Is Russia’s silent majority waking up?

The mobilisation has broken Putin’s longstanding social contract with the Russian population to provide stability and comfort.

Russian President Vladimir Putin waves during a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia March 18, 2022. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Russian President Vladimir Putin waves during a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on March 18, 2022 [File: Sputnik via Reuters/Mikhail Klimentyev]

On September 21, I woke up to the news that my country had announced a “partial mobilisation”. The details given by President Vladimir Putin were vague; reports by independent media claimed that unpublished parts of his draft decree put a mobilisation target of one million people.

Almost immediately after the announcement, I started receiving calls for help on Telegram, asking for advice on how to flee Russia. Some of my friends who had left before the war and I organised a chat group to answer questions on which countries do not require a visa, how to rent a cheap apartment and set up a bank account. The chat accumulated more than 150 potential draftees fleeing the country in just three days. Some of them had already received notices from the military office, but most had not and had no intention of risking getting one. This was one of many social media initiatives which, along with various organisations, have helped Russians flee the draft.

Within hours of the announcement, flights out of Russia were bought out and long queues formed at border crossings with neighbouring countries, including Georgia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. According to Russian media reports, by October 4, some 700,000 people had left the country.

Millions of Russians were affected directly or indirectly, whether they and their family members decided to stay, were drafted or left. It was clear that in his desperation, Putin was dragging Russians into a war that nobody but he needed.

The negative reaction to the “partial mobilisation” was registered even by pollsters – long seen as unable to provide an accurate reflection of public opinion in Russia. A poll conducted by independent pollster Levada Center registered a sharp increase in the number of people who said they were “very concerned” about the war in Ukraine – from 37 percent in August to 56 percent in September; that is in addition to 32 percent who say they are “rather concerned”.

Putin’s approval rating also took a hit. It dropped from 83 percent to 77 percent. But to many, 77 percent may still look like a large number for a president who is sending hundreds of thousands to a brutal war. How can that be reconciled with the 88 percent who say they are “very concerned” and “rather concerned” about the war in Ukraine? How can this be?

Since the war started, there has been a lot of debate about whether Putin’s popularity is as high as polls show. If one dives deep enough into how these surveys are conducted, it’s easy to see that the outcome couldn’t have been any different. As Dmitry Muratov – the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and chief editor of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta – explained in a recent interview, pollsters have much more information about people they call than just their phone number.

Russians are aware of that and when they get a call, asking whether they support Putin, they are much more likely to answer “yes”, fearing that a “no” may have negative consequences for them. Furthermore, as Muratov points out, the rate of those who refuse to respond in the first place is quite high – possibly around 75 percent. With such skewed analytics, no wonder the official results show that Putin’s approval rating is high.

But there is also another factor: the Kremlin’s industrial-sized propaganda machine, which is aimed at keeping the Russian population misinformed and politically passive.

This machine, along with a lack of political freedom and the recent purge of all major independent media outlets, has contributed to the formation of a layer of society known as “vatniki” “(from the Russian word for a type of warm coat). These people live shrouded in apathy generated by Putin’s propaganda, as if wrapped in a comfortable cotton coat.

They do not necessarily support the war or killing Ukrainians, but if Putin says that is what must be done, then, according to them, perhaps, he is right. Or, at least, that is how it has been for the past two decades: through the war with Georgia and the illegal occupation of its territories in 2008; the illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and the start of the war in the Donbas in 2014; and the intervention in the war in Syria in 2015.

The disappearance of imported European cheese and currency fluctuations aside, the vatniki never felt the impact of these reckless decisions by Putin. The Kremlin made sure that people lived their lives in isolation of these events, watching them on TV screens from the comfort of their living rooms, packaged as glorious conquests by media propagandists. War and international policy were, to the vatniki, nothing more than entertainment.

In a recent conversation about the inertia of the majority in Russia, a friend summed up the world of the vatniki quite well. She reflected on her grandmother’s behaviour: “She chooses nothing in her life or her country. She is not an active Putin supporter, she simply accepts everything she sees on TV. There’s no buffer of reflection between watching TV and creating an opinion. It’s not that she doesn’t express her opinion directly; it simply doesn’t exist.”

But the mobilisation shook things up. It put many Russian families at risk of losing their comfortable life and even their breadwinner – which is still a man in most Russian families. That made a lot of vatniki feel quite worried. It is one thing watching the news, cheering Russian soldiers as they grab territories of other countries, it is another having your grandson get drafted and die from a HIMARS strike.

Waking up from a peaceful slumber of propaganda manipulation is hard and, as in the case of the older generation of Russians, almost impossible at times. The Russian state media creates the illusion that politics is hard and that Putin is the only one able to handle it – so the Russian people might as well support him.

My grandmother, in her mid-sixties, who has two grandsons, said, “[This mobilisation] is the right thing to do, I am sure, but it would be better not to have it.” Then, as if catching herself saying something outrageous, she added, “Our country was simply forced into all these actions, and I would very much like it all to end as quickly as possible.”

A friend observed a similar reaction in her mother, a retired history teacher living in Saint Petersburg: “She asks not to talk about politics. Since the beginning of the war, she said that the government knows better. After the mobilisation, she just cries non-stop. But she will never say that he is against Putin. She’s afraid.”

Having fed the Russian people lies and the illusion of safety all these years, on September 21, Putin suddenly broke an unwritten social contract with them: guarantee stability and comfort, and avoid dragging them into his foreign policy adventures.

Now the illusory feeling of security under Putin’s rule is gone for many Russians. The mobilisation decree states no specific criteria on who might get drafted. And while government officials have tried to sugarcoat the draft by – for example – adding the word “partial” to it – there have been many reports of people being rounded up for military service without regard to the rules of who can and cannot be drafted.

But most of these violations of draft rules have happened far away from Moscow and St Petersburg, the country’s political centre, where the Kremlin wants to preserve peace and quiet. This has created a false sense of security among many of their residents.

As the first wave of mobilisation started to subside and some people realised they weren’t directly affected by it, they returned to their old habit of pretending the war didn’t concern them.

My mother, a middle-aged woman living in Moscow, is one of them. “At first, it was scary. Then it became calmer … in the end, none of my acquaintances was taken away. Perhaps the authorities decided to soften the pressure. But I don’t know what to expect next, and I don’t believe anyone,” she told me.

It is unclear how long the majority will be able to delude themselves that all is good. In the immediate future, at least, protest seems unlikely. As a friend of mine, an aspiring twenty-something politician who decided to stay in Moscow, even at the risk of getting drafted, to fight against the regime, told me: “The biggest problem in Russia is that people can’t unite; they’re atomised, and left feeling helpless.”

But as Russia’s disorganised army continues to face setbacks in the “annexed” regions, the screws will tighten. On October 19, Putin announced martial law in the occupied territories and imposed strict security measures in Russian regions. We might see the next stage of the mobilisation start, even if now Putin is saying that it will end in two weeks – a cheap attempt to calm down the people.

In the coming months, we may see more Russians receiving notices from all over the country. More families may lose loved ones on the battlefield; more people may lose friends and acquaintances. More people may be labelled “missing in combat” to not to inflate the Russian death toll in the war.

This, in addition to a collapsing economy – due to Western sanctions and Russia’s disproportionate military spending – may finally wake people up to the truth: Russia is a criminal state, with an illegitimate political system, broken judiciary and a government of crooks.

If the full-scale invasion of Ukraine was not enough to awaken people, then the corpses of sons and grandsons may be the ones to strip the vatniki of their cushioned lives and push them to the streets.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.