“Why aren’t Russians going out to protest?” one Ukrainian friend asked me recently. “You’d have to be some kind of monster to sit and let this happen.” While the rest of the world has been shocked by the harrowing trail of razed apartment buildings and broken bodies left in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion, what those back home know about the crimes being committed in their name, and what they think about them, has been a matter of intense debate. The answer to both questions, it seems, is very little.

In the first few days after the rockets began to fall, small groups took to the streets in cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg to oppose the war. Yet facing a heavy-handed crackdown from authorities, only the most committed activists are continuing to try to find ways to make their position known – some hold up blank signs, one doused herself in red paint. One even held up a packet of ham with the word “peace” inscribed on it. They have all been arrested.

At the same time, the vast majority of those who live in the world’s largest country have stayed silent as analysts wonder whether public opinion will force Putin to change course. Most now agree that the chances of serious mass unrest in Russia as a result of the war are virtually zero, and the conflict is not as unpopular as first thought. One recent poll by Moscow’s Levada Center found that almost two thirds of the 1,600 respondents said they were paying close attention to the situation in Ukraine, and 81% support the actions of the nation’s armed forces.

In reality, the picture is far more complex. Those receiving calls from researchers are unlikely to speak or give their unvarnished opinion given the potential risks. “Do you support or oppose Putin’s war? By the way, if it’s the latter, you face 15 years in prison,” one commenter mockingly wrote online after the results of the survey were published. Equally, even though the pollster is registered as a ”foreign agent” by the Russian Ministry of Justice over links to overseas funding, there is no chance it could continue to operate amid an increasingly repressive political environment if it presented evidence of widespread opposition to the government.

But even if there is a genuine majority that say they support what is happening in Ukraine, it is likely that it only extends to support for the version of events people are told is taking place, rather than the reality of them. For years, state television has played up the “humanitarian crisis” apparently unfolding in the Russian separatist-held Donbas, accusing Kyiv’s forces of indiscriminately bombing and shelling civilians while preparing an offensive to re-take Crimea.

These reports often lack evidence and independent journalists have largely been shut out of the region, making verification difficult. One acquaintance, a correspondent for a top Moscow business outlet, was turned back from the border with Donetsk the day after the beginning of the invasion, and told his paperwork was not in order. However, they formed a convenient pretext for Putin to claim the “special operation” was defensive in nature and solely aimed at military targets, while slamming the Ukrainian government as “neo-Nazis” and “drug addicts.” This might seem absurd from the outside, but it is easy to see how those who take their worldview from state broadcasts could end up viewing this as a righteous battle with evil.

“I spoke with my parents about why I am against the war,” Irina, a 22-year-old student at Moscow’s diplomatic training academy told me. “They said the problem is I get my news from the internet and it’s all fake propaganda, while proper journalists on television tell the truth.” She may have been shocked by the reports of the Bucha massacre, but the older generation appears far less prepared to believe Western media or Russian-language digital outlets over their country’s own big national networks.

Some may have whiplash from how quickly the broadcasts turned to the casus belli against Ukraine, and the invention of the now-omnipresent conspiracy theories about US-funded biolabs that simply didn’t exist a few months ago, but they fit a familiar pattern. If you believe that Russia is in essence good, as almost anyone would believe about their country, it is very easy to believe that others are bad. If you’re faced with the place you are proud of presiding over a spate of murders, rapes and looting, it is easier to deny than to confront.

As a result, the argument in the country is not about expansion or sovereignty, but between two groups of people who think they are standing up for those losing their lives in the face of military aggression. But the Kremlin’s position depends on a uniquely Russian interpretation of history – one where it is an unfairly maligned superpower with an obligation to protect Slavic people, not a bellicose declining state on an imperialist power trip.

Questions of Russia’s real legacy in Eastern Europe and elsewhere are rarely discussed. In the West, colonialism and the darkest moments of our shared history are a frequent focus for activists and commentators but, for Moscow, any analysis of the Soviet Union or the Tsardom that came before is always one of brotherhood, shared culture and shared greatness. Any opposition to it is nasty and nationalist and driven by the United States. Meanwhile, remembrance of past atrocities like the massacre of the Polish intelligentsia at Katyn, the erasure of ethnic minorities under Stalin or the brutal campaign of Russification in Ukraine are dispensed with as unpatriotic.

With an almost non-existent independent media landscape to challenge that narrative, it is no wonder many Russians go along with it. Worse still, even those who don’t fervently buy into the rhetoric don’t necessarily oppose it, believing politics to be a waste of time if they can’t change anything. If you have a decent job, an apartment, and maybe a dacha in the countryside, you have something to lose by turning out to protest and, most likely, nothing to gain by putting your head above the parapet.

Unfortunately, the lack of civic responsibility that follows means Ukrainians have everything to lose.