Why Russians Love Putin
Over the past decade and a half, Russian President Vladimir Putin has enjoyed consistently high rankings and the continued support of the majority of his country's population, as well as that of the country's military, political, and economic elites. There are straightforward explanations for such strong support. His government's control of practically all major media outlets; the crafting of an image that shows him as a virile and masculine figure; his success in silencing and marginalizing practically all opposition; and other factors like his successful exploitation of the patriotism rooted in the Russian psyche have helped sustain his success. But many in the West have struggled to comprehend why Russian people, whose lives and livelihoods seem to have taken a turn for the much worse since the imposition of Western sanctions in 2015, love their leader.
Russian political commentator Ilya Konstantivov, writing in the Svobodnaya Pressa (Free Press), took a more personal look at the support Russian people give to Putin, and how the attitude points back to the days of President Boris Yeltsin, the man who nominated Putin to the nation's highest post on Dec. 31, 1999.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, following the attempted Soviet political and economic reforms dubbed perestroika and glasnost, Yeltsin, who was elected as the first Russian President in June 1991, cut a dashing figure for Russians tired of cookie-cutter Soviet leaders, Konstantinos writes:
"The masses fell in love with him at first sight, loved him as only a woman can love: fervently, recklessly and with all their hearts. And he was quite the man, too -- tall, barrel-chested, with a commanding posture and an intense stare. That he did not seem too intelligent was probably for the better -- people understood him well, he seemed close and familiar."
Konstantinov writes about a dinner meeting Yeltsin once attended in the spring of 1990, prior to the breakup of the USSR, when he was asked what leadership qualities the man who leads modern Russia should possess. Yeltsin, the writer relates, was already tipsy from several shots of vodka, when he stammered out: "He must be a strong politician and a strong man." With the word "strong," Boris slammed his fist on the table so that all the dishes rang. Such a man, Yeltsin continued, needs to understand the aspirations of the Russian people. But most importantly -- "he must be a strong man with strong policies!"
Konstantinov then recalled why Yeltsin drank tall glasses of vodka - to demonstrate his power. "I remembered this little episode not to expose the Russian president's drunkenness," writes Konstantinov. "Yes -- he loved to drink. But his real illness was not alcoholism [which was highlighted throughout Yeltsin's presidency], but an unbridled love of power, from which he got drunk more than from alcohol. And behind the image of a reckless drunkard stood an experienced, shrewd and ruthless beast."
Russia in the 1990s, headed by Boris Yelstin, went through numerous economic, political, and socio-cultural upheavals. Old norms, principles, and practices were dismantled, and new democratic habits did not evenly or successfully replace the old ones. Many Russians today rue that decade. They view it with mixed emotions at best, and at worst as a painful period in their lives. Konstantinov describes people's attitudes by comparing Russia and its people to a woman in a marriage:
"This often happens in life: the first marriage based on passionate love is unhappy. The beloved husband, a handsome man, drinks, beats his wife, often does not bring money to the family, and may even cheat. ... Russian women are able to tolerate such behavior for a long time, even when love turns into hate -- but following a divorce, they sometimes look for a life partner who is the opposite of the first experience. If the first husband was tall, burly, and prominent, then the second will be small, lean, and rather unsightly. If the first husband drank, the second will be totally sober. If the first was a partier, then the second will be a quiet one. If the first had a great head of hair, the second will be balding..."
He continues by saying that "Yeltsin abused Russia thoroughly: stole everything from home, left the country battered and naked. ... The people hated it. And the country would never accept his successor if he did not seem the antithesis of the retired ‘master,' not only in appearance. ... (Putin) does not drink, does not fall off bridges, does not attempt to conduct orchestras -- he behaves well.
"This is happens a lot -- first, you get used to something, then you grow to love it. ... Slowly, gradually the country begun to respect, and then fell in love with Putin."
While this point of view may effectively illustrate a more personal view of Putn's popularity with the Russian people, it is obvious that not everyone is happy with such a so-called marriage, no matter how stable if may seem. Street protests by the still-active Russian opposition, even in the wake of murders of major political figures such as Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, as well as a continued brain drain, underscore many people's unhappiness with the way things are going in their country.
Konstantinov's personal take on Putin centers on the worst of Yeltsin's years, when the economy seemed to have been partitioned among powerful interest groups, giving rise to the oligarch class, a rising criminality that threatened the once-stable Russian society, and the eventual control by pro-government elites of the nation's economic output. Yet in those years there were positive developments as well, such as the emergence of a vibrant and free press, and the freedom to travel overseas following decades of Iron Curtain rules that locked the Soviet population within the borders of the USSR.
The writer does end on an interesting note -- that after the past two and a half decades of major changes under Yelstin and Putin, the country may not survive the economic, political, and social upheavals that could follow should Putin leave his post without nominating a successor who appeals to the population and elites. Time will tell how this will play out -- for now, any talk about Putin's successor is pure speculation.