One of the strangest aspects of the mutiny that took an army of Wagner Group mercenaries almost to the gates of Moscow in June was the deafening silence of the vast majority of Russians. Even Russian media propagandists and other establishment figures—normally not shy in their demonstrative support for President Vladimir Putin—were mostly invisible for the day and a half that the mutiny was underway. When Putin subsequently praised the population’s cohesion in support of his regime, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Almost complete silence in the face of the most dramatic challenge to Putin since he took power might be hard for non-Russians to imagine. Just think, for example, of Americans reacting to the storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump in January 2021: They were either up in arms or loudly cheering.
But few Russians—or those familiar with Russian history and culture—were even a tiny bit surprised by a population scrupulously avoiding taking sides, waiting who would come out on top. That’s because for centuries, Russians have been masters of survival in times of repression, upheaval, chaos, or uncertainty, which have permeated and even defined so much of the country’s history.
In fact, they have a special word for their survival strategy: prisposoblenchestvo, which roughly translates to “adaptability to one’s surroundings.” (It’s a mouthful, but the approximate pronunciation is pris-pah-sah-BLEN-chest-vah.)
There is no single word in English that can adequately convey all the word’s subtleties when it is used by Russians. Acquiescence, conformism, opportunism, lying low, and avoidance of conflict only reflect some of its many aspects. What’s more, the evocative word is used almost exclusively to capture Russians’ behavior in their own country’s social and political context. In today’s Russia, not sticking your neck out during a possible power grab by a now-dead mercenary is, in fact, the best possible response.
The prisposoblenets—the person doing the adapting—is a stock character in classic Russian literature, just like the adventurer in 19th-century American novels. In literature, the prisposoblenets is almost always an antagonist, a lickspittle or craven turncoat whose purpose as a plot device is to contrast the protagonist’s passionate rigor or noble self-sacrifice.
Such is, for example, Alexey Molchalin, a character in Alexander Griboyedov’s Woe From Wit, an early-19th-century play that has been a standard part of the Russian school curriculum since Soviet times. In Act IV, Molchalin lays out his worldview:
Make yourself agreeable to all bar none.
The master and the mistress where you lodge,
Your employer, with the key to your promotion,
His servant, so he’ll put your clothes in order,
The doorman, the footman, and the porter,
To keep them sweet, in case they bear a grudge,
The porter’s dog, to stop his yapping.
Yet if excessive agreeableness and avoidance of conflict is an object of derision for authors such as Griboyedov, their fellow Russians often treat it as an existential necessity. Indeed, the concept is deeply embedded in Russian history: Under the despotic rulers that have dominated Russian and Soviet history for centuries, prisposoblenchestvo was an essential survival tactic, even if it often meant a choice between the bad and the terrible.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Sergius I, for example, struck a pact with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1927, pledging loyalty to the young Soviet state. Attempting to preserve what little was left of his flock and clergy under an aggressively atheist regime, Sergius succeeded in preventing the church and its adherents from being completely exterminated—but at the cost of total subservience to the state and a bitter schism between the domestic church and its exiled believers. Sergius saw submission as the only way to save a remnant of the church, but his critics accused him of prisposoblenchestvo to save his job, skin, and remaining influence.
Prisposoblenchestvo, both as a survival tactic and object of derision, transcends generations and regimes. Early Soviet ideologues were unnerved by the lack of resistance among large parts of the population, suspecting the masses of going with the flow to preserve their private interests instead of wholeheartedly embracing the revolutionary collective. Half a century later, Soviet dissident thinkers formulated the derogatory archetype of the Homo sovieticus, whose main traits are passivity, submissiveness to authority, and survival through mimicry.
During the Putin era, these attitudes helped buttress the social contract between an increasingly authoritarian regime and Russian citizens, whereby the latter were willing to agree with whatever the government was doing in exchange for modest prosperity.
The dark side of this long-established survival tactic is that when words, symbols, and behaviors are little more than a uniform to slip into in order to blend in more effectively, nihilism reigns. If nothing really means anything and everyone just goes along to preserve their interests or merely survive, the result is an atomized society. It is one reason why Russia consistently scores the lowest in polls about the trust in the government, media, and civil society organizations.
But Russians’ willingness to adapt and go along has also enabled the Russian state, economy, and war machine to go on running. Hundreds of thousands of professionals—some of whom might be opposed to the regime and the war in private but are prisposoblentsy in their jobs—keep Russia running. At the tech giant Yandex, some employees reportedly consider themselves “hostages” to the regime, even as they do its bidding. Officials at the Russian Central Bank, who are making sure that Russia can finance its war, found solace in the parallels to Nazi central bank chief Hjalmar Schacht, who similarly kept the German economy and war machine running. He was acquitted at the Nuremberg trials after claiming that he did not share the Nazi’s values and was only doing his job.
The “I was only doing my job” excuse is yet another form of prisposoblenchestvo. Andrey Arkhangelsky, a Russian journalist in exile, noted in 2012 that in the ethical vacuum of post-Soviet Russia, Russians came to think of professionalism as unconstrained by any moral qualms. In Putin’s system, the state eventually became the dominant actor in the economy again, so managers and workers naturally served the government’s needs first and foremost.
There are very few exceptions that prove the rule. Those few include Marina Ovsyannikova, a producer for Russian state propaganda’s flagship Channel One who defected live during a news broadcast in March 2022, and her colleague Dmitry Likin, who cited his inability to align his values with the immoral war he was expected to promote.
Ironically, the same prisposoblenchestvo that is the foundation of Russians’ acquiescence to Putin’s regime simultaneously hinders Putin’s attempts to mobilize his country for his grand vision of imperial restoration and reconquest of Ukraine. With the exception of a small but vocal pro-war minority, it’s likely that most Russians simply adopt whatever seems to be the socially acceptable position on the war at the moment, regardless of their actual views.
Thus, it is not uncommon to see polls with more than 70 percent of Russians supporting the war—and similar numbers supporting peace negotiations to end it. If Putin were to make a U-turn and announce a different policy tomorrow, most Russians would quickly adapt. In all likelihood, support for the new goals would be similarly high.
As the war drags on, Russians’ prisposoblenchestvo manifests in new ways. People who were initially anti-war have adapted to Russian military setbacks and the possibility of defeat in Ukraine with a new attitude: “My country, right or wrong.” The war might be bad, but losing it is worse—that’s the sentiment running through an informal reader survey by Meduza, an exiled Russian independent media outlet. But make no mistake: The grim determination to stick with their motherland, however many atrocities it commits against a neighboring nation, betrays yet another tactic of avoidance. For these formerly anti-invasion and now pro-war Russians, prisposoblenchestvo offers an escape from an uncomfortable moral dilemma.