Based on end-of-June survey and focus group discussions, Denis Volkov writes that the prevailing opinion among Russians is that Prigozhin’s “march on Moscow” has not weakened the authority of the central government and some believe it has even strengthened it.
The original text in Russian was published in Forbes and republished here with their permission
Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion – its unexpectedness, its swift rise and fall – left observers with many questions. Participants in surveys and focus groups often expressed bewilderment about what happened and discussed conspiracy theories. The causes and essence of the June 24th events can be debated for a long time, but their impact on public opinion is borne out quite clearly in the studies of the Levada Center. As luck would have it, the day of the rebellion came in the middle of our monthly six-day door-to-door survey, so you could see how moods changed day by day. An additional telephone survey and a couple of focus groups a few days after June 24 only confirmed our initial findings.
How aware were people?
The survey conducted a few days after the rebellion showed people were highly aware of what had happened: more than half of the respondents “closely followed” developments, only 8% had not heard anything about it. About a quarter of the respondents answered that they first learned about the incident as early as Friday evening, and another 42% on Saturday morning. However, respondents tend to overestimate how informed they were after the fact, and the data from our regular survey reveals that Russians did not really realize the scale of what happened immediately, and even later not everyone: only 23% of respondents surveyed on the day of the rebellion noted it as one of the main events recently, while in the two days after the survey the figure doubled.
As one might expect, most Russians learned about the mutiny from television (44%), meaning it was immediately given an interpretation by the authorities. The older the person, the more likely they were to have turned to the television for news.
Thus, it is not surprising that in focus groups and open-ended quantitative research questions, respondents often cited speeches by officials, whether President Vladimir Putin with his “stab in the back” or Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said that the rebellion was just a “misadventure.”
Many people (29%) got information about what happened from friends and acquaintances. Focus-group participants confirmed that on the day of the mutiny, they corresponded and phoned their friends and relatives, sharing news, advising on what to do, trying to get through to acquaintances in the southern regions where the events were unfolding.
Various internet sources were used, chiefly by the youngest and most interested in politics – overall, about a third of the respondents. It was they who learned about the rebellion before others and then closely followed the actions of the Wagner army live. It is important to understand that even with this most informed audience, the level of engagement varied: some tracked the reports of news agencies and scrolled through specialized Telegram channels, while others were satisfied with looking at Vkontakte.
In addition, in the internet audience – younger and critical of the regime – the attitude toward Prigozhin was the most mixed and the share of Prigozhin sympathizers was the highest. Thus, on average across the sample the ratio of affirmative and negative answers to the question about confidence in Prigozhin was 22% to 50% in early July and 15% to 55% among TV viewers, whereas among the readers of Telegram channels it was already 32% to 48%.
Among those who to one degree or another supported Prigozhin during the days of the rebellion and after it, at least two groups can be distinguished. First of all, it is those who listen to Prigozhin’s critical speeches about the situation at the front and in the army. After all, the main thing in the mass image of Prigozhin is his willingness to put his money where his mouth is, criticize the military, “fight for the truth.” They believe that their idol was “brought down,” “provoked” by the fact that “they didn’t listen to him,” “didn’t try to meet him halfway,” “insulted” him,” “betrayed” him.
In the eyes of sympathizers, Prigozhin’s words are given weight by Wagner’s supposed effectiveness on the battlefield: “they took Bakhmut, they took Soledar.” The view that PMCs are fighting better than the regular army is quite popular. Prigozhin himself seems to his supporters almost like a father to his soldiers: “they are clothed by him,” he takes care of their equipment, practically “eats from the same bowl as them, goes to the sauna with them.” These phrases were repeated both in open questions about Prigozhin and in focus group discussions.
The situational supporters of Prigozhin include some opposition-minded citizens who were wary of Prigozhin himself and considered what was happening to be a “fight between a toad and a viper.” In the figurative expression of one of the focus group participants, they “stocked up on popcorn” and closely followed developments.
Condemning the rebellion
However, most of the respondents condemned Prigozhin’s actions, seemingly in line with the authorities and state television channels. A sharp deterioration in attitudes toward the Wagner chief was first shown in our monthly survey, with approval of Prigozhin’s activities halving from 58% in the first days of the survey to 30% at the end. By the beginning of July, it had fallen still lower, to 22%.
Note that the attitudes toward Prigozhin deteriorated chiefly among people who are not particularly competent in political issues – people who follow events, but not very carefully and thus whose judgments on the headline news are heavily influenced by state television. This is mostly women of retirement age who learned about the rebellion after the fact from Channel One and Russia-1.
The main sin of Prigozhin for them is that he “made a rebellion” and “sowed confusion,” disrupted calm, everyday life, went against the authorities, the president, the country, the people. His opponents see an important argument against Prigozhin in the fact that army pilots were shot down and killed by Wagner during the rebellion. According to focus group participants, they will “never forgive” him for this. Survey respondents see the main reason for the rebellion in Prigozhin’s personal ambitions: he “wanted power and money,” “played the game too much” and, according to every fifth respondent, “exceeded his authority.” In other words, he got too big for his britches. Just 2% of respondents were ready to believe that Prigozhin was “bought out by the Americans.”
The most common reaction to the June 24 events was anxiety, which on the day of the mutiny found expression in a spike in interest in cash FX, as well as plane tickets to other countries. However, neither the former nor the latter was in any way comparable to the level of panic observed in February and September 2022, after the start of the “special operation” and partial mobilization, respectively. Our long-running gauges also show that Prigozhin’s rebellion had virtually no effect on public sentiment.
Thus, respondents’ assessments of their well-being, which plummeted last autumn immediately after the announcement of the partial mobilization, did not change in June versus the previous month: 13% of respondents reported high assessments, while 62% said that they were in a normal or even mood – even though an attempt at an armed rebellion in their country had just failed. However, a closer examination of the survey results by day reveals that on the day of the mutiny, assessments began to plummet – dropping almost 10 percentage points – before bouncing back to normal the next day.
A similar situation was observed with the question about where the country is headed. This indicator sank seven percentage points in June versus May, though on the day of the mutiny it was down 15 points before partially recovering. To a subsequent question about what is exactly worrying respondents about the situation in the country only two out of the 1,600 people attributed their worries to the rebellion – many more were worried about rising prices, low wages and unaffordable medical care.
For them, the rebellion is not so much a dramatic event as additional confirmation of the general mess and elite showdowns that ordinary people should stay out of. The impression from the focus groups was similar. The speed of events must have also played a part – people did not manage to get properly scared, as everything was over quickly.
Accordingly, the rebellion had a very limited impact on the ratings of the authorities. This is confirmed by all available research. The ratings of Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Sergei Lavrov and the government as a whole have not changed. Only that of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the target of Prigozhin’s criticism, suffered. Putin, from the point of view of the majority, did exactly what he was supposed to – he gave an address, showed his awareness of the situation, showed firmness, supported the military and condemned the rebels. The president did not win over his opponents, but it was enough for his supporters: “he did his part.” Ordinary Russians had no issues with Vladimir Putin.
It should be noted that the president’s words about Prigozhin, whom, however, as is his habit, Putin never mentioned by name, took aim at the key attributes of the image of Prigozhin as a “people’s general.” The president seemed to be saying to his listeners: you thought Prigozhin was a patriot, but he turned out to be a traitor; you thought that he was looking for the truth and fighting corruption, but he turned out to be a typical embezzler of public funds. As a result, Prigozhin’s reputation in the eyes of most Russians was destroyed, and thus a potential alternative to Vladimir Putin’s power was eliminated. Here, parallels arise with how the authorities cracked down on politicians who challenged the president like Alexei Navalny, Sergei Furgal, Pavel Grudinin. Their discrediting in the eyes of ordinary people automatically boosted the president’s rating, underlining the lack of alternatives to him. So it was this time as well.
As a result, today the prevailing opinion among the masses is that the failed rebellion had no effect on the authority of the central government. A third of the respondents do expect even greater consolidation of society and strengthening of the state – this is the opinion chiefly held by consistent supporters of the authorities. Meanwhile, younger Russians, who have long been more oppositional, are more likely to doubt that the government authority was unaffected; now they have only become firmer in their opinion. In addition, there are also doubts across sub-elite groups that are captured by the surveys – managers, entrepreneurs, the most educated. This means that some part of the Russian elite must feel the same way.
Perhaps Vladimir Putin’s recent trips to the regions – when he, violating all the quarantine norms instituted by the Kremlin, went to talk with residents of Derbent – were done for them. To all the skeptics, the footage of the jubilant crowd should have sent a clear signal: Are you still in doubt who the people support? Think again!