In an interview with Nikolay Nelyubin of "47news", Alexei Levinson, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, and head of sociocultural research at the Levada Center was asked how Russians respond to the constant drumbeat of military tension. Russians are frequently informed by the official media of terrorist plots in Syria, the belligerence of the fascist Ukrainian regime, and the creeping NATO buildup along Russia's border. Levinson said that Levada's polling revealed a paradox: On the one hand, Russians do not take the war talk all that seriously. Syria does not trouble them; talk of a war with Ukraine or a thermonuclear war with the US they shrug off as too improbable. However, this does not mean that the war talk is not taking its toll. It leads to veneration of the army and unquestioning deference to the leadership. The Russian public believes that its country is blameless, and there is no need for self-examination. This, fears Levinson, is paving the way for Russia's relapse into totalitarianism.
The interview with Levinson follows below:
Professor Alexei Levinson (Source: If24.ru)
- Alexei Georgievich [Levinson], do you often hear talk about "tomorrow's war" in your circle?
- My circle consists of my colleagues at the Levada Center, and it's interesting to discuss what we know, about the thoughts and opinions of the public. Regarding you question, I can tell you that a fear of war has been, in fact, gradualy on the rise in recent years. Now it is already among the top three fears that Russians face.
Now it's already among the top three fears that Russians have.
On the other hand, the question of what sort of war is quite important. There are wars that aren't feared. If one considers that we are at war in Syria, then such a war hold no terror for Russians. It's just happening and that's it. A really scary war [for Russians] would be a world war, with the US and NATO. I'm talking about a thermonuclear war, which will lead to a total annihilation of everybody in the world. This is the strongest fear, but the prospects of such a war are perceived low by the people. In fact, the first place among the fears takes the worry of loved ones and children getting ill. This has always been the case. It has nothing to do with the virus. However, the dread of war is growing...
- Regarding Ukraine, do you measure "military fears"?
- It's very difficult to measure...
- Let me provide a quote to help you, "At any moment, [the situation in] Ukraine can deteriorate so that millions of Ukrainians would flee [the country] to seek refuge elsewhere." This was stated by Russian Security Council Secretary, Nikolai Patrushev on November 23.
- It is inappropriate for me to interpret Nikolai Platonovich's words. What he meant, what could cause the situation to deteriorate, and whether Russia has something to do with it, isn't my call. But, I can say that although the Russians assess the relations with Ukraine quite negatively, our people sort of reject the idea of war between Russia and Ukraine.
It's beyond the Russians' imagination to conjure up the image of the Ukrainian army fighting the Russian army. There are other opinions, for instance, "we'll conquer Ukraine." There are hot-heads, who are ready to make the following reasons, "We'll take Kiev in in three days." But it is not perceived by them as a war. Such people believe that there can be no resistance to "us" in Ukraine.
- So, you do not measure the dynamics of sentiments towards a possible war between Moscow and Kiev?
- We ask other thing [in surveys]. For instance, "Are Russia and Ukraine one country, [are Russians and Ukrainians] one people?" The share of people, who think so is still far from zero. For such people the unfolding of events where some "historical" [truth] will be restored is plausible. In their perception, Russia and Ukraine have always been one country, one people. For them it is not a war. However, for them, the events happening in Donbass are also not a war, but a "dustup."
We conducted these studies together with the International Institute of Sociology in Kiev. In fact, some Ukrainians are ready to admit that they [and Russians] constitute one people (in Russia 17% of respondents think so, while in Ukraine - 6% - ed.). In the current hybrid time, the mass consciousness also has hybrid nature. There is no war and there will not be one, but the fear of war certainly exists.
- There was similar sentiments last spring, when last time there was a military buildup at the borders. Are there any differences now that you can note?
- We haven't conducted such surveys any more. However, the fact is that the man in the street has become accustomed to living in such an "information climate." In this regard, the militarization of many areas of life, of many areas of consciousness not only happened but continues to grow. We record that the army now ranks first among the organizations that Russians trust. The Russian president is on this list too. However, the army ranks above the president, although usually it was the other way around. The army is esteemed [by people] as the state's symbol and glory state, an indicator of its power. Our science, our ballet, etc., which our fathers and grandfathers were proud of, as the world's finest, now, alas, are not a source of public pride.
- So there's a reason why monuments to Alexander III are being erected?
- Yes, while Alexander II doesn't get such a recognition.
- If people are getting used to this militaristic background, is that a good or a bad thing? After all, there is less stress, when one gets used to it.
- The words "getting used to" can mean effective adaptation, or it can mean chronic maladaptation. If adaptation in fact happens, then it's happens in a sense that the anxiety caused by the situation does not disappear, but becomes chronic (in a medical sense of this term). Such a situation leads to the fact that in people's consciousness civilian topics, civilian concerns, civilian institutions are marginalized by institutions that are extreme, martial, exceptional and rigid in nature. This is a very serious result. The biggest issue is that this trend is exciting children.
- Why it's an issue? Children of my late Soviet childhood played "our guys" and "fascists."
- It was a game of war, in which we defeated the "fascists." And now we are talking about new threats emanating from everywhere, about the fact that children enter life with such a loopy, deformed system of values, and world conception. A peaceful, normal and serene life would seem most incomprehensible to them. They probably won't be attracted to such living.
But those, who believe that by whispering, or trumpeting about the threat around us they will raise a generation that is ready to fight, ready for heroic deeds, should know that this is not the case. Distrust for everyone, getting used to the idea that everyone poses a threat, danger lurks everywhere and the willingness to be a warrior-defender are two very different things. A person, who is free, confident and self-respecting can fight well. But a man who was raised on fear and is insecure about himself and everything around him will be neither a good father, nor a good mother, nor a good citizen, nor a good soldier. The history of many countries attests to this fact.
- In that regard, can you tell us what our society has gained now that it didn't have 20 years ago?
- It acquired the experience of isolationism, i.e. the experience of living under a blockade, not only in the political sense, but it the informational, emotional, ethical etc. sense as well. An important and rather bad fact is that society has become accustomed to this disingenuous idea: no need for paying attention to the reason for the criticism. If we are scolded by our enemies, it means we are right and the more they criticize us, the further it signifies our righteousness. It's a sort of a self-tightening knot. This is bad. Withdrawal from such logic is most difficult.
- Are you saying that this skill is one constituent of the shift towards dictatorship [in Russia] (with or without quotation marks)?
- It signifies a shift towards totalitarianism. It is not the same thing. It's hard to tell which is worse. A dictatorship is a situation in which the will of all is suppressed by the will of a single ruler, while totalitarianism is when a society is organized in such a way that it suppresses itself, (under the guidance of some super leader, of course). We [our society] have gone through this before. Sometimes we see it now as well, and even more often.
Sociologist Lev Gudkov (in 2006-2021, who worked as a director of the Levada Center - ed.) suggested the term "relapsed totalitarianism" to describe this phenomenon. (Just as in the term "relapsed typhus").
- Let's return to the military tension at the borders. It's reminiscent of the stories of the heroic pilots who tried to crash into the enemy with their plane, isn't? And the winner will be the party, who doesn't swerve.
- No. There are no intentions to fight like that. If one was to elect the ramming tactics, then it should resemble a bulldozer ramming parked cars. The bulldozer won't take any damage. Or, as they used to say back in the 1930s, till the war [The Great Patriotic War] started, "beat the enemy with little blood [meaning with minor losses] and on his territory." Those who state today "We can do it again!" [referring to the victory in a Great Patriotic War] would want exactly that, i.e. to suppress the memory of how much "blood" the victory cost us back then. But such people, too, have no intention of making war with someone in order to die heroically.
- So we can't state that there is a cabin full of civilians supporting the pilots, who intend to ram the enemy, isn't it?
- No. I do not agree with the comparison that we are heading on a plane bent on ramming an enemy. We're headed nowhere. We're walking on the edge, intimidating, playing at aggravating [ the situation]. This is a completely different technology and tactic than a ram. The role of civilians here is purely passive. In fact, the public is more relaxed (more relaxed, I emphasize), to think that it is "they" who are constantly pestering, provoking, and threatening us, while Russia only takes the necessary protective measures. This is a reassuring thought, because everything is in its place: “they” are bad and do bad things, we are good and do good things. People don't want to take responsibility for their country's processes or the way the country acts.
- Does the authorities understand this, control it, or benefit from it?
- Of course. It is very beneficial for the army to be esteemed as a symbolic object. And it would be very good if society would go no further than that, i.e. people won't ask questions about the size of the Defense Ministry's budget, about how money is allocated, what are the genuine successes in Syria. For the general public, everything occurs in the realm of television phantoms.
- Does this threaten the country's elite in any way?
- It threatens us, that's what's important. The danger is that the authorities, uninhibited by the public control and civil institutions, are playing with real weapons. I mean these instances when our jets dashingly buzz the destroyers of a "hypothetical enemy." Clearly, these [cases increase] the risks of a war, which could erupt without any involvement by the Russian people, the American people, or any other peoples. And such a war would involve people, who will begin to perish.
And the reason for the war would be not the way society acted at that moment, but the fact that it has long allowed vital political and military decisions to be made outside of civilian control. In short, based on what we know, it seems that the risk of a chance war due to a policy of "brinksmanship", is great. But the risk that war will be started by the conscious decision of those who decide everything [in our country] seems much smaller.
- Does it affect the change in attitude towards a war?
- If an idea surfaces among the decision-makers that a small war will help us resolve our major domestic problems, it will be very bad, in particular, because war cannot solve these problems. (There are problems that can be solved through war, but these are issues of a different kind.) Additionally, it will be bad, because when one starts a small war, one often gets into a protracted conflict. At least our country's history points precisely to such a conclusion. In this regard a risk of war exists. If they [the authorities] think so, they are miscalculating.
Nikolay Nelyubin (Source: Fontanka.ru)
 Levada.ru, November 24, 2021.