Surveys conducted by the Levada Center over the last three months show respondent’s attitudes have not changed on several key issues: 55–56% of Russians continue to read media coverage of the “special military operation”; 75–77% express support of Russia’s actions in Ukraine of which 47–48% express strong support; 68% have a positive outlook on the domestic situation; 82–83% approve of Vladimir Putin (and this number hasn’t changed in the last five months) and 68-70% positively assess the Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin (the number hasn’t changed since March). From the looks of it, the Levada Center’s respondents have gone slightly brain dead.
This situation can hardly be called normal. As we already discussed, between March and April, respondent’s opinions on a wide range of topics exhibited sharp increases of trust towards the regime and the authorities. Putin’s approval ratings rose from an average of 64% in 2021 to 83% in March–June 2022 (a 19 percentage point increase), as did the Prime Minister’s (a 16 percentage point increase from 55 to 71%), the Duma’s (a 18 percentage point increase from 41 to 59%), and the government’s (a 21 percentage point increase from 49 to 70%).
Over the previous three and a half years, an average of 48% respondents believed that the country was moving in the right direction, and 42% that it was going the wrong way. Since March, this ratio has hovered around 60% to 22%, meaning that at least 10% of those who previously thought the country was moving in the wrong direction changed their opinion to the opposite after the start of the war in Ukraine. This is assuming that none of those who previously expressed a positive opinion also changed their minds.
A sharp increase in loyalty around events such as the annexation of Crimea in 2014 is a well-researched phenomena in sociology known as the “rally-round-the-flag” effect. It seems to be extremely prevalent and widespread in Russia.
In 2021, around 26% of respondents wanted to vote for the generally despised and unpopular United Russia party. In recent months, this number has gone up to 39%. The number of people who now say they voted for UR in the 2017 elections has risen to 53% as of July 2022. In 2021, that number was just 40% (see Fig 1).
The next effect looks even more absurd. In FOM surveys, respondents are constantly asked about the mood of the people around them. This data can be used as an indirect indicator to monitor changes of a non-specific nature, i.e how the population generally feels. In a somewhat bizarre turn of events, the proportion of respondents who said that people around them could be categorised as “calm” peaked at the end of July (62%). The number of those who could be categorised as “anxious” hit an absolute minimum at 32%. It’s important to note that before the war, this ratio was about 45% to 45%. In other words, war and sanctions have had a soothing and calming effect on Russian society. Evidently, these feelings were unattainable for Russians during peaceful times. It should be noted that polls conducted by the Levada Center in July demonstrate record levels of happiness among the population: when answering the regular question “How has your mood been in the last few days?” respondents showed results on par with the post-Crimean period and the end of 2017/beginning of 2018.
Unlike the post-Crimean “rally”, the current anomaly demonstrates one significant change in the pattern of mobilisation. In Figure 2, we see the correlation of three parameters: the dynamics of Putin's approval ratings, the dynamics of positive assessments of the situation in the country, and the dynamics of trust in Putin.
Putin’s personal gain during the “rally” this time around has turned out to be much smaller and less stable than in 2014 (“trust” in him increased by 10 percentage points on average, even less than the willingness to vote for “United Russia”). In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, 85% of respondents said they approved of Putin, while 55% trusted him; in the spring and summer of 2022, 83% approve of Putin, but only 41% say they trust him. Previously, the percentages of those who were satisfied with the state of affairs in the country and those who trusted Putin were practically the same. These numbers increased simultaneously during the post-Crimean “rally”. Trust in Putin was on a downward spiral during 2019–2020. The number of people who put faith in the president was significantly smaller than the number of those satisfied with the general state of affairs in the country. During the current rally, positive assessments of the state of affairs have skyrocketed again, whilst trust in Putin has not. This means that the euphoria Russians experienced at the start of the war and in regard to sanctions was not associated with the leader or his personal message.
As in 2014, the survey anomaly also extends to estimates of the economic situation. Figure 3 shows how assessments of Russia's economic situation shot up in 2014 and also in 2022. The difference, however, is that in the spring of 2014 Russia wasn’t experiencing an economic crisis and a GDP contraction of about 4%. In the beginning of 2015, the Economic Situation Index dropped dramatically in response to the economy contracting. This contraction was similar to the one happening now. Yet in spring/summer of 2022, respondents are failing to see a crisis.
The index of social sentiment, also calculated by the Levada Center, recently reached 96 points. The last time this happened was in 2008, when the rate of economic growth was at least 5% per year. The Unemployment Expectations Index has dropped to lows unseen since 2008. Even the Consumer Sentiment Index has reached the levels of pre-pandemic 2019. The latter is especially curious given the fact that economic statistics point to a dramatic contraction in consumer demand. Experts from the central bank note the same trend in a recent review. Based on inFOM polls, the Consumer Sentiment Index has reached its maximum value since May 2018. Overvall, positive assessments of the current economic situation today are significantly higher than they were in the second half of 2021, when the economy reached its highest growth rate in 12 years during the post-pandemic recovery phase.
The "rally-round-the-flag" phenomena usually refers to a rise in support for a government in moments of external threat. At the same time, researchers have not yet agreed on the mechanisms that cause it. It is very likely that these mechanisms differ in democratic and authoritarian political systems.
However, as we can see from two cases of the “authoritarian rally” in Russia, it’s not as much about the growth of support for the government, but about a wider and more abrupt change in the perception of social reality by respondents. The question of where this sociological anomaly comes from — whether it is the result of propaganda efforts, the falsification of preferences under the influence of an imaginary "supermajority" or the result of a change in the attitude of respondents to surveys (that is, a lower rate of participation in them among more critically-inclined citizens) — requires further research. But it is important to note that for the time being there is indeed some kind of widepsread inadequacy manifesting itself in the survey data.