If they stop stigmatizing Russians, it would help

Lesha Minyaylo is a civil and political activist. He says that for a long time he was "a typical loyal Putin audience. But then he started reading Yevgeny Roizman's and Alexey Navalny's posts in his LiveJournal, and realized that the country was headed in the wrong direction. I engaged in activism at the end of 2011, after the rallies on Clean Ponds and Bolotnaya. In 2012, he created an educational game for election observers. He is currently working on the "Chronicles" project, which is researching people's opinions about the war. He considers sociological polls one of the instruments of propaganda: "The letters Z are hanging everywhere, but on the state buildings. People think - oh, everybody supports it. Then they're shown a poll - yes, everyone supports it. And then they get a call and they say - well yeah, we support. I'm like everyone else."

Tell us about yourself.

- I am Lesha Menyailo, a politician from Russia.

When and why did you decide to become a political activist?

- At the end of 2011, after the rallies on Chistye Prudy and Bolotnaya. For a long time I was what they call a typical loyal Putin audience. That is, I was "out of politics" and believed that everything was going well, that the country was moving in the right direction. Then I came across Yevgeny Royzman's and Alexei Navalny's journal in Youtube, and I began to notice that something was amiss. Roizman had about Arakcheyev and Khudyakov - these were officers who served in Chechnya - they were unreasonably accused of killing civilians. Several times the jury acquitted them, but then Kadyrov said that the jury didn't understand the will of the Chechen people, and they were convicted after all. This became a kind of a line for me, and that's when I went out with a solitary picket. I had no idea at all about the legal basis or what to do if the police came up - I just took two A3 sheets of paper at work, taped them together and wrote: "Putin put a Russian officer in jail to please a Chechen fighter." Then there were rallies on Chistye Prudy and Bolotnaya. I decided that it was necessary to create an educational game for observers, so that by the presidential election in March '12 a thousand observers had already been trained, and now about eight thousand observers have already gone through these educational games. That is my participation in politics started at the end of the 11th or the beginning of the 12th year.

How did the war change your life?

- Oh, I don't think we'll understand for a long time how the war has changed our lives. It's fucked up - everything has changed. The fact that it changed life before and after is for sure. A huge number of like-minded people and comrades-in-arms were forced to leave, because in Russia they have no way to continue their activities without risking imprisonment. There is a huge decline in strength among people with an anti-war stance. And those who haven't left, I can feel it in myself, are catching this strain, the fear of going to jail over a trifle. It's all hard. The only thing that hasn't changed is that after I've done my time in prison I spend most of my time working to change the political situation in Russia.

You created the "Chronicles" project. Tell us about it.

- We put our team together and created this project specifically to investigate opinions about the war. For Levada, this is a secondary task; they have a million other things they do. VCIOM is a propaganda machine, it's not sociology. Propagandists in sheep's clothing. FOM does good sociology, but they don't publish the results of their research on the war. Our raison d'être is to study war, and we concentrate all our energy, all our thinking resources, all our consultations with specialists on this. We tried to probe public opinion with different methods, different questions, from different angles. We've been doing this for an entire year. We tried to segment those who say they support the war. This is the main question - what do these people mean? Here's an idea of a person who gets a phone call and is asked, "Do you support the war?" and you say, "Yes, I do." What do you mean by that? That's right. Right take that pause in the frame, let people think about it. Because every time I ask this, I hear different answers most of the time. From "I'm just afraid to say what I think," to "I think we should have hit Kiev with a nuclear missile a long time ago." So it's a spectrum. And what does support mean? Some people at the poll say, "Yes, I support it," and there are times when people really feel some kind of involvement, pride. Someone with a rifle is on his way to a military training camp. There are people who throw money down for warm clothes for the army. And there are those who don't say what they think for fear of persecution, and it's not just a few - there are millions of people. We did an experiment: half of the sample gave the answer choices "I support" and "I don't support" to the question you support/don't support, and we gave the answer choices "I support", "I don't support", and "I don't want to answer" to the other half of the sample. And predictably, in the "don't want to answer" subsample, the number of those who said they did not support was halved. But interestingly, the number of those who declared support decreased by 10%, relative to the total number. People are afraid, so you can't take this huge spectrum and lump it together. It's very important that people abroad understand that there are few real Nazis in Russia, they all fit into Hitler's cap, and that the majority are not Nazis. It is those who join the majority.

What do you ask respondents about besides attitudes toward the war?

- In our last poll, we asked the question, "What would you say or ask Putin if you found yourself in front of him?" We gave people a chance to get a feel for Duday. And one person asked: "Did he buy a ticket to The Hague." We have arguments every time about whether people would be willing to answer that question or not. We asked the question, for example, "What losses are acceptable to achieve the goals of the SWO?" And predictably most people walked away from answering that question. We had separate arguments about interpreting that further, because some people said: "Yeah the question didn't work," because the vast majority of people walked away from the answer, which means we can't understand any of it. But I discussed it with Catherine Shulman, and she said: "Well, it's the other way around." It may not have worked in some sense, but in doing so we realized that most people refuse to discuss it. They're not saying that any kind of loss is acceptable-they just don't want to talk about it. So it's a kind of a sign of humanism, shall we say.

What is wrong with Russian sociology?

- The problem here is not so much Russian sociology... Well, it's like saying, "What's the problem with microsurgery on a sinking ship that's rocking on the waves? In principle, it's hard to do microsurgery when everything's swaying. It's the same in sociology. It's very hard to understand what people are thinking when they're afraid to talk about it or even think about it. And it's very hard to explain it to people who are nervous, who tend to oversimplify very much. So they see that, let's say, 70% of Russians support the war. And they're like: "70% of Russians support genocide, murder, bombing, nuclear strikes, and so on." That's all the bad stuff these 70% support. And why would you say that? "Well, it's obvious." And it's like in the joke - "you didn't win, you lost," and it's not 70%, and they support the wrong thing at all. That is, on the one hand, it is difficult to find out, but on the other hand, it is difficult to explain it to people, because everyone has a solid bias. That is, if people have decided that the Russians are bad, or that the country is all, generally fucked up, the deep people are boorish, then it's very difficult to explain to them that people's opinions are not as simple as they seem. "Well, what do you mean it's not as simple? There's 70% said they support it, so they support it." Well, wait, of those 70%, three-quarters have a different view of what's going on than you do. Those three-quarters who say they support the war, they trust the official media, which means that their picture of the world is completely different. And in order to understand it, you need energy, and a huge number of people in Russia live in survival mode, and they do not care to understand an issue that does not directly affect them. We can see that as soon as an issue begins to concern people, they begin to change their opinion and try to understand. It's a very complex situation. And people want it explained to them at the level of one meme.

Based on your research, what conclusion can you draw about the effectiveness of propaganda?

- What I can say for sure is that the refrigerator is slowly starting to beat the TV. We can see this in the October and February data. Among those who have suffered one way or another from the economic consequences of the war and still watch TV, the level of support is falling faster than among those who have suffered from the economic consequences but do not watch TV. That is, people notice a gap between what they see on TV and real life.

How does sociology become a tool of propaganda?

- One of the government's important tools for manipulating society is to show that everyone is zigging and marching in formation. They create the illusion of universal support. Why does this work? There are some very interesting experiments by Asch: they took one subject and put him in a room with several actors. They were given simple tasks - the kind where it was impossible to make a mistake. They were shown a line of one length, and then they were shown two other lines: one large and one the same size as the original line, and then they were asked to say which of the lines was the same size as the first. And it turned out that when the rest of the group said that the larger one was equal to the smaller one, 40% said the same thing. It is simply impossible to be wrong, and it is obvious that those people are wrong. Well, now imagine that the situation is much less clear-cut. This exercise in research is extreme. It is very rare in life to find situations that are so unambiguous. It's even easier to pass off black as white by giving people the impression that everyone thinks black is white and white is black. And polls are one of the tools. In this sense, of course, I have big complaints about sociological services. Why do you play this game? Why do you show irrelevant data, don't explain that they don't really reflect the structure of opinions, that these opinions don't mean what they seem to mean. Here are the letters Z that hang everywhere-what does it mean that they hang "everywhere": they hang on government buildings, but people don't think about it. They see these letters everywhere, and they think, "Man, everyone supports it." Then they see a poll and they think, "Shit, everybody supports it. And then they get a call and they say, "Yeah, I support it." So I'm like everyone else, I'm normal, I'm a reliable citizen, I'm a patriot.

What can wake up the Russians and whether they should be collectively responsible.

- If Russians stop being stigmatized for being Russians and told, "You're a Russian, you're a fascist," on the basis of the passport, it would actually help a lot. But this, unfortunately, is not going to happen. I think we need people to see an alternative - what can happen to Russia if it doesn't go to war. That the future really isn't as scary as it seems now. And why does it seem that way? Because there is no future in sight. There is the present, which is at least clear as to how it will go. And the alternative, in which Russia is not at war, in which Russia is not an outcast - there is gaping darkness. So we need a plan, right? So that people understand that they won't send everyone to The Hague, that policemen won't all be jailed or lustrated, that they won't make all the soldiers at the construction sites in Mariupol work. Without such, you know, pileup sin, like: "It's all my fault, all war criminals. No. There are war criminals, there are soldiers who participated in this criminal war - they are not criminals. There are people, for example Margarita Simonyan - a person who, during the trial, will not be able to get away with anything. There are no options. And there are a huge number of people who, sorry, were just doing their job and didn't do much harm. I realize this sounds like the Nazis at Nuremberg, but realistically, we have a country with a population of almost 140 million that is a dictatorship at war. Sorry, but if you approach this from a "white-palmed" point of view, then everyone is screwed - even the Europeans who paid money for Russian gas, and with that money Putin buys Shaheds from Iran, for example. We need to abandon this logic and move into legal and conceptual categories. First of all, it's fair. And secondly, how do you change anything when you say, "Vote for us. We will come to power and we will put you all in jail." Well, that's absurd and delusional.

Tell us about the findings from the fresh February survey.

- Last time we got 22%: these are the people who declare support, those who believe that the priority of spending for the government should be military spending, not social spending, and that the war should be fought to victory, rather than withdrawing troops as soon as possible and without achieving military goals. And a comparable group, 20% vs. 22%: these are people who do not declare support for the war, people who believe that we should withdraw troops as soon as possible, without achieving military goals, and begin peace negotiations. That, in my opinion, is a very good ratio. At least we see that not everyone is zigzagging. It is highly likely that the support base will continue to decline, and the war will be like a lump in people's throats. It's sad that this is happening through impoverishment, but unfortunately there are no other options. War will still drive many people to the coffin. One way or another, it will drive our country into the coffin anyway, and the sooner the better. The sooner it happens, the sooner we will be able to get up, god forbid, from our knees where we are now and try to get back to the normal path of development, where money is spent not on war, but on education, medicine, where people try to be friends with neighboring countries and not force them into something they don't understand and don't understand why.

Why didn't you leave Russia?

- I don't want to. And why should I leave? This is my country. I would be more useful here than abroad. A huge number of people like me have gone abroad, and plus one more there is a little added value. And the plus one here, I think, is a big one.

What are you most afraid of?

- This whole thing has discouraged the feeling of fear, made it a substrate. It's there, it keeps pushing, but not so much that I'm afraid all the time. I don't want to sit down. But I don't have the constant fear: "Lesha, you're going to sit down. I guess I'm afraid of breaking down and becoming inoperative.

What's next for us?

- Hell of a lot of interesting times. I wish they were duller. Look, I think everyone has a very important election ahead of them. And I'm not talking about presidential elections, but about my own personal elections in situations where decisions have to be made consciously, not hoba! - It happened and I'm in the same place where everyone else is. You have to try to understand why I live my life. And what will this or that action lead to? It seems to me that many such situations await us in the future, and sometimes even more important than the ones we've had.

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