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From "good" to "helpful": How Russian opposition plays along with Kremlin propaganda – study

Wednesday, 9 November 2022, 09:00

"The Russians aren’t guilty that the war started, nor that it has not yet ended, nor that Putin was not overthrown." This phrase by Russian oppositionist Maxim Katz illustrates the attitude of the majority of Russian public figures, who, on the one hand, criticize Putin, and on the other, spread messages of Russian propaganda – consciously or not.

For years, the Ukrainian information space was flooded with Russian content: music, books, media, and bloggers. For many Ukrainians, "good" Russians were idols, they trusted them. Sobchak and Bykov gathered large audiences, traveling across Ukraine, teaching Ukrainians freedom of speech and how to understand Lesya Ukrainka's work.

The slow development of Ukrainian-language content only strengthened this trend. When Russian public figures were already posting a lot of videos on YouTube, Ukrainians were just beginning to pay attention to this platform.

This began to change in 2014, but only in 2020-2021 did the Ukrainians achieve noticeable results. In 2021, the Ukrainian segment of YouTube began to defeat the pro-Russian one.

After the full-scale invasion, the Russian idols did not disappear. Their "liberal" attitude made them "good Russians." In the first months of 2022, they flooded the Ukrainian information space – from TV broadcasts to attempts to obtain Ukrainian citizenship. But with each new atrocity committed by the Russian army, the attitude of Ukrainians becomes more radical. The search for "good Russians" has turned into a denial of their existence.

However, little has been said about the political position of the so-called "good Russians" since 2014 and whether it has changed today. These "good Russians" were and are part of the information war – they shaped and continue to shape the attitude of Russians towards Putin, Ukraine, and the war.

The volunteer initiative How Not to Become a Vegetable together with the Analyze platform has analyzed the statements about Ukraine (2014-2022) of 91 Russian public figures and publications in nine Russian media that say they oppose Putin's regime. The purpose of the study is to show Ukrainians to what extent the public position of famous Russians who criticize Putin actually strengthens or weakens the image of Ukraine in the information space and whether "good Russians" broadcast Russian propaganda narratives (consciously or not).

Helpful Russians?

Among the 91 analyzed Russians who criticize Putin, only six consistently support Ukraine in the information space. Andrey Piontkovsky, for example, is the only one among them, who has a clear public point of view on all key issues: the Russian-Ukrainian war (since 2014), the annexation of Crimea, the recognition of Russia as the aggressor; he admits Russians are guilty of the war. He considers restrictions on issuing visas to Russians to be a mild form of punishment for collective responsibility.

Only 40 out of 91 analyzed Russians publicly recognized Crimea as an integral part of Ukraine. Most of them talk about annexation, but believe that the peninsula can’t simply be returned to Ukraine – there must be a new referendum or a dual protectorate of Ukraine and Russia or something else (they say).


Political scientist Ekaterina Shulman, for example, in September 2019, when asked what to do with Crimea, answered that there are many gray areas in the world and "whoever sits in a certain place is the owner." In March 2014, the popular writer Boris Akunin published on LiveJournal the text of the Russian politician Alexei Navalny, which says: "Ukraine got Crimea accidentally, and this seems wrong, unfair and unfortunate for any normal resident of Russia."

Later in November of the same year, Akunin called the annexation of the peninsula a theft and said that he would "hold a referendum with long preparation and under strict international supervision, and let the Crimeans themselves decide where to go – there, here or to be on their own," adding that, from previous trips to Crimea, he got the impression that "many people there do not want to live in Ukraine."

In general, "good Russians" can criticize Putin and his actions, but they always remain Russians and put Russian interests first.

Some of Putin's modern public critics illegally visited occupied Crimea after 2014 (for example, rap signer Oxxxymiron) or were not against doing so. The same applies to other temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. When in 2020 writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya was asked if she was ready to give a talk for the "Russian people of Donbas", she answered that yes, she would be interested in it.

In 2019, Russian journalist Alexey Pivovarov published a film on YouTube about life in occupied Donetsk on behalf of local residents. He spoke little about the real problems, and instead, focused on international sanctions. One woman in his film told a story of how her ordinary neighbors, who had never used weapons before, went to war, and how after 2014 the population became more united.

The majority of public Russians consider the time until Feb. 24, 2022, peaceful and "normal," and they say both Russians and Ukrainians have become victims of the war. For example, Putin's critics compare Ukrainians who became victims of the war and are forced to seek refuge abroad and Russians who immigrated to other countries because of opposition to the Putin regime. In an August post, Boris Akunin compares the "Mariupol diary" of Ukrainian Yana Panova and the diary of a Moscow resident in which she describes mental suffering after Feb. 24.

At the Cannes Film Festival, Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov said it is worth helping Russians who were "sent" to war, as well as their families. He argued that they go to fight in Ukraine under the influence of propaganda, and now their families found themselves without breadwinners.

The more Russia loses, the louder are the voices saying that this is Putin's war, not the Russians’ and that the Russians themselves and the Russian opposition are not to blame for anything.

Russian politician Maxim Katz expressed a typical opinion: "It is necessary to divide the guilt and responsibility. The one who shot and gave the orders to shoot is guilty, and the one who did not overthrow Putin is not guilty."


In August 2022, Russian politician Dmitry Gudkov republished a post by Boris Akunin, which says: "After Feb. 24, people are not divided in a moral sense into citizens of Russia and Ukraine... Language, citizenship, and place of residence of a person make him a hostage or a victim of one or another dramatic (and sometimes tragic) circumstances..."

This is exactly how the Russians explain the injustice of international sanctions that make their lives worse. In an interview in the spring of 2022 for Western media, Russian propagandist Marina Ovsyannikova said that, due to sanctions, her disabled mother cannot buy medicine, and her daughter can’t pay with a bank card for lunches at school. She spoke about this when hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians were under occupation and did not have the most necessary things – water and food.

Public critics of Putin are also active in the Western information space. Natalia Sindeeva, the founder of the "Rain" TV channel, is actively promoting her film "F@ck this job". It has two parallel storylines – the history of the creation of the "Rain" channel and the modern political life of Russia. As Sindeeva says, the film must prove to Europeans that not all Russians are enemies, that they simply found themselves in "difficult" circumstances.

Another argument of public figures criticizing Putin is that Russians cannot change anything. "Do not try to listen to (Ukrainian) advice. You know better how to live, and their EuroMaidan experience is not relevant for us..." wrote Russian opposition politician Katz in October 2022. Such calls for passivity have been systematically heard since February.

Immediately after the beginning of the full-scale invasion, there were calls from the Russians for Ukraine to accept that Russia can’t lose. They also called on the West not to supply weapons to Ukraine. One example is Alexei Navalny's post about the greater effectiveness of social ads compared to weapons: "One Javelin shot costs $230,000. For the same amount, we will get 200 million views of a (social) ad that will tell people about what’s happening in Ukraine."

Repeating Russian propaganda messages is typical of Putin's public critics. For example, historian Mark Solonin criticized Ukrainian ex-ambassador to Germany Andrii Melnyk for his statements about Bandera. Solonin also calls the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and Ukrainian Insurgent Army fascist organizations, which distorts their history in every possible way; he also claims that a true patriot of Ukraine can’t support them.

On the eve of a full-scale invasion, the "good Russians" accused the U.S. of fear-mongering and denied the possibility of a Russian war. Now the Russians periodically blame NATO and the U.S. for the war, shifting the focus away from Ukraine. They emphasize that now Russia is actually at war with the U.S. – not Ukraine.

The statements of Putin's public critics are based on imperial narratives: about fraternal nations, inseparable ties with Ukraine, the weakness of the Ukrainian culture, and much more. In general, all these narratives boil down to the formation of a new "Russian world" in which Ukrainians and Russians will be together — only when there’s no Putin.

Meduza's speculations

Out of nine opposition media (traditional and YouTube projects), The Insider writes the most objectively about events in Ukraine and Russia. Meduza, in turn, publishes many manipulative articles.

Meduza admits Russia wages a war in Ukraine and criticizes Putin’s regime from the first day of the full-scale war. However, a study by Detector Media says that 55% of Meduza's publications on July 1-21 contained Russian propaganda narratives, in particular, that it is "not entirely clear" who is shelling Ukrainian cities and that Ukraine has abandoned residents of the occupied territories.

From time to time, Meduza's publications refer to the "Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics", as if they really exist and are states – not terrorist organizations that control part of the territories occupied by Russia. Meduza also repeats the Russian government’s claims of a "preemptive strike against NATO" and the narrative that "not only Putin but also Western politicians are to blame for the war."

The objectivity of the information in the media, and especially YouTube, depends significantly on the invited speakers. For example, watching the YouTube channel Live Gvozd, which generally stays neutral, you can hear people spreading distorted, manipulative narratives. Russian journalist Maksim Shevchenko said the collapse of the Soviet Union was illegitimate. Russian lawyer Henri Reznik said Ukraine is also guilty of the war because it wanted to become a unitary state with Crimea as a part of it.


One of the regular guests of Live Gvozd is the former editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow Alexei Venediktov, who for many years has been spreading the narratives of Russian propaganda, expressed imperial and Ukrainophobic views: "People who read about the nightmare in Kremenchuk, at least understand that it was not an evil major who gave the order to shoot "at a civilian object".

Unfortunately, Ukrainian media and journalists occasionally give "good Russians" a platform to speak – they interview them or invite them to comment on the events surrounding the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Russian bloggers and media also regularly invite Ukrainian speakers such as Oleksiy Arestovych, Oleg Zhdanov, Oleksiy Gerashchenko, and Mykhailo Podolyak. On the one hand, it allows us to convey the truth about the events in Ukraine to the Russians. On the other hand, the audience of "good Russians" mainly consists of the Ukrainian and Russian diaspora. 

Ordinary Russians have never been their audience, and those with liberal views already have access to objective information – they know the truth, but do nothing to change the situation, because of the same public critics of the regime call for passive protest.


From "good Russians" to Russians helpful for Ukraine

Public critics of Putin can help Ukraine if they can destabilize Russia or at least admit that, without Ukraine's victory, the future of Russian itself is illusory. However, after analyzing their public statements, there are doubts that this is what they are aiming for.

In the rhetoric of "good Russians," there are minimal calls for people to go out and protest. But this does not exclude the possibility that specific actions of Putin's public critics may be useful for Ukraine.

Ukrainians have been saying for a long time that the concept of "good Russians" should be changed to "helpful actions of Russians."

"Everything that happens in Russia should be considered from the point of view of whether it is useful for our victory, whether it brings it closer or, on the contrary, harms," Valery Pekar wrote on Facebook, reacting to the heated discussions about the statement of Russian pop star Alla Pugacheva.

At the end of September, Pugacheva published an appeal to the Russian Justice Ministry, asking to recognize her and her husband comedian Maxim Galkin as foreign agents. This post caused a heated discussion in Ukraine. Some Ukrainians thanked Pugacheva, while others urged not to do so.

The case with Pugacheva once again showed that only the Ukrainian information space can be disturbed by the statements of "good Russians." They do not have a strong influence on thoughts or behavior inside Russia.

In addition to unjustified hopes, the involvement of Russians in the Ukrainian information space has negative consequences. They find an audience here and can influence it. Before the full-scale invasion, only 3-11% of Ukrainians could distinguish lies from truth in the information space. Will they be able to recognize the manipulations of Russians who criticize Putin?

About the research titled "To what extent is the opposition of public Russians and the media helpful for Ukraine in the information space."

The research analyzed people and media that are not publicly part of Russian propaganda. In Russia, they are classified as "liberals"; in Ukraine and the West, they are referred to as "good Russians."

The study has analyzed the statements about Ukraine (2014-2022) of 91 public Russians and publications in nine Russian media that say that they oppose the Putin regime. The list of public figures and media was formed on the basis of their citation/popularity in Ukrainian and foreign information spaces.

The list is not complete and cannot be considered a ranking.

Note: this study did not examine whether a person currently holds a Russian passport. The study took into account the systematic work of the selected people on the Russian-speaking audience and its significant influence on it (citations and coverage).

The study analyzed the extent to which the public statements of selected people, which were/are being shared in the Ukrainian or foreign information space, correspond to Ukrainian interests, i.e. help to bring Ukrainian victory closer. The study took into account both the essence of the statements and the consistency of the position.

When searching for the statements of public Russians, the researchers imitated the actions of the average internet user, who does not have access to professional monitoring systems. That is, the researchers were looking for statements about a specific public person or media that an ordinary Ukrainian or Russian would find using the Google search engine.

​​The list of statements made in the study is not complete.

Five key questions, according to which the public positions of the research objects were analyzed:

  • Is the war in 2014 a war?
  • Is Crimea an integral part of Ukraine?
  • Is the war in 2022 a war?
  • Is Russia an aggressor?
  • Should Russians get visas?

In addition to the key questions, the researchers analyzed the public statements of the selected objects in 2014-2022 in 34 vectors. For example, the use of stamps of Russian propaganda; calls to stop sanctions; promotion of the narrative "Putin is to blame for everything, and the Russians are innocent," etc.

The analysis of the statements of the objects of research was carried out in three stages:

  • Analysts collected primary information – quotes.
  • Supervisors checked them for the correctness and completeness of the search.
  • Supervisors' work was checked in three stages by three other supervisors.

A multilevel analysis was required for the study to minimize the subjective evaluation of statements. It is minimized, but not reduced to zero.

If you see an error in the analysis or have additional information (from public sources), please send it to

Detailed methodology and research results.

By Oksana Moroz for Ukrainska Pravda