When I wake in the morning, I drink coffee from my Putin mug. Sometimes I sleep in my Putin t-shirt. A Putin Rubik’s cube sits on my shelves. They’re all souvenirs from my time spent in Russia.
Such trinkets are easy to find. You can pick them up from snow-covered roadside kiosks, shopping malls, airport stores, shacks in the sunny resort towns of the Black Sea coast.
Westerners wonder whether Russians really take this stuff seriously. Surely it’s bogus kitsch, right? And Russians must see this. In part they do. But it seems they like it anyway.
It’s a similar story for Putin’s opinion polls. How can Russians approve so heartily of Vladimir Putin when, to Western eyes, he’s spent most of his time in office steadily stripping the population of its democratic options?
When it chooses to, the Kremlin can control the parliament, the security services, the courts, the TV channels, and the radio, and it’s making progress in controlling the internet, too. Do Russians not see this, Westerners wonder? In part they do. But it seems they like him anyway.
To get an inkling of why, you have to look both short and long.
Dominant rule is the norm in Russia.
Stopping the rot
For centuries it had the tsars, then it had the Bolsheviks, and for a brief window in the 1990s it had something Westerners might recognise as democracy. But for most Russians this was an unmitigated disaster- living standards collapsed, life savings were lost, oligarchs and Mafiosi settled bloody scores in the streets, and Russia’s international power plummeted.
So the average Russian’s love for what I would call liberal democracy does not run deep.
The Putin era has managed three things; it harnessed the ’00s boom in commodity and energy prices to establish a reasonably comfortable middle class, it reasserted Russia on the world stage as a force to be reckoned with. And it reasserted the State as the prime executor of power. Consequently Putin has the position inside Russia of the man who stopped the rot.
Despite his modest physical stature, Putin bestrides Russian politics like a colossus. Simply put, there is no one else.Every day, citizens are told on national TV what crisis the president has averted… what international issue he’s fixed. The stage managed bare-chested horse rides and the kitschy Putin memorabilia may play awkwardly in the West, but most Russians, with their more conservative world view, and their limited experience of truly pluralistic democracy, see no problem with it.
Falling living standards
How long can this last now that the oil price has halved and living standards are sliding again? One of the platforms that has supported Putin’s popularity is no longer there. But he still has his two others: an image as a tough guy who stands up to the West; and a supremely powerful state system that puts stability and security ahead of liberal freedoms.
So when a pollster calls a housewife in Novosibirsk and asks whether she thinks Mr President is doing a good job, is she going to tell the truth? It’s very likely that she loves Putin, and really believes he’s the best man for the job. But there’s also a possibility she’s going with the national mood, and feels it’s imprudent to say otherwise.