Why Putin Is Still so Popular in Russia

Russians seem to prefer a strong, authoritarian state to the weak government and economic chaos they experienced under Yeltsin.
Putin on horseback in southern Siberia's Tuva region (Reuters)

Vladimir Putin gets a bad press outside Russia. From the cases of Alexander Litvinenko, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or Pussy Riot to the sponsoring of laws against gay "propaganda", he is usually cast in a dark role. Those not warning the world about him are mocking a sometime martial artist, submariner, and lover of tiger encounters.

Of late, the rhetoric and editorializing have been reminiscent of the Cold War. The Russian president's defiance of the U.S. over Edward Snowden, allowing the digital defector to remain at Moscow's Sheremetevo Airport for more than a month as the White House fumes impotently and his stance over Syria has led to an anti-Putin frenzy in the Western media.

Writing in Komsomolskaya Pravda in the last months of the Soviet era, Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed: "The clock of communism has stopped striking. But its concrete building has not yet come crashing down. For that reason, instead of freeing ourselves, we must try to save ourselves from being crushed by its rubble."

But after the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991 it was not just rubble that was the problem. In a devastating decade the assets of the country were ripped off. Gangster capitalism emerged and preyed on the prostrate country.

Much of the old Soviet elite -- the nomenklatura who had been positively vetted for high posts in party and state -- rapidly converted themselves into a property-owning middle class, with a new crude "aristocracy" of oligarchs of unbelievable wealth at the top. The poor, the vast pool of unemployed created by the theft of a nation, pensioners, the sick, the young whose schooling became a lottery, all suffered. Male life expectancy fell from 65 years in 1986 to 57 in the mid-1990s.

This tragedy was presided over by Boris Yeltsin, drunken conductor of a German brass band, general buffoon, corrupt liner of his and others pockets on a grand scale but, more seriously, destroyer, in 1993, of the nearest thing Russia had to a parliament by firing shells on its White House home.

He also crudely manipulated his re-election campaign in 1996, depriving opponents of a voice. Despite all this, unlike Putin, Yeltsin enjoyed a largely favourable press and image in the West.

There were two reasons for this. The only organized alternative to Yeltsin was the rump of the communist party and his bizarre presidency ensured it would never reorganize or gain control. In addition, many foreign interests -- especially oil, financial and legal services and some agribusinesses -- were able to fish prize specimens from the dank, turbulent, and muddy pool.

In 1998 a massive currency crisis finally stopped the ugly process in its tracks. Yeltsin had to step down for "health" reasons and the relatively unknown Putin was appointed as his successor in 1999.

At first, it appeared that Putin would have to be, like Yeltsin, a puppet of the oligarchs and the Kremlin kleptocracy. However, he soon proved to have a political strength of his own and, in a first major arm wrestle in 2004, he arrested and prosecuted the richest and most powerful oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at that time number 16 on the Forbes world rich list.

Presented by

Christopher Read

is a professor of 20th-Century European History at the University of Warwick.

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