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The Paradox of Protest: Striving for Change Under Aging Putin

Russians’ Attitudes
May 26, 2023
15 min

Executive Summary


  • Despite certain misconceptions, most Russians desire democracy, representation, and change, although the term "democracy" can evoke negative associations. About two-thirds of survey respondents believe government representatives should follow the people's will, and a significant majority feel that Russia needs change.

  • The desire for freedom yet has apparent limitations. Over half of the respondents trust President Putin, far more than the 13% who trust the opposition. In a predominantly secular society, the Church enjoys greater trust than the opposition. The low trust in the Russian parliament suggests a belief among many Russians that the presidency is irreplaceable.

  • The desire for change among Russians does not equate to low personal ratings for the president, with dissatisfaction primarily aimed at lower-level state functionaries. Paradoxically, many believe the current authorities could bring the desired change. Big business, closely tied to the state, is also seen as a potential change agent. Only a quarter trust the opposition's capacity for change, and less than 15% in their own abilities.

  • Many respondents believe local protests are unlikely, but if they occur, they're more likely due to mobilization or economic issues than anti-government sentiment. About 15% would likely participate in protests against living standard decline or civil rights infringements. Protests against mobilization are not seen as the most probable trigger. Respondents evidently favor low-risk methods of protest, including attending government-approved rallies and signing petitions.

  • Russians express high concern for potential scenarios like war, terrorism, martial law, and mobilization. Most prefer a cautious approach to social issues rather than active protest. They're open to sharing information and petitioning government institutions. However, many don't view civic engagement as a solution to pressing problems.




The protest activity of Russians could potentially become a crucial factor, if not the most important one, in ending the brutal war against Ukraine. However, apart from isolated instances of street activity in the early stages of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and protests against mobilization, primarily in certain national republics, Russians have demonstrated relatively little activity that could potentially help halt their country's unprovoked invasion of another nation.

Nevertheless, factors such as an increase in military casualties, societal pressure due to mobilization, a decline in the authority of the government, rampant armed crime, and others may stimulate a growing desire among Russians to protest. This could potentially lead to a crisis of power in Russia. Predicting such an outcome is not feasible, but monitoring the Russians' readiness to protest, their level of trust in politicians and public institutions, and their potential sources of discontent and fears may help anticipate when society is nearing a point of rapid change.





Respondents were recruited online. ‍

The sample was stratified by sex and age (equal age and sex groups 18-30, 31-44, 45-60 years). The data was cleaned, and the analysis excluded people who did not answer all the questions. The final sample comprised 1056 respondents, 558 women, and 498 men. The mean age of the respondents is 36.9, the standard deviation is 11.36.



In the analysis of the study data, we employed percentage analysis and a chi-square test to compare the responses from different professional groups.


Key Findings


Russia's Aspirations for Freedom, Trust in Putin, and Prospects for Change


Despite common misconceptions, which hold a certain amount of truth and validity, Russians generally desire democracy, representation, and change in their country. However, the term "democracy" can elicit negative connotations for many Russians, as it is often associated with turbulent Boris Yeltsin's rule during the 1990s.

Despite this, the underlying principles of democracy resonate with many Russians even today amidst their country's ongoing conflict with Ukraine. Specifically, 66.67% of respondents either somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement that representatives of the government must follow the will of the people. Conversely, only 4.45% were somewhat or strongly opposed to such an idea. This suggests that two-thirds of Russians are concerned about having a representative government in their country.

Furthermore, a significant majority of Russians believe that their country needs change. A mere 7.19% of survey participants somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement that Russia does not require any changes and should remain as is. In contrast, 69.98% somewhat or strongly disagreed with this statement.

The sentiment for rapid and drastic change is strong in Russia, with 41.67% of respondents agreeing with this statement. In contrast, a smaller proportion, only 19.22%, disagrees with the need for rapid and significant changes. However, the nature of the desired changes remains unclear from the survey responses. Some respondents may wish for actions as extreme as full annexation of Ukraine, war with the United States, or the implementation of a totalitarian regime in Russia.

Nevertheless, the expressed desire for change indicates that if the current trajectory in Russia persists, support could gravitate toward political groups that challenge the status quo in various ways. These opposing forces could disrupt the ruling regime, particularly in times of probable instability within the country.

The appetite for change is apparent across all occupational groups, even including the public sector, which is directly reliant on the state.

Among all occupational groups — barring those temporarily unemployed, students, or retirees — the majority more or less disagrees with the assertion that most of the government's decisions are for the people's benefit. This reveals, at least in part, the reason behind the desire for change: it stems from skepticism towards the existing regime.

While Russians display a clear desire for freedom, it seems to have certain limits. Over half of the survey respondents trust President Vladimir Putin, in stark contrast to the slightly over 13% who trust the opposition. Interestingly, in a largely secular society with modest levels of religiosity, more Russians place their trust in the Church than in the opposition. The comparatively low level of trust in the Russian parliament indicates a prevalent belief among Russians that "the Tsar is good, the boyars (the highest rank of nobility in the Russian empire) are bad." This suggests that many view the presidency as irreplaceable.

Veterans garner even more trust from Russians than the president. However, this term likely refers to veterans of past wars, primarily World War II. These veterans, now few in number, are naturally respected — a sentiment that President Putin and Russian propaganda skillfully manipulate.

Despite the relatively low trust in Russian media, it continues to uphold an image of a trustworthy president — an image for whom neither his loyalists nor the beleaguered, fragmented, and exiled political opposition can provide an alternative. This phenomenon, combined with most Russians' clear desire for change, doesn't translate into low personal ratings for the president. Instead, discontent is primarily directed toward less influential politicians.

The change that many Russians yearn for is, paradoxically, believed by two-thirds of survey respondents to be achievable through the… current authorities. Another notable potential agent of change is big business, which in contemporary Russia is intricately linked to the state and essentially controlled by the Kremlin. Only a quarter of those surveyed have faith in the opposition's capacity to bring about change, and less than 15% believe in their own ability to effect change.


Evaluating the Potential for Protests and Personal Willingness to Participate


The belief that protests are unlikely to occur in their local area prevails among the respondents. However, if protests were to happen, respondents consider it much more likely that they would be sparked by mobilization efforts or citizens' economic issues, rather than by anti-government sentiment.

Approximately 15% of respondents indicate that they would likely or certainly participate in protests against the decline in living standards, as well as further infringements on civil rights. Interestingly, protests against mobilization were not ranked as a trigger for such demonstrations.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of respondents either have no intention of participating in protests whatsoever, or their stance on protesting remains ambiguous. Approximately a quarter of respondents are unsure whether they would participate in protests. Given the significant and swift societal changes and the escalating crisis in Russia, it seems plausible that many individuals could potentially join protests. However, this potential has yet to be fully actualized.

The correlation between the willingness to protest and opposition to a "special military operation" ranges between 0.22 and 0.31 (p < 0.001***), indicating that being against war does play a role in one's readiness to protest. However, the significance of an anti-war stance should not be overstated. While it is an influential factor, its impact may not be as substantial as one might initially perceive.

Respondents evidently favor low-risk methods of protest, including attending government-approved rallies and signing petitions. A little over 16% of respondents consider elections as an effective means to defend their rights and freedoms. Interestingly, while about 70% of respondents believe that effective forms of social activism exist, none of the suggested protest methods garnered significantly more than 30% approval.

It's apparent that Russians express considerable concern about all potential Russia’s scenarios suggested in the survey. Correspondingly, fear of a particular event inherently involves assessing its possibility. Respondents expressed the greatest fear of casualties during the war, terrorist attacks within Russia, the imposition of martial law, and mobilization. However, all options the OMI presented evoke a significant degree of fear.

The majority of respondents prefer a cautious approach when dealing with social issues that impact them and cause concern. This mindset contrasts with more active forms of protest.

Additionally, respondents are willing to share information with others and to legally address government institutions for problem-solving. In essence, it appears that a substantial portion of Russians do not view civic engagement as a solution to pressing and accumulated issues.

Evidently, trust in the authorities, particularly in President V. Putin, serves at least partially as a means to alleviate fears, providing a semblance of stability and security in an otherwise uncertain existence.




Russian public sentiment presents a paradox in its inconsistency, fueled by anxieties about the future yet failing to identify the primary threat to its existence and well-being - the political regime that initiated an unprovoked war against Ukraine. While valuing democratic principles and believing that the government should represent people's interests, most Russians trust President V. Putin, who systematically quashes emerging democratic movements.

Despite their fear of losing compatriots in the war against Ukraine, widespread crime, terrorism, and potential mobilization, a majority still express support for the "special military operation" in Ukraine. Furthermore, while Russians call for changes in the country, they appear to favor the incumbent government over the opposition, even after three decades of the same rule.

It seems that trust in authorities, especially President V. Putin, acts as a safety valve to mitigate fears, offering an illusion of stability and security amidst an inherently uncertain existence.

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Russians’ Attitudes
May 26, 2023
15 min
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