Why Russians Support Putin
The original title of this piece was going to be “Why Russians Love Putin” but as I’ve written before, Vladimir Putin is not a leader who inspires love. What he does enjoy is widespread support from across Russian society. Why?
The answer to this question eludes many commentators because few understand Russian history, including relatively recent events.
The first thing you should know is that support for Putin is directly correlated with the amount of time you spent living under the Soviet Union.
Why does this matter? Because the collapse of the USSR, which Vladimir Putin described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, is crucial to understanding the mindset of everyone who lived through it. Very few people in the West have any conception of just how traumatic the 1990s were for ordinary Russians.
Think about your life. Your career, your savings, your family, where you live, where you shop, your hobbies and interests. Now imagine your life a year from now. How different is it?
If you are like most people, you have a reasonable expectation that unless you personally mess up in some sort of monumental way, your life will continue “as normal”. Your career will be similar, you may improve your finances slightly or maybe you’ll have to tighten your belt a little. Your family and children will continue as they were, your house or apartment will still be there, unless you decide to change it, and so will everything else. Other than the random cruelties and blessings of life like accidents, ill health and gigantic strokes of luck, you’ll have to do a Will Smith or win the lottery for your life to be dramatically altered. The wheel of fortune aside, the future is in your hands.
Now imagine you are a Soviet citizen in the late 80s. By comparison with Westerners, you are poor and lack basic freedoms but living behind the Iron Curtain you don’t really know it. What you do know is that you live in a society where life is tough but stable and predictable. If you continue to exert yourself at work, you’ll keep your job or be promoted. Your children will go to the same school and if they apply themselves, they will be rewarded with an education and a stable job, just like yours. Outside of school, your kids can play outdoors in safety completely unsupervised. You are not menaced by violent crime, prostitution is something you barely know exists and, importantly to Russians, your country is a global superpower that is a force to be reckoned with.
Imagine that within a year all of this changes through no fault of your own. You worked hard, your kids did their homework and you saved for a rainy day but the world you lived in is no longer there. A few months ago you were a respected scientist, military officer or bureaucrat. Then your country fell apart around you and you’re now selling your belongings outside the local Metro station to buy food.
Your savings have been wiped out overnight. All of them. Gone. With no job and desperate for money you look for work in a world for which you were not trained or prepared, with little success.
The streets of your city are suddenly filled with shady men who hang around drinking and getting into trouble. Muggings, robberies and shootings are common.
Your daughter, a promising student, no longer has a future. You cannot support her financially and she falls on hard times. While she does her best to keep it from you, you discover that she is working as a prostitute to survive. You’ve never seen a prostitute in your life and now your daughter is selling her body for money. So many Russian women go into the sex trade, it becomes a permanent stereotype in Western culture.
While you and your family suffer unspeakable hardships, the criminals who were the lowest of the low are now in charge of everything. Murderous gangs fight for control of racketeering, extortion and prostitution, creating a new elite of so-called “New Russians”. These dumb, immoral, violent men live in mansions, drive expensive cars and enjoy every luxury money can buy. As an elderly Russian engineer once said to me, “I used to run a factory. I had a car, a 3-bedroom apartment in Moscow and a seaside holiday every year. Now I have nothing and these scumbags have everything. How can this be?”
As you struggle on, a part of your country you’ve never heard of called Chechnya declares independence. A civil war breaks out in the region with militant factions struggling for control. Eventually, Government forces get involved and your country is engaged in a full-scale war.
Your son, who has just turned 18, is conscripted into the army. Rife with brutal bullying (dedovshina), including beatings, rape and murder, the army is now also incompetent and badly funded. Your son is one of the unlucky ones sent into Chechnya. You hear nothing for months. Eventually, you are told he has gone missing in action. You later learn that in the chaos of the war he was brutally killed and left to rot in the streets of Grozny.
As the war escalates, a Chechen militant called Shamil Basayev, whose family were killed in a Russian airstrike days earlier, assembles a group of fighters who drive over the border into a small Russian city. They herd 2,000 innocent people into the local hospital and shoot anyone who resists in front of their families, killing over 100 people in the first phase of the attack.
The terrorists set out a list of demands and as politicians and police officials squabble over what to do, the militants get impatient and execute a hostage. Then five more.
After a 3-day stand-off the order is given and security forces storm the hospital. Dozens of people, mostly hostages, are killed in the fighting as the assault is repelled. Another attack follows. Then another. There are more casualties, mostly among the security forces and hostages.
After seeing the bloodbath, the Prime Minister negotiates with the terrorists. They are allowed to leave under the protection of hostages and your Government agrees to a ceasefire with Chechnya in order to avoid further casualties. Your country used to be a global superpower and it has just been invaded and forced into a humiliating defeat by a band of terrorists who killed and injured hundreds of innocent people.
The war ends soon after but the economic despair continues and in 1998 a devastating financial crisis leads to a devaluation of the ruble and a default. Inflation hits 84%. This is your only experience of “democracy” and “free markets”.
The following year war breaks out in Chechnya again, with Shamil Basayev launching another invasion. The terrorists1 now bring the fight to your doorstep, blowing up a number of residential blocks around the country.
It is at this point that a newly appointed Prime Minister, a politically unknown former FSB Director, called Vladimir Putin emerges as the successor to the outgoing incompetent, alcoholic President.
He talks tough, promising to kill the terrorists “wherever we find them – even in the toilet”.
Over time the billionaire criminals are brought to heel and answer only to him. Fuelled by rising oil prices, the country begins to recover economically, with hundreds of billions spent on improving infrastructure, rebuilding the military and getting Russia off its knees.
Putin eventually ends the war, bringing Chechnya back into the fold, terrorist attacks gradually stop and life slowly but surely becomes stable and predictable.
His enemies end up in prison, die in strange accidents or are simply assassinated. His friends become rich beyond imagination. But your life has improved beyond your imagination too.
He destroys the free press and any hope of Russia being a democracy. But, remember, to you “democracy” means chaos and poverty. It means war and terrorism. It means no hope, no future and your daughter selling herself to sleazy foreign tourists in hotel lobbies2.
Now ask yourself: how much freedom would you be willing to sacrifice to prevent such “democracy” happening again?
These explosions are the subject of numerous “conspiracy theories” of varying credibility, the main one being that they were an FSB false flag operation designed to bolster Putin’s popularity and give him an excuse to talk and act tough. I don’t have an educated opinion on how accurate these may be.
Naturally, I am not suggesting that the combined examples I give in this piece represent the experience of every Russian who lived through the 1990s. But we ALL knew someone who had a son conscripted into the army, someone who committed suicide, someone who drank himself to death out of desperation or someone who lost a daughter to the sex trade. And worse, we all knew that with a bit of bad luck we’d be right there in that pit of despair with them.