Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has led to damaging economic sanctions being imposed on his country. He also presides over outrageous corruption, is a serial human rights abuser and has a penchant for embarrassing PR stunts. Yet he claims the approval of up to 80% of the Russian people. How can this be so?
Part of the reason, of course, is that repression works, at least for a while. People who question the regime are beaten up, jailed or murdered to silence them and to discourage others from following their lead.
Putin’s regime also controls the Russian media and the message it transmits to the population. In a deeply immoral sense, they are good at it too. Their cynical media manipulation reaches a level of sophistication beyond anything achieved by other dictatorships. It is hard to form an accurate and independent opinion when your only information is an onslaught of cleverly targeted propaganda.
But Putin’s apparent popularity stems from more than misinformation and fear. Support for him is an active choice made by many Russians based on the low expectations created by their history, the material improvements in their lives after he came to power and his skill in restoring their sense of lost pride.
Russians’ expectations are low because their rulers have always been brutal and corrupt to varying degrees, from the Tsars to the Communists and beyond. Stalin maxed out on the brutal and went steady on the corruption. Yeltsin did the opposite, unless you happened to be Chechen – in which case he did brutal too. Putin has been crafty enough to restrict much of the repression to those brave enough to raise their heads above the parapet and who look like they might be a threat. Most Russians do not feel the impact directly, even though they know it happens. Putin has also been smart enough to maintain the non-political freedoms the people acquired under Yeltsin, such as travel overseas.
The people also know that their rulers steal from them, albeit perhaps not how massively. To avert uproar about this, Putin has cleverly exploited their low expectations. Rather than sacrificing credibility by strenuously denying the existence of corruption, he has successfully implanted the idea that all governments, everywhere are equally corrupt and that the situation in Russia is normal. In this he is helped by what the communists used to call “useful idiots” in the West, such as ex-German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, who accepted a high-paying, little-working job with Russia’s state-controlled gas behemoth, Gazprom, shortly after leaving office.
It helps Putin too that support for democratic ideas is beamed into Russia by the likes of Mikhail Khodorkovsky – an exiled oligarch whose once vast wealth was, to put it mildly, acquired by dubious means. This only serves to reinforce the link in the average Russian’s mind between those ideas and the destructive chaos that engulfed them and wiped out their savings in the 1990s. Nor has the West’s support for Yeltsin’s rogues’ gallery in that era been forgotten. This continues to undermine trust in our claims to have the best interests of Russia at heart.
Unlike some of their immediate predecessors, Putin and his cronies were smart enough not to steal all of the money that sloshed into Russia during his first decade in power, when oil and gas prices were high. Some was spent on improving schools, hospitals, infrastructure and the surroundings in which people live. Not much, relatively, but enough to make an impact in the minds of a population that has experienced little other than decay and disintegration in their lifetimes. The fact that, given the vast wealth that did come in, the country could have been so much more than just superficially spruced up, does not register with those conditioned to expect nothing.
Russia’s post-communist progress has also been inhibited by a tendency to see itself as unique and therefore immune to learning from the experiences of other countries. This specialness is usually exaggerated but one important difference does distinguish Russia from the rest of Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. Most of those countries benefitted from the momentum that came from overthrowing oppression and regaining their freedom, which they used to build to something better. Russia did not have that momentum because it was the colonial oppressor that was overthrown. Rather than a sense of renewal and a release of energy, it felt only wounded pride and resentment at being rejected.
Putin’s PR stunts may look ridiculous to the outside world but they aim to address these feelings by demonstrating strong and vigorous leadership to the Russian people. His assertions of Russia’s supposed international interests, whilst invariably destructive, are also designed to recreate Russian pride in being powerful as much as achieving any specific policy objectives.
None of this alters the fact that Putin’s behaviour in Ukraine must, in our own interests, be changed. But it does show that changing it will require the use of measures sharply targeted to hurt him and his immediate circle. The past experiences of the Russian people mean that it might be a long time before they feel they have nothing to lose by overthrowing him.