By Bernd Debusmann Jr.
Despite polls showing the contrary, to many of us who grew up in the West it may seem hard to believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is popular among Russians.
This is a man, after all, who has been accused of crushing dissent in his own country, poisoning dissidents abroad, supporting the brutal Assad regime in Syria and tampering with America’s democratic process.
But as I found out on a trip to Russia in early July for the football World Cup, he is popular — for very specific reasons.
My education into the Russian public’s perception of their President began within minutes of touching down in Moscow. It came in the form of Vlad, a driver I had hired online to take my wife and me from the city’s Sheremetyevo airport to the city center.
Vlad, a Moscow native with a military demeanor and an impressive command of languages, is a proud veteran of the Soviet Army who spent two years fighting in Afghanistan, where he served as a forward observer for an artillery unit sent to support operations throughout the country.
Those of us educated in the United States have for the most part been raised with an American narrative of the Cold War: The fall of the Soviet Union marked the ultimate victory of democracy over communism and over a corrupt, oppressive and morally bankrupt system that the late President Ronald Reagan termed “the evil empire.”
But from the perspective of someone like Vlad — and Putin himself — the collapse of the USSR was a disaster.
It’s not hard to see why.
“He’s a strong man, and he is respected.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, dreams of living like rich Westerners quickly evaporated as citizens realized that the tightly controlled Soviet economy would not be re-distributed to the people.
A few people — the infamous oligarchs — got rich, income disparity grew and corruption and crime swept across the country. Unemployment was rampant, and Russia’s standing in the world diminished. It was no longer a superpower.
Enter Putin, who in 1999 succeeded Boris Yeltsin.
“He’s a strong man, and he is respected,” Vlad said. “Things are better now. New apartments are built. I’m receiving my pension. I have subsidized housing. He gave us this World Cup to show the world what Russia is really like.”
Putin’s popularity must also be examined against the backdrop of what many Russians perceive to be hostility from the rest of the world.
This is nothing new: Russians are raised with a steady stream of history lessons about successive foreign invasions. They think foreign governments are still trying to encroach on Russia and its sphere of influence and point to the expansion of the West’s military alliance, NATO, into the former Soviet Baltics.
It is through this lens that many Russians continue to see their relationship with the rest of the world.
“They are always lying about us.”
On one occasion in Russia, we were with another English-speaking driver in a car listening to the radio when the BBC ran a story about the poisoning of Russian dissidents in Britain with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent. The British government has blamed Russia for the poisoning, which Moscow denies.
“What nonsense,” scoffed the driver, who, like Vlad, served in the Red Army. “They are always lying about us. This, Ukraine, Syria, everywhere. Like your president says, fake news!”
Russia’s own media is tightly controlled, with the vast majority of media outlets directly or indirectly controlled by the administration. Predictably, these outlets support a pro-Putin, pro-government narrative of events.
In the case of the Novichok poisoning, Russia Today — a state-funded international TV network that operates in several languages — has run a near constant stream of articles calling into question the UK government’s charges against Russia.
In one article, a number of analysts said British coverage of the case was an attempt to distract the world from Russia’s successful hosting of the World Cup. One analyst said Britain was “hell-bent on vilifying Russia.” Another, more recent article suggested, not very subtly, that the poisoning was the work of the government of Ukraine, which has been locked in battle with Russia since 2014.
In the eyes of many Russians, Putin is an antidote to the difficult 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which split into 15 separate countries. He has brought a measure of economic, political and social stability, modernized the Russian military and challenged American and Western dominance of the world, whether in Eastern Europe or the Middle East.
“I used to go to protests, but I stopped.”
That is not to say that Putin is universally well liked. But those who do speak out often do so quietly. Many of Putin’s critics, after all, have met untimely ends.
Former security agent Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive material in a London café. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya and opposition politician Boris Nemtsov were shot dead in dubious circumstances.
In Moscow near Red Square, we met a young female tour guide, who after quite a bit of prodding admitted she had been involved in protests against the Russian president.
“I used to go to protests, but I stopped. There were too many problems,” she said, speaking in almost a whisper, her eyes darting around nervously.
“If you do too much, you may be arrested or who knows what. Lots of people don’t like it, and the security people these days are even worse than before,” she said, referring the Soviet KGB secret police, in which Putin served.
To believe opinion polls, people like our tour guide and members of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk rock band that most recently invaded the pitch during the World Cup, are a distinct minority.
According to a recent state-run poll, Putin’s popularity rate stood at 77 percent at the end of June, falling to 62 percent in July following the announcement of a controversial pension reform. These figures would be the envy of most American leaders.
By many accounts, Putin’s popularity is on the rise after his meeting with Trump in Helsinki, with much of the Russian public lauding his domineering performance over his American counterpart.
“Putin’s popularity at home has long been helped by his ability to present Russia as a superpower that deserves to be taken seriously,” Elena Chernenko, foreign editor of Russia’s independent Kommersant newspaper, wrote in the New York Times. “The meeting in Helsinki made him look like he was in charge.”
Bernd Debusmann Jr. is the chief reporter for a business magazine in Dubai. Previously he worked for the Khaleej Times, a UAE newspaper; as a producer on the Reuters Latin American TV desk in Washington; as a Reuters text reporter in New York, and later in his native Mexico, first for Reuters TV and then as a freelance journalist.