03.03.23 Review

Anxious Loyalty: Appeals to the President from Russian citizens reflect the evolving profile of social well-being in the midst of war

The consistent flow of appeals by Russian citizens to the Presidential Administration provides us with a valuable tool for assessing the sentiments and priorities of those who remain loyal to the Russian authorities. These appeals not only document how ordinary citizens are adapting to the new normal of war and international isolation, but also reveal the increasing unease and anxiety of those who support or tolerate Vladimir Putin's regime. While such issues may not turn into full-blown outrage directed towards the President and his government, they do, to a certain extent, recalibrate the ‘social contract’ between the government and the majority of the population loyal to it. The considerable disruption of daily life caused by the government has led to a greater reliance on paternalistic measures, which poses a challenge for the authorities when it comes to curbing social spending, in the face of a mounting budget deficit and the increased priority given to defence spending.

The recorded and organised appeals made by Russian citizens to the Presidential Administration provide valuable insights into how the regime's active supporters and otherwise ‘loyal’ citizens perceive the country’s social dynamics. The nature of these appeals and the themes contained within them reveal citizens’ top concerns, providing insight into why they reach out to the highest political figure for help to restore a sense of justice, as well as how they perceive state officials and their relationship to the authorities. Sasha de Vogel, a researcher at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, has conducted an analysis of the popular appeals made to President Putin between 2021 and 2022.

Appeals directed towards the President are ‘paternalistic’ in nature, aimed at eliciting some sort of attention or reaction. They reflect the opinions of those citizens who, regardless of their personal political affiliations, view the existing government as legitimate. Opponents of the regime tend not to engage in such activities. De Vogel analysed 690,000 pieces of correspondence addressed to the Presidential Administration and identified four key themes: 1) appeals concerning economic problems 2) military affairs such as foreign policy, conflicts and military service 3) political issues including the activities of various branches of government 4) social policy, including social benefits, housing, healthcare, public utilities, and more.

Two significant events had the most influence on citizens’ appeals: the outbreak of the war in Ukraine and the ‘partial mobilisation’ conducted in September–October 2022. In 2021, a mere 0.1-2.7% of the messages to the Presidential Administration focused on the issues of foreign policy, the Russian armed forces, and the country’s role in international conflicts. However, this began to change in January–February 2022, and by October 2022, this topic accounted for 47% of all appeals.

Following the announcement of mobilisation, citizens continued to flood the Presidential Administration with appeals; these did not, however, demand an end to the activities of the military, but rather voiced their concerns about the progress of mobilisation and the well-being of the mobilised troops, including medical care, military contracts, and the activities of military commissariats. Despite the official end to mobilisation in late October, the surge of appeals persisted until December 2022, with people continuing to voice their concerns about soldiers' living conditions, food and clothing, as well as the level of training they were receiving. Of particular significance is the fact that, according to this analysis, citizens who support Russia’s military actions in Ukraine are becoming increasingly anxious about the costs of the war for ordinary Russian citizens.

It is important to define the word ‘cost’ in this context; Russians are worried about the human cost of the war, with economic issues taking a backseat. The only exception to this trend was in March 2022, when concerned Russian citizens, attempting to make sense of the new socio-economic conditions they faced, actively sought information from the President himself. During this period, 31.3% (11,559) of appeals mentioned economic issues such as banking, currency regulation, the production industry, pharmaceutical supplies, living standards, prices and trade. However, appeals on this topic dropped sharply in April, and by December, only 291 letters on this topic were received. According to de Vogel's observations, the urgency of mobilisation overshadowed the country’s economic problems, and citizens also perceived the government as having wrestled the country’s financial and economic situation back under control.

After the announcement of mobilisation, there was a spike in the number of appeals on matters related to local and regional government issues. According to de Vogel, these appeals suggest that Russians loyal to the regime sought protection from the President, and did not blame Putin or the federal government for their mishaps. Rather, they blamed the regional authorities for having mismanaged the mobilisation process. In October 2022, only 3.6% of appeals were related to issues with the activities of federal authorities, while 22% of complaints were directed towards regional and local authorities, 33% of this correspondence concerned mobilisation. This indicates that, for this segment of society, the Kremlin has succeeded in shifting responsibility from Putin to the regional authorities.

As perhaps might have been anticipated, social issues such as socal payouts, pensions, services, allowances, and benefits continue to form the lion’s share of appeals to the Presidential Administration. However, following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there was a noticeable decrease in the proportion of these appeals on social issues. In 2021, health-related matters were the primary concern for appeals on social matters, although they had tapered off by March 2022. In May 2022, family and disability benefits took centre stage, comprising 56% of all requests and reaching an all-time high of 22,086 messages. By autumn 2022, a new topic of concern had emerged —  benefits for military personnel and their families — and its share in the number of appeals continues to grow.

The analysis of these appeals to the President reveals two seemingly contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, the appeals demonstrate how ordinary people are trying to normalise and adapt to the changes in society brought on by the war and Russia’s international isolation. On the other hand, the messages convey a sense of unease and growing anxiety among those who support or are loyal to the regime. This anxiety will not necessarily lead to direct ‘outrage’ directed towards the President and his regime, but it will reshape the social contract between the authorities and the loyal majority. In response to the widespread disruption of life that the government has caused, there has been a growth in paternalistic expectations and demands, as well as a heightened perception of ‘injustice’. These factors make it difficult for the government to reduce social spending, even in the face of a mounting budget deficit and the obvious priority of defence spending.