The extensive sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine one year ago have not led to the decimation of the Russian economy, as many experts had predicted. As recently as last fall, according to new polling data, many Russians actually believed they were better off economically than they had been before the war started.

According to data gathered by the Gallup organization, the share of Russians reporting they were satisfied with their standard of living increased by 15 percentage points, to 57% in 2022. For the first time in the poll’s history, satisfaction with living standards was above 50% in every region of the country.

The number of Russians reporting that their economic conditions were improving grew to 44% from 40%, while the number who said their economic prospects were declining plummeted to 29% from 50%.

Similarly, the percentage of Russians reporting that they were satisfied with the country’s leadership surged to 66%, up from 50% in 2021, while the share reporting that they were dissatisfied fell from just under half to only 21%.

The survey is part of Gallup’s expansive annual World Poll, which conducts large-scale polling in dozens of countries around the world every year. The poll of Russian citizens was taken between mid-August and early November of last year, and therefore cannot have captured any changes in attitudes since the fall. The survey involved in-person interviews with a random sample of 2,000 individuals ages 15 or older, living in Russia. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

Surprising resilience

Recent data has demonstrated that the impact of international sanctions on Russia was not nearly as dramatic as the 10% contraction that many economists were foreseeing in 2022. The Russian economy contracted by a relatively mild 2.1% in 2022, and the International Monetary Fund has predicted that it will post small, but positive growth of 0.3% in 2023.

Russia began the war with a financial system braced for sanctions. The Russian central bank used currency controls and sharp interest rate hikes to stabilize the ruble early in the first year of the war. At the same time, Russian businesses began exploring deeper ties with countries such as China, India and Turkey, which allowed trade in goods and commodities to largely recover from initial dips at the outset of the conflict.

The biggest reason for Russia’s surprising resilience, however, was that it was allowed to continue selling petroleum products, far and away its largest source of pre-war revenue, on global markets. Prices were elevated at the outset of the fighting, and a slow move by many Western nations away from Russian oil and gas gave Russian firms time to broaden their sales to countries such as India and China.

In an address to the nation this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin touted the country’s economic performance.

“The Russian economy and system of governance proved to be much stronger than the West supposed,” he said. “Their calculation did not come to pass.”

‘Rally’ effect

Benedict Vigers, a consultant with Gallup, told VOA that the better-than-expected performance of the Russian economy may explain some of the economic optimism. However, a strong “rally-round-the-flag” effect is probably also in place.

When two countries go to war, there is a tendency for the people in both countries to demonstrate stronger affection for and satisfaction with their respective homelands, Vigers said.

“It is a well-known effect in Russia,” he said. “We have seen it historically, and it is happening now, in conjunction, to some degree, with Russia’s broader ability to evade some of the worst impacts of Western sanctions.”

He pointed out a similar spike in Russians reporting optimism about the economy and satisfaction with their government in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Repression of dissent

Another factor potentially coloring the responses to the Gallup survey is the fact that the Russian government aggressively punishes public criticism of the government, and has done so with more frequency in the months since launching its invasion of Ukraine. Tens of thousands of Russian citizens have been arrested for protesting against the war.

Galina Zapryanova, Gallup’s regional director for Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, told VOA in an email that the company cannot rule out the possibility that fear of reprisal affects peoples’ answers to poll questions.

“It is certainly possible that some people would not give a truly honest answer on questions related to approval of government policies, etc. — they may give the ‘safest’ answer that they consider most appropriate,” she wrote.

“This is a risk in all survey research in countries that are not entirely free, but we need to try our best to obtain representative data, while keeping in mind that a portion of any trend could be due to self-censorship by respondents.”

However, she noted that on the question of how Russians feel about the future of the economy, 56% opted for a response other than the seemingly “safe” option of declaring themselves optimistic.

Economic data suppressed

Another potentially complicating factor is that since the invasion in February 2022, the Kremlin has significantly closed off access to economic data that used to be public information.

“As far as mass media is concerned, economic information just recently fell victim to censorship,” Vasily Gatov, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, told VOA. “Until spring last year, the Kremlin literally didn’t control narratives and the way people were writing about the economy in general.”

Gatov, who studies Russian media, said that since then, the government has blocked access to many reports on economic activity, making it more difficult for journalists and academics to get a full picture of what is happening with the Russian economy.

However, Gatov said, while it may be possible for the Kremlin to control access to some information, much of people’s perception about the economy comes from their own lived experiences.

“People receive economic information from various sources, and not always media sources,” he said. “One of them is their bank account. Another is prices at the gas station or grocery store.”

Without addressing the Gallup findings specifically, Gatov said that in his view, Russians “read between the lines” of information coming from the Kremlin and Kremlin-controlled media sources.

He said that they see major international brands refusing to do business in their country and are experiencing infrequent but serious shortages such as an ongoing lack of Western-produced drugs like insulin. “Russians are skeptical about the economic future of the country.”