War changes nothing. How long are Russians willing to tolerate a protracted "special operation" in Ukraine?
Why is the death of 300,000 Russians in a war of aggression not a reason for the people to demand from their government to stop the "special operation"? What does need to happen for this to change? What is in their minds?
The author, who is looking for answers to these questions, knows the Russian hinterland from his own experience, and is currently monitoring interviews with Russian prisoners and their communication with relatives.
The potential leader of the "Russian rebellion," Prigozhin, seems to be dead; "their nobility," the favorite of chauvinists, Girkin, is in prison; propagandists are completely confused in their attempts to explain why a full-scale war has dragged on indefinitely instead of a few days. But at the same time, Russian society does not express much concern or anxiety. Ordinary Russians seem to have accepted both the war and military losses and are ready to endure it.
The unveiling of a memorial plaque "in honor of the participants of local wars: in Chechnya, Syria, Afghanistan and now in the area of the Special Military Operation" in the Iskitimsky district of the Novosibirsk region in Russia.
On social media, you can often see footage honoring the "fallen heroes of the Eastern Ukraine" — these are either stories from Russian provincial television or simply amateur filming. A small group of people walks down a dirty street that has never seen asphalt, stops at a warped barrack, where they hang a "memorial" with a portrait of a camouflage-clad countryman, an official makes some pompous speech about "defending the fatherland," women cry, men with drunken faces stomp on the spot, children watch with interest — at least some entertainment.
This is the Russia that is almost unaffected by sanctions; these are the Russian citizens who are not at all interested in restrictions on traveling abroad (they have never been there); these are the depressed regions where residents have been living in dilapidated houses for decades without hope of repair. And it is from there that the bulk of those who are joining the Russian army today come voluntarily and under mobilization.
Alcoholics, prisoners and censorship
The Kremlin seems to have drawn conclusions from previous unpopular wars. The intervention in Afghanistan significantly undermined Soviet society, and the first Chechen war undermined Russian society.
In those massacres, mostly conscripts were killed: boys aged 18-20. The Afghanistan campaign traumatized the inhabitants of the entire Soviet Union: in the Western republics, people sincerely did not understand why young people were laying down their lives for such an "international duty," and in the Asian republics, the war against their fellow believers was perceived even more sharply.
And although there was no powerful pacifist movement in the late USSR, politicians of the new generation realized that withdrawal from Afghanistan was one of the most urgent needs. The first Chechen war took place at a time when Russia still had freedom of speech. No one really hid the truth about how the streets of Grozny were littered with the corpses of 18-year-old soldiers.
The ineptitude of the generals led by Grachev, whose corruption was also shown on TV and written about in the newspapers, Yeltsin's drunken antics, and the desperate resistance of the Chechens led by Dzhokhar Dudayev created an atmosphere where Moscow agreed to sign a peace on the terms of Ichkeria.
Ura-patriots like Girkin harbored a grudge against the "humiliation in Khasavyurt," and when Putin came to power and began "soaking terrorists in the toilet" i.e., launched the Second Chechen War, it was immediately announced that only contract soldiers were fighting, and censorship was immediately introduced to cover the "counterterrorist operation." This victorious war, which was glorified by the then powerful Russian cinema, "went down well" with the Russian public and boosted Putin's rating.
The full-scale war launched against Ukraine in 2022 cannot be sustained by contractors and volunteers alone, and Moscow did not dare to experiment with conscripts on a large scale, so it relied on another category of the population: prisoners and residents of depressed regions.
On mature men without stable employment and with large debts. On those who are not pitied. Not only the authorities, but also their families. It sounds horrible, cynical and like "dehumanizing the enemy," but I'll try to argue.
"Peacetime losses" among the male population of the Russian hinterland, which is the main mobilization resource of the Russian army, is a concept that is very important to take into account when talking about today's Russia.
I used to visit my relatives in the Vladimir region (until 2013). It's not that remote — only 180 kilometers from Moscow — but there was no mobile phone service in my memory. I'll tell you the story of 10 rent-a-cops there, none of whom died of old age.
He was a handsome, well-pumped guy, a favorite of all the girls, served in the airborne forces, and after demobilization worked at a factory for about a year, in Moscow for about a month, where his childhood friend tried to drag him, and then somehow found a job in the local forestry where he could go whenever he wanted. He could take a sick leave if he didn't want to cut down the forest with a hangover, and he was eventually fired for that. He tried to get married and move to the city, but he got so drunk that he started to be homeless there. He returned home and continued to drink until he burned down drunk in his own house with his drinking companions at the age of a rock 'n' roll star being 27 years old.
He started drinking in the 8th grade, so he periodically skipped classes, barely finished school, served his military service, tried to go to work, but he failed to. He took money for vodka from his mother's pension. He died of a drinking binge at the age of 30.
This one manage to reach his 40s, and he had a job, a family, and even got a GAZ-66 truck during privatization having a steady income. But as they say "the Russian man is a broad man" — above all, Kolka loved to drink. That's why he had to sell his truck to be able to afford a bottle of vodka. He even told his parents that "if you feed the cat and the dog, you can feed me, too," and he practically lived at the bus stop during the warm season as there was a cross-road of all the main "highways" of the village. It was a chance for him to meet strangers asking them for some alcohol or a cigarette.
- Vitka, Kolka's brother
He was a seemingly more stable guy, but once he bet that he could drink a bottle of vodka down his throat. He won the bet, but he didn’t meet the next morning.
5 and 6. Valerka Chuma and Sasha Khomiak
They froze to death drunk during a fierce winter.
7 and 8. Vasia and Dimka
In a drunken rage, he stabbed his brother Vasya to death, and Dimka served 7 years in the penitentiary, returned and died of excessive drinking a few years later.
9 and 10: Brothers Volodia and Seriozha
They were poisoned by low-quality liquor.
I have described the deaths of young people of the same generation over a historical period of 10-15 years.
The list is incomplete. Did any of their peers survive? Yes, mostly those who rushed to the city right after school. Or people like Maksym, an introvert and loner who fought in Tajikistan when he was younger, and doesn't like to recollect a memory of it, and considers the city to be an evil force (just like in a Russian crime movie called Brother). He likes to go mushrooming and fishing, and does not drink alcohol. By all accounts, he is an exception to the rule.
"The Lost Force"
The people I've mentioned are quite real inhabitants of the Russian hinterland, very similar to Vladimir Zolkin's interlocutors, Russian prisoners. For the most part, they are a "lost force": convicts with multiple convictions and marginalized people, about whom it is difficult to understand what they used to do for a living, overburdened with microloans at extortionate interest rates.
They are surprisingly passive people. They do not understand the goals of the current war at all; they cannot even explain or pronounce the words "denazification" or "demilitarization". For them, all these pompous phrases about protecting the Russian-speaking population, deterring NATO, and Russia's sphere of interest is a load of old rubbish. They were driven to the front, so it's the right thing to do, the bosses know best.
Let's be frank: in modern Russia, especially in megacities, it is possible to find a job and provide for your family. For some reason, Tajiks and Uzbeks can afford it, but Russian men are not going anywhere, even if it takes them 3-4 hours to get to Moscow from their homes.
They are not interested, because they have to work hard, have a strict schedule, and can't get drunk enough. The army is a different matter: they were drafted, clothed, fed, and paid a salary. And most importantly, they left you no choice: you have to go to the army, no one jokes with you. In the war, they can kill you. So what? He can easily die in his village (see the examples above), he is in debt up to his ears, and if he loses his life, the loan will be written off.
And if he is lucky, he will return home with money and looted gifts. No arms or no legs? It's okay, it happens, you can freeze your limbs off drunk in a snowdrift and no one will pay compensation. So it's no wonder that some people end up in Ukrainian captivity for the second time, because after the exchange they are sent back to war, again with no choice.
The "lucky ticket”
In addition to the "men from the hinterland," many representatives of indigenous peoples, mostly from beyond the Urals, were captured: Buryats, Yakuts, Chukchi, and others.
For the most part, they are even less knowledgeable about geopolitics than ethnic Russians, but they perceive the need to serve in the army as a sentence. Or as karma, to put it more in terms of their religious affiliation.
For a resident of a remote Buryat or Tuvan village, a contract with the army is like a lucky ticket. Namely, to have a steady income and to see at least a little bit, if not the world, then at least the country in which you live. Typical colonial work and travel.
There is little point in talking about colonialism and assimilation with such characters — they do not understand such words. They would prefer not to say anything about their nationality at all, because they have already dissolved into the empire and are ready to be Russians. When being asked to name some of their national writers, they shrug their shoulders, saying that they don't know. Unless they keep the remnants of their national identity as sacred knowledge and do not show it to the outside world.
It would seem that a completely assimilated Buryat will call his parents' house and get an answer in his native language, which he himself speaks well, but he will not talk about his culture and traditions with outsiders, such is the strange taboo. Apparently, centuries of enslavement lead to such deformations: to remain a loyal subject of the empire on the outside, but to hide your true identity as deeply as possible from prying eyes.
People from the Caucasus rarely visit Vladimir Zolkin, and you can see interviews with three Chechens on YouTube who deny everything: "I have not been, I do not know, I have not seen, Kadyrov helps the poor". Such behavior indicates only one thing: they are more afraid of revenge at home than of a Ukrainian prison.
This is also a very interesting category. Those who are completely indoctrinated by propaganda and are convinced that Ukrainian prisons are mercilessly tortured are rare.
But they do not hear any counterarguments. "Are you being asked? Take off your shirt," said one wife of a Russian soldier during a video call. But such cases are rare. A typical mother or wife of a "mobik", a mobilized person, avoids such ideological conversations, instead naively asking: "Yeah, well, when are you coming back?"
And she usually says this in a tone as if the man was out partying in a garage with his friends somewhere, not captured during the war. And these women mostly do not take the war itself seriously. They certainly don't watch the telegram channels of Wagnerites or Russian military commanders, and they learn on TV that a certain special operation is underway to "understand" Ukrainians who insult Russian speakers and are going to join some NATO, but "we were all together once."
There is no logic to be found in these words. The average Russian provincial thinks that there is some kind of "war" in Ukraine that is about to end. And the losses? Well, nothing can be done. The best illustration of the dialogues between prisoners and their wives is the Russian proverb "a Russian woman does not love, she pities." Because her husband, as a rule, looks quite miserable even without the prison uniform, so she feels sorry for him. And if he dies, she will pity him even more. It’s just another reminder not to look for some logic, even in the above given proverb.
In conversations with Volodymyr Zolkin, mothers and wives of prisoners often repeat the same thing: "I am against the war, but what can we do, we are small people, nothing can depend on us."
As Putin says
They believe that only the government, and specifically Putin, can solve all problems. This, by the way, is confirmed by sociology. According to the Levada Center (a relatively professional sociological service in Russia), 70% would support the president's decision to end hostilities in Ukraine, and 34% support withdrawal from the war on the condition that the occupied territories are returned, which is quite a lot for a country electrified by propaganda.
The mood of the "deep" Russian people is as follows: if they tell us to fight, we will go, if they tell us to go home for demobilization, even better. Any turn of events must be approved by a strong central government. The scenario where Putin says: we have achieved all the goals of the special operation, we are making a good gesture, we are withdrawing, is quite acceptable, there will be discontent, but citizens will "swallow it" and propagandists will come up with a version of why things are not so clear.
A "Russian revolt," as the Prigozhin rebellion showed, is possible, but the government currently has enough resources to suppress it. As soon as this government shows weakness, everything will fall apart. In the First World War, the Bolsheviks spent three years trying to convince the Russian soldier to "turn his weapon against the class enemy" — and not very successfully. As soon as the Tsar abdicated, desertions from the front became a natural disaster, and the Russian people (except for the privileged Cossacks) accepted the rule of those who were stronger, i.e. the Bolsheviks.
There is another fault line that is becoming more and more apparent: the ethnic one.
The assimilated nations will continue to sit still and provide Putin with recruits. As for the Muslim republics of the Caucasus and the Volga region, they have an obvious separate identity, they can coexist peacefully with Russians up to a certain point, but their anger is always explosive and uncontrollable, as in the case of the Makhachkala airport when they were searching for Jews.
A serious conflict on religious ground, clashes between immigrants from the Caucasus, the death of Ramzan Kadyrov and the resulting power crisis in Chechnya could all provoke a situation where the Kremlin fails to demonstrate force. The "deep men" who survive to that time, who do not die at the front and do not get drunk, will eventually take over from whoever is stronger at a certain historical stage.