About the Author: Salome Mamasakhlisi is a research assistant at MCERC. Salome is a University of Westminster BSc Psychology graduate, currently doing a Masters in Media Psychology and Communications at Tbilisi State University. "After my return to Georgia, it came clear to me how the Russian propaganda machine tyrannically works against Georgia’s Western integration. I see the dire need for the public’s involvement in the process of correct comprehension and promotion of Western values” - says Salome.
As the world struggles to make sense of the reasons behind Russia’s attack on Ukraine, we dive into social psychology to try and make sense of why people act the way they do.
Why do Russian soldiers follow Putin's orders? A question that has haunted our minds since February 2022. We've all seen the damage, the killings, the war crimes. From a full-scale invasion of Ukraine to putting nuclear forces on special alert, Russian President Vladimir Putin has proven to be the 21st century Hitler protégé. His actions have affected millions, including his very own people. Clips have been resurfacing on social media, depicting Russian citizens getting arrested by the thousands for taking part in anti-war protests in Russia.
“It’s very difficult for people to go to the streets and protest,” said Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Moscow. “Anyone trying to go out or looking like a protester has been violently dragged away,” he said, adding that in one instance, a Russian woman was dragged away by the Russian police just for holding a blank piece of white paper.
Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin online media outlets have begun moving in to spread falsehoods and misinformation. The BBC reports on the company, whose name translates as Southern Front, making and distributing pro-Vladimir Putin propaganda across YouTube and several other mediums. The Russian propaganda machine has undoubtedly proven to be very strong; some may say - blinding.
The Russian army have seen the massive backlash from the rest of the world as well as experienced the devastation caused by this war first hand. Yet they persist to follow orders.
Psychology has a lot to say about why people commit atrocities under powerful rulers. The topic of obedience has been debated over centuries. Why do thousands and thousands of people continue to follow a power-hungry Russian dictator, despite having witnessed the devastation caused by the invasion? The truth is, that we might never find a correct, single answer to this question. But there's no harm in trying to understand what is going through these people's minds when heading off to or already on the battlefield.
Psychology behind obedience
In 1963, Yale professor Stanley Milgram conducted a series of ground-breaking experiments. His primary aim was to investigate how ordinary German citizens were capable to take part in the Holocaust. He wanted to explore how far people are willing to go while following orders from high-up. Milgram’s experiment was quite simple. Participants were brought in under a false narrative, thinking they were there for a study about how punishment affects learning. They were assigned the “teacher” role while another participant (affiliate of the researcher) was assigned the role of “learner”. The “teacher” was made to believe that the learner would be punished by an electric shock every time they gave an incorrect answer to a series of word pair questions.
The pretence electric shocks seemed very real as the shock generator rose incrementally from 15 volts to 450 volts—with a 15-volt increase for each new mistake—and the “learner” acted accordingly. For example, after reaching 75 volts, the “learner” would start to act out in what seemed like actual pain. During the entirety of the experiment, the researcher in a white lab coat and a calm, collected demeanour was in the room with the “teacher” participant, urging them forward with remarks like “please continue” or “the experiment requires that you continue”. With each shock, and each painful protest from the “learner”, participants continued to obey orders from the authority figure – researcher in a lab coat.
Milgram found that an astounding 62.5% of his participants had delivered the maximum 450-volt shock, marked as XXX on the generator, with 80% continuing the punishment even after the confederate learner yelled out, “Get me out of here! I’ve had enough. I won’t be in the experiment anymore.”
A crucial point to make here is that the participants did not morally agree with what they were being asked to do. All of them were actively expressing disagreement with the experimental method, objecting to continuing with the study, showing empathy and determination to stop causing pain to an innocent individual. Nevertheless, not even the most extreme distress stopped them from obeying an authority figure.
Notably, there were several variations of the same study. But overall, Milgram drew the following conclusions: People when placed in a distressing and complicated environment rely on an authority figure for guidance on how to behave or what steps to take – the person in charge surely knows better than them. Disobedience is less likely in such situations due to the feared backlash from the authority figure, or a lost sense of personal responsibility – not doing what they are told.
At this point, we can safely say that Milgram’s findings are very much relevant in today's Russia-Ukraine wartime circumstances. Russian soldiers continue to be under extreme social influence during a time of crisis, led by a powerful and assertive authority figure they are most likely going to listen to. Even if morally they may not agree with what they are being told to do, they are nevertheless operating under command – a factor that unfortunately is used to justify some horrible violent acts.
Russian obedience during wartime
When looking over wartime footage or newspapers reporting on Russian soldiers, we see several kinds of testimony. Primarily, we come across countless young soldiers anywhere between 18 to 25 years of age, very new to military service with minimal to no preparation or training for the battlefield.
“Many of the young guys couldn’t even imagine that we would go to war. They told us at the very last moment about this, the night before the invasion,” recounts a young Russian soldier that was captured by the Ukranian forces and eventually interviewed by the Guardian, “Ultimately, it is really not fair how the Russian authorities treated me. I was sent to Ukraine completely unprepared.”
We have also come across soldiers’ refusal to fight and preferring to describe Ukraine’s forceful invasion as a “special military operation”. “I have served for five years in the army. My contract ends in June. I will serve my remaining time and then I am out of here,” says Dmitri, a member of the unit that was first stationed in Russia’s far east region during peacetime. This is the same unit that first entered Ukraine from Belarus when the war started at the end of February and saw bitter combat with Ukrainian forces. “I have nothing to be ashamed of. We aren’t officially in a state of war, so they could not force me to go.”
There appears to be clear examples of denial being used as a coping mechanism for the distressing, complex situations in which Russian soldiers have found themselves. A similar account to Dmitri’s was given to the BBC by Sergey Bokov, a 23-year-old soldier who at the end of April decided to leave the army after fighting in Ukraine. “Our commanders didn’t even argue with us because we were not the first ones to leave,” Bokov said.
Soldiers refusing to fight is a brave act of defiance considering they are risking prison time when doing so. Although, going back to the concept of obedience of authority, it is important to highlight the story of a jet pilot who admitted on video to have been ordered to bomb a civilian target in Ukraine. "In the process of completing the task, I realized that the target was not enemy military facilities, but residential buildings, peaceful people. But I carried out the criminal order," said Maxim Krishtop, a lieutenant colonel and deputy commander of the 47th Aviation Regiment, adding that he was shot down by Ukraine's air defence system and taken prisoner.
Putin’s leadership and authoritarian regime has instilled deep-rooted fear amongst its citizens and soldiers. Just like Milgram’s “teacher” participants, they are finding themselves in a highly distressing, complex environment in which they are forced to listen to and follow direct orders from who can only be described as a dictator. Putin’s way of leading his people whether it be on the battlefield or inside the government is for the majority leading to compliance. Although sparks of disobedience here and there is what gives us hope that all is not lost.
The author would like to acknowledge and give special thanks to American journalist Will Cathcart. It was under his supervision on the course Multimedia Storytelling and Strategies that this article was written.
It is prohibited to copy, reproduce, or distribute the material for commercial purposes without written permission from the Media and Communication Educational and Research Center (MCERC). This blog has been produced under the series of "History Keepers" in the frame of the project "Solidarity Journalism for Peace and Security" funded by the European Union, within its Eastern Partnership Civil Society Fellowship Programme.
Its contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect
the views of the European Union.