Vladimir Putin addressing a rally of supporters at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow in 2012. Photo: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images
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Why do Russians still support Vladimir Putin?

Talking to Russians young and old, Jana Bakunina found five main reasons why support for the president has not declined in the face of international pressure.

The news of the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition politician, dominated the news this weekend. It was possible to imagine – just for a day or two – that the charismatic Boris Nemtsov, who first entered the national political arena in Russia back in the Yeltsin days, had been a prominent figure without whom the opposition would struggle to have a say against Kremlin. Unfortunately, the truth is that Nemtsov was hardly a force to be reckoned with. However open his position on Putin was and however brave his last interview to the Moscow radio station Echo Moskvy was, just hours before his death, Boris Nemtsov was not important. Like any other opposition leader in Russia, he was a scribble on the margin of current affairs. The overwhelming majority of the Russian population supports the country’s president, Vladimir Putin.

A recent poll, conducted between 20 23 February 2015 among 1,600 Russians aged 18 or more in 46 different regions of Russia by an independent Russian not-for-profit market research agency Levada Centre for Echo Moskvy radio station, found that 54 per cent of the population agreed that “[Russia] is moving in the right direction”. Eighty-six per cent of the respondents approve of Vladimir Putin as Russia’s president. When asked to name five or six  politicians or government officials they trust, 59 per cent responded: ”Putin”.

Let’s put aside the possibility of rigged polls because there is little to suggest Putin’s popularity is fake. Putin is respected, if not revered. He is referred to as batyushka, the holy father. Many Russians are particularly upset and angry about Nemtsov’s murder because western fingers are pointing at Putin. In their opinion, Nemtsov was most likely killed as a provocation to destabilise Russia and fuel hostility between Kremlin and the west. “With all due respect to the memory of Boris Nemtsov, in political terms he did not pose any threat to the current Russian leadership or Vladimir Putin, said presidential press secretary Dmitriy Peskov. “If we compare popularity levels, Putin’s and the government’s ratings and so on, in general Boris Nemtsov was just a little bit more than an average citizen.”

Russians love and support their president. I wanted to understand why, so I spoke to a number of people in their 20s, 30s and 60s who helped me crystallise their reasoning into the following arguments.

Putin is a strong leader. Russia has always done better under formidable leaders, however autocratic and repressive. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Josef Stalin are some examples. Old and sickly, indecisive leaders and those who, like Gorbachev, tried to please all, never inspired trust or respect. The president’s public images work to reinforce his power. ”Putin is without a doubt the strongest political leader out there. He is a brilliant public speaker, he controls every dialogue and is a strategist, whereas his counterparties are reactionary tacticians.” 

Putin built Russia’s middle class. There is a popular, if ignorant, view that Russians are either super rich or extremely poor. You don’t need to travel to Moscow (a quick trip to Cyprus or Turkey’s sea resorts would do) to see that many Russians now drive a decent car (anything other than a Lada), travel abroad, wear clothes from Zara and can afford to buy whatever else signals middle class. Since Putin came to power, Russia’s gross national product per capita increased from 49,800 roubles in 2000 to 461,300 in 2013, according to the Federal State Statistics Service of the Russian Federation. From the same source, we learn that Russian citizens travelled abroad 9.8 million times in 2000 and 38.5 million times in 2013.  

Putin has improved social welfare in Russia. A sales manager in his late 20s talked to me about Putin’s welfare reforms, raising pensions, investing in education and healthcare, infrastructure and social security laws which sought to encourage families to have children and address declining population. For the first time in the last 20 years new births in Russia were recorded as higher than deaths in 2013. Average pensions (stated in 1992 prices) went up from 694 roubles a month in 2000 to 9,918 roubles in 2012. Crime went down, including murders (from 28.2 per cent in 2000 to 10.1 per cent in 2012, the coefficients indicating deaths from murder per 100,000 people). There were 9.3 hospital beds in Russia per 1,000 people in 2012, as compared to 3 beds per 1,000 people in the UK in 2011

Putin has restored Russian might. Throughout his time in office, Putin has demonstrated his dedication to addressing the values Russians care about most: the integrity of their country, its sphere of influence in international relations, and its ability to withstand the US dictating its policies to the world at large. This is perhaps the core factor in Putin’s popularity, which came across in all the conversations I’ve had with those Russians who support the current regime. ”It’s not about the economy or the welfare,” a professional woman in her 30s said to me, ”it’s about thinking on a much bigger scale and more globally”. Putin has gradually rebuilt Russia’s defence industry, making it a strategic priority. Taking Crimea, Putin protected Russia’s military base on the Black Sea, was an important manoeuvre at the time of the accelerating hostility from the US and Nato. The Russians have regained self-respect, rising from the financial ashes of the 1990s and restoring national pride. ”The world has been looking at us as a third world country throughout the 1990s but today we are a force to be reckoned with.” 

There is no one else. Ultimately, there is no other viable candidate to lead Russia instead. If it’s a chicken and egg problem, it would take time to grow credible opposition, although the soil is hardly fertile. As it stands, even moderate supporters of Putin agree that current opposition leaders are neither convincing nor capable. Putin has a track record of delivering economic stability, however justified were his means. Russians are too used to local and national government officials helping themselves to the state pocket, so the prevalent philosophy to the change in power is that the incumbent is always ”the least worst”. A woman in her 60s said to me: ”What’s wrong with Putin? At least he holds the country together – look at what happened to the Ukraine. It’s in pieces; its people are beyond despair.”

Russian people have survived many periods of hardship since the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, which destroyed its peace, independence, culture and cities (including the then-capital, Kiev). It is perhaps this early history, as well as the civil war after the Bolshevik Revolution, the famine that followed, the Second World War and the Stalinist repressions, which indicates that Russian tolerance for austerity is higher than in the western world. Russians do not seek prosperity but stability. They are less concerned with individual freedom than with the collective sense of status and integrity. Spanning both European and Asian continents, Russia has inherited the Eastern sense of community, attitude of acceptance and predisposition towards authoritarian government. 

In the increasingly cool climate between Russia and the west, it helps to understand each other’s values.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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