We ignore history, and evidence, if we conclude Putin’s hyper-nationalist authoritarian regime rules through fear alone.
It is perhaps a distinctly American faith that authoritarians like Russian President Vladimir Putin rule purely by force, corruption, or trickery, lacking any substantial political support. Indeed, there is something that feels definitional about the unpopularity of a dictator. In his new book Tyrant, the Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt recalls the words of the 16th-century Scottish thinker George Buchanan: “A king rules over willing subjects, a tyrant over unwilling … not for their country but for themselves.”
But we can go too far in arguing that a leader like Putin lacks popular support, although resistance to the idea is understandable. How unctuous it seems to even flirt with agreeing with the Russian state media’s contention that Putin is “wildly popular.”
It is true that, with Putin’s corrupt electioneering, and given faulty Russian polling, we simply do not know just how popular Vladimir Vladimirovich is. Yet just because he cheats at the ballot box does not mean he was going to lose. Illiberality can prove quite intoxicating. Bullies have friends, and fascist tunes can be catchy. As the political scientists Ivan Krastev and Gleb Pavlovsky contend, “many Western observers find it difficult to understand that, for most Russians, Putin is not simply a president but the true founder of the post-Soviet Russian state.”
“There is no critical mass of [Russians] demanding radical change,” Krastev and Pavlovsky go on to argue.
In the West, the Soviet-dissident-turned-Russian dissident Garry Kasparov has been the leading voice pressing the idea that Putin’s power is dependent on a fragile shellgame. The former chess champion insists that Putinism stifles a true “Russian democratic tradition,” that Putin’s supporters are coerced, and those who those who detect appreciation for his authoritarian bent are deluded.
Similarly, in his latest book, From Cold War to Hot Peace, former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul focuses nearly exclusively on the extraordinary power Putin uses to bring his people to heel — failing to grapple with his popular support. McFaul “concedes that Putin’s popularity ‘suggests a deep societal demand for this kind of autocratic leader,’” notes Daniel Beer, a historian of Russia at University College, London, in a review McFaul’s book in the New York Times. “But instead of developing this insight,” Beer adds, “McFaul leaves it hanging.”
Western commentators have projected time and again that Putin’s support appears to “be slipping,” his majority “shrinking gradually, like a giant block of ice,” and that Russia is “inching toward another perestroika moment.”
The belief that the vast majority of Russians would vote for Western-style liberal democracy if they could has a long history
This lingering conviction that Russians do not truly support their dictatorial president, that Russians are instinctively anti-authoritarian, did not begin during Putin’s reign. This wishful Western belief in Russians’ inner liberalism has come in and out of fashion for centuries—back to Peter the Great in the 1700s, when he built St. Petersburg as a “window to Europe.”
This long-running notion of the secretly liberal if not libertine Russian spiked anew at the end of the Cold War; it’s a mythology that encases our understanding of the collapse of the Soviet Union and still blurs our geo-moral imaginations.
In 1991 we witnessed vast gatherings of Soviets longing to be released from their Communist chains. In their ripped jeans, with their spiky hair and shoulder pads, we saw them looking Westward to rock ‘n’ roll, to MTV, to French fries and freedom. We thought they thought of us as liberators.
We conceived of the Soviets as a liberal body politic of Russians controlled by the head of a sclerotic authoritarian state. We focused on the prominent Soviet dissidents — their poetry, protests, and pipes, their graffiti. We think of Mikhail Gorbachev with his policies of glasnost (“opening”) and perestroika (“restructuring,”) unleashing this liberal body. We remember that mob a hundred thousand strong, crowded in Moscow’s Manezh Square, demanding the end to the Soviet regime. And how we marveled as they carried Boris Yeltsin to the Kremlin walls, where addressed the crowd from a tank. Time hailed “a thousand years of autocracy…reversed.”
After all those decades of Cold War, we saw a throng of protesters in denim and assumed they were just like us.
And it was not wholly our invention. The crowds had had enough. The Soviet Union was wracked with food shortages, rampant poverty, poor housing, and miserable health care.
Liberal Russian leaders and intellectuals called for a “moral renaissance” to “Dobit’ Stalina!”—to “Finish off Stalin!” They saw the Russian masses as a sort of fallen man they termed Homo Sovieticus: without dignity, corrupted by the system, “sterile [with] fatigue and lazy indifference.” The Soviet people were victims of a long process Andrei Sakharov called the “tragic deformation of our people.”
We generalized the Westernizing dissidents’ woes and liberal’ ambitions to the rest of the Soviet public. But the activist dissidents made up only a minority of even the most cosmopolitan cities of Moscow and Leningrad.
It is fantasy to think the Soviet people knew — through some kind of intercontinental intellectual osmosis — the ins and outs and intricacies of liberal democracy. Indeed, Gorbachev was soon sidelined and the Russians were left with Yeltsin, ineffectual and buffoonish, corrupt and too often drunk. They suffered the effects of a dreadful economy, witnessed the loss of their empire, and endured a wave of kleptocrats. A new class of Communists and ultra-nationalists swept into the parliament. By 1993, as David Remnick, the former Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post — today the New Yorker’s editor — observed, in his book Lenin’s Tomb: “Everywhere there is a new demagogue.”
The Kremlin’s surprising interest in public opinion
It is maddeningly difficult to know the will of the Russian people. That’s one of the problems with illiberal states. They take terrible polls. Today, there is only one major independent polling firm in Russia. And as the New York Times’s Moscow bureau chief Neil MacFarquhar observes, “the quality of Russian polling is low, marred by the propensity of respondents to anticipate what the pollster wants to hear.” State polls are even more worthless, of course.
By all accounts, Putin’s March 2018 presidential reelection — securing his fourth term with more than 76 percent of the vote — was deeply massaged. There were ceaseless pro-Putin propaganda campaigns on state-run television, voting irregularities, stuffing of ballot boxes, reports of intimidation. The options were slim. The Communist Pavel Grudinin placed a distant second, with 12 percent of the vote.
The system’s corruption has only grown worse since. As of 2016, the Kremlin reinstated a campaign of “selective justice” to sideline pretenders to the throne. Libel and slander laws (read: anti-Putin activities) were tightened. Public trials made examples of protesters like Pussy Riot. Journalists are regularly jailed, and Putin has fatally silenced other political opponents. Putin’s greatest challenger, Alexei Navalny, was thrown in prison for fraud under dubious circumstances.
And so, prominent analysts like Kasparov and McFaul return to Buchanan’s old hypothesis to explain Putin’s popularity, arguing that the tyrant rules “unwillingly,” without any backing to speak of from his people — purely through fear and loathing.
But there is an alternative: Putin can be simultaneously a master of repression and enjoy significant support. Consider this ironic fact: For all its attacks on Russian democracy, the Kremlin is obsessed with polling. Top officials receive what are known as “georatings,” routinely taken samplings of the opinions of about 60,000 Russians. In addition, a tighter circle around Putin receive the results of a smaller yet more detailed classified poll each week. The result is an incessant feedback loop.
“The Kremlin does a hell of a lot of polling,” attests the veteran Russian journalist Peter Pomerantsev. “They obsess over it and adapt to people’s notions of what they esteem…. so [that] Putin is pure Russian preference distilled.” As the Times puts it: “ Kremlin insiders see popularity as a key to the survival of [their] government.”
Oh, but what of the Russian youth? The kids these days surely will, just as in 1991, take to the streets? Unfortunately, for their unremittent support of their president those Russians currently coming of age have been christened the “Putin Generation” or the “Puteens.” They have not known life without Putin perched high in the Kremlin. “Contrary to Western fantasies,” write Krastev and Pavlovsky, “Russians under the age of 25 are among the most conservative and pro-Putin groups in society.”
One recent poll found that “50 percent of school-age Russian boys dream of working for the security services.” Reformers may yet rise up to force Putin out of office, but that statistic suggests: Don’t hold your breathe.
Zachary Jonathan Jacobson received a doctorate in Cold War history from Northwestern University. Find him on Twitter @zacharyjacobson
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