The People's Choice

The Russian public has come out against supporting the West in its war against terrorism. The West need not be concerned 

Polls conducted by the prominent All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion show that as of September 25 only 11 percent of Russians supported a military assault on the Taliban and al Qaeda; the majority did not approve of letting the United States use Russian military bases in Tajikistan, did not want Russia to fight alongside the United States in Afghanistan, and favored strict neutrality in the conflict.

This might have looked like a damaging blow to Vladimir Putin, whose recent lurch toward the West has been the most prominent policy initiative since he came to office, in May of 2000. It might also have seemed a portent of trouble in Russia—and for the allied forces, the conduct of whose war has depended in part on Russian logistical support. Yet the same polls gave Putin a personal-approval rating of 73 percent (for the past twelve months his ratings have consistently hovered around 70 percent), and there are no signs of a shift in public opinion. In short, Putin's popularity is not diminishing as a result of his deeply unpopular policy.

Astonishing? No. If we look back a little more than a year, we find a telling precedent. Putin suffered a bout of relatively low opinion-poll ratings (60 percent approval) after he decided to continue his vacation on the Black Sea while sailors were drowning aboard the doomed nuclear submarine Kursk. But a month later his ratings were up again, and some Russians to whom I spoke after the disaster told me that their President had done right in staying at his resort, because to have cut short his holiday would have shown susceptibility to public opinion—an unforgivable weakness in a ruler here. Putin had his eye on survival over the long term, and was loath to appease public sentiment in the short term. By flouting public opinion but showing his resolve he retained popularity among his electorate. I have heard similar comments from Russians with respect to his current support for the West—namely, that their leader should ignore the griping masses and get on with his job.

What does the discrepancy between the popularity of President Putin and the disapproval of his actions mean? The answer to this question, which is not being asked in Russia, lies in the different ways in which Westerners and Russians view political authority. In the West elected leaders are regarded, at least ideally, as representing the people, and they are oath-bound to respond to the popular will. Russians, however, tend to regard the people (their own people, that is) as ignorant, as bydlo (cattle) who have to be dominated, for their own good and for the good of the state. This unforgiving view has permeated even the thinking of the intelligentsia, who have historically posited reform as a means of transforming the masses into something less stubborn and irrational than the intelligentsia have held them to be. A Russian leader derives much of his legitimacy from his ability to create the impression of strength, to inspire fear along with respect, and to pursue not the fulfillment of his citizens' (selfish and erratic) desires but the national interest, especially as embodied in the great-power role Russians claim as theirs by birthright.

Historically, this concern for the greatness of Russia is evident in the leaders many Russians have most revered: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Joseph Stalin. They were tyrants all—but tyrants obsessed with increasing the power of Russia, and tyrants who succeeded in doing exactly that by employing the most brutal means imaginable. (No opinion polls were taken during their reigns, but certainly the prospect of being boiled alive, dragooned into draining swamps, or worked to death in frozen tundra could hardly have elicited much enthusiasm among their subjects.) The rule is this: if a Russian leader has a redoubtable image and is perceived to be working for the greatness of his country, he can ignore popular disapproval of his policies (except, perhaps, in election times) and will end up the more respected for it. Public-opinion polls therefore reflect sentiments that are, in effect, stillborn; they have little to do with whether people are prepared to resist their leader or attempt to force him to change his policies. Thus public opinion does not play a significant role in Kremlin policy. That is all the more true since the state has brought the independent media to heel.

This does not mean that the Russians will rise up against Putin if they find him somewhat less resolute or intimidating than he has been. They often say that fear is in their genes, owing to their government's history of repressing its citizens. When pressed, Russians, largely out of fear, have obeyed their leaders, even to the point of destroying friends and neighbors and abetting mass arrests, expropriations, and murder. They have done all this and they made the Soviet Union a superpower. In fact, they have traditionally identified superpower status with repressive rule from the Kremlin.

Consequently, Putin's past ideally suits him to run Russia. Before becoming President he spent most of his career in the KGB and became the head of its successor agency, the Federal Security Service. This gives him fearsome, patriotic, and implicitly anti-Western bona fides that no liberal Russian politician could match. Compare Putin in this regard with Boris Yeltsin, who often appeared to be more concerned with keeping on good terms with "friend Bill" than with working for the good of Russia. Putin, who is not viewed as a "friend of George" (or a friend of any foreign leader, for that matter), consistently ranks as the most trusted politician in Russia; with a trust rating of 42 percent, he stands 26 points ahead of the runner-up: Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party.

But is not what is good for the Russian people good for Russia? Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Western notion that freedom, justice, and improved standards of living should be the business of the Kremlin took hold among the public; but it quickly dissipated when these desiderata proved difficult to attain and the West seemed bent on exploiting Russia's weakness. Eventually, humiliation over the eastward expansion of NATO and NATO's war in Yugoslavia (a Russian ally at the time), plus the failure to establish an economy based on free competition and the rule of law, buried pro-Western sentiments in Russia and helped bring to power Putin, a nationalist whose campaign was based on pledges to "strengthen the state" and establish a "dictatorship of the law." (That Zyuganov was his opponent in the elections contributed to Putin's victory—the Russian public had shown in national elections and referenda several times since 1991 that it no longer believed the Communists could run the country, let alone restore its superpower status.) A stronger state and a dictatorship of the law meant the imposition of order on the near chaos Yeltsin had left behind, and that, Russians understood, would in turn mean a restriction of their liberties. In sum, they were voting into office someone who would not listen to them but would work for the good of Russia.

At least these days it appears that they were right to have done so. In the hours after the September 11 attacks, far ahead of any opinion polls, Putin addressed the Russian public and offered unstinting support to the United States. He thus anticipated the division of the world into pro- and anti-terrorist camps which was to become the policy of the United States (and therefore of the West) when President Bush announced to Congress, nine days later, "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." Putin's offer of aid to the United States came not out of sympathy but primarily out of an understanding that the perpetrators of the attacks in New York and Washington could easily turn their hand to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Whether or not the Russians yet understand this, their President does—and that is what counts in a land where the leader leads and the people, like it or not, follow.