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by John Helmer, Moscow 

Russian pollsters have published no nationwide surveys of Russian public responses to the Crocus City Hall attack on March 22 in the immediate aftermath, nor in the days which have followed the capture of the four gunmen and release of evidence of their links to the Ukraine.  

A Ukrainian propaganda organisation, directed from the UK and concealing its Kiev location,  the names of its staff, and sources of its funds,  has rushed out a survey of 652 Russians contacted online. According to the Open Minds Institute, “most Russians believe Kiev was behind [the attack], although given President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on dissent, it remains difficult to establish how genuine the rise of anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Russia is.” The survey estimated that “more than 50 percent blamed the Ukrainian leadership and only 27 percent pointed to ISIS…another 6 percent blamed the ‘US/UK/the West’… More than 75 percent of respondents considered Putin to be the most reliable or a completely reliable source of information about the attack.”

No date for the Open Minds Institute (OMI) survey is reported, nor its method of question and answer through the internet. No verification has been provided of where the Russians surveyed were living and whether they knew they were answering questions from Kiev.  

The date of the OMI operation appears to have been within hours of the attack — before the capture and identification of the attackers and their accomplices.

In fact, the Open Minds Institute (OMI) has not published a survey at all.

According to the OMI website,  its last report was published in February: that was an online poll of attitudes towards Alexei Navalny and the cause of his death. The report identified a sample of 1,326 – more than double the number reportedly polled on the Crocus City Hall attack.  

Instead of reporting this directly, OMI has provided its findings to the Financial Times, whose reporters in Tbilisi and Berlin copyrighted the data charts and composed their interpretation from sources who are quoted as saying “Russians are good at repeating propaganda narratives in opinion polls” and “it’s a population that is frightened and can’t just sit back and let Grandad Putin sort it out. They sense that kind of heightened terror…” The newspaper is owned by the Nikkei Corporation in Tokyo,  and specializes in running anti-Chinese and anti-Russian propaganda.  

Denis Volkov, director of the Moscow-based Russian opinion pollster Levada Centre, is reported by the Financial Times as saying: “if the propaganda and the authorities blame Ukraine as the main narrative, people will believe it, because control over the information space is almost absolute.” He also told the newspaper that Russians “usually called for a ‘strong hand’ and tough response to acts of terrorism on this scale, such as Putin’s pledge to ‘flush terrorists down the toilet’ in 1999 as the Kremlin ordered the bombing of Chechnya.”  

What Volkov actually said in Russian and meant are different.

The Open Minds Institute (OMI) operates two websites, one of which reveals nothing about its base of operations, members of staff, or source of money. It explains: “due to security reasons we cannot reveal our personal information.”  

The site reports its mission statement: “Russia spends at least ~$1B yearly on propaganda, which greatly intensifies the conflict by shaping the perspectives of Russian society and even reaching audiences in other countries. To effectively counter this significant investment, we must deploy innovative counter-influence strategies and the latest technologies that can slow down the war machine. Winning informational warfare matters as much as direct military achievements.” OMI claims its “partners” in its mission include Harvard University, Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins, Oxford and Kings College London.  

Source: https://www.openmindsinstitute.org/about-omi 

The operational base of the “team” is Kiev, according to a parallel website published in Ukrainian and hinting that the organization also receives funds from commercial and state-owned Ukrainian companies.  

In Moscow on March 28, Levada, the national polling company established by the Russian academic sociologist Yury Levada in 2003,  was asked if they planned a survey on the Crocus City Hall events, and also if they would provide an off the record summary of what they believe Russians think are the causes of the attack and who is to blame. Director Denis Volkov replied they “aren’t going to make such a poll in the near future.” He refused to comment on what he believes the answers to the proposed questions are.

Hours later, however, Volkov published on the Russian-language version of the Levada website the results of two focus group sessions Levada had conducted “which were held on a completely different topic, but whose participants could not help but speak out about what happened just a few days ago in their city.”  

Report on the public opinion towards the Crocus City Hall attack by Denis Volkov (photograph). Source: https://www.levada.ru/
After investigations by the Ministry of Justice starting in 2013, Levada was registered as a foreign agent in September 2016. For details, read this

“According to our respondents,” Volkov reported, “they did not immediately understand the scale of what was happening in Crocus City Hall. The first reaction is ‘most likely, this is another drunken shooting or showdown,’ reports of which have been plentiful lately, so they almost stopped paying attention to it. However, the realization came quite quickly — the news came out one after another, the tragedy unfolded before our eyes literally in real time.”

“As it was in February 2022 at the beginning of the ‘special operation’ or in June 2023 during the rebellion of Yevgeny Prigozhin, people plunged into smartphones, methodically scrolling through news channels and chats. Late on Friday evening, Muscovites, frozen with a phone in their hands, could be seen on the streets of the city; there were probably many people who were engaged in ‘thinkscrolling’ deep into the night. People were talking about the terrorist attack in low voices in public transport;  snatches of conversations about the incident could be heard from random passers-by.”

“And this is not surprising. The sheer scale of the tragedy was fascinating, the realization of which occurred as new information became available. It was easy for most Muscovites, and probably Russians in general, to imagine themselves in the place of the victims of the terrorist attack;  the degree of identification with the victims was very high;  someone loves Russian rock and goes to concerts, someone has been to Crocus City or nearby shops, someone has passed by more than once. Therefore, one of the first reactions to reports of a terrorist attack among a large number of Muscovites should have been the thought of relatives and friends — whether they were among the victims, they were called and corresponded with. As always happens in such cases, women reacted most acutely to events, men are usually less emotional.”

“…the public perception of Friday’s events differs from the understanding of the political assassinations of last year: then famous public figures became targets, and now ordinary citizens. Therefore, the degree of solidarity with the victims of Crocus City Hall is much higher. Hence the increased attention to what is happening, the willingness to donate blood, spontaneous memorials at the scene of the tragedy and in other Russian cities. Making a forecast about the impact of the terrorist attack in Crocus City Hall on public sentiment is a thankless task, it is simply impossible to take into account all the factors. However, the most general conclusions can be drawn based on the already accumulated sociological data about Russian society. Parallels with similar terrorist attacks of previous years, which are carried out by the respondents themselves, suggest looking at what the polls of those years said about public sentiment.”

“Obviously, such events immediately increase fears of becoming a victim of terrorist attacks and attacks themselves. The last peak of mass anxiety about this occurred in 2017 — immediately after the terrorist attack in the St. Petersburg metro, 78% of Russians spoke about the fear of being a victim of terrorists. It was about the same in 2010 after a series of explosions in the Moscow metro. We recorded the maximum values of this [anxiety] indicator in 1999 and 2004 after the bombings of houses in Moscow and Volgodonsk and the hostage-taking at the Beslan school – 86% and 88%, respectively. Overall, the overall level of these fears has been steadily declining since about the mid-2000s. We’ll find out soon enough how high anxiety will rise this time.”

“However, it may be that the existing experience of experiencing similar situations, as well as a series of disturbing events in recent years, could dull public feelings. This is sometimes pointed out by the participants of the focus groups themselves, saying that we have ‘hardened’, ‘grown thick skin’,  and are no longer so acutely worried about what is happening. Perhaps this is partly true. Over the past couple of years, participants in group discussions have heard many times that in Russia we live from crisis to crisis, from disaster to disaster. The deepest economic crisis of the late 1990s, the mentioned terrorist attacks, painful reforms and the economic crisis of the late 2000s. In recent years, the pace of successive cataclysms has accelerated even more: the first conflict in Donbass and the first sanctions, the pension reform which rocked the country, the COVID-19 pandemic, the ‘special operation’, total Western sanctions, the military mutiny in the summer of 2023. Our respondents have repeatedly asked themselves: what kind of test awaits us next? According to popular belief, something like this just had to happen, given the general international tension and the ongoing armed conflict. Life in anticipation of a new test, on the one hand, had to teach people to react less sharply to another dramatic event at the moment when it happens — it was expected.”

“In addition, it immediately becomes one with a whole stream of similar twists and turns, to which people have already learned to react. And then it is also quickly replaced by new events and new experiences, the initial shock goes away, attention switches to routine or fresh news…An indirect sign of increased stress is the increased demand in recent years for the services of psychologists, psychological and esoteric literature. Since the pandemic and especially after the start of the Special Operation,  our respondents have often talked about how they try to cope with anxiety by eating stress, pouring alcohol on it, and especially by seeking emotional support from family and friends, regularly speaking out and talking out their worries with relatives or with a psychotherapist. Anyway, the increase in alcohol dependence recorded in our country in 2022 for the first time in 10 years suggests that, with all the efforts expended, it is not always possible to cope with worries and fears.”

“In conclusion, we note another aspect of the public attitude towards great tragedies. Despite the fact that some dramatic events are replaced by others and it can be difficult to remember what happened a month ago, tragedies like the terrorist attack in Crocus City Hall, as a rule, remain in the collective memory for many years…”

Today Volkov was asked to clarify the London newspaper publication of what he reportedly said,  and what he did say for Levada in Russian. He has refused to answer.

Levada has been reporting in its surveys that the Russian public’s  optimism for the future has never been higher and that public confidence in and support for the Russian military has not been greater since 1945.

As reported last week,  Levada, the All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), and other pollsters appear to have coordinated their effort to avoid poll disclosures which might  exacerbate intercommunal hostility after the evidence had appeared of Tajik participation in the Crocus City Hall killings.

VTsIOM, which was established in 2003 as a state-owned company, acknowledges it conducts a daily telephone-based survey with a 600 sample across the country, and within three days an 1,800 sample survey.  The results of VTsIOM polling since the events of March 22 have not been made public.

Instead, on VTsIOM’s website the most recently published survey appeared on March 29 reporting that “the level of patriotism in Russian society is higher than ever.” “Today 94% of our fellow citizens consider themselves patriots, including 62% who are unconditional patriots (+10 percentage points over the past year), this is the absolute maximum for the entire observation period. In general, the trend towards ‘unconditional patriotism’ begins in the fall of 2014, when the share of ‘unconditional’ patriots significantly exceeded the share of ‘rather’ [qualified]  patriots for the first time in a long time (48% vs. 36%). One of the obvious explanations for the surge of patriotism in society at that time was the reunification of Crimea with Russia. The beginning of the special military operation in 2022 was also marked by an increase in ‘unconditional’ patriots (+8 percentage points from the previous measurement); up to today (longer than ever), at least half of our fellow citizens consider themselves to be such.”

Today, the feeling of patriotism is shared approximately equally by men and women (93% and 95%, respectively), young people and representatives of the older generation (87% in the 18-24 age group and 94% among 60+), residents of capitals and villages (94% and 95%, respectively).”

How would you describe yourself — as a patriot of your country or not?
(closed question, one answer, % of all respondents)

Source: https://wciom.ru/
The nationwide sample of 1,600 was surveyed by random telephone call. No dates have been given for the polling.

VTsIOM has also reported that in its surveys between March 18 and 24, approval of the presidency and government,  and trust in President Vladimir Putin remained high and stable. “The approval rate of the President’s activities from March 18 to 24, 2024, was 78.9% (+0.0 percentage points per week). The levels of positive assessment of the work of the Prime Minister and the Government of Russia over the past week amounted to 54.7% (+0.4 percentage points per week) and 56.6% (-0.6 percentage points per week), respectively. 80.7% of respondents answered positively to a direct question about trust in Vladimir Putin (-0.3 percentage points per week), Mikhail Mishustin — 62.6% (-0.4 percentage points per week).”  

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