Why Putin Wins

I should begin by saying that I find the current president of Russia and his policies extremely offensive. I believe that Vladimir Putin is the most sinister figure in contemporary Russian history. From the very beginning of his rule he has directed—and almost completed—a broad antidemocratic counterrevolution in Russia. He has annihilated many civil rights in the country, among them such crucial freedoms as freedom of information. He has significantly restricted freedom of association and assembly, as well as the right to stage peaceful marches, protests, and demonstrations.

Putin’s administration has consistently carried out a policy of smothering political opposition and has tried vigorously to illegally place independent, nonpolitical civil society activities under its control. I believe he has decimated the very concept of an independent judiciary. With his knowledge and agreement, and more likely by his direct instruction, dozens of my fellow citizens have had harsh, unjust, politically motivated prison sentences meted out to them. He therefore bears direct responsibility for the appearance of a new generation of political prisoners in Russia.

The Russian president is said to be the “guarantor of the constitution.” But the man pledged to guarantee civil rights and human freedoms in our country has committed many grave acts of malfeasance, grossly violating the spirit and the letter of the constitution to which he has sworn his loyalty three times. To give only one example, he replaced the federal structure of the country with a strict unitary model of governance, with power concentrated in the Kremlin and with regional governments effectively subordinated to it. Regardless of which model one believes is better for Russia, this is a clear case of the President trampling on constitutional principles. He is responsible for the mass murder of peaceful civilians in Chechnya; and in foreign policy he has revived the pernicious Soviet concepts of being “surrounded by enemies” and a “world plot against Russia.”

The attentive American reader is no doubt informed, if not in great depth or detail, about these and other current Russian political realities, which have often been described in the Western press, and I will not pursue them here. I will try instead to explain—as much to myself as to the reader—the secret of Vladimir Putin’s popularity. How are we to understand Putin’s electoral success in 2000, and again in 2004? This is not merely an academic question. In the West, but also in Russia—even from like-minded people—I often hear the following:

Well, yes, the Russian president is an unpleasant person. We can see the authoritarian, nearly totalitarian direction of his policies. But what can you do? He has won two elections with impressive results: 53 percent in 2000 and 71 percent in 2004. That must mean that his policies correspond to the hopes and aspirations of the people, and that he himself, like it or not, legitimately represents Russia. Or do you really think that both elections were so grossly falsified that the outcome was affected?

Americans in particular resort to this line of reasoning; it accords with their view of free, contested elections as the main criterion in determining whether a given country is a democracy. I do not think that Putin “really” lost the elections of 2000 and 2004. Rather, the Russian election laws have been so shamelessly distorted that they create an imitation of free elections without the slightest hint of transparent competition among political opponents. Putin would have won the campaigns of 2000 and 2004—though perhaps without such large, unseemly margins—even if they had been free of vote tampering and the illegal use of the government’s so-called “administrative resources,” and if the candidates had actually had equal access to the voters through television and the press.

But what did the majority of Russian citizens actually vote for in those two elections? Was it truly for Putin and his policies or for something else?

In answering this question, I should say that I do not know exactly what personal responsibility Vladimir Putin bears for the political policies carried out in his name. When I write “Putin,” I am referring primarily to the policies and the entire web of political concepts generated in the bowels of the KGB—now called the FSB. I am not talking about the former KGB lieutenant colonel named Vladimir Putin personally; he is a man I don’t know and have no desire to know.

I understand perfectly well, moreover, that Putin and Putinism were a product of the “wild Nineties,” that his policies, in many respects, continue and develop tendencies already apparent under Boris Yeltsin, tendencies that became more extreme toward the end of Yeltsin’s regime when Yeltsin himself—a sincere but extremely muddled and inconsistent politician, who understood only vaguely the transformations begun under his leadership—was losing control over events. But the question now is, why has Putinism prevailed over other possible paths of political evolution in Russia?

Our inquiry should not begin in August 1999, when President Yeltsin unexpectedly appointed a little-known officer of the secret services, who had briefly headed up the FSB, to the post of prime minister. Instead, we need to return to the events that shook Russia exactly eight years earlier. The shattering failure of the coup that took place in August 1991 was greeted with genuine popular rejoicing. Muscovites, supported by people throughout Russia, foiled an armed attempt by a number of Communist Party leaders to take power, thwart democracy, and halt the dismantling of the Soviet political system. The result was exactly the opposite of what the coup leaders wanted: the regime that controlled a third of the planet, that had appeared as eternal as the Egyptian pyramids, was relegated to the past—forever, as it seemed.

The very next day Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Russian Republic, confidently declared that Russia’s democratic future and prosperity were assured. Many people understood of course that democracy would not triumph immediately; nor would the standard of living soon rise to American levels. It was obvious that the collapse of a great state would be an extremely painful and difficult process. However, no one anticipated the enormous increase in inflation only a year later; nor that tanks under Yeltsin’s command would fire on the parliament two years later; nor that Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, would be reduced to blazing ruins by 1995.

We also didn’t anticipate the high level of corruption in Yeltsin’s government from top to bottom, or the merging of organized crime and business in both the state and private sectors. Nor did anyone anticipate the degree to which the government would engage in criminal behavior; nor the “delays” for months at a time in paying salaries and pensions. Nor so much else! We could not imagine that some six to eight years later the words “democracy,” “pluralism,” “multiparty system,” and “human rights” would be used as obscenities by Russians.

In August 1991, who could have foreseen that by December 31, 1999, a broken, prematurely decrepit Yeltsin would say farewell and ask his country’s forgiveness in his New Year’s address and that his office would soon be occupied by a product of the very secret services that Yeltsin and the other “victors” of August 21, 1991, saw as the symbol and the center of absolute evil? And that the entire country, except for a handful of intellectuals and democratic politicians, would applaud this turn of events?

According to the Russian constitution, if the president resigns, he is replaced by the prime minister. Only three months after Yeltsin’s resignation, Prime Minister Putin, acting president of Russia, who had not done anything of particular note other than provoke the second Chechen war, won the presidential election on the first ballot. He defeated not only the democrats, whose popularity was declining swiftly, but the main clown of the Russian political circus, the nationalist demagogue Vladimir Zhirinovsky. He also easily defeated the leader of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, who finished in second place. A short three years later, in December 2003, the “Putin Party,” known as “Unified Russia,” won key positions in the State Duma, from which the voters threw out both of the two democratic factions, the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko.

Russian and foreign analysts have several explanations for the extraordinary “Putin phenomenon.” The first is that Putin gave Russian citizens what they had been longing for after the continual catastrophes of the 1990s: a feeling of relative stability and relative security. There is some truth in this view. Salaries are almost always being paid on time. The economy has stopped declining and there are even signs of growth. Pensions and social welfare payments are increasing although they are still far from adequate to provide a decent life. The percentage of citizens living below the poverty line has declined. The armed resistance of Chechen separatists has been almost completely suppressed. There have not been any major terrorist attacks for some time.

But exactly how stable is the current situation? I am certain that the bloody suppression of Chechen separatism has created a slow-burning fuse in the Russian south, and that the bomb at the end of the fuse will eventually explode. Many economists claim that the present level of well-being results from the convergence of several conditions that cannot last long. Others say that our economic stability is really stagnation, that the apparently favorable social and economic situation is based exclusively on the export of oil and gas, and that Russia will eventually be thrust into the ranks of the third world. For the sake of argument, let’s say that my prognosis regarding the Caucasus is wrong, that economists are also wrong to predict a bleak future for Russia, and that the nation has the government to thank for the current sense of security and relative prosperity—although I don’t see what particular actions of Putin’s team have concretely achieved these results.

What is clear is that such achievements still fail to explain Putin’s electoral successes. If in March 2004 they could be used for campaign propaganda, in March 2000 Putin had not been in power long enough to prove himself as a successful leader. All he had to show for himself were five months as prime minister under Yeltsin, three months as acting president, and a renewed war in the Caucasus.

The war was truly popular among voters and undoubtedly had an enormous effect on the elections. The public easily accepted the official view that Chechens had carried out the barbaric bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk in 1999, especially since these events were preceded by the incursion into Dagestan by the Chechen leader Shamil Basaev and his band of “international warriors of Islam.” Putin seemed obviously a man of great energy. Breaking a century-long tradition, he had actually been given authority to make political decisions. He instantly won over the man in the street with his vindictive retaliation in Chechnya. Opponents of the renewal of the Chechen war could simply no longer be heard. Was this perhaps the moment when the triumphal birth of the people’s idol took place?

Whatever Putin promised the population in early 2000—stability, prosperity, revenge against terrorists, swift victory over separatists—his rivals promised the same things. Among them were Zyuganov (who also promised social justice), Grigory Yavlinsky, and Zhirinovsky. (Yavlinsky, however, argued bravely against a military resolution of the Chechen problem. He paid for it by losing a large number of votes.) Why did the voters prefer a homely colonel with fishlike eyes?

Analysts sometimes explain Putin’s success by saying it wasn’t a vote “for” but a vote “against”—against the chaotic muddle of the late Yeltsin period; against the “democrats.” When Russians use the word “democrats” with clear revulsion, they are not thinking of the concept of the people’s sovereignty; the public is by and large scornfully indifferent to ideas. The President’s advisers themselves take pains to use democratic rhetoric: Putin, they say, is a true “people’s” leader; the “majority” supports him. He personifies a genuine, “distinctive” Russian democracy—as opposed to Egor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, Boris Nemstov, Grigory Yavlinsky, Irina Khakamada, Sergei Kovalev, and all the others detested as “democrats.” The actual differences among these political figures, our real influence on the political events of the 1990s, or lack of it, are of no interest to the masses. What is important is that “democrats” “brought the country to ruin,” handed it over to be pillaged by thieves and Americans.

I believe, on the contrary, that the catastrophes of the 1990s were the result of the absence of genuine freedom in the country. The trouble with Yeltsin’s first team of politicians and administrators was not that they were ineffective as democrats, but that in truth they weren’t democrats at all. That is why I went over to the opposition in about 1995. If I thought that Putin was elected by the people in revenge for the many failures and mistakes of that period, I wouldn’t approve of such a “protest vote”—but I would understand it. But that is not why he was elected.

In reality, Putin was nominated to run for president as a member of Yeltsin’s team, as his “heir.” And here there is a paradox: in 1999 Yeltsin had no support among the elite or the broader population; his approval ratings could hardly have been lower. One would have thought that the very fact of being endorsed by Yeltsin would have reduced Putin’s chances to zero. Yet Yeltsin’s appointed heir left the other candidates far behind in the first round of elections!

Furthermore, even now, while “democrats” are seen as unpopular, Putin consistently describes his model of governing as “democracy,” though he qualifies it with ambiguous labels conceived by his brain trust. Putinist democracy is either “managed” (the author of this oxymoron appears to be the political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky) or “sovereign” (a term favored by the deputy head of the presidential administration, Vladislav Surkov). The labels are intended to underscore our originality, our Russian identity. In fact, of course, they undermine the very idea of democracy; but how often do people think carefully about the true meaning of political adjectives? The word “democracy” has been hammered into our heads since Soviet times, when the adjective usually applied to it was “socialist.” By now, of course, even the most dim-witted have realized that the word “democracy” as used by Putin means something quite different than it does when it is spoken by such traitors to the Motherland as Sergei Kovalev.

A third explanation of Putin’s popularity is nostalgia for the Soviet past. As this argument goes, the people missed the Soviet regime and everything that symbolized it. And what was the essence of the Soviet regime—the KGB, those valiant Chekists, protecting the state from external and internal enemies. So, driven by nostalgia, they elected a KGB colonel as their leader. And he, in turn, restored the myths promoted by the Soviet secret police from the Cheka onward: the country is “surrounded by enemies” and infiltrated by a “fifth column”—a role currently assigned to nongovernmental organizations, particularly those concerned with the media and human rights, since they are presumed to be acting on orders from subversive foreign centers. (Some receive grants from foreign foundations.) Putin also resurrected the old Soviet symbols: the Stalinist anthem, the army’s red banner. Many people are happy he’s done so.

This view has its share of truth as well. I can imagine that people were nostalgic, not so much for the Soviet past as for a national history. In the last Soviet decades the myth was based on the creation of a new historic community, “the Soviet people.” Unlike early Soviet ideology, this Brezhnevera concoction was not focused on the future (i.e., we are the communards, the avant-garde of oppressed humanity, fighting for the bright, shining era to come), but on the past. The answer to the question “Who are we?” went as follows: “We are a people who have borne inhuman suffering in the twentieth century; yet we stride briskly from victory to victory. We suffered unprecedented losses during the war; but, led by the Communist Party, we saved the world from Nazism. We then found the strength to build a superpower, to put the first man in space, and to achieve nuclear parity with the other superpower—the US. This is our national identity.”

Of course, there is some truth to this formula. But the claim for the beneficent role of the Communist Party is nothing but a lie. The central falsehoods are in the silences, the omissions. Saving the world from the Nazis turned into enslavement for Eastern Europe and a new global threat of Communist expansion. One was not supposed to mention the terrible sufferings of Soviet citizens—state terror, the persecution of dissent, the collectivization of the countryside and the subsequent famine, the colossal losses during the war, the ways the Party paid for its victories with millions of other people’s lives and destinies.

This myth collapsed along with the USSR. The citizens of Russia, the largest remnant of the superpower, were left hanging, their national identity obscure. Alas, in the 1990s, the democrats didn’t understand how important it was to honestly study and confront the Soviet past in order to define a national identity and bring together the different elements of Russian society. At the time it seemed that the only people thinking about this issue in Russia were the Memorial Society and a few other similar organizations. Things reached total absurdity when Yeltsin gave the Russian Academy of Sciences four months to develop a “national idea.” Most people simply ignored the problems of historical memory or were afraid to deal with them, preferring to pretend that August 22, 1991, followed immediately after October 25, 1917.

Putin, however, understood perfectly well the importance of historical rhetoric in politics. (It sometimes seems to me surprising that he worked in the foreign section of the KGB and not in the “ideological” Fifth Directorate.) On coming to power, he began to inculcate his own historical mythology. These were the old Soviet myths, meticulously cleansed of Communist phraseology and the tragic undertones used in Brezhnev’s pronouncements. For example, Putin replaced the memory of the war and its sacrifices—the central emphasis of the Brezhnev myth, its theodicy—with memory of the Victory.

The new generation brought up under the influence of Putin’s mythology is frightening. For me it is personified by the crowds of youth striding through the metro stations on May 9, Victory Day, the day marking the end of World War II, chanting “RUS-SIA! RUS-SIA!” They don’t understand that they are behaving like fascists, but instead see themselves as the grandchildren of Hitler’s conquerors; and the terrifying thing is that they are in fact grandchildren of the generation that fought Hitler, and are betraying that heritage.

Putin has in effect created a myth of the imperial state—a myth derived from elements of pre-revolutionary Russian history and the Soviet past—that serves as a substitute for historical memory. There was a demand for such a surrogate myth and he met it, thus connecting his own regime with longstanding Russian traditions of authoritarian rule. His popularity owes a good deal to it. He stops short of being a “restorer” of the Soviet worldview, however. In 2000 this role belonged to the leader of the Communists, Zyuganov—and he received only 29 percent of the vote. Instead of restoring the Soviet worldview, Putin skillfully put forward a modern version of it. But he did this only after the elections of 2000.

Finally, we come to a fourth explanation. It is somewhat mystical, but it is often heard in private conversation and in newspaper articles: Putin’s popularity turns on his “charisma.” No one seems able to offer a coherent explanation of what, exactly, this charisma consists of; it is only clear that in this case it cannot be reduced simply to masculine charm or his public manner, which nevertheless seems to inspire trust in the ordinary person. However, when he uses expressions like “drown them in the shithole” (about Chechen separatists) or tells a foreign journalist to “get yourself circumcised,” he hardly seems charismatic.

Is the 71 percent of the vote he received in 2004 convincing evidence of his popularity? I have never met anyone who likes Putin as a person. One answer to the riddle of his electoral success is quite simple and quite sad. For virtually the first time in history, Russian citizens were given the primary instrument of political democracy: direct and competitive elections. But they do not know why they need this instrument or how to make use of it. Eleven hundred years of history have taught us only two possible relationships to authority, submission and revolt. The idea of peacefully replacing our ruler through a legal process is still a wild, alien thought for us. The powers-that-be are above the law and they’re unchangeable by law. Overthrowing them is something we understand. But at the moment, we don’t want to. We’ve had quite enough revolution.

Let us recall the last Yeltsin elections—in 1996. At the beginning of the campaign, Yeltsin’s approval ratings in the polls were between 5 and 10 percent. That was an accurate reflection of how the public felt about him. But as the elections neared, when it became clear that the question was whether or not Yeltsin would remain as the Little Father Tsar or whether it was time to get rid of him, the situation changed. People didn’t really want to revolt: they had just successfully revolted against the Communists, and hadn’t enough energy for a new upheaval. So they voted for Yeltsin again: unpopular, even detested as he was, he was still the president in power. The intensive propaganda campaign orchestrated in the press and television helped, of course.

Energy for revolt had not built up by March 2000 either, despite the setbacks Russia had experienced over the previous four years: Yeltsin’s constant reshuffling of the cabinet, the crash of the ruble in 1998, the attempt to impeach Yeltsin in May 1999, and other misadventures. On the eve of the presidential election, Putin was not just a prime minister but a prince-regent, an acting head of state. Putin’s Chekist past came in handy: since time immemorial the secret police have personified authority in Russia—and the pretender was propped up by the might of that mysterious, almost mystical power. He simultaneously represented the power of the official state—as acting president—and, as a Chekist, its innermost essence. People weren’t just voting for Putin. They were voting for the scepter and the orb, the symbols of the tsar’s power, and also for the sword and shield, the emblems of the Cheka-KGB.

Immediately following the tragedy of the apartment house bombings of 1999, suspicions were publicly voiced that the terrorist acts in Moscow and Volgodonsk were instigated by the Russian special forces in order to create a casus belli for the renewal of the war on Chechnya, giving Putin the opportunity to demonstrate his decisiveness. This is not the place to discuss whether or not these suspicions were well-founded. What is important is that the authorities did absolutely nothing to refute them. Furthermore, the electorate reacted with complete and utter indifference. I have met people who were convinced that the accusations were true, and yet they voted for Putin with equal conviction. Their logic is simple: genuine rulers wield the kind of power that can do anything, including commit crimes. The new boss of the country had proved that he was the real thing.

Growing suspicions that the special forces have been involved in a series of political murders, including the deaths of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the former FSB émigré Alexander Litvinenko, now seem analogous to the accusations of 1998. The authorities make no attempt to refute such claims in the only way that would be convincing—with a transparent and scrupulous investigation. The murder in Qatar of the Chechen separatist leader Zelinkhan Yandarbiev by agents of the Russian special forces has now been established by the Qatar courts. But have these facts or the demonstrations of the President’s “decisiveness” in dealing ruthlessly with two mass terrorist acts—the seizing of the theater in Moscow in 2002 and of the school in Beslan in 2004—caused any damage to the government’s image? Even though hundreds of innocents were killed? I doubt it; more likely the reverse.

By 2004 the concepts of “absolute power” and the “special forces” had, in effect, merged with the monarchy’s two-headed eagle, as had the Soviet anthem (enriched with the words “Motherland” and “God”). Putin’s team quickly accomplished their most important task—the capture of television—and once it had been completed, the country was subjected to pervasive, incessant propaganda that was far more skillful, effective, and all-encompassing than anything the Soviets ever conceived. The mass media have relentlessly hammered home images of Putin as a charismatic ruler leading a national renaissance, while portraying Putinism as the guarantor of stability and order. They have drummed the values of the imperial state into the social mind. They have consistently caricatured and trivialized any alternative concepts of Russia’s development, particularly those based on values of freedom and genuine, rather than “managed,” democracy. In short, they have transformed all the diverse hypotheses about Putin’s popularity from partial explanations into a single, dominant, and overwhelming reality.

The ideological ingredients of Putinism existed in the consciousness of a part of the population long before Putin’s rule; his “team” transformed them into usable modern propaganda and aggressively rebroadcast them to the whole country. It appears that this propaganda campaign has been successful—particularly among young people. The members of the political elite are even more profoundly attached than the masses to the idea of the immutable dominance of the powers-that-be, because it is their own position that is in question. But infusing the values of the imperial state into the public mind is only an intermediate goal for the Russian political establishment. The main goal is to entirely eradicate European mechanisms of power transfer in Russia and to consolidate the Byzantine model of succession.

For this reason it really doesn’t matter what will be the outcome of the current intrigue over different “scenarios” for the presidential election of 2008. In fact, it seems that a scenario has already been chosen—Putin will simply move from the post of president to that of prime minister, and a corresponding redistribution of authority to the prime minister’s office will take place. This means that in 2008, it will not be a “pretender” or even an “heir” who wins the elections, but an obvious figurehead.

What should be done if one cannot accept the Byzantine system of power? Retreat into the catacombs? Wait until enough energy for another revolt has been accumulated? Try to hurry along revolt, thereby posing another “orange threat,” which Putin and his allies have used, since the 2004 Ukrainian elections, to frighten the people and themselves? Attempt to focus on the demand for honest elections? Carry on painstaking educational work, in order to gradually change citizens’ views?

Each person will have to decide in his or her own way. I imagine—with both sorrow and certainty—that the Byzantine system of power has triumphed for the foreseeable future in Russia. It’s too late to remove it from power by a normal democratic process, for democratic mechanisms have been liquidated, transformed into pure imitation. I am afraid that few of us will live to see the reinstatement of freedom and democracy in Russia. Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that “the mole of history burrows away unnoticed.”

—October 25, 2007

Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell