Staunton, VA, October 24, 2016 – Aleksey Levinson, a sociologist at the Levada Center, says that surveys show that Russians have partially lost the sense they had in Soviet times that a nuclear war would be the end of everything and now view talk about it as a kind of game between Moscow, which they view as the innocent, and the West, which they see as the aggressor.
Such a shift, although Levinson does not talk about it in his interview with Profile’s Aleksey Afonskiy, makes it easier for the Kremlin to threaten to use nuclear weapons but also means that those who support it are doing so without a full recognition of what their use would entail.
As in the past but even more in recent months, Russians blame the West either directly or as the sponsor of Russia’s opponents and view their own government as peaceful and unthreatening, Levinson says. They do not view the events in Ukraine as a war or blame the Russian government for them.
At the same time, he says, Rusians “do not exclude even a third world war” that might involve the use of nuclear weapons. But they generally treat that as an abstraction because conversations with them show that they “cannot seriously imagine” what such a conflict would mean.
“It is important to understand,” he continues, “that the absolute majority do not want a war. But they do want military parity. They want to be certain that Russia will be able to respond to a threat if it appears,” even if that involves nuclear weapons because “we in a spiritual sense are always more right than they.”
The former fear of nuclear war as the end of everything,” something that was very much part of Russian thinking in Soviet times, “in part remains. But for a large part of the population, all speculation on the theme of nuclear arms is something like a game, a game which we are playing with the West.”
Asked about Russian attitudes toward the victims of conflicts, Levinson says that “the majority of those questioned by us are not disturbed by the fate of local residents and of those which they associate with the ‘opposite’ side which opposes Russia. And even the death of Russian military personnel, it must be said, is viewed as something inevitable.”
Russians in uniform are now viewed as people who made their own choice and thus must live with the consequences, Levinson argues. This is a major change from the Soviet experience with the war in Afghanistan. Then, Russians viewed the losses as a personal affront because the draftees had no voice in whether they would serve.
Russians believe that the main driver of what Russia is doing is “the attempt of the West to denigrate Russia or even destroy it.” That notion “is very widely disseminated,” as is the view that Russia “has the right either of defense or of making a just demand for respect and equality.” Everything else is of lesser importance, the sociologist says.
The annexation of Crimea, in the minds of Russians, marked their return as a world power. That is because this action “was a gesture by Russia which testified” to that since “for the first time, Russia violated treaties, rules, laws, and most important the will of those who are customarily referred to as ‘our partners.’”
But even with regard to this, Russians view it as a kind of “game” with victims to be sure but victims that are of less moment than the win.
Russians know that their situation at home is not good, but they are “prepared to tolerate that” in the name of becoming again “’a great power.’” In the absence of any other unifying idea like the one that existed in Soviet times, this is “especially the case of those who consider themselves to be ethnic Russians.”
Tuvins or the peoples of Daghestan “still can have their own internal frames of reference. But for ethnic Russians, this framework is the country as a whole, and the chief symbol of the country is of course the president,” Levinson says. Four-fifths of the population support the Kremlin’s position. But the other fifth is quite diverse.
“Part of it one could call the left opposition.” Its members “consider that the president has insufficiently harshly conducted the policy of confrontation.” And there are the poorest of the poor who are “dissatisfied that the government isn’t devoting more attention to social issues.” This fifth is far from the united group many imagine it to be.
“But the percent of those who are seriously concerned with the militarization [of the country] as such and who want peace is very small,” Levinson concludes.