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I have some questions on my mind like:

  • What portion of the Russian population is strongly pro-Putin? How has it developed over time? (Is it 70% pro Putin or 70% anti-Putin but do not dare to speak up or something else.)
  • What portion of Russians know basic true statements about the current war? (Like how many soldiers are approximately involved, which areas have been occupied, ... basically how well do rumors counteract official misinformation)
  • What portion of Russians support the war? (or whatever it is called in Russia, but only makes sense if Russians know at least some basic statements about it)
  • ...

I think these questions are interesting (to me) because I want to learn what drives a population to support such a war. Although it seems a bit more like sociology and maybe not enough politics. But attitudes towards a war should still be reasonably on-topic here, or do they not?

I also think that there should in principal a clear answer to these questions existing. A single number actually in the examples above.

But it will be very hard, next to impossible to get it with confidence. With Russia being an autocracy you simply don't get independent opinion polling that can be trusted.

Maybe I have to settle on simply not knowing these things. And in the current situation, there is anyway a very high risk to attract propaganda instead. I might end up contributing negatively to the knowledge stored here.

Should I ask these questions or not? Is there maybe an alternative that I could ask for that has a higher chance to give some accurate information without being spammed by misinformation?

As pointed out by Roger Vadim in his answer, this problem applies in part to every country. Everywhere there will be an error in the estimations of the public opinion. However, I would argue that currently for Russia this error might be extremely large and might make the answers to all such questions not very useful.

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    By pure coincidence (not planned), I am coming across more and more evidence from different sources that could save as a basis for giving a better answer or answers to your questions "as is", no changes needed. Sorry for the delay, I do not have time to answer them right away (refs need review, collation), but I will be able to in 1-2 days. Please ping me if/when you post the answer. Thx for great questions! Mar 14 at 13:03
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    @TimurShtatland So, what margin of error do you think you can guarantee? This might be a case of if something seems too good to be true it probably isn't.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 15 at 9:12
  • The estimates of support vary widely depending on source. They have different locations and spreads. This suggests that the support of Putin is substantial, but very hard to measure, and may vary rapidly by region, by time, and by the method of polling. Will post data within a day of you pinging me that you post the Q, should you choose to do so. And I think you will get answers both better and worse than mine, and you and the community will learn something new, so definitely worth asking this Q. Just my 2 cents. Thx. :) Mar 15 at 14:10

3 Answers 3

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No, I don't think that it is useful to post these questions at this time. There is simply not enough information available to give you reliable answers.

And by the way, questions asking for public opinion on certain questions are always iffy, because the results of opinion polls are heavily influenced by the poll itself. Like this scene from the 1980s UK political comedy show Yes, Minister illustrates very well.

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  • I agree. That's why I asked here first. I think that the questions are interesting, but they would require at least a dedicated team of academics and lots of controls and resources to even give a somewhat remote reliable information and this is beyond the capability of this site. Still it bugs me, that we know so little reliably about what Russians are thinking. They could all hate Putin or all love Putin or everything in between, we cannot really say anything about it. In the current situation I will not ask about it because it seems futile. I will wait for books being written about it.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 8 at 10:27
  • @Trilarion One hint for the sentiment of the Russian population could be the amount of public anti-war protests within Russia despite the law making them illegal and the police arresting people for breaking it. But the participation numbers in public protests don't really tell what the majority thinks about the issue they are protesting. Especially if those protests are illegal. They only provide a lower limit for how many people are so furious about something that they are willing to risk getting arrested for speaking out against it.
    – Philipp Mod
    Mar 8 at 10:48
  • Yes, with a couple of thousand arrests, I could probably scale that up with an unknown factor (100, 1000 ?) to get a number of Russians opposing the war. But it's still completely unknown if that ends up being a majority or a minority. Nobody really knows. If for example I would compare Russian protests now with Tahrir square protests in Egypt in 2011 or Maidan square protests in Ukraine in 2014 or Gezi park protests in Istanbul, Russian protests now might still be an order of magnitude smaller. Or they aren't but Russians simply are too afraid to speak out. That's the problem here.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 8 at 11:40
  • so how about polls like this one: edition.cnn.com/interactive/2022/02/europe/… - I would think you could base an answer on that? There is public-opinion tag which has the description that is about how public views certain issues. If those are not ok to ask, should the tag contain information that this subject is not a good fit here?
    – eis
    Mar 11 at 15:24
  • @eis That article is from February 23rd. That was before the invasion. Sentiments will certainly have changed now. But in what direction? Hard to tell.
    – Philipp Mod
    Mar 11 at 15:38
  • @Philipp yes, but it provides a reliable-seeming account from that time, the likes of which could be used as a base for an answer. I don't see how there couldn't be similar ones that are more recent.
    – eis
    Mar 11 at 15:40
  • @Philipp for example, here's discussion on more recent ones. the numbers vary - from state-controlled actors getting numbers like 65% and 71% to independent numbers like 58% - but the consensus seems clear, there is more support than rejection. However the support is significantly lower than with crimea, where there was over 90% support. To me it seems clear there is enough data to answer the question, even if the exactness of the numbers can be contested.
    – eis
    Mar 11 at 20:47
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Should I ask these questions or not?

Yes, please ask these questions. AFAIK, the policy of the site allows and encourages such questions, and no one single person (not even a moderator) has the power to off-topic these types of questions, specifically questions related to a nation being subjected to war crimes (I mean Ukraine).

Is there maybe an alternative that I could ask for that has a higher chance to give some accurate information without being spammed by misinformation?

Threaten the users with 15 years of Gulag if they spam you with misinformation! But seriously, this is a million dollar question. I have only a few workarounds for this question:

  • I remind the posters that they need to bring facts (as in with references and sources) to the table and leave their opinions at home. A strict admonition with a link to the Help center can go a long way.

  • For known hard questions, I promise the posters bounties, which I will actually give to good answers. I back up this promise with my rep, and with the fact that I actually have given bounties to good answers post factum on this and other SE sites.

There is more than one way to do it (or, some examples):

What does Russian government have to gain from the current build up and threatening possible invasion of Ukraine?
What's the basis for preparations to imminent Russian invasion into Ukraine?
Change how numbers are printed in psql

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  • I would question them being good for this site as a moderator has suggested differently.
    – Joe W
    Mar 14 at 2:50
  • @JoeW I respect all moderators for doing a tough and often thankless job, and Philipp in particular I respect greatly. However, I think that (a) mods do not set site policy, they only enforce it; (b) I did not see references to site policies in that answer; (c) I disagree with Philipp's answer here, and prepared to discuss this constructively. Maybe I am wrong in this - so I keep my mind open! :) Mar 14 at 3:00
  • What does that have to do with them suggesting that questions are off topic due to the lack information about the questions to give reliable answers? The problem with some of the questions here is we can't get the information needed to provide solid answers and if we can there is no issues asking them.
    – Joe W
    Mar 14 at 3:04
  • @JoeW I have info and am collecting more info for the answer, with data and sources. I encourage Trilarion to ask the Q; there are likely people with even better data than I (not a pollster or pol scientist, me). :) Mar 15 at 14:11
  • If you have the data and info to answer a question like that you are also able to ask that question. But the problem will always be how do you get accurate polling information from a country that seems to be cracking down on anyone disagreeing with what is happening?
    – Joe W
    Mar 15 at 14:31
  • @JoeW I contacted the OP. If the OP decides to ask, I will answer. Otherwise, I will follow your advice. No rush for me on this Q. :) Mar 15 at 14:33
  • @Trilarion Your questions are too good to just sit in this limbo in meta. Could you please let me know if you plan to ask them? Their answers very much depend on the time they are asked, and the questions are important. If you choose not to ask them, is it OK with you if I ask some of them (no pressure, of course)? If so, do you prefer I credit you for the idea and link back to this current meta question (my default when reusing other people's ideas)? Thank you in advance! Mar 24 at 18:18
  • Did you comment on the right question? Trilarion didn't ask it and it was you who asked it.
    – Joe W
    Mar 24 at 19:16
  • @JoeW I am confused. What I meant is: "What portion of Russians support the war?" and a few similar Qs from the body of the meta Q above (which Trilarion asked) are all good, important, answerable questions. If Trilarion plans to ask them (soon!), great. Otherwise, I wanted to ask these Qs myself. They are time-sensitive, hence a bit of a rush... Mar 24 at 19:39
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    You are responding to your own answer to someone who hasn't commented on it at all and they are unlikely to get that notice. I would think you would place this on something they wrote or where they have commented. And the reason I responded was because I got a notice for the comment as it is just me and you who have made a comment here.
    – Joe W
    Mar 24 at 20:07
  • @JoeW Got it! Duh! Will ping now correctly. Many thanks for the help! Mar 24 at 20:55
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But it will be very hard, next to impossible to get it with confidence. With Russia being an autocracy you simply don't get independent opinion polling that can be trusted.

Note that autocracy is not an official designation, but just a callword. Its meaning is vague, and often depends on the context. E.g., many people have referred to Trump presidency as dictatorship, and similar rhetoric is often used elsewhere - e.g., it was extensively used to describe the French president during the Yellow vest protests. Does this make the US or France autocracies/dictatorships? One can only speak of degrees, which peobably mean that any presidential republic is more autocratic than a parliamentary one.

Similarly, when speaking more generally about lack of democracy one have to consider a spectrum, ranging from Scandinavian demicracies on the one hand, passing through somewhat flawed democracies of western Europe and the US and then through many other countries, ending with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and, finally, closed societies like North Korea, with Russia and China somewhere in between:

Scandinavia > Western Europe > USA >...> Russia > China >...> Iran > Saudi Arabia > North Korea

Russians are able to travel abroad, and hence exposed to western society. Russians extensively use internet (even if restricted since a few days). Russians vote, including voting for candidates other than Putin. Russians express their opinions in social nets and manifest in support of Ukraine. There are multiple opposants, think tanks and independent media in Russia, which are not controlled by government - maximum that one could claim is that their activities are somewhat restricted due to their ties to the West (Note that similar restrictions exist in the US, e.g., Ruppert Murdoch ahd to become a US citizen to found Fox News). Calling Russia authocracy neglects all this complexity and a wealth of information that is available.

Thus, I would say that our inability to say what Russians think or know about the war has more to do with objective reasons that apply to any country, rather than only to Russia:

Where could such information come from?

  • Independent polling, e.g., like the one done by Levada center in Russia - these are subject to statistical errors and sampling problems
  • Votes held by elected representatives - e.g., the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 can be interpreted as Americans overwhelmingly supporting the invasion of Iraq. Here one can doubt to what extent the opinion of the elected representatives reflects that of the population.
  • Public protests - in these one never knows whether they represent the silent majority of the population or only a vocal minority
  • Opinions expressed in social networks - again, these are an imperfect sample of the population: at best one learns opinions of a few persons, and many of these are not the most intelligent folks with too much free time on their hands.
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    Good arguments. What are the alternatives to call Russia an autocracy? What about suppressed society? Just for the record: I don't think Russia is a democracy. The elections are effectively just a show, opposition parties are suppressed and not given equal chances, the media is state controlled and the law branch is not independent and bends the law if necessary, there is no free speech. I'm fine with every term that kind of truthfully represents the reality in Russia. Just say it and I will insert it above.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 9 at 9:44
  • As for the general applicability. I agree that it's not black and white and there is a spectrum all over the world. Still I guess that the error of the estimation of public opinion is larger in more suppressed societies, just because information collection is more difficult and it's more difficult to control for biases. You'll always have some but currently in Russia they might be so strong that it is just impossible to say anything with certainty.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 9 at 9:46
  • @Trilarion I am not against the term per se - I just think that it is too broad. E.g., if we talk about elections: there are elections (unlike in NK), and Putin and his party do not win 99.9% of the vote (as in Syria or USSR), and the opposition parties do exist. And the elections are likely more competitive on a local level (one has to check, if there are elected officials from non-pro-Putin parties.) Mar 9 at 9:49
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    "Russians express their opinions in social nets and manifest in support of Ukraine" And get fired for doing that. themoscowtimes.com/2022/03/03/…
    – Trilarion
    Mar 9 at 12:24
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    "independent media in Russia" Also less and less. "Ekho Moskvy and TV Dozhd" have been shut down lately and many other foreign press services have suspended operation after the "misinformation" (telling the truth for example) law has been passed. All currently existing independent media would have to tell only the official it's story, so it wouldn't be independent. By definition I would conclude that there is currently no independent professional media.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 9 at 12:39
  • Just looked at some major Russian online news sites (lenta,ru, gazeta.ru, pravda.ru autotranslated with google to get the same stuff as on the Russian versions) and wow, it blows my mind. Everyone is crazy about bio weapons, but no news or images about the war whatsoever except for some discussions of economic problems due to sanctions. Half of the articles about the war start with "The Kremlin comments on...".
    – Trilarion
    Mar 10 at 10:13
  • @Trilarion I am sceptical about independent media - they are run by people who have their agenda, they need to cater to the desires of their audience, and cannot go against those who provide their funding, etc. In old times, when a single newspaper served a whole town, it had to represent alternative points of view, to please to everybody. But now everyone can search for information, compare different sources and do their own fact-checking. Propaganda works only on those who do no do this (which are probably the majority in any country). Mar 10 at 10:59
  • Okay, I get you. Just one more thing: You say you are skeptical of independent media because of agendas, but then you suggest to simply search for information and do fact-checking. What should be true for independent media should be true for everyone. Every time and everywhere there is an agenda. True fact checking would require to actually go there and see with your own eyes, everything else can deceptive as well. But I fully agree with your remark about propaganda.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 10 at 11:18
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    @Trilarion I think one should not consider media as completely redundant: doing fist-hands information collection and analyzing it is difficult - not something that a single person could really do. However, having different news sources that represent different points of view, and comparing them is something feasible. Mar 10 at 11:46
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    @Trilarion Of course, everyone is subject to confirmation bias, etc. Even scientists are known to often mislead themselves into trying to prove their pet theory rather than questioning it. Mar 10 at 11:48
  • Russian may not yet be an autocracy, but Putin is certainly a would-be-autocrat. The same applies to Trump.
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 14 at 23:20
  • @Obie2.0 It's like in physics: nothing can be big/short, warm/hot, etc. in absolute terms - only relatively to something else. Mar 15 at 7:41

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