Democracy & Elections Foreign Relations & International Law

Finding Out What Russians Think—Without Asking Them

Andrew Fink, Marina Petrova
Wednesday, September 21, 2022, 8:31 AM

Where there is a lack of reliable public opinion surveys, analyzing queries typed into the main Russian search engine can give insights into Russian public opinion and how it changes.

Yandex main office in Moscow. (Source: WikiFido, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

Published by The Lawfare Institute
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“When will Russia liberate Ukraine?”

“Will there be a war with NATO?”

“A list of dead Russian soldiers in Ukraine”

“Will there be payments from Putin?”

“Traitors of Russia 2022”

These are just some of the actual phrases people in Russia have typed into Yandex, Russia’s top search engine, which receives more than 2.4 billion visits per month. Often called “Russia’s Google,” it is often the first or only search engine Russians use when they want to search something. 

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the greater international community has wanted to know: What do Russian citizens think about it all? Under current circumstances, it is functionally impossible to hold real focus groups in Russia. Pollsters still ask Russians their opinions via phone or on-the-street surveys, but this method has obvious limitations in dictatorships. In authoritarian countries, people’s participation in opinion surveys and focus groups can be influenced by state repression, and sometimes using these standard sociological tools is totally impossible. No matter what side they are on, it is difficult for a pollster to get an accurate read of controversial opinions in a police state by anonymously calling people and asking for their opinion. However, with search engines, it is possible that people will type in inquiries that are less filtered and, thus, reveal a bit more of their honest thinking about topics. People might lie to each other, lie to pollsters (especially if they fear the pollsters may be secret police), and even lie to themselves about their motivations and beliefs—but why would they lie to a search engine? 

Using search data from databases like the one provided by Yandex can provide a novel way of knowing what Russians are thinking about and even offer insights into who they are listening to or how they are getting their information. The Yandex database records exactly how many times people in Russia made a specific search, broken down by week or month. 

The data used to write this post was not retrieved by some hack or a whiz-bang new piece of tech—the search terms come from a huge nearly real-time database available to any advertiser via Yandex. (You can even sign up yourself.) This database is normally used by people looking to promote their brands or firms through Russia’s largest search engine. Yandex doesn’t disclose to its advertisers an individual who searched for a particular term, but there is aggregated data on the exact search queries and the search volume, and it’s also possible to see the geography of searches including the oblast (region) and city-level. 

How we might interpret this Yandex data is up for debate, but the data is real. The search results that people get from Yandex might be manipulated and/or filled with propaganda, but the search input data we examined appear to be authentic (with one possible exception, discussed below). We suggest that this data provides a unique look into evolving Russian attitudes and could possibly be used to measure the effectiveness of communications campaigns in Russia, whether they come from the Russian government or other entities. It is possible that this valuable data stream will eventually dry up, given the recent announcement that Russian state-controlled social media giant VK will take over the Yandex main page as a part of its acquisition of Yandex media assets. 


A Mirror of Propaganda

The Kremlin’s official media has been repeating that the war in Ukraine is not a “war” in the strict sense, but a “special military operation.” Based on a new Russian law enacted this March, those who have been convicted of spreading “false information” about the Russian military’s activities can face up to 15 years in prison. 

On Yandex, the phrase “special military operation” went from basically zero searches to about 175,010 in March, just after Putin launched the expanded invasion. Since that spike, the search volume has reduced to a little more than half that, with 99,998 searches in July. 

Before Feb. 24, the word “war” was searched on average 18 million times per month on Yandex. These were mostly searches for movies, computer games, and history-related content. 

Searches for “war” had a huge spike in late February, up to 37.5 million searches, with 45.7 million searches in March 2022. It was 38.8 million in April, 33.7 million in May, and since then searches for “war” have fallen to levels similar to before Putin expanded his invasion. 

Search queries include “war in Ukraine,” “war 2022,” “war news,” “latest war news,” and the like. “The war in Ukraine” still massively outperforms “special military operation” by over 10-fold.


Source: Yandex Search data, available at


This difference over a choice in wording to describe the war or questions about why the war is even happening are important, but this seems to be one of the only instances of divergence between the Kremlin and Russians’ approach to the war in Ukraine. We wish we could say that this Yandex search data reveals some secret doubts in the minds of the Russian people or a slumbering army of dissenters ready to challenge the Kremlin narrative, but this does not seem to be the case. 

Taking a look at what Russians are searching, for instance, one can see a people responding to Kremlin propaganda. Take, for example, the search term “biolaboratory.” Before the war, this term usually received around 1,500 searches per month. In March 2022, Russian propagandists flooded the media space with the accusation that there were American bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine. Searches spiked to 206,005 in March, before declining to the current level of about 12,000.

One can see a similar spike in searches for “Hitler Jew” in early May when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly speculated that Hitler might have been Jewish. This was part of an attack on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish.

In March 2021, “liberation of Ukraine” was searched about 4,000 times on Yandex in Russia. In March 2022, as Russian propaganda channels tried to persuade citizens of Putin’s “noble mission,” people went on Yandex and used the same phrasing as the propaganda about 126,000 times. The Yandex database has a function to show searches that are similar to the one queried, and it categorizes the search term “liberation of Ukraine” as being similar to searches for “When will we liberate Odesa + Mykolayiv?” and “Liberation of Ukraine from Nazis?” and “map of the liberated territories of Ukraine,” to name a few.


Source: Yandex Search data, available at

“Traitors of Russia” was also searched 158,000 times as the propaganda machine kept shaming those who left Russia and publicly opposed Russia’s intervention. 


Why Is Putin at War?

The Russo-Ukrainian War has been ongoing since 2014, with Russia not only supporting proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk, but also sending advisers and commanders and even combat troops like snipers to the region, even while Kremlin propaganda claimed it was not involved at all. During this time, Yandex search data shows that the question “Why is Putin at war” received vanishingly little attention in Russia in 2021, usually somewhere around 100 searches per month. But after the 2022 invasion, searches for this phrase skyrocketed up to 37,000 in February, 62,000 in March, and peaked at 92,000 in April. The question has fallen since but still received 56,422 searches in July, suggesting that some Russians aren’t quite clear on the reason for Putin’s war. 

In addition, Russians queried “When will Putin leave” 46,369 times on Yandex in September 2021, probably because of the Russian legislative elections that took place last September. After a trough and a slight rise in March of this year to 41,989, right after Putin expanded the invasion of Ukraine, in the past few months searches for this phrase, which might presage political change in Russia, have fallen to just 15,000-16,000 searches per month—the lowest volume seen in available data.


Not Just TV: Songs, Porn, and Even Psychics

This search term analysis approach also can provide some insights into how Russians learn about Ukraine and how the masters of propaganda use multiple channels to their advantage. In the current noisy content world, data-driven marketers know that while platforms with a lot of viewers and traffic matter, reach is achieved through the cumulative power of smaller channels. In SEO (search engine optimization) terms, the so-called long-tail keywords with a search volume of 10 or less per month make up over 90 percent of all questions asked on a search engine (for example, very specific searches like the address of a local cafe or a question about a rarely used spare part). Russian propaganda strategists know this well, and they deliver their messages through every imaginable content channel. Search term analysis won’t show the fingerprints of Kremlin propagandists, but they will show how the worldview of Russians (which propagandists helped shape) and the news they consume (which Kremlin propagandists largely curate) influences their search behavior.

The Russian singer Shaman recorded a song titled “Let’s Arise” (the lyrics correlate with “Arise, Great Country!”, the best-known Soviet war song from the World War II era). It has over 20,000,000 views on YouTube and had about 351,500 searches in July 2022.

“Ukraine porno” was searched for 52,443 times in March 2021. This number almost doubled to 99,949 in March 2022. In April and May, it was 50 percent higher than last year. While this percentage declined in June and July, it is still 25 percent higher than during the same period last year.

In March, as Russia’s big offensive reached its peak and Russian TV was full of images of captured Ukrainians, the phrase “captive porn” spiked to 7,012 searches in Russia, up from around 4,000 in the months before Putin’s expanded invasion.

Also in March, 126,138 Russians came to Yandex to read predictions about Ukraine from Vanga, a Bulgarian psychic who died some 25 years ago but is still trusted and respected in Russia.


A Questionable Ukrainian Voice

Before starting this research, neither of us had ever heard of Yuri Podolyaka, a pro-Russian Ukrainian news commentator. However, according to Yandex search data, by early March 2022, searches for “Yuri Podolyaka” in Russia had jumped from around 25,000 per month to nearly 10 million in the month of March. The searches on this term have since declined slowly and received around 4.2 million searches in July. Just his last name, “Podolyaka,” jumped from about 30,000-40,000 searches per week to 12 million in March. 

Podolyaka speaks Russian with a Ukrainian accent, adding to the manipulative perception that, because he is Ukrainian, he is a reliable and unbiased source on the war. Podolyaka is evidently a major opinion-maker in Russia about the war in Ukraine. A look at his content gives you an idea of why he is welcome on Russian TV channels. He largely regurgitates Russian propaganda talking points in his videos and interviews and also maintains a blog that combines his detailed analysis of the military situation with more pro-Russian talking points. He doesn’t have a lot of followers on Twitter, for example, but people search for what’s new from him on Yandex. In the process of searching for Podolyaka’s content, they likely discover dozens of websites of state-controlled media where he repeats the approved Kremlin message in his own words.

This might upset Vladimir Solovyov, one of the loudest propaganda voices in Russia. While he was a better-known pundit before the war, his name and his programs have not received anywhere near the Yandex search attention that Podolyaka’s have in recent months. 

For another contrast, take Alexander Dugin, a Russian writer often held up by some in the U.S. as a font of high-brow Russian opinion. “Dugin” received about 30,000-50,000 searches per month, spiking to about 195,000 in March of this year before falling back to around 50,000 by July. Then, when his daughter was killed in a mysterious car bomb attack, the searches soared to 4.2 million in August. If the goal of the operation was to give Alexander Dugin attention, it seems to have succeeded massively. 


Repression of Media

Putin’s repression of the opposition media is working, based on Yandex data. Echo Moskvy was a Russian radio station famous for defying censors and reporting the news relatively free of Kremlin interference. It usually received between 1.5 and 2 million searches per month. The Kremlin shut down the station in March, and there was a corresponding decline in searches about it to around 150,000 per month. Some veterans of Echo Moskvy have started a YouTube channel, Zhivoi Gvozd, to carry on reporting. This term currently gets about 330,000 Yandex searches per month. 

The independent Russian TV channel Dozhd, which was shut down in March, shows a similar story, with a huge spike in interest followed by a deep trough. Dozhd restarted operations in Latvia in July, and one can see a hopeful bump in Yandex searches as Russians try to find out about it resuming broadcasts—searches jumped from 2,500 to almost 14,000 in the second-to-last week of July. For comparison purposes, Pervyi (First) Channel, Russia’s most prominent carrier of all Putin’s messages, received over 2 million searches on Yandex in July 2022, its usual search volume. Searches for “Pervyi Kanal” went up to 6.5 million in March and 5 million in April.


Bucha on Yandex—From 30,000 Searches to 1,354,034 to a Puzzling 43

There is one case we have found that indicates a significant change in the behavior of the Russian public prompted by Kremlin propaganda, a technical block on searching a certain topic, or some combination of these. The town of Bucha is a quiet suburb northwest of Kyiv, Ukraine, with a population of just under 30,000. It has become internationally known because of the well-documented atrocities Russian troops committed there while it was under occupation in March. When the Russians withdrew in April, they left behind hundreds of civilian corpses, rape victims, and graphic destruction that filled TV screens across the world. Russian propagandists blamed it all on a British special operation, a false-flag operation, or a staged atrocity to tarnish Russia’s image. 

There was very little reason for Russians to search for the town of Bucha before the massacre. Yandex search data shows that “bucha” usually received about 30,000-36,000 searches per month before February 2022. The word “bucha” can also mean “scandal” or “storm” in Russian. By March, when the town of Bucha was on the frontlines of the battle of Kyiv, searches went all the way up to 233,300. Then in April, “bucha” spiked to 1,354,034 searches as the name flooded the airwaves. 

Most shocking is what happened to the searches after this: They fell precipitously to only 433 searches in May and only 43 searches in July. Are Russians taking a cue that this topic is a no-go? In other words, are they afraid of the consequences if they even search for the term? There does not seem to be a technical block to search “bucha” in Yandex, though it may be possible that users located in Russia are blocked from doing so in a way not visible from our vantage point. Forty-three seems like a vanishingly small number of searches about a major topic from a nation of 144 million individuals, even if we just assume that those Russians truly believe the Kremlin’s conspiracy theory about some massive false-flag atrocity. Searches for “Gostomel” and “Irpin,” the two towns next to Bucha where much fighting took place, saw a sudden spike of Yandex searches in February, but neither has collapsed so completely: In July, “Irpin” received 16,305 searches and “Gostomel,” 75,295.


RU Yandex Searches

For “буча” (bucha)




















The Economy

Based on this search data, it also appears that Russians are responding relatively well to Kremlin talking points about the economy. While searches indicating worries about the economy and sanctions—such as “sanctions,” “U.S. dollar exchange rate,” or “rising prices”—have declined from their peak in March, they are higher than they were before the war. One can also see a distinct divide in searches between Russia’s metropolitan core of Moscow and St. Petersburg and the other regions in terms of what they are searching about, sanctions versus Russian losses in battle. 

Overall, searches for the word “sanctions” were generally somewhere between 150,000 and 500,000 searches per month before February, when they spiked suddenly. In March, “sanctions” received 9.7 million searches in Russia. Since then, the search volume has declined significantly, but it is still twice as high as it was before the war expanded, with just over a million searches in July. 

The search database also provides geographic breakdowns of the “affinity index” of the search term. This is a measure of how much more or less people in a location are searching for a term compared to what one would expect. The affinity index for “sanctions” is at 182 percent for St. Petersburg and 161 percent for Moscow, making these two cities standouts. It makes sense that the Russians most worried about sanctions are located in the two cities most connected with politics and international trade, and these are the homes of Russia’s educated elite.

The affinity indexes of searches for “losses of Russian soldiers” show something close to the inverse: For this search, Moscow has an affinity index of 100 percent (meaning that the phrase receives the same proportional amount of searches as the search algorithm would expect). Searches on this topic from St. Petersburg reach a 124 percent affinity index, more than Moscow. Places with higher affinity indexes are in the Russian regions where Russian combat units are based: Tambov, a part of central Russia that also houses a Russian special forces base, has an affinity index of 268 percent for this phrase. Pskov is the home of one of Russia’s elite paratrooper units, and this phrase has an affinity index of 142 percent there. 

The phrase “U.S. dollar exchange rate” spiked from about 5 million searches per month to 37 million searches per month in March. Since then, interest has fallen to around 12 million searches per month, still more than twice as high as before the war.


Source: Yandex Search data, available at


The phrase “buy an apartment” is down only 10-13 percent in Russia when compared to the same time a year ago. By contrast, “buy a car” is up slightly (this could also be because major car manufacturers left Russia). 

The phrase “rising prices” did spike to 463,643 searches in March but has since fallen to levels not seen since 2020, about 80,000. While those who support Ukraine in the war, particularly from Western nations, celebrate when more sanctions are placed on Russia, this search term data suggests that it is not something that Russians are searching in their day-to-day lives. 


To Pierce the Curtain: Content Is King

There have been well-funded efforts by Western powers to pierce Putin’s informational iron curtain and deliver news and opinion to the Russian populace that is not full of Kremlin disinformation. If these search terms are anything to go by, our current approaches aren’t working. The search phrase “Radio Freedom” (which is the name of the Russian-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) usually gets between 30,000 and 50,000 searches every week in Russia. In late February and early March of this year, searches for this phrase jumped significantly, more than tripling to up to 193,306 searches in Russia in the week between Feb. 28 and March 6. After that sharp spike when the war started, there was an almost equally sharp decline, and searches for “Radio Freedom” have been falling steadily since then and are now lower than before the war started, at around 24,000 per week.

The Kremlin’s propaganda machine is among the very best in the world, and while the messages are simple and direct, their methods of spreading and evaluating their messages are not. The Kremlin has sought to limit the news that Russians can access, and the fact that it manipulates the top news links shown on Yandex and even tampers with Yandex search results is well-established. In this kind of hostile informational environment, how can anyone break through and deliver the truth to the Russian population? 

The BBC has taken a low-tech approach, restarting shortwave radio broadcasts into Russia, which it had suspended in 2008. This is a clever move and will ensure that some news reaches some Russians if everything else gets shut off. Unfortunately, there are probably not many people who still have shortwave radios in Russia. Yandex searches for “shortwave” from Russia tend to run between 6,000 and 15,000 searches per month, and there has been no significant change since Putin declared war outright. Searches for the “BBC,” by contrast, spiked on Yandex in March to 631,000 before returning to the “normal” pace of about 350,000 per month. The related keywords show that these searches are not all for the British Broadcasting Corporation: BBC news ranks fifth for related searches after entries such as “bbc porn” and “bbc anal.” Still, the spike is there in March, which points to the reality that the main way that Russians can receive non-Kremlin-controlled news is via the internet. The Kremlin has built a system to block websites and censor content just as they set up jammers to block Western radio broadcasts into cities during the Soviet era. Social media and news sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Deutsche Welle, and, yes, the BBC have all been blocked or partially restricted. 

Some Russians appear to be taking matters into their own hands, downloading virtual private networks (VPNs) to try and evade the censors. Yandex search data supports this. Searches for “download VPN” in Russia surged from around 30,000 per week to 450,000 per week in March and are currently holding steady at around 100,000 per week (plus an extra 100,000 per week from people searching “VPN” in Cyrillic). 

Believe it or not, YouTube remains available in Russia. There have been persistent rumors and reports that it is about to be blocked, but the Kremlin has not blocked it outright. While there are news programs in Russian available on YouTube, it also remains another way for Kremlin propagandists to deliver content to Russians, be it through press conferences, Podolyaka videos, or even through entertainment like Shaman songs. 

In January 2021, the team of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny posted a YouTube video showcasing a massive palace built for Putin on Russia’s Black Sea coast near the town of Gelendzhik. This video has been viewed millions of times on YouTube, but it also got a lot of international attention. Yandex data shows it made some impact within Russia, the search term “Putin’s palace in Gelendzhik” was searched 913,063 times in Russia in January. The topic has since fallen to between 2,000 and 4,000 searches per month since then.

The Navalny team’s success at getting the attention of Russians points back to the truism of communications: Content is king. The challenge is, what kind of content do Russians want to see that will help them see through the lies that their government tells them, especially about the invasion of Ukraine? Scandalous videos about their rulers are naturally entertaining for many, but what about the truth about Russian soldiers dying in Ukraine because of an aggressive war, or the truth about what many of those Russian soldiers do to Ukrainian civilians or prisoners of war? Those who hope to counter Russian efforts should work to generate this kind of content and get it into the attention of Russians—and one way to measure that attention is through search terms. 

One of the quotes that is said to belong to Nazi politician Joseph Goebbels is “the arguments must be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not to the intellect.” Russian propagandists have been following this play spectacularly well. And unfortunately, it looks like they are succeeding. The Russian propaganda machine gets more sophisticated by the day. This article is just the tip of the iceberg; we haven’t included analysis on messenger groups, deepfakes, artificial intelligence, and other components of the next generation of the information war. As Russian methods evolve, so must the counter-efforts and methods of the free world. The same innovative marketing and research methods used to sell products and measure the effectiveness of advertising could be used to try and reach Russians and measure the effectiveness of these attempts. Like Yandex search data, these tools are just waiting to be used.

Andrew Fink received his PhD from Leiden University in 2020. He lived in Ukraine for 5 years while conducting research on the history of propaganda and disinformation campaigns, especially Russian ones, and their long-term effects on extremist ideology and policy. He is a Senior Russia Analyst at Exovera.
Marina Petrova is a Ukraine-born American and a native speaker of Ukrainian and Russian. She is a communications professional and the CEO of Intentful based in New York City.

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