evidence for the increasing restrictions. But it is a piece of evidence.

John Torpey  33:28

Interesting. So maybe one last question. You know, you're a Russian national, as we've already mentioned, have you been to Russia lately?

Anna Zhelnina  33:37

I have, actually I went there maybe like two weeks after the invasion, because again, I needed some paperwork done. And I had no choice but to go. But back then, things are escalating so quickly. When I went, it was early March. It was so much different than what it is now. The mobility is much more restricted. And to be honest, I would suggest everyone to think twice before going to Russia these days. So yeah.

John Torpey  34:14

So presumably because you might not come back?

Anna Zhelnina  34:18

Well, there's a risk. There's a lot of uncertainty involved in every trip like that.

John Torpey  34:24

Right? Well, I'm sure it's a very difficult situation to be in. And I wish you and everyone in the region all the best hope that this war comes to an end soon. Although I have to confess that doesn't seem to be the consensus of informed opinion at this point.  In any case, that's it for today's episode. I want to thank Anna Zhelnina of the Helsinki Institute of Urban and Regional Research for sharing her insights about Russian public opinion and Russian society in regard to the Ukraine war. Remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple podcasts. I want to thank both Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for the technical assistance and Merrill Sovner for helping put this interview together and to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song "International Horizons" as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey, saying thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.