Critical Support


The ‘special military operation’ (the law forbids calling it anything else) got off to a bad start and has slogged brutally along for more than a year with no end in sight. Yet many people in Russia support it. While a lot of men fled the country when mobilisation was ordered, others willingly reported to draft offices, boarded the buses and headed to the front, seen off by their women and children. The federal government at first promised 300,000 rubles to whoever enlisted, then rescinded the offer and instructed regional governments to support the families instead.

Governors provided what they could: cash and cabbages, flour and firewood. Packs of frozen dumplings. In Tuva, each family of a mobilised man was provided with one live sheep. Friends and family were asked to get the men ready for the front. Religious organisations, volunteer groups and members of the public were encouraged to help out. And they did, chipping in to scrounge up sleeping bags and combat boots, first-aid kits and bullet-proof vests, underwear and socks.

Some of the mobilised soon found themselves locked in at training camps without enough food, reliant on their families to feed them through the chainlink fences. (‘Like animals at a zoo!’ laughed the Ukrainian bloggers.) The wives of mobilised men petitioned state authorities, complained about local officials and demanded that the process be better organised. The men themselves posted videos online:

We’re near Belgorod right now. There’s about five hundred of us here, we’re all armed but no one’s been assigned to a regiment. We’ve spent a week living like animals, and we don’t know where we’re going. We’ve had to buy food with our own money. We’ve got weapons but they’re not registered to us.

The video was published by a patriotic Telegram channel with more than a million subscribers. According to its editors, ‘these men are burning with desire, they want to defend their homeland, but they don’t understand what is happening. We’ve said this before: this is the fault of systemic problems in the Ministry of Defence.’

The ‘special military operation’ is a bloody fiasco – that much is obvious. Terms such as ‘the Bakhmut meat grinder’ are now commonplace. And yet it’s a fiasco that many people support. Anglo-American commentators turn to totalitarian clichés to explain this curious fact: they write that Russians are brainwashed, depoliticised and terrified of police repression. Historians trace the roots of this situation in the longue durée. Ekaterina Pravilova, a historian of Imperial Russia, notes that today as in the 19th century those who are allowed to speak on behalf of society are closely linked to the state, and that

most of the millions of people who support Putin and his plans of imperial revival … have been raised on state propaganda and are unwilling to question the veracity of the myths that it produces. They are excited about military victories because different ideas have never been inculcated in their minds, neither by the schools nor by the Orthodox Church. Many of them live in misery and abandonment, and they seek emotional comfort not in kindness and compassion but in an illusionary victory in a ‘special operation’.

But such accounts cannot explain why people support the war even as they openly criticise its leadership, methods and goals. Online and in daily life, in formal state petitions and in viral streams, people in Russia complain about their political and military leaders’ criminally incompetent actions and policies. They denounce the military’s infrastructure, tactics and strategies. The most patriotic speak the most critically.

Take Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov. Tried in absentia by the International Criminal Court for shooting down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014 while leading an insurrection in the area of eastern Ukraine that he called ‘Novorossiya’, Girkin is now safely set up in Moscow, far from both the frontline fighting and from the international court. And from his safe position deep inside the Russian state, Girkin loudly criticises the Russian state.

Among his recent statements, Girkin has said that all Russian soldiers fighting on Ukrainian soil are guilty of war crimes because the ‘special military operation’ is not a declared war; that the incompetence of the invasion has made people all over the world lose their fear of the Russian military; and that Putin uses a stand-in to meet with civilians, because the real president never lets anybody near him. Girkin openly vlogs about things I would be afraid to say loudly in public because of the new laws about ‘discrediting the Russian armed forces’.

Other people get prison sentences for saying much less. A woman from Barnaul recently wrote in a local Telegram channel that the Russian army bombed the Mariupol theatre in which civilians were sheltering in March 2022. She has been punished with six years in jail. Meanwhile, Girkin’s main Telegram channel has 800,000 subscribers. He is a frequent guest on other channels. People listen to him, cite him and bring him up in everyday conversation. He gives them the terms in which to criticise the state and its military. And yet here he is, safe on the home front in Moscow and not even in hiding.

Girkin is not alone. An active online community of military bloggers criticises state leaders and policies, calling for more war, more imperialism, more violence. Holding the legal order in disdain, the milbloggers lend their patriotic support to the image of a Russian-Soviet empire, glorified not least for its gritty soulfulness, its illiberal collectivist values. ‘Let the people handle this!’ the milbloggers say to the old army generals. And when they cross certain indefinite lines, when they know too much or get in the way, such public figures may be removed by their own extralegal methods.

This could well be what happened to Maxim Fomin (aka Vladlen Tatarsky), best known for vlogging from the Kremlin’s ceremony to celebrate annexing Ukrainian land: ‘We will hold victory over everyone. We will kill everyone. We will rob everyone who should be robbed. Everything’s going to be just as we like it.’ On 2 April, Fomin was killed during a public event at a restaurant belonging to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group. He accepted a golden bust of himself from a woman he had previously met at Listva, a Girkin-affiliated bookshop. The statue turned out to be a bomb, which exploded just as Fomin bent over it. By the following morning, a suspect had been apprehended. Newspapers disclosed the entire story of her perfect crime, blow by blow – almost as if the Investigative Committee had had a draft statement ready. Fomin got a hero’s funeral. Russian media blamed Ukraine and called for retaliation.

This is the riddle: that people support the ‘special military operation’ even while they criticise it. They criticise it because they support it, and the more they criticise the more they support. When asked why it’s necessary, supporters typically bring up two reasons. The first is that the motherland is in danger. Talk of Nato’s encroachment slides easily into the themes of linguistic chauvinism and culture war: the motherland is an amorphous concept, more about language and social relations than national borders and laws.

The second reason is that we can’t let our guys down, we’re in this together. This sentiment is more than simply the natural reaction of people helping each other get by in hard times: it is central to the state’s propaganda, the philosopher’s stone of its populist claims. Even as the officially stated aims of the ‘special military operation’ keep changing – to cleanse Ukraine of Nazism, to protect Russia from Nato, to protect Russian speakers from linguistic oppression, to fight Satanism – its official slogan remains the same: svoikh ne brosaem, ‘we do not abandon our own’. Symbolised by the apparently senseless letter Z, it is a powerful thing.


  • 12 April 2023 at 3:42pm
    Patrick Cotter says:
    ‘we do not abandon our own’ - Russian translation for the American 'No Soldier Left Behind'. The Americans too fetishise their military. While City Lights Bookshop might hang banners that say 'Dissent is not UnAmerican' more Americans still subscribe to 'we can’t let our guys down, we’re in this together.' The militarist state cannot survive without the brainwashing of its masses - not a condition particular to Russia. 'I thank you for your service.' - an obligatory ritual required by a polity that demands unquestioning support for its war-crime generating machine.

    • 13 April 2023 at 3:17pm
      Rodney says: @ Patrick Cotter
      You've ignored the actual content of this very interesting blog and immediately pivoted to anti-American sentiment. Well done!

      Your interpretation of ‘we do not abandon our own’ as 'No Soldier Left Behind' is simply wrong, the American slogan is specifically and exclusively military. The Russian slogan can and has been expanded to include anything considered "Russian", using language and concocted history to claim Ukraine and the rest of the old Russian Empire.

      It would be nice if, in your paroxysm of "hate the yanks!" you could bother to remember that Russia has illegally invaded Ukraine, murders, rapes, tortures and kidnaps its citizens. Forget the anti-Americanism for a bit and support the victims of Russian aggression, eh?

    • 13 April 2023 at 5:33pm
      fbkun says: @ Rodney
      convenient when one would prefer to ignore legitimate questions. What Patrick Cotter writes is very simply that everything that we're being told amounts to unseen, unheard of, atrocities on the part of Russia is no different from (and in fact pales in comparison with) the atrocities committed by the US and/or its allies/vassals in the past 7 decades all around the world. It would be very easy to turn your last sentence around and ask "Forget the anti-Russianism for a bit and support the victims of American aggressions, eh?"

    • 13 April 2023 at 5:33pm
      fbkun says: @ Rodney
      We're familiar with the tired argument of "whataboutery", so convenient when one would prefer to ignore legitimate questions. What Patrick Cotter writes is very simply that everything that we're being told amounts to unseen, unheard of, atrocities on the part of Russia is no different from (and in fact pales in comparison with) the atrocities committed by the US and/or its allies/vassals in the past 7 decades all around the world. It would be very easy to turn your last sentence around and ask "Forget the anti-Russianism for a bit and support the victims of American aggressions, eh?"

    • 18 April 2023 at 11:57am
      Patrick Cotter says: @ Rodney
      To remember the victims of American aggression is not to forget the victims of Russian aggression. Both countries refuse to recognise the International Criminal Court. Putin should be tried for war crimes, so too should Cheny, Rice, Powell & Bush 2 for their illegal invasion of Iraq, leading to far more civilian dead than has occurred to date in Ukraine. The Torah reminds us 'to save one man is to save the world', so the fact that the Americans have murdered more civilians this century doesn't make them more evil than the Russians - just hypocritical. If Rodney, you are unaware of the kidnapping, tortures, murders, illegal invasions, the evasion of justice by your own country than you should ask yourself why? Why don't I know? Are you among the brainwashed?

  • 12 April 2023 at 6:23pm
    norman rimmell says:
    I am in contact with two Russians, old friends, who both support Putin, much to my surprise, seemingly because of what they learn from the official Russian media. They are both intelligent and well-educated. Lelya (not her real name) who lives in St.Petersburg, told me soon after the war began that the ‘military operation’ in Ukraine was necessary because the country had fallen under the control of a Nazi government, and NATO had bases there. She also believed, at that time, that the operation would be completed in two weeks.

    My other contact, Vladimir (again, not his real name) is also from St.Petersburg but has been working in Prague for several years. Very surprisingly, considering that he can read Western media every day, he also strongly supports the ‘military operation’ because of the need to punish what he describes as ‘Ukrainian atrocities’ in the conflict in eastern Ukraine that had been in process since 2014. He also believes that Russian forces retreated from Kiev because they were honouring a ‘peace agreement’ signed in Turkey that was broken by the Ukrainians..

    The anonymous writer of the article suggests that all this can be explained by a traditional tendency of Russians to believe what they are told by official sources. I doubt this. I visited Russia several times during Communist rule and found a universal sceptism of what appeared in the national media.It was an old joke that ‘there is no Pravda (truth) in Izvestia (news) and no Izvestia in Pravda’ (two Soviet newspapers).

    Norman Rimmell

  • 12 April 2023 at 6:40pm
    Michael Taylor says:
    No mystery. Russians support the war, they want it to succeed, and blame the authorities because it is failing. Or am I missing something?

  • 12 April 2023 at 7:13pm
    Anton Senenko says:
    This piece sounds like it could have been written by an incredulous resident of Nazi Germany around 1943. Why  do the Allies tar us all with the same brush? We are  rationale and we are patriotic. Our boys are brave and noble. Just look at their fine work in Ukraine.

    We know  how that ended. 

    There is similarly only one ending now for the Russian Federation and its population of similarly noble, critical and patriotic citizens of an authoritarian and genocidal state.

    There is a phrase in quite common use in the  contemporary Russian Federation. Nobly critical Russian patriots will exclaim “mozhem povtorit” - we can do it again. These noble patriots suggest that the Russian Federation today can militarily defeat the west just as  the entire USSR alone once defeated Nazi Germany.

    Today, the Allied response to the display of Russian nobility in Ukraine is both pragmatic and elegant. 1991 - Mozhem povtorit. That is, through sanctions and Lend Lease we too can repeat a Cold War style victory over a decaying empire.  We can leave the noble spiders sealed up in their jar for long enough and they will sort things out among themselves. Again.

    • 13 April 2023 at 3:20pm
      Rodney says: @ Anton Senenko
      You obviously read a different article to the one I just did.
      This one is about why average Russians support the war.
      It might pay to read it again.

    • 13 April 2023 at 7:24pm
      Anton Senenko says: @ Rodney
      I have read the article. The article is interesting because it reflects the author's cognitive dissonance. The author imagines that there is some separate world within contemporary Russia, inhabited by a category that you have characterised as average Russians.

      A world in which that the laundry list of phenomena the author describes is shocking or aberrant.

      The author appears unable imagine that they, and average Russians, are the the foot soldiers of a militarily aggressive, and genocidal regime. A regime that exalts nation and race above the individual, and that stands for a centralised autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and the forcible suppression of opposition.

      Just as good Germans imagined that they retained their rationality and humanity, even as the Allies rained fire upon them during ww2.

      The article is interesting because the author's impairment provides insight into a rapidly decompensating Russian empire.

      May I suggest that you reread the article.

    • 14 April 2023 at 2:45pm
      shewie says: @ Anton Senenko
      .....militarily aggressive, and genocidal regime.
      Could Mr Senenko give me some examples of genocide the Russian regime has committed.

    • 14 April 2023 at 5:37pm
      Graucho says: @ shewie
      Well not gas chambers, but forcibly removing Ukrainians from their native soil and making them Russians at the point of a gun, thereby ultimately eliminating their language and culture, is enacting the death of a nation. One the Putinistas insist doesn't or shouldn't exist.

    • 14 April 2023 at 5:52pm
      shewie says: @ Graucho
      Genocide definition "the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group". Again, examples. And stop changing the discourse.

    • 15 April 2023 at 2:35am
      Graucho says: @ shewie
      Well clearly the aim fits your definition even if the means do not. At what point the number of Ukrainians deliberately killed by Putin's army and mercenaries crosses the threshold of "a large number" is a matter of debate of course. Needless to say one can find varying definitions of the word depending on the source including simply. "The deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group" without reference to actual homicide. One should add, to be pedantic, that the word at issue in the discourse is genocidal which could be taken as the description of a mentality or an intention as opposed to an actual act.

    • 16 April 2023 at 11:30am
      shewie says: @ Graucho
      What a wretched mind to elide genocide; we know what it means.
      And for the record 'To constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Cultural destruction does not suffice, nor does an intention to simply disperse a group.' (
      Again, examples or shut up.

    • 16 April 2023 at 2:32pm
      Delaide says: @ shewie
      Article II of the UN Convention on The Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide to include, as well the obvious crime of killing,
      “Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
      Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
      Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Groucho’s position is tenable.

  • 15 April 2023 at 3:05pm
    XopherO says:
    It is war, however described. War is nasty, there are always atrocities on all sides - that is probably the most predictable feature together with the first casualty - truth. Who knows what Ukrainian soldiers would do to civilians if they were in Russia? Personally I take all reports with a pinch of salt. Today on French TV the rumour that Putin uses 'sosies', doubles, to protect himself was examined using Ukrainian government photos of these doubles. All three were actual photos of Putin, conclusively, although they looked different. This doe not prove Putin does not use doubles, but I am sure both sides use all sorts of dubious methods to claim they are on the 'right' side. Clearly, being on the Ukrainian side means we mainly get appropriate propaganda some of which is probably true, but which? Though it seems clear that trying to see through the mists as to why this war came about is complex and generally dismissed as inappropriate and undermining of the 'war effort'. No doubt similarly in Russia.

    • 20 April 2023 at 12:27am
      Delaide says: @ XopherO
      “ trying to see through the mists as to why this war came about is complex …”. Isn’t it because Russia invaded Kyiv?

    • 21 April 2023 at 4:47pm
      shewie says: @ Delaide
      No. Russia intervened because they saw 'tenable' (sic) genocide being committed against a predominately Russian speaking people.

  • 19 April 2023 at 11:59am
    Camus says:
    The nationalists don't always support the regime. The key to this conflict lie in the concept of Russian history that begins with Kiev as the birthplace of the nation and it was the fatal errors made at the beginning of the invasion that ferments unrest and opposition to the way that the war is being fought. Just as the German high command had no alternative to the Schlieffen plan in 1914, which was timed to defeat France in 42 days, the Russian command could not switch objectives when the Ukraine forces did not fade away as they had predicted. Given the military balance this war could last three or more years. In 1917, the Allies were working on the assumption that the war could last for five years or longer. Fortunately the balance of power changed dramatically and it is hard to see how this pattern could be broken.

  • 23 April 2023 at 3:50pm
    Dr Paul says:
    I find it interesting that Putin is being subjected to a barrage of criticism, mostly from an aggressive right-wing nationalist perspective, and that this does not result in the critics being arrested or otherwise harassed. This strongly suggests that they are being protected by powerful figures within the state or military apparatuses, and that Putin's style of rule is not quite the totalitarian regime of the type that Western commentators like to describe. It is repressive, no doubt, especially towards pro-Western and anti-war critics. Nonetheless, it is very difficult to imagine such flagrant lèse majesté going unpunished during the days of Stalin or his rather less repressive successors. The actual power dynamics within the Russian state and military apparatuses, and the social bases of the right-wing nationalists, would be very interesting and instructive subjects for academics to pursue.

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