Don’t Look, Don’t See, Don’t Know

Sociologist Svetlana Stephenson on why Russians are in denial about the war

The war in Ukraine has been going on for five months now—and all the while, the debate continues about how real and credible the massive support for the invasion shown by Russian opinion polls actually is. Svetlana Stephenson, Professor of Sociology at the School of Social Sciences at the London Metropolitan University, draws on the research of historians and criminologists to explain where such support is coming from—and what knowledge lies behind it.

According to pre-war sociological surveys, most Russians did not expect or want the war with Ukraine—but when it began, the same sociologists found significant support for the invasion among the Russian population. Trying to understand the nature of active or passive justifications of the war, indifference or apathy, commentators talk about dehumanization, fascism and the loss of moral values.

Qualitative studies of the arguments made by supporters of the war reveal a bizarre mix of ideological justifications for military aggression against Ukraine, ranging from defence against an imminent attack from Ukraine and the West to the need to protect the suffering population of Donbas. As researchers from the Laboratory of Public Sociology have noted, those who most actively and consciously support the war tend to put forward geopolitical arguments, speaking of Russia's eternal struggle with the West and the need to fight back against Western hegemony. However, against the background of these arguments, an underlying theme of dangerous, suppressed knowledge of injustice, crime, and immorality is also apparent. Such knowledge is implicit in the thinking of many informants, but it is either denied or neutralized by the moral repertoire offered by state propaganda.

Shura Burtin, a journalist who conducted a study of the attitudes of Russians towards the war, was one of the first to note this inconsistency of positions and assessments, the fragility of statements being made and an unwillingness to see and feel. “Ukrainians ask all the time: ‘Are the Russians not aware of what’s really going on?’—Yes, most of them are not aware. But at the same time they have some understanding. Within 15 minutes or so of the start of their interviews, all of the supporters of the “special operation” would admit: ‘Well, yes, probably, cities are being bombed, people are dying, and everyone in Ukraine hates us.’ Everyone understands this on some level, but they don’t admit it. And they refuse to know—even if they have direct evidence from loved ones”, Burtin writes. He adds that he rarely met people who would support the killing of civilians. Basically, his interlocutors understood what was happening, but found ways to deny it.

If one analyzes the statements made in support of the war, it becomes clear that they represent the classic moral repertoire of neutralization. The neutralization techniques used by juvenile delinquents to overcome feelings of guilt and shame were first described by American criminologist David Matza, in collaboration with Gresham Sykes. Another criminologist, Frank Neubacher, later extended this theory to state crimes. These techniques are all clearly present both in propaganda rhetoric and in discussions of the actions of the Russian authorities in Ukraine. They are:

  • The denial of injury (or wrongdoing). Our troops do not attack civilians. We are delivering pinpoint strikes against military infrastructure facilities. Reports of casualties are exaggerated. There is a lot of fake news. Ukrainians themselves bomb their cities. We are at war, we might accidentally hit the wrong place. Our soldiers do not commit crimes.
  • The denial of the victim. They are Nazis, fascists, nationalists, drug addicts. They did not listen to Russia, aspired to membership of NATO, shelled the Donbas.
  • The denial of responsibility. We had no choice. If we had not attacked them, they would have attacked us.
  • The condemnation of the condemners. Everyone hates us and has always hated us. The West is hypocritical, but in fact it behaves in the same way as we do, remember Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • The appeal to higher loyalties. We are fighting for our security, the defence of our homeland, the protection of the inhabitants of Donbas, we need to support our soldiers who are shedding their blood. In any case, people should not blame their Motherland, especially during the war.

Neutralization techniques also include the use of euphemisms that mask what is actually happening: there is no war—this is a “special operation”, “demilitarization”, “denazification”. These euphemisms are actively used not only by state propagandists, but also by ordinary citizens when they talk about what is happening.

Why do people have a need for neutralization? State repressions undoubtedly play a significant role here. Since the first days of the war, the authorities have drawn a circle of silence and obedience and are persecuting those who dare to go beyond it. Gradually, they have begun to demand from the population not just silence, but more active support and participation. And Russian citizens, fearing reprisals, elected to go along with what is happening, albeit with hesitations and doubts.

But there is also a powerful inner need to deny and justify an unpleasant reality, linked to what social psychologist Melvin Lerner calledthe belief in a just world”. It cannot be that my state, nation, society are capable of committing massacres, atrocities, inflicting suffering on innocent people. If this is so, if innocents can be killed, imprisoned, persecuted, then my own well-being and life may be in jeopardy.

A person refuses to understand and recognize the meaning of what is happening because, if what he/she suspects is actually true, then such knowledge becomes a threat to his/her personal and social identity. As one of the informants in a study by the Laboratory of Public Sociology said: “We must be right about something, because how else can we live on?”.

In addition, there is a fear of social ostracism. When everyone is silent or seems to support the war, then, by speaking out against the prevailing consensus, a person puts a great deal on the line: they can be branded as a traitor, expelled from university, fired from their job. People fear condemnation from relatives, neighbours, colleagues. As Burtin writes about one of his interlocutors, “In saying that she shared the fate of the country, she was not bragging, but rather explaining that she had no choice: people in the community to which she belonged loved Putin and supported the war. To live among them she had to agree”.

The denial of an unpleasant reality includes the rejection of moral judgment, of emotion, of action. As criminologist Stanley Cohen wrote in “States of Denial”, people try to distance themselves from what is going on and prefer to trust those who “know best.” Thus, in a study by the Laboratory of Public Sociology, an informant says: “I understand that this is not what we are told. I understand that this is some other story. But what that is, I don't know. That is, the main aim of all this is something else. And I don’t understand what that is because I am not a politician, I am not an economist and I am not an analyst. And I understand that there is something behind all this, but I don't know what."

The desire to justify one's position, to maintain a positive identity, may be accompanied by a painful reaction to real or alleged accusations of immorality, cruelty, insensitivity. As many opponents of the war who have friends and relatives who support the “special operation” know, trying to get the truth across to them often backfires. People refuse to acknowledge evidence of crimes, do not want to hear arguments against the war, and start to defend their views with even greater tenacity when challenged. This seems to be in line with the theory of status frustration and reaction formation developed by criminologist Albert Cohen, who described how juvenile deviants behave in response to blame. They may persist even more in their illegal actions and close ranks in order to find moral support among each other.

People make it clear: “You—Ukrainians, foreigners, compatriots who emigrated—do not love us, you hate us and accuse us, but we are the way we are, and we are not going to change to please you”. Some may even turn from being opponents to becoming supporters of the war. The T-shirts with “We are not ashamed” printed on them, popular after the outbreak of the war, for all their vulgar and cynical bravado, may not reflect the radical fascist views of those who wear them, but rather people’s reaction to perceived stigmatization.

The denial of unpleasant and frightening reality, the avoidance of moral responsibility, and the desire for normalization are present both among those who supported the government before, and among the intelligentsia (Russian word for the intellectuals' class.—ed. Holod) that formerly opposed it. The critic Zinaida Pronchenko, who left the country after the outbreak of the war and returned briefly to Moscow, wrote about this recently in a succinct and laconic way. She describes a frightening change in the perception of what is happening among the inhabitants of “liberal apartments”: “The Scandinavians handed over the Kurds to the Turks, and the Germans asked for the [sanctioned] turbines back. So what are we being blamed for?” she writes, repeating phrases used by her Moscow acquaintances, “Sobyanin and Gref are generally okay”, “you left for ‘as long as Putin remains alive’ so you can’t tell us what to do”, “freedom does not exist without necessity”. 

In other words, the world is cynical and unfair, we are no worse than others, and in general, leave us alone and let us live in peace. People adapt and go into internal emigration, a well-known state of mind for Soviet intelligentsia.

Reality denial strategies are well-known to scholars of genocide, war crimes, and repression in totalitarian states. Studies of German attitudes towards the Holocaust show, in the words of Michael Marrus, “a history of inaction, indifference and insensitivity”. People denied the scale of what was happening to the Jews, accusing individual functionaries of atrocities. We Germans are cultured people, and here is civilized Europe. Innocent people are not persecuted here, and anti-Semitism has always existed, nothing out of the ordinary is happening. Even in those cases when people lived right next to the concentration camps, they tried not to look, not to see, not to know. There were also those who understood what was happening and were outraged, but considered themselves powerless to change anything.

In the USSR, during the period of Stalinist terror, denial was also a mass phenomenon: people tried to find moral justifications for the repressions, denied their scale, blamed the victims and refused to believe that what was happening was done with the knowledge of the party leadership and Stalin himself. Lidia Chukovskaya's novel "Sofya Petrovna", written at the turn of 1939 and 1940, in which the mother loses her mind, both believing and not believing in the guilt of her son, is one of the most striking testaments to the unbearable conditions in which an ordinary person can be placed in a totalitarian system.

If we return to modern Russian society, it is obvious that many, and perhaps most, people know that something morally unacceptable is going on. This knowledge cannot be repressed completely. However, knowledge, in order to lead to real consequences, must turn into acknowledgement. It must be present in the public sphere. Such acknowledgement was a key element in Gorbachev's perestroika, when what had been private memory and knowledge—about Stalin's repressions, the corruption of the authorities, and the grave social problems of Soviet society—became the subject of open discussion (glasnost). It is no coincidence that the current ruling regime is firmly determined to suppress any public discussion of what is happening. People are told: “You can't call things by their real names, don’t think about things you shouldn’t be thinking about. To question what Russia is doing in Ukraine is a betrayal of our soldiers and help to the enemy.

When the regime changes, many will say they didn't agree or didn't know the whole truth. But while they are either silently or actively supporting the “special operation”, it is important to continue to talk about what is really happening, calling things out for what they really are, and countering approval, denial and apathy with anger, shame and compassion.

The opinion expressed in this publication is that of the author and does not necessarily reflect Holod’s opinion.


Svetlana Stephenson is a Professor in Sociology in the School of Social Sciences She is chair of the School of Social Sciences Research Ethics Review Panel and convener of the University’s Interdisciplinary Research Forum. Professor Stephenson began her career at the Russian Centre for Public Opinion Research (now the Levada Center) and as a Leverhulme Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Essex. She joined London Metropolitan University in 2002.

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