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There Are Not Two Russias

Maxim Trudolyubov
two protestors hold up a sign reading "Russians are against the war"
Sofia, Bulgaria - March 27, 2022: Members of the Russian diaspora protest the war in Ukraine.

Whether Russia's war against Ukraine is “Putin’s war” or “the war of all Russians” is a heated debate within the Russian community outside the country and, to the extent debates are possible domestically, in Russia itself.

The argument rotates around the number of Putin supporters inside Russia. Since Putin’s main project now is the war, support for him equals support for the war, many say.

Of course, pollsters do ask direct questions about the Russian public’s attitudes to the invasion and the answers do suggest approval.

A rather convincing picture emerges: confused ordinary people, brought up on Soviet values, consuming propaganda. They are the perfect social foundation for the Kremlin’s war. Not just Ukrainians and many Westerners say this, but also some Russian scientists and politicians.

Yet this does not ring true. The nonchalantly mundane tone of social life in Russia after February 24, 2022, does not at all match the picture of mobilization and unity that the Kremlin propagandists paint every day.

Anti-war Russians stubbornly say: this is not us, this war is madness, we have always been close with Ukrainians, Russians cannot possibly be warmongers en masse. Some social scientists suggest that disapproval may be hidden inside approving answers. After all, speaking out against the war is effectively criminalized and, when talking to pollsters, people avoid direct talk.

That is why it is important to look at the elites, not the masses, for clues, this logic suggests. After all, educated and globalized Russians are the ones who can afford to express their views openly. The majority of Russians have never left the country and do not even hold a foreign travel document.

When Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February, some of Russia’s elites left the country, but the majority, the overwhelming majority, remained in their posts, as if nothing had happened. This is a painful and puzzling reality.

Those who stayed in Russia and continued their business as usual are the middle and small officials who are responsible for the smooth operation of the Kremlin’s military-political machine. 

Russia’s business community has taken up import substitution and is busily inventing ways to circumvent the West’s sanctions. The upper middle class and the leadership of the state-funded structures are pushed by their higher-ups to demonstrate loyalty to the war and they do it as if they are dealing with some new government regulation.

These silent and highly functional elites comprise several million people who, half-heartedly but without any visible protest, switched from running the state and its economic machinery to running the machinery of aggression. There have been almost no resignations from supervisory positions, and business confidence in Russia is spectacularly high.

Who are these people? According to the social scientist Maria Snegovaya, the majority of Russia’s current officials and Kremlin-connected business people have direct or family ties to Soviet-era elites. About 60 percent of those running the country in various positions of authority have origins in the middle and lower ranks of the Soviet nomenklatura—the people who had to go through rigorous Communist Party filtering to be appointed to run the regions, cities, research centers, and large factories of the Soviet empire.

The share of those with nomenklatura backgrounds in the ranks of Putin-era elites is much higher than the share of security professionals, Snegovaya writes. The influence of the military, the secret agents, and the police is significant, but not overwhelming.

If the fickle nature of polling results in an authoritarian society means that we do not know the exact extent of mass support of the aggression, we do know that the informed and globalized elites who make sure that the Russian state operates without much of a hiccup support the war. Otherwise, we would see resignations, defections, and examples of defiance.

The civilian elites’ contribution to maintaining the war effort is enormous, but it is systematically ignored because these elites are displaced from our thinking by the image of a “people born to slavery,” of a weak and paternalistic society spoiled by propaganda and incapable of collective action.

But “tens of thousands of large and small bosses, officials, managers, state entrepreneurs embedded in bureaucratic clienteles, economically successful, ‘respected’ people…are ready to swear their allegiance to the most evil national leader,” says a recent think piece in Meduza, the influential news site that has been declared an “undesirable organization” by the Russian authorities. The anonymous researcher who wrote the piece, living in Russia and therefore unable to publish under their real name, concludes that these ordinary people “are ready to run Putin’s ‘special military operation’ and go to bed with the devil as long as they keep their social status and retain or expand their administrative and economic opportunities.”

The argument over the question of whether this war is “Putin’s war” or the “war of all Russians” will never end. After the war, as the war-crimes investigations unfold, new crimes will be uncovered, and the dispute will only become more intense.

Thomas Mann’s words about Germany will be quoted again and again. “There are not two Germanys, a good one and a bad one, but only one, whose best turned into evil through devilish cunning,” he famously said in his “Germany and the Germans” address at the Library of Congress in 1945.

All Russians and bearers of Russian surnames need to realize that questions about our position on the war will be asked again and again, coming back in circles. And even if some Russians escape the question, most of us will end up addressing it to ourselves.

There is a political dimension to this dispute. Those who intend to engage in free political activity in Russia when the opportunity arises often assume that the “war of all Russians” position will not be to their advantage in the struggle for public sympathy. After Putin’s demise, “Putin’s war” will be a much more attractive slogan. Russian independent politicians should be aware of this. It will be important to keep educating the public about the inevitability that all Russian society will bear responsibility for the act of aggression.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more