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.