Lev Gudkov: “Every Year 2% of Russia’s Elite Arrested by Putin”

Before the death of political opponent Alexei Navalny in the penal colony where he was serving a 19-year sentence, Reset DOC reached Russian statistician Lev Gudkov. In the interview, a figure emerges: the arrest of 2 percent of the Russian elite around Vladimir Putin every year, a form of control that goes beyond dissidents and anti-war voices.

Navalny, 47, has been a prisoner of conscience since January 2021. A former lawyer and anti-corruption blogger, then politician at the helm of the Future Russia party and president of the Democratic Coalition, he became Russia’s most famous dissident against Putin after he was poisoned in 2020. Two days ago, his X account tweeted: “The Iamal prison has decided to beat Vladimir’s record to flatter and please the authorities in Moscow. They just gave me 15 days in a punishment cell. That is, this is the fourth punishment cell in less than 2 months I have been with them.” In the days leading up to his death, his Anti-Corruption Foundation had launched a campaign against Putin’s re-election in 2024.


Lev Gudkov, in previous interviews you have always described support for Vladimir Putin as monolithic: over 70 percent of the population supported the war until a year ago. But some international observers say that the war is eroding Putin’s power. Is that true in your opinion?

I cannot say the same. In my opinion, the nominal support for Putin has grown in recent months, and all this is connected with the total censorship in force, the propaganda, and the isolation of a large part of the population, which cannot receive certain information because it is censored and because the information that comes from foreign media, for example, no longer arrives because it is banned. The propaganda has also taken on more aggressive tones and also comes from social media.

There are two parts of the population that are not on the same level: 65-68 percent get information about what the government is doing, and especially about the conflict, mostly from TV channels; 18-22 percent are against the war and instead get information from Telegram and YouTube channels. This part of the population has learned to avoid censorship, for example by using VPNs.

If we look at our latest poll, 71 percent of Russians support the conflict. But we are also witnessing the growth of those who want the war to end, about 57 percent of respondents. However, when we analyze the conditions under which it should end, peace talks, and negotiations, most people insist that they want Ukraine to surrender, that Russia should keep the occupied territories, but also that Kiev should not join NATO and that there should be a change in the country’s leadership. All conditions that make negotiations impossible. 34 percent of Russians would instead like the war to continue until Moscow wins.


How has the propaganda narrative about the war changed?

The sense of the war has changed: it is no longer a war of denazification [of Ukraine, ed.], but a war against the collective West, as Putin says. The logic is that we must defend ourselves because they would have attacked us anyway, and the threat comes from NATO, from the United States. All the ambitions that Putin had with regard to the war in Ukraine are thus pushed into the background, consolidating the idea that Putin can guarantee us a certain security against the West and against a possible third world war.

Another aspect that shows how support for Putin has changed is the increase in repression. There are about 860 complaints related to the law on fake news and the law on defaming the Russian army. There are also increasingly strict rules: recently, a law came into force that entails the confiscation of assets for those who express ideas and publish data that differ from those of the propaganda on the course of the war and on the behavior of the Russian army – ideas and data considered fake by the propaganda itself. All this creates an atmosphere of strong fear and consent, but it is a forced consent. And it only reinforces the current atmosphere of apathy and resignation.


Speaking of consensus, after your last interviews there was the revolt of Yevgeny Prigozhin. Putin presents himself as strong in power, but the episode with the Wagner group has shown some cracks…

I wouldn’t talk so much about cracks, but rather about internal conflicts within the power machine. Putin used these military groups to achieve his goals and saw that their actions in Ukraine were successful. Successes under the patronage of the Kremlin, also clear to the population. Until April 2023, Prigozhin was not so well known. He emerged when he began to publish his speeches, various invectives, and photos on Telegram, and from that moment he gained a grip on the population. 40 percent of Russians supported Prigozhin’s actions. As soon as the slander was published, Putin began to criticize him, called him a traitor, talked about low blows, and so Prigozhin’s popularity declined.

Then there was the moment when Prigozhin was killed, and we know by whom, there is no doubt about how it happened, but even here he became a popular hero throughout Russia, often referred to as a person who fought for justice and against the corruption in the armed forces.

One of the most important events of this period was the failed coup attempt by Prigozhin. But as I said, I wouldn’t talk about cracks or weaknesses. Putin always makes great efforts to control the people around him. Repressive measures are taken not only against those who do not want war, but also against the people around him. It is estimated that 2 percent of the top representatives of power are arrested each year. If we add them up over the years, we get to about 10-12 percent. All this proves that Putin wants to impose some discipline on the system he has created.


Through which institutions does Putin’s control pass?

First of all, let’s talk about the control of the security forces, the secret services, and the judiciary, but also the control of all those big financial companies that distribute various flows of money. By controlling this aspect, a kind of economic stability is achieved. In the two years of the war, the nominal income of the population increased by about 20 percent because there was a strong trade from a war perspective. At the same time, however, inflation is eating up some of that income. The point is that the population still has the impression that there is a sort of stability, that things are going well.


What impact have the sanctions had so far?

They have certainly had a more direct impact on the upper and upper-middle classes. They are more informed, more integrated into the market, and have more pronounced consumer needs than the masses, who have not felt much of an impact because they consume national products and the prices of Russian products have not changed so much.

In the first month of sanctions in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, most of the population believed that they would only affect people close to Putin. Then the propaganda instrumentalized them: it made it clear in various ways that the sanctions were directed against the entire population, that it was russophobia, a war of the collective West against Russia with the aim of dismembering and controlling the country.

The effects of the sanctions begin to be felt in the long term after two or three years, because the limits to the production of certain products and the supplies from abroad no longer arriving begin to be perceived. This is the case with spare parts from the West, raw materials, and so on. At the moment, however, the predictions of some economists that there would be a major crisis have not yet come true.

According to the latest polls, 27-29 percent of the population feel the negative consequences of the sanctions. At the same time, according to the latest estimates, 700,000 people have left Russia. We are talking about young, educated people who are against the war, and this has reduced internal tensions, and there has been a return to a certain conformity in the country, an attitude of adapting to this new situation. The fact is that people are beginning to get used to living under repression.


News of the difficulties, of the stalemate of this war that according to the propaganda should have been won immediately, arrives?

Official information does not arrive. Censorship on the situation on the front, on the number of dead and on the general course of the conflict is extremely strict and applies to all data coming from Ukraine. Television, which is the main source of information, is the source of only one type of information: how Russian missiles are firing, how many successes the army has achieved. We hear all the time about how many Nazis, how many Ukrainians, how many terrorists have been killed; how many planes, how many tanks have been destroyed, and so on. And the numbers they propose to us are even higher than those available to Ukraine. Not only is this information distorted, but it is also repeated all the time.

There is also talk of casualties, destruction, the fact that perhaps sometimes the operation is proceeding more slowly than expected, but still everything is going according to plan, and this gives a certain tranquility to the population. It also weakens the Russians’ attention to the conflict, because the information is monotonous.


How do Russians react to this information monopoly?

Between 8 and 12 percent of the population gets information through other channels, including foreign, Ukrainian or Western ones. This information then arrives in Russia and spreads in various ways. But both official and unofficial information cannot be verified, which creates a situation reminiscent of Soviet times, between trust and skepticism.

People know that the authorities lie, that they dose the information or use it for demagogic purposes. But they also believe that they have to do so, because people do not want to hear anything that deviates from their perceptions, from their collective identity, from their perception of themselves. Criticism by the opposition and attempts to provide documentary evidence about the events, particularly the crimes of the Russian army are thus blocked in their consciences because a gap is created: on the one hand, most people admit that all this is possible, but on the other hand they think it is right to deny it because it is in line with the official policy of the authorities.

60 percent of people who believe that the war is the fault of NATO or the United States, 15-17 percent blame Ukraine and the current government. Only 3-7 percent blame Russia.


You mentioned apathy. Is there a point of no return for Russians regarding the war? When will it be too long?

This is happening already because most of the population believes that the conflict has already lasted too long. Over 80 percent of the population, however, does not know how to influence these decisions, so there is a general indeterminacy.

The only way the situation can change is if there is a Ukrainian attack that leads to the defeat of the Russian army in the field. Only this could really hit Putin’s legitimacy and create a real crisis in domestic politics, because in this way Putin’s authority as a military leader and political leader would be undermined. At the same time, fears of a Ukrainian counterattack have diminished, and the war is now being interpreted as a war to exhaust all Ukrainian forces. But all this will not happen quickly. People don’t realize that.




Cover photo: a worker paints over graffiti of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in Saint Petersburg on April 28, 2021. The inscription reads: “The hero of the new times”. Photo by Olga Maltseva/AFP.

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