Until recently, the Russian population could be divided into two political mindsets: the oppo sitionists, both communist and liberal, and the silent majority. These are the tens of millions of conformists who vote obediently for the party they are supposed to vote for, but who ultimately don't give a damn.
Now, from its inner depths, the silent majority has vomited forth a new generation of noisy "ultra-conformists", fanatical Putinoids. It's a new phenomenon, yet to be studied, but at first glance they look like a mixture of teenybopper "Putin Youth" (those kids who belong to groups such as the T-shirt-wearing, rigid-right-arm-stretching Nashi) with disciplined army/police/ security guys, small-time apparatchiks and middle-aged women of unknown origin (presumably with a sexual crush on the president). The core of this movement may come from the state, but it is hard to deny that there's a substantial grass-roots-level element to it as well.
Putin's sustained popularity in Russia is still a mystery to me. It certainly has nothing to do with his achievements. Leave aside his shameful performance during national emergencies (the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000, the shoot-out at the Nord-Ost theatre in 2002 and, of course, the Beslan school massacre in 2004). Putin has also delivered almost none of his long-term promises. Crime, poverty and inflation remain as high as ever. Corruption has reached unprecedented heights. Terrorist attacks continue, while the economy is entirely and dangerously dependent on the export of natural resources. To this, one can add the catastrophically declining image of Russia in the rest of the world - something our president can be especially proud of, as he seems to follow religiously one of the most rotten pearls of Russian wisdom, a proverb that says: "If they fear you, they respect you."
Guus and George
So there must be a voodoo element to the way Putin survives and thrives. I would put him in the same league as the notoriously lucky Guus Hiddink, the Dutchman who is coach to the Russian national football squad. Thanks to incredible twists of fate, notably England's ignominious defeat by Croatia on 21 November, Hiddink has managed to squeeze his lousy team into the Euro 2008 finals. Putin's Steve McClaren is, undoubtedly, one George W Bush, who puts the Russian leader's mediocracy into the shade with his own flamboyant cretinism. One need only look at the war in Iraq, which triggered the past few years' huge rises in global oil and gas prices. The rest you know.
These oil zillions pour into Russian hands in such quantities that even the tiny orgy of kleptocrats running the country can make it feel relatively prosperous. Putin's luck also lies in there being no strong opposition movement. There are no convincing figures able to project an alternative vision. There is no moral authority challenging the status quo. All the leading cultural/humanitarian figures and opinion-formers either praise the boss or keep their mouths shut. His administration has done a good job of sorting the mass media.
Let me give one small example, so that you can understand better what kind of country we now live in. Recently on a TV talk show there was a gentle discussion between Viktor Yerofeyev, a well-known novelist and liberal columnist, and Nikita Mikhalkov, a well-known film-maker and professional brown-noser. Mikhalkov expressed his love and passion for Putin and the urge to glorify him in his works, in a manner probably not seen since Stalin's day. Yerofeyev tried, in a mild-mannered way, to calm the ultra-loyal film director down, suggesting that idolising the president might be a little over the top, and even tasteless. Putin might be a good guy, but he too has got problems, and we live in a modern democratic country, etc.
Yerofeyev sounded somewhat more convincing than Mikhalkov. Then, a week later, the same Yerofeyev was invited to another talk show - this time on the all-powerful Channel 1. Suddenly he was saying something completely different. He confessed his admiration for Putin, his loyalty to his political line and his general happiness about living in Putin's Russia. It wasn't formally staged as an act of repentance for the incorrect things he had said, but it didn't need to be. Knowing Yerofeyev - an ever-independent, western-orientated, ex-samizdat writer - as I do, I must admit I was impressed.